Santiago ‘Jimmy’ McKinn (then 11 or 12 years old) pictured with Apache children at their camp at Cañon de los Embudos in 1886. McKinn had been been captured months earlier by Geronimo’s group near Silver City, New Mexico Territory. Photo by C S Fly/Library of Congress


Captive culture

Even when enslaved or despised, captives brought novel ideas and technologies to the societies of their captors

by Catherine M Cameron + BIO

Santiago ‘Jimmy’ McKinn (then 11 or 12 years old) pictured with Apache children at their camp at Cañon de los Embudos in 1886. McKinn had been been captured months earlier by Geronimo’s group near Silver City, New Mexico Territory. Photo by C S Fly/Library of Congress

‘From my beloved homeland they are taking me away …’
– From ‘La Cautiva Marcelina’, a ballad from New Mexico

In the time before the invention of writing, communication was almost always person-to-person: people met with one another to transfer ideas, designs and technologies. It is one of archaeology’s great tasks to understand how this happened. By excavating artefacts, archaeologists can examine the spread of a new pottery design, say, or the flourishing of a particular type of stone tool. Here, archaeologists might refer to ‘diffusion’ among the groups, a vague 19th-century term suggesting that the movement of cultural practices between peoples was an uncomplicated process, like ink moving across blotter paper. But this is far too simplistic.

The fact is that archaeology lacks a well-developed body of theory for understanding how beliefs and technologies spread from one group to another: the grey and monolithic idea of ‘diffusion’ masks what actually happened. Real people had to meet in order to transfer real cultural practices. Who were these people? What was their motivation for travelling to, meeting and interacting with other groups of people? When strangers appeared, why were locals interested in the objects, dress styles, tools or languages they brought with them?

My ‘aha’ moment about these questions came 20 years ago. I was visiting a small museum in southern Arizona and saw on the wall a 19th-century photo of a white woman with a tattooed face who had been captured by local Native Americans, who themselves traditionally tattooed their faces. For a long time, I stared at her and wondered about what archaeologists call ‘cultural transmission’. Clearly, she must have (willingly or not) adopted the dress and habits of her captors. But did the exchange of ideas and cultural practices go both ways? Might a young, frightened white woman leave some of her own ‘ways of doing’ with the Native Americans who captured her, changing their culture in the process? Ways of preparing food? Methods of making or repairing clothing? New ideas or religious practices?

Olive Oatman (c1837-1903) photographed c1863. Oatman was captured and later tattooed on the chin, a custom common among members of the Mojave tribe. Photo courtesy the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

It was a number of years before I had the opportunity to undertake a study of captives. But, when I did, I found evidence that captives were indeed very likely one way in which technologies, ideologies, styles and more were passed from one society to another. My early investigation of captive-taking was one of the most exciting times of my professional career as I found similar patterns over and over again in who was taken, how they were treated, and the effect they had on the societies they joined. Archaeologists hadn’t realised that the societies they studied almost certainly contained many ‘foreign’ people, nor had they wondered what effect these people had on the groups they joined. Captive people provided a new explanation for cultural transmission.

I limited my search of the global literature to ‘small-scale’ societies, such as those often labelled ‘chiefdoms’ or ‘tribes’. This is partly because I work in North America where small-scale societies are the most common form, and partly just to limit the vast amount of data that I was finding. Small-scale societies rely primarily on kinship ties (real or fictive) as the basis for their social and political organisation. Some archaeologists call them ‘middle-range societies’ because they’re not small bands or complex states (in state-level societies, classes are the organising principle). My focus on small-scale groups was partial, however, because captive-taking enmeshed societies at a variety of social levels (for example, powerful states plundering tribal societies for captives). The groups I studied ranged from horticultural societies in the Amazon, to complex hunter-gatherers of North America’s northwest coast, to chiefdoms of the pre-contact North American southeast and Africa, to Viking raiders and Germanic tribes in Europe, and to island groups of Southeast Asia. And because some captives became slaves, I also studied slavery around the world. In his transformative book Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982), the great Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson says ‘[Slavery] has existed from before the dawn of human history right down to the twentieth century, in the most primitive societies and in the most civilized. . . . Probably there is no group of people whose ancestors were not at one time slaves or slaveholders.’ In studying this global practice in small-scale societies, I mean to honour the people who experienced captivity or enslavement wherever and whenever they lived.

In small-scale societies, captives are mostly the result of raiding and warfare. For a long time, archaeologists believed that violence was rare in societies of this size, but the book War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (1996) by the archaeologist Lawrence Keeley changed that, presenting abundant archaeological and other data to show that early small-scale societies were as aggressive as societies today. Archaeological studies since have proved Keeley’s point.

