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Commemorating the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Manhattan Island.

On September 4, 1609, Henry Hudson, employed by the Dutch East India Company, discovered the island of Manhattan. This year marks the 400th anniversary of that voyage.

Here is the rest of the story.

Amerigo Vespucci
Creative Commons License photo credit:

Hudson may not have been the first European explorer who reached this part of the Americas. Two other explorers, Giovanni Verrazano, a Florentine, and Estevan Gomez, a Portuguese, who preceded Hudson by nearly one hundred years, each on their own voyage of exploration. Estevan Gomez left for the New World in 1524. He reached the Florida coast in January 1525. He traveled north and appears to have reached the coast of what we now call Massachusetts later in the year. In a letter dated July 8, 1524, Giovanni Verrazano addresses Francis I, King of France, Giovanni Verrazano describes how they reached “a very agreeable place between two small but prominent hills; between them a very wide river, deep at its mouth, flow out into the sea; and with the help of the tide, which rises eight feet, any laden ship could have passed from the sea into the river estuary.” Scholars agree that this is a reference to New York harbor..

Yellowtailed Cockatoo fan
Creative Commons License photo credit: Medicinehorse7

Even though Verrazano offered the opinion that these new lands had new land which had “never been seen before by any man, either Ancient or modern,” there was dense human settlement on the Island of Manhattan. Verrazano himself acknowledges this as he describes people as “dressed in birds’ feathers of various color,” a gentle reminder to us of what was lost over the centuries since the European arrival. Even though the custom of feather work making survived in North and South America, feather work dating back 500 years or even more, can only be found in parts of South America.

Oral tradition, written down about one and a half century later describes the encounter from the Indian point of view. A few days after the initial encounter between the Europeans and the original inhabitants of the Island, the former “proposed to stay with them, asking them only for so much land as the hide of a bullock would cover (or encompass,) which hide was brought forward and spread on the ground before them. That they readily granted this request; whereupon the whites took a knife, and beginning at one place on this hide, cut it up into a rope not thicker than the finger of a little child, so that by the time this hide was cut up there was a great heap. [T]his rope was drawn out to a great distance, and then brought round again, so that both ends might meet. That they carefully avoided its breaking, and that upon the whole it encompassed a large piece of ground. That they (the Indians) were surprised at the superior wit of the whites, but did not wish to contend with them about a little land, as they had enough.”  Dutch presence and settlement, both on Manhattan Island and in other parts of New York state, steadily grew over the next half century.

We benefit from decades of archaeological research in North, Central and South America related to the arrival of the earliest settlers. We know that people have been here for millennia before the first Europeans arrived. The origins of the word Manhattan may reside in a Munsee language expression, /e:nta menahahte:nk/ “where one gathers bows.” Exotic? Perhaps, but certainly no stranger than the fictitious anthropology report on the tribe of the “Nacirema.” See for yourself if their strange behaviors sound familiar to you….

As New York prepares to celebrate, it is good to remember that there is always more to the story. Digging around in archives and rekindling old oral traditions does, occasionally, bring the past back alive.

100 years – 100 Objects: Aztec Stone Figure

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org – throughout the year.

aztecThis stone figure is a silent witness to one of the best known Pre-Columbian civilizations, the Aztecs. Aztec history chronicles a meteoric rise of a band of hunters and gatherers who, in few centuries, went from a nomadic lifestyle to that of city-dwelling empire builders. While their ascent to power was phenomenal, their demise was cataclysmic. Only three years after meeting the Spanish for the first time, Aztec civilization ceased to exist as an independent political entity.

The statue depicts Chalchiutlicue, a goddess of water (literally her name means “She of the Jade Skirt.”)

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org

The Quest for High Bear

Currently on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is a selection of mainly Plains Indian artifacts. They come to us from Mr. Gordon W. Smith, who put his collection together from 1925 through 1939. What makes this collection very special is not only the historic nature of the items (those that are on display were made for and used by American Indian people), but also the context. We have information on who made these and when and for whom. That is a treasure trove of information sadly often lost with objects of this nature.

Arapaho beaded vest
Early 20th century
Beads, thread, tanned hide, sinew.

The Arapaho live on the eastern plains of Colorado and Wyoming. The vests they create – such as this one – tend to be decorated with geometric designs; sometimes they depict the American flag.

The use of glass beads dates back to the arrival of the first European settlers, with some of the earliest beads being manufactured in Venice, Italy. They were used in commercial exchanges as well as in missionary work. This was the case with Father DeSmet, who worked extensively among the Plains and Northwest Indians.

Lone Dog’s winter count.
Tanned hide, paint
1801-1876, South Dakota

There are various ways to keep track of the past. Most of us would rely on written documents to refresh our memory; among American Indians oral traditions and pictorial records are of great importance. Among these pictorial records are the so-called winter counts. These drawings can be painted on either animal hide or muslin.

