Aug 292013


On this date in 1911 Ishi (c. 1860 – March 25, 1916) — supposedly the last full-blooded member of the indigenous Yahi — emerged from his ancestral homeland, in present-day Tehama County, near the foothills of Lassen Peak, and known to Ishi as Wa ganu p’a. He was about 49 years old, and had lived all of his life to that point with a dwindling band of Yahi (and related peoples).  With the deaths of his mother and sister he was completely alone and ultimately could not survive by himself.

Ishi means “man” in the Yana language. The anthropologist Alfred Kroeber gave this name to him because it was rude to ask a Yahi his name. Ishi is quoted as saying, “I have [no name], because there were no people to name me.” I am given to doubt this.  Naming among most indigenous peoples of North and South America is a very serious business.  Kroeber’s wife, Theodora, wrote, “A California Indian almost never speaks his own name, using it but rarely with those who already know it, and he would never tell it in reply to a direct question.” So it is more likely that Ishi knew his name but would not reveal it. The only people who could speak his name were dead.  But this is not the only mystery about Ishi by any means.


Prior to the California Gold Rush of 1848–1855, the Yahi population numbered approximately 400 in California, but the total Yana (of which the Yahi were a sub-group) numbered about 3,000. The gold rush brought tens of thousands of miners and settlers to northern California, putting pressure on native populations. Gold mining damaged water supplies and killed fish; the deer left or were overhunted by miners. In addition the settlers brought diseases, such as smallpox and measles, which the Yana had no immunity to. The northern Yana were wiped out completely, and the central and southern groups including the Yahi were drastically reduced in numbers.  While searching for food, they came into conflict with settlers, leading to outright massacres, or bounties on the native peoples by the settlers. A settler could get up to $5 per head he produced. This practice was by no means confined to California, and is a deplorable chapter in the history of North and South America that rarely makes it to the history books.

Ishi is estimated to have been born between 1860 and 1862. In 1865, when he was a young boy, Ishi and his family were attacked in the Three Knolls Massacre, in which 40 Yahi were killed. Approximately 30 survived to escape, but shortly afterwards, cattlemen