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Tracing Early History

Deshazo site
Students from the University of Texas at Austin trace Caddo house patterns (as indicated by the excavated post holes) at the Deshazo site, an early historic Caddo hamlet dating to the early 1700s. This photo was taken in 1975; a few years later the site deposits were destroyed by wave action on a water supply reservoir built in this area of Nacogdoches County, Texas. TARL archives.
Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in A.D. 800. At about the same time on the other side of the world, early Caddo culture was emerging as the westernmost expression of the larger Mississippian cultural tradition.

The Caddo cultural tradition can be traced back confidently to at least 1200 years ago or about A.D. 800, the year Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III. We know about Charlemagne through written accounts by eyewitnesses and later historians. But the Caddo, like all other North American tribes north of Mexico, did not have a writing system; instead they kept history kept in their heads in what must have been a very lively and complex oral tradition. Through the recitation of sacred stories and songs, oral traditions can and often do convey significant memories and understandings of times long past, contrary to what many of us raised in societies with strong written traditions may believe.

Unfortunately, most of the particulars of early Caddo history that were maintained by oral tradition have been lost to time, especially to the drastic changes and catastrophic losses of life forced upon the Caddo by the invasion of America by Europeans. Ironically, the "literate" European cultures brought about the wholesale destruction of the carefully maintained oral histories of so many "nonliterate" Native American societies. Be that as it may, there are surviving bits of early Caddo history preserved in the traditions maintained by Caddo peoples today, in early Spanish and French accounts, and in later written histories as well as in the oral traditions recorded by ethnographers and folklorists.

These sources serve us reasonably well for the last 300 years or so, but beyond that we don't have much to go on. Some of the recorded Caddo stories, origin "myths," or "legends" collected by late 19th-century scholars do contain tantalizing clues about early Caddo ancestors. For instance, ethnologist James Mooney recorded this story:

Mississippian World
Shown here are the major cultural areas of the Mississippian world between about A.D. 1000-1600. Within each area the timing and nature of Mississippian developments varied greatly and none of the areas was ever culturally uniform. The "Caddoan" Mississippian area includes the main Caddo Homeland and the Arkansas Basin to the north. Base map by Erwin Raisz, culture areas adapted from Brian Fagan.

They came from under the ground through the mouth of a cave in a hill which they call Cha´ kani´ na, "the place of crying," on a lake close to the south bank of Red River, just at its junction with the Mississippi. In those days men and animals were all brothers and all lived together under the ground. But at last they discovered the entrance to the cave leading up to the surface of the earth, and so they decided to ascend and come out. First an old man climbed up, carrying in one hand fire and a pipe and in the other a drum. After him came his wife, with corn and pumpkin seeds. Then followed the rest of the people and the animals. [But a wolf blocks the hole sealing many animals and people still inside the earth.] Those who had come out sat down and cried a long time for their friends below, hence the name of the place. Because the Caddo came out of the ground they call it ina,"mother," and go back to it when they die. Because they have had the pipe and the drum and the corn and pumpkins since they have been a people, they hold fast to these things and have never thrown them away. From this place they spread out toward the west, following the course of Red River, along which they made their principal settlements. For a long time they lived on Caddo Lake, on the boundary between Louisiana and Texas, their principal village on the lake being called Sha'childi'ni, "Timber Hill." (From Mooney 1996 as quoted by Swanton, 1941.)

Caddo Lake
Caddo Lake, which formed naturally by a log jam on Cypress Creek near the Texas-Louisiana border sometime prior to A.D. 1800, figures prominently in Caddo history and oral tradition. The lake was created during the Caddo heyday and almost certainly flooded existing Caddo settlements in the area, disrupting life in a transforming event that would have been remembered for many generations and may be echoed by several of the recorded stories about floods. Photo by Dee Ann Story.
Thomas Wister and Stanley Edge
Thomas Wister (Mr. Blue) and Stanley Edge in 1898 or 1899. Edge, who went to the Carlisle Indian School as a boy, and served as an interpreter for the last of the traditional Caddo chiefs. Wister traveled to Washington D.C. in 1899 to argue against the U.S. Government's plan to break up Caddo land in the Indian Territories into small allotments. Western History Center, University of Oklahoma Library.
temple mound
Cross-section through a temple mound at the Ferguson site, a Late Caddo site dating to about A.D. 1400 that is located in the Little Missouri River Valley in southwest Arkansas. By obtaining radiocarbon "dates" from the burned layers near the bottom of the picture archeologists were able to estimate the approximate age of the small temple that was purposefully burned and intentionally buried within this mound. Photograph by Frank Schambach, courtesy of Pictures of Record.


There are other recorded Caddo origin stories, most of them mythical and allegorical in nature. These are the Caddo equivalents of the biblical stories of Adam and Eve and of the Great Flood replete with flawed heroes, human/animal interactions, floods, and the brink of world destruction. While these help us understand Caddo worldview, they tell us few facts about early Caddo history.