My notions of slavery were initially biased by slavery in the United States, when hundreds of thousands of adult men and some women were kidnapped in Africa and brought to southern plantations and other parts of North America. But, to my surprise, I found account after account showing that, when small-scale societies attacked one another, the captives they took were mostly young women and children. Men were likely to be killed because they were dangerous to transport and difficult to incorporate. Some captives were adopted into captor culture, others were enslaved, and still others occupied intermediate positions: concubines, wives, second or drudge wives – marginal positions of that sort.

The youngest children were easiest to incorporate into captor society, at least among those groups willing to ignore their foreign origin. Older children and adults were actively reprogrammed into a new identity. Those destined to be slaves were stripped of their home identity (what the sociologist Orlando Patterson in 2018 called ‘social death’), given new clothes (or no clothes), their hair was cut to indicate their status, and they wore other marks of servitude. At the other end of the scale of incorporation, adoptees and wives would learn the captor’s language and cultural practices. Some managed to fit in, sometimes quite successfully, although it seems likely that their origins were never truly forgotten.

Captive-taking was not an occasional occurrence. There were many of these people in small-scale societies. How could my fellow archaeologists and I have overlooked them? Getting actual numbers was, of course, not easy. In trying to assess the proportion of captives in small-scale societies, accounts reported numbers of slaves (rather than captives) because of scholars’ widespread interest in slavery and because, as a separate social class, slaves are easier to see. But slaves in small-scale societies can be assumed to have originally been captives. In societies where captives become slaves, their children are generally born free; unlike the American South, slave status isn’t usually passed on. Where efforts have been made to assess slave numbers, those numbers are remarkable.

The groundbreaking study Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation, and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life (2009) by the anthropologist Fernando Santos-Granero explored slavery in six small-scale societies in ‘tropical America’, an area extending from southern Florida to the Gran Chaco of South America. He found that slaves ranged from 5 to 19 per cent of the population in these groups. The anthropologist Leland Donald’s careful and detailed Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America (1997) found that, although the number of slaves in any one village varied over time, they composed about 10-20 per cent of the population of Northwest Coast groups. (The Northwest Coast is one place where slave status was passed through generations, but slave reproduction was low.) Among the maritime chiefdoms of Southeast Asia, proportions of slaves ranged from 10 to 30 per cent. I found similar proportions – even up to 50 per cent – in other small-scale societies around the world. In other words, captives made up significant proportions of many small-scale societies. Their effect on their captor’s societies must have been substantial.

The work captives did created an opening for them to contribute new ideas about how to do things

That leaves the crucial question: what factors were involved in allowing captives to transmit new cultural practices to their captors? The sorts of new ideas and practices that captives were able to contribute depended in part on their age at capture and the tasks they were assigned. The youngest children might quickly forget the culture they were born into and adopt that of their captors. The numerous accounts of Europeans ‘redeemed’ from Native American groups in the 17th to 19th centuries attest to the rapidity with which children and even teenagers can lose their original language and culture: many were so completely incorporated by their captors that their ‘redemption’ was yet another traumatic wrenching from a home that they had grown to love. Naturally, adults were far less likely than children to forget their original home and the knowledge and practices they learned there.

Captives performed a variety of labour for their captors that gave them opportunities to pass on the expertise they’d arrived with. They were often assigned the most tiresome and difficult tasks (hauling water or wood, carrying loads, paddling canoes) but they also frequently laboured at producing crops, making craft goods, building houses and other activities that gave their owners greater wealth and status. In fact, captives in small-scale societies were primarily held by the highest-status males in the group as extra wives, personal attendants or slave labour. The work they did created an opening for them to contribute new ideas about how to do things.

Because small-scale societies didn’t have writing, accounts of their captive-taking practices come mostly from 16th- to 19th-century explorers and colonists. European contact had devastating effects on small-scale societies around the world, depressing populations and destroying Indigenous cultures. I used the earliest accounts available wherever possible. Of course, the European authors of these accounts had their own preconceptions and biases, which I had to sift through to discern how captives fit into captor societies. The most difficult thing to understand is what captives might have taught their captors. Once a group adopts a new practice (food, clothing style or language, etc), it is theirs. They have little reason to remember that it was introduced from another group, especially by a lowly captive. So much of the evidence for that kind of relationship tends to disappear. But, with careful study, it can be noticed.

