Apache Origins



A history of the Tonto Apache -- Chapter Two

Tonto Apache people are told in the stories of the fathers that they emerged as a people not far to the north from where they now live.


The Athapascans spread south, becoming the Plains people -- the Kiowa and the Comanche. They hunted buffalo around 1300 A.D.

The more scientific story of Apache beginnings is not a few miles to the north, but many thousands of miles to the north and many thousands of years ago. It is a story that so far has no traceable beginnings, so we shall dip in at the close of the Pleistocene period during the Ice Age.

The repeated advance of glaciers from the north had depleted Earth's oceans. One of these glacial advances, called the Wisconsin Ice Age, advanced into North America 50,000 years ago, and reached its peak about 25,000 years later.

During this time period the oceans of the world were lowered about 300 feet and a land bridge between Asia and North America appeared in the present location of the Bering Strait. That Ice Age lasted until 11,000 years ago, and we should not imagine the land bridge was available throughout the entire period. It was more like a drawbridge, which was down from 15,000 to 24,000 years ago, and down again from about 9,000 to 11,000 years ago. Nor was it a matter of jumping from stone to stone across the puddle. This bridge was big, a strip of dry land perhaps 1,200 miles wide. It enabled people from the continent of Asia to migrate from Siberia to Alaska.

Once human beings had mastered fire and clothing and techniques of survival they were ready to follow the mastodons, mammoths, and bison on which they subsisted. There were several migrations of these hunter-gatherers, and each became trapped on the new continent by a rising sea. Those who arrived in North America 15,000 years ago were probably not the first to come. Recent discoveries suggest an occupation much earlier than that, even a white or European type of humans were here first.

We do know that ice masses converged in Canada to block a further southward migration, then they parted near the close of the age. This presented an open door for migration on the east side of the Rocky Mountains.

We also know that by 11,300 years ago the mammoth hunters had reached Arizona, wielding projectile points and atlatls strong enough to kill their prey. These were the Clovis people, named for the place in New Mexico where their spear points were first identified. At least one of these spear points has been found in the Rim Country.

When the prehistoric animals they had followed died out, the people also seem to have disappeared. Perhaps they migrated elsewhere, or over the centuries learned to adapt their culture to changing environments and emerged as those we call The Ancient Ones, or Anasazi.

More to our interest is the fact that while the Clovis people were hunting in Arizona, about 10,000 years ago, another wave of migrants was crossing the drawbridge into Alaska and Canada. They would become the Athapascans, and because the "native people" of northwest Canada and Alaska today are mostly Athapaskan in their genetic makeup, language and culture, we assume they were among these more recent arrivals from Asia.

The origin of the name "Athapascan" is from a Cree Indian word meaning the "place where there is grass everywhere." That place is just west of Lake Athabaska in extreme northwestern Alberta, Canada. It was adopted as the family name of the people who lived there. The word can be spelled either Athabascan or Athapascan.

As the glaciers of the Pleistocene era receded Athapascan bands migrated east and south following the animals and plants. By 5,000 B.C. they had reached Washington State, adapting to the changing ecology as they went. Then sometime from A.D. 1,000 to 1,500, a large group of Athapascans broke away from the others and began a southward migration along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. While the exact route of their migration is a subject of debate among anthropologists and archaeologists, the theory generally accepted is this: as the Athapascans spread south, some of their groups became the Plains people called Kiowa and Comanche. They were hunting buffalo on the Great Plains about A.D. 1300.

Another grouping of Athapascans moved along the edges of the Rocky Mountains and entered the Southwest from the north about A.D. 1400. These would become the Navajo and Western Apache, developing a markedly different lifestyle than the Plains Indians. They learned their lifestyle in part from the pueblo dwellers they encountered, and with whom they traded meat and hides for pottery and seed. At times they would raid these same communities for goods and food. Thus they came to be thought of as "the enemy," the English translation of a Zuni word.

Next: Settling a homeland

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