As discussed in Learning about the Caddo Past, the three major sources of information about early Caddo history are archeology, biological anthropology, and linguistics. Archeology and biological (or physical) anthropology depend on archeological finds. Studies of the Caddoan languages suggest that ancestors of the Caddo and the ancestors of the Plains Caddoans (Wichita, Kichai, Pawnee, and Arikira) split from a common ancestor (ancestral group) in the distant past, at least 3,000 years ago and probably even earlier. The Caddo cultural tradition as recognized now by archeologists begins about 1200 years ago (A.D. 800). So what can we say about the ancestors of Caddo speakers between 1200 and 3,000 years ago? The short answer is "not enough." While we know something about various sites and cultural patterns in and near the Caddo homeland between about 1200-3000 years ago, we are not yet certain which patterns represent the direct ancestors of today's Caddo.

Explaining how and why the Caddo cultural tradition developed when and where it did and how it changed through time is a challenging task for four reasons that must be made clear.

(1) Archeological cultures are not the same as human social groups. Distinct human social groups (tribes, peoples, nations) are typically defined based on differences in language, dress, physical appearance, territory, and custom. Archeologically, many of these distinctions are invisible; stones and potsherds do not speak. Therefore, an archeological "culture" is merely a perceived pattern of sites with similar arrays of preserved artifacts that may or may not correspond to a real social group. Archeologists call these patterns cultures, traditions, and phases.

(2) Archeologists dig up stones, bones, and potsherds, not cultures. Linking specific types of artifacts to specific archeological cultures is a tedious and tenuous process that involves much guesswork. It is not until the arrival of European chroniclers that we have the first written accounts that give tribal names and meager descriptions. Even then it is often very difficult to link known groups to archeological patterns.

(3) Archeologists need sizable, dated artifact samples from many different places before they can make good inferences regarding how archeological sites and the people who created them relate to one another. We need large samples in order to detect statistically meaningful patterns. But large artifact samples do not have much meaning unless we know how old the artifacts are. While archeologists can often estimate the "relative" or approximate age of a distinctive artifact such as a potsherd of a particular style, most artifacts are not distinctive enough to be dated tightly. The most reliable dating method in the Caddo area is radiocarbon dating, a method of estimating the age of organic materials such as charred wood or bone based on the measured ratio of radioactive C14 to normal carbon. But radiocarbon dates are expensive (up to $600 apiece) and multiple dates are needed from a single context (hearth, house, layer, etc.) to obtain a secure date.

(4) Most archeological sites contain a mixture of artifacts from different time periods and cultures. This is simply because most sites are located near streams and rivers in places well suited for human occupation. Even today many farmhouses, towns, and cities stand atop traces of ancient settlements. When the materials from different periods of time are neatly stacked into separate layers like a layer cake, archeologists can recognize changes through time. Unfortunately most sites in the Caddo homeland are not neatly layered and materials from different time periods are often mixed together, making it difficult or impossible to sort out what goes with what.

Our understanding of the ancestral traces of the Caddo cultural tradition is hampered by all four of these factors. The physical evidence we do have from sites in the region that are thought to date between 1000-3000 years ago is not very abundant and often problematic. Overall, relatively few sites dating to this time span have been identified confidently and most contain a mix of materials of different age. Even fewer sites have been excavated and of these, only a handful can be considered securely dated. So we are forced to make do with meager evidence as we try to sketch out the early history of the ancestral Caddo.

Keep these limitations in mind as you explore the Caddo Ancestors exhibit. In archeology, our interpretations can only be as good as the data we base them on. As more and more is learned, archeologists reevaluate earlier ideas and interpretations, refining some, rejecting others, and reaching new understandings.

Follow Caddo History

diagram of various Caddoan languages
This diagram shows the relationships among the various Caddoan languages and indicates the order in which the various language groups are thought to have split from one another. How long ago the various splits occurred is very poorly known. Linguistic estimates suggest that, prior to about 3,500 years ago, the ancestors of all of the groups were a single people who spoke an ancestral language that linguists call Proto-Caddoan. About 3,500 years ago (1500 B.C.) the ancestors of the Northern Caddoan groups split from the Caddo and the two languages began to diversify. (Some archeologists think the initial split may have occurred thousands of years earlier.) Sometime after the time of Christ, the Proto-Northern-Caddoan speakers began splitting off, first the Wichita, then the Kitsai, and finally the Pawnee. Still later (not long before Europeans arrived) the Arikara split from the Pawnee and Pawnee split into two groups.
Distinctive potsherds such as these fragments of Late Caddo pottery from the A.C. Saunders site are useful clues, but they alone are nothing more than bits of fired clay. It is the association of such clues with dated contexts (like a house or a burial) that gives meaning to mere fragments of the past. TARL archives.
Dart Points
Dart points (left) dating to over 2000 years ago are often found in the same deposits as arrow points (right) dating less than a 1000 years old at many Caddo sites. The Caddo usually established villages on higher terrain overlooking stream valleys. At such places, the landforms are stable, meaning that very little soil accumulation occurs and thus things of different ages become mixed in the upper few inches. These examples are from the George C. Davis site in Cherokee County, Texas. TARL archives.