One of the most useful types of accounts for studying cultural transmission is the captive narrative. Captive narratives are largely written by Europeans who are captured and held by Indigenous people, and then return to write about their experiences. Captives have various reasons for exposing their experiences, and their accounts can be expected to be as biased as those of any outsider. The accounts show that captor societies were interested in different ways of doing things and sometimes attributed special powers to non-local captives, even as they might have abused and reviled them. In many cases, captors actively mined their captives for useful information despite enslaving them or holding them in low regard.

The Spanish explorer Álvar Nùñez Cabeza de Vaca was one of the first Europeans to experience Indigenous captivity. Shipwrecked on the coast of Florida in 1528, Cabeza de Vaca and other crew members tried to make their way to Spanish-held territory in Mexico but ended up on what is now the Texas coast. They were captured and enslaved by the Indigenous people of the region, and forced to labour for them. The tribes believed that these foreigners had special powers, and demanded that they cure illnesses. Cabeza de Vaca insisted that he had no such expertise, but his captors were unconvinced. So the Spaniard and his companions devised curing rituals that involved both Christian prayer and Indigenous curing rites that consisted of blowing on the sick. These concocted medical ceremonies were apparently (and luckily) successful, and allowed Cabeza de Vaca and his companions to move from group to group, with a large following of devotees, as they made their way to Mexico City.

One of the most detailed captive narratives is that of Helena Valero, a 12-year-old girl of Spanish descent captured in the 1930s by the Yanomamö in the remote jungles of Brazil. They called her Napagnuma – ‘white woman’ or ‘foreign woman’. Although she was a child, the Yanomamö were initially angry with her because she couldn’t make European-style machetes, clothing and cooking pots. They said she was white and should know how. She lived with them for more than 20 years, married two Yanomamö men and had their children. In 1956, she escaped and returned to white society with her children. But there she found only rejection. She had been tainted by her long stay with ‘the other’. So she returned to live at the edge of the jungle, existing in a liminal space between the European and Indigenous societies that had defined her life. In the early 1960s, an Italian anthropologist interviewed her and taped her stories of life among the Yanomamö, still so fresh in her mind.

How did captive-captor learning take place? Archaeologists most often explore intergenerational learning – how younger generations learn from their elders – rather than intercultural transmission: how knowledge is passed between different cultures. Archaeology of recent historical periods is the exception because it often focuses on colonisers and colonised. To begin to understand what captives might have contributed to the societies they joined, I used learning concepts developed in other scholarly fields to think about how captives were trained by their captors.

When captives arrived at their new homes, they were plunged into a new social and economic world, perhaps forced to do things that they knew little or nothing about. Indeed, their survival might have depended on quickly learning the cultural practices of their captors. There is widespread agreement among archaeologists and other scholars that learning is situated in social contexts. Young learners don’t simply reproduce the behaviour of generations above them, but constantly adjust their activities in response to the social cues of those around them, a process called ‘situated learning’. Newcomers to a group join ‘communities of practice’ where young learners interact with and eventually replace older practitioners. Cultural change – changes in how tools are made, houses built, pottery produced – happens through the dynamic tension that newcomers create as they establish their own identities through practice.

Where would captives fit into this picture? They were newcomers, but not young members of the captor society who would be treated fondly and kindly assisted as they learned a new task. Captives often entered their captor’s society in a wave of anger and violence because they were members of a group with whom their captors had recently had a violent confrontation. Raiders and raided might have been killed. How were those captured during raids incorporated into existing ‘communities of practice’? How would new captives pass on knowledge or techniques from their home society? Did their precarious position limit them to copying their captor’s practices exactly, or was there latitude in the ways they worked?

There were at least three clear situations that allowed captives the opportunity to introduce novel cultural practices to their captors. First are those situations in which captives form a large proportion of the population and might form their own ‘communities of practice’ in which they continue the ways of doing they learned as children – practices observed and sometimes adopted by the captor society. The archaeologist Laura Junker at the University of Illinois at Chicago has conducted archaeological and ethnohistoric work in the Philippines. She found that, between the 12th and 19th centuries, chiefs and warriors living in large settlements on the coast raided small upland villages located along rivers. The raiders took as much booty as they could carry, but also many captive women whom they married. Some of these women were set to agricultural tasks, but many were forced to make pottery and textiles that their masters traded to increase their wealth. Large proportions of women in some coastal settlements were captive wives, meaning that their influence would be significant. Junker’s excavations in some of these settlements recovered pottery covered with painted designs that had clearly originated in upland areas where their makers came from. While we tend to think of large communities as being centres of innovation, in this case, captive women from small settlements arrived with their own ideas about how to decorate pottery, and apparently formed communities of practice in which they were able to continue their homeland traditions – and teach them to others.

