One of the last true hunter-gatherers in North America was believed to be a man called Ishi with a fascinating tale of the clash between indigenous cultures and early 20th century America. A study of this man provides some insights into the lives of people living something close to a pre-Neolithic lifestyle, i.e., a life without agriculture, grains, and processed food.
“An aboriginal Indian, clad in a rough canvas shirt which reached to his knees … was taken into custody last evening by Sheriff Webber and Constable Toland at the Ward Slaughter-house on the Quincy road. He had evidently been driven by hunger to the slaughter-house, as he was almost in a starving condition …
The most plausible explanation seems to be that he is probably the surviving member of the little group of uncivilized Deer Creek Indians who were driven from their hiding place two years ago.
In the Sheriff’s office he was surrounded by a curious throng. He made a pathetic figure crouched upon the floor … His feet were as wide as they were long, showing plainly that he had never worn either moccasins or shoes … Over his shoulder a rough canvas bag was carried. In it a few Manzanita berries were found and some sinews of deer meat. By motions, the Indian explained that he had been eating these.”
The Oroville Register
August 29, 1911
Such was the reception the lone man received upon being trapped by turn-of-the-20th century Californians. As details were pieced together, it appeared that Ishi—-a Yahi Indian word for “man,” a name assigned to him, since it was customary to not use personal names in their culture else risk insult and invite bad magic—-was as close as anyone could come to a true primitive in a modern world, someone entirely unfamiliar with all the modern developments around him, having lived a life of virtually pure hunting and gathering his entire life. Yet the story of Ishi encapsulates many of the same phenomena we witness over and over again in the collision of primitive Homo sapiens with modern diet.
Following Ishi’s recovery, in an unprecedented decision the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs acquiesced to a peculiar request made by two University of California anthropologists, Drs. Alfred L. Kroeber and Thomas T. Waterman, to release the “wild man” to the charge of the University’s Museum of Art and Anthropology. Kroeber and Waterman then proceeded to provide Ishi with food, shelter, and protection, while studying his every habit and behavior.
As he learned to speak broken English and his anthropologist attendants learned to understand bits and pieces of Ishi’s native tongue, several details became clear: Ishi was the last surviving member of the Yahi Indian tribe, nearly exterminated during a massacre by marauding settlers eager for land in 1865, leaving only five survivors. Of those five were Ishi, his mother, sister, his sister’s husband, and a child. After many years of living in the wild, Ishi was the lone survivor. He continued to live much as his tribe’s ancestors had by hunting animals and fish and gathering wild vegetation.
Dr. Saxton T. Pope, a physician, recorded a thorough physical examination of Ishi: “He was born probably about 1860 in northern California, consequently is approximately 54 years of age, but appears about 45… Musculature is well developed, with an even distribution of subcutaneous fat. The teeth are all present, strong, colored slightly brown, no evidence of decay or pyorrhea… His breath is sweet and free from the fetor common to the average white man…”
As Ishi’s time in Western society progressed, Dr. Pope made a number of other interesting observations: “He fed at the nearby Hospital and had at least two full meals daily, besides a luncheon of his own preparation. This was greatly in excess of any dietary heretofore possible to him. In consequence he increased in weight rapidly and became ungracefully fat.” Through it all, surely an unsettling shift from his hunter-gatherer origins to that of laboratory specimen, though civilly treated, Ishi was “always calm and amiable — he had the most exacting conscience concerning the ownership of property. He was too generous with his gifts of arms, arrowheads, and similar objects of his handicraft — With those whom he knew and liked he was remarkably talkative, rambling off into stories, descriptions, humorous episodes, and many unintelligible tales.” In short, despite the traumatic excision from his life and culture suffered at the hands of modern people, Ishi maintained a sense of humanity that charmed the people around him until his death from tuberculosis (a disease of the “white man”) in 1916.
The tragic and fascinating tale of Ishi is about as close as we get in our time to viewing what a nearly pure North American hunter-gatherer was like prior to the dietary acculturation that has now come to touch virtually every other human on earth.
Ishi: The Last Yahi: A Documentary History. Heizer RF, Kroeber T, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
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