Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How to miss (and see) evidence - the obese Comanche chiefs

Chief A Big Fat Fall by Tripping, it is told, owned fifteen hundred horses, but he was so fat that he could not ride any of them and had to be moved around on a travois. (The Comanche Empire, 259)

I want to discuss an example of how we (I) misunderstand evidence that is directly in front of us (me!), and how professional historians do their job.

The Comanches may have been the greatest horsemen in American history.  They culture was fundamentally mounted, as was much of their economy, which was based on a mix of seasonal buffalo hunting and raiding for horses, cattle, and humans.  Wealth was often measured in horses.  Yet they were also a trading nation. Meat, hides, horses, and slaves were traded for carbohydrates (squash and corn) and metal goods.

George Catlin, in Letter 42 of Letters and Notes of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians (1841), describes his meeting with "a huge mass of flesh," the Comanche chief Ta-wah-que-nah (The Mountain of Rocks - see left for Catlin's portrait).  The chief "would undoubtedly weigh three hundred pounds or more," and was a "perfect personification of Jack Falstaff."  Catlin is baffled by the man, since "[c]orpulency is a thing exceedingly rare to be found in any of the tribes, amongst the men."

Catlin paints Ta-wah-que-nah and moves on to the next portrait subject.  Reading Catlin (a great book, by the way), I did the same thing. 

I should have known better.  Pekka Hämäläinen knew better.  In fairness, he was aware of multiple examples of overweight Comanches, all from roughly the same time period, the peak of Comanche power.  They are evidence, not anecdote.  Hämäläinen calls these chiefs "the new elite men who led the Comanche society in the early nineteenth century."  They became leaders because they were extraordinarily successful traders, not warriors.  They were so rich that they could abandon core aspects of their culture yet maintain their status.  These men were organizers, entrepreneurs, managing enormous households of slaves, wives, and affiliated herders and raiders, producing goods for the American market. 

Their corpulence was a sign, just as it was in other contemporary societies, of their wealth - high calorie input, low energy output.  These men are evidence of a profound change in Comanche society.  Historians depend on witnesses like Catlin, who rarely penetrated past the edge of the Comanche Empire, and only saw disconnected fragments.  With the help of anthropologists and demographers and ecologists, historians like Hämäläinen can reassemble the pieces.

Hämäläinen saw what was going on.  Catlin and I missed it.

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