Pueblo captives introduced pottery-making to bison-hunting peoples

A second situation that might allow for cultural transmission by captives is where captives brought new technologies or practices that captors perceived as useful. Nomadic bison hunters travelled the southern High Plains of North America during the early colonial period (1500-1700 CE). Bison hides were laboriously transformed into valuable robes by the women of these groups, while men traded the robes their wives produced to gain wealth and prestige. A man’s status depended on the number of hides he could produce, which in turn depended on the number of women he controlled. Judith Habicht-Mauche, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, studied pottery from sites that were located along the border between the southern High Plains and the Southwest and that had been occupied by these bison hunters. To the west of this border area, in the Rio Grande Valley, lived Pueblo people who manufactured a variety of high-quality pottery that they sometimes traded to Plains people. The pottery that Habicht-Mauche found in the borderland sites resembled the pottery made by Rio Grande Pueblo people but had been made locally.

Habicht-Mauche argues that, because Plains men wanted more wives to increase their hide production and their prestige, they raided Pueblo settlements and captured women who became lower-ranking wives; those women added to the hide-producing ability of their husbands. More than just processing hides, Pueblo captives introduced pottery-making to bison-hunting peoples who likely found the pots useful. Pottery-making technology didn’t compete with hide preparation because it was an occasional activity that women could fit in around their bison-robe making duties, an important insight: introduced activities did not compete with the sorts of labour that were demanded of captives. In this case, captives were the agents of transmission who introduced a new technology to Plains groups.

A third situation that allowed captives to introduce novel practices to the societies they joined involved captors specifically targeting captives who had skills they wanted to acquire. Noel Lenski, a Classics scholar at Yale University, presents evidence that, in Europe prior to the 5th century, skilled Roman captives were present in Germanic settlements located north of the Roman empire, some as far as Denmark. Lenski reports that metal objects and ceramics were made locally at these Germanic settlements but using Roman designs and techniques, suggesting that Roman metalworkers and potters were captured on purpose and removed far to the north. In Africa, oral histories recorded in northern Sierra Leone report that blacksmiths were targeted for capture because of their metal-working skills; female potters were also preferentially taken.

Capturing people with particular skills carried over to the Atlantic slave trade. For example, Judith Carney, a geographer at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that Europeans who colonised the tropical areas of the New World were largely transplanted urbanites who had little understanding of agricultural practices, especially those applicable to tropical areas such as the US Southeast or the Caribbean. Writing in her book In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (2009), co-authored with Richard Nicholas Rosomoff, she argues that those who were trying to start livestock businesses in the Americas needed people with livestock management skills, so they targeted slaves from Senegambia (in western Africa) where cattle herding was the primary livelihood. The historian Joseph Holloway of California State University Northridge has described the African livestock-management techniques, introduced by African captives, that are still used in the Americas today.

The three situations just described are only a first attempt to understand the operation of the captive-to-captor transmission process; much more work is necessary before we have useful models to apply to the past. While we know, for example, that captives existed in small-scale societies through time in many parts of the world, our first task is to develop methods of identifying them in the archaeological record. Evidence of warfare should be a clue that captives are likely present. Bioarchaeologists such as Debra Martin at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and her students, are at the forefront of the effort to identify captives in collections of human remains, looking especially for individuals who have been repeatedly abused or overworked. Burial populations that have skewed sex ratios (more women or more men than the normal 50 per cent of each that would be expected) can also be an indicator of the presence of captive women or societies from which captives have been taken. Archaeologists have methods (including isotope and DNA studies) to identify people who didn’t grow up in the society in which they were found – non-local people who might have been captives. Captives can also be seen in rock art, pottery designs and other types of iconography.

Finding ancient captives won’t be easy, but we’re beginning to build the tools to do so. We then need to know more about the ideas and practices that captives brought with them and how they transmitted these concepts to the societies they joined. The late archaeologist Warren DeBoer studied captives, especially in the Amazonian part of South America. He argued that we need to know much more about cultural learning and the captive experience, including the ages at which different types of cultural knowledge is acquired, the effects of trauma on cultural transmission and acquisition, and the human capacity at different ages to unlearn old information and learn new information. There’s lots to do, but I’m confident that before long we’ll have a much better idea of what captives contributed to the societies they joined, and better models for the exchange of ideas and cultural practices between groups of people in the past. Perhaps most importantly, we’ll bring the many captive women, children and men who have been overlooked for so long into our understanding of world history: through archaeology, they’ll speak once more.