Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Prehistory of the Far West: Homes of Vanished Peoples. By L. S. Cressman. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 1977. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. Tables. 247 pages. $15.00.
Reviewed by Diane Everett-Barbolla, Instructor of Anthropology and Archeology, San Diego Mesa College; Director of the Presidio Entranceway Excavation Project; Co-Director Bancroft Ranch House Excavations (1974); Archeological Consultant for Hirsch and Company.
Cressman’s purpose is three-fold: to assemble existing data on the prehistoric cultural development of the region between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast, to assess the question of priority of development of coastal and inland regions especially the North Pacific Coast region, and to evaluate the contributions of linguistic, anthropometric, genetic and archeological studies to the question of Far West aboriginal migrations. It is a formidable task and one generally well done. If Cressman has a bias, it is that the prehistorian should also be a humanist and “seek his reward in exploration of the psychological characteristics of his people” (pp. 88). The book is personal, nostalgic, and retrospective on a career of nearly fifty years. This bias occasionally makes Cressman gentle when evaluating his data.
Cressman begins by discussing the functional interrelationship of environment, biology and culture in determining human adaptation. From British Columbia to San Diego, Cressman describes the variety of the land and its geologic history. The chapter is a long, complex, highly technical review of chronological problems which rightly points out that our cherished absolute C14 dating system may not be so absolute. Cressman is uncomfortable with dates older that 15,000 years ago for the peopling of the New World. He mentions the controversial Texas Street and Scripps Campus sites in San Diego, Santa Rosa Island, as well as less controversial sites in Mexico, Idaho and Oregon. He refers in a footnote to the Calico Hills site near Barstow, and the dating of the Del Mar Man by amino acid racemization. But dates 50,000 years old or older do not appeal to him, and are mentioned only briefly if at all.
Cressman does a good job of reviewing the literature on the skeletal and genetic characteristics of the people in an effort to reach a conclusion about the nature of “Indian types” and decides that there is no “type”. He seems to regard such discussion as having little merit due to fragmentary evidence and more specifically to the fact of their accomplishments. (pp. 88) What the people did is more important than who they were or what they looked like. Even linguistic study (glottochronology) is regarded as “disciplined speculation” and in need of more analysis. All are subordinate to subsistence and technology. Culture as an adaptive mechanism receives Cressman’s greatest attention and when he describes what the people of the Far West did, he is thorough.
Cressman discusses the desert Region and Southern California Coast and is generally critical. He rejects the San Dieguito I, II, III, subdivision, feels the Harris Site is an inadequate type-site, is dubious of the millingstone criteria used to distinguish La Jolla from San Dieguito, regards the subdividing of the La Jolla culture into phases of questionable value and sees the sin of “taxonomic overscrupulousness” (pp. 180) manifest. Anyone who studies the literature may empathize with this observation.
The question of priority of cultural development and relations between the Islands and mainland of Southern California leads him to conclude that both grew out of a common base. But he avoids saying whether that base is Island or mainland. He opts instead for “coastal” (pgs. 186-187). Cressman was unaware of current work on San Clemente Island by L. M. Axford of Mesa College. C14 dates include two over 8,000 (personal communication). These dates certainly challenge his La Jolla, Santa Barbara, Channel Island sequence but don’t yet resolve the priority question.
Of Cressman’s three tasks he is strongest on assembling the cultural data, uncertain about the coastal-island priority question, and submissive to his humanistic bias in evaluating the linguistic, anthropometric and genetic evidences.
The Prehistory of the Far West: Homes of Vanished Peoples is not designed for classroom use but is a good reference for the early cultural history of the Far West.