Winter counts are histories or calendars which record events with images, with one image representing a year. In Lakota, they are called waniyetu wowapi. The Lakota word waniyetu means “year,” which tends to be measured from first snowfall to first snowfall. It is often translated as “a winter.”

These winter counts were used in conjunction with an extensive oral history. Each year was named for an event, with the images serving as a reference source that could be consulted regarding the order of the years. The events used to name the years were not always the most important things that happened, but rather the most memorable. One such event, “The year the stars fell,” has been identified as the year 1833, when the Leonid meteor storm  was visible. Information courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian, Education Office.

Lakota dress
Buckskin, glass beads, thread
Ca. 1870

In its basic form, this is a typical dress worn by Plains Indian women. It consists of three assembled parts: the front, the back and the yoke. These three pieces give the garment a T- shape outline.  Very likely this dress was made during the winter months, when the cold forced people to stay inside and work on clothing.

This dress is a good example of the great diligence and talent on the part of the women who made it. It is estimated that it took 300,000 small glass beads to complete the decoration.

In February 1934, Ms. Olive Dean wore this dress to a costume ball in Washington, D.C.  She was awarded the first prize for the most outstanding costume by the two judges, Anna Ball, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s daughter and Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr.

Osage friendship blanket
Wool fabric, silk ribbon, thread
Late 19th century

These blankets, sometimes also referred to as wearing blankets, are still being made today.

In the early 1800s, Osage women began to sew mosaic ribbon work patterns around the borders of wool blankets, transforming them into extraordinary robes. Girls and women wore these robes at weddings and other special events and the ribbon work ranged from relatively simple bands of ribbon work to richly patterned reverse appliqué ribbon work, a technique of sewing a cut out ribbon pattern on to a differently colored ribbon background. The bold compositions were created by splitting the cut out pattern into two colors and maintaining a strict symmetry. Free hanging tabs of ribbon often framed the bottom edge of the robe.

The blankets were wore around the women’s shoulders and positioned over their forearms so that the ribbon work draped as a cascade of color in front of them. Despite the extreme fragility of the ribbon to tearing and fraying and its susceptibleness to fading and running, Osage women celebrated this art form. They also sewed reverse appliqué bands of ribbon on shawls and skirts and at the shoulder of their blouses. Today women wear these blankets as important garments that are emblematic of their Osage identity. (Information courtesy of Eva Fognell, Curator. Thaw Collection of American Indian Art. Fenimore Art Museum. Lake Road. Cooperstown, NY.)

Amulet in the shape of a turtle
Tanned hide, sinew, beads, umbilical cord
Early 20th century

Upon the birth of a child, the umbilical cord was saved inside an amulet. These amulets would quite often take on the shape of a turtle, as is the case here, or a lizard. In both cases, these animals are seen as good omens for a long and safe life – since the lizard often survives by shedding its tail, the turtle can retreat into its shell for protection.

Plains Indian Culture: The Rest of the Story

Indian Scout
Creative Commons License photo credit: timsamoff

The image of horse-riding warriors wearing flowing feather bonnets two hundred years ago is an enduring one. However, it is not necessarily a complete, or even a correct picture. Here is “the rest of the story.”

Consider the history of the horse. This animal evolved in North America, as early as 55 million years ago. During the Ice Ages, some 2.6 million years ago, they expanded their territory into South America as well as the Old World. The earliest settlers in the Americas may have seen the last survivors of the genus Equus in the Americas before these animals became extinct on the continent, surviving only in the Old World (Asia, Africa and Europe). It was only with the arrival of European settlers that modern horses, now much bigger than their ancestors, were reintroduced into the Americas. Horse riding culture among American Indians dates back at most a few centuries, not millennia.

this guy
Creative Commons License photo credit: nalilo

Another iconic image associated with Plains Indian culture is buffalo hunting. Bison hunting (the term buffalo is a misnomer) must have been impressive in its scale and the scope of planning that preceded it. Bison were hunted long before the arrival of European horses. Texas is home to the famous Bonfire kill site,  located on the border with Mexico.  There, in a small side canyon of the lower Pecos River, hunter-gatherers ran bison over the edge of a cliff several times over a time span of several centuries. These types of hunt were exceptional; they were supplemented by hunting other animals and gathering plant foods. The latter activity probably provided the greatest amount of sustenance to American Indians. Not all Plains tribes hunted bison. Numerous tribes were farmers planting crops, such as corn, introduced from what is now Mexico.

Public Domain: Dakota Delegation, ca. 1871-1907 by unknown (NARA)
Creative Commons License photo credit: pingnews.com

Plains Indian culture is still around today and it is part of a wider American Indian society. Plains Indians can be found on the reservations throughout the United States, or on the bus sitting next to you. Like any other human culture, Plains Indian culture has evolved, while celebrating aspects of its past. Traditional dances became Powwow dances about a century ago and remain very popular.  Beadwork, introduced about 150 years ago, also continues to evolve.

Interested in anthropology? Learn more:
Who were the first Americans?
Could you outwit a monkey Machiavelli?
What did Neandertals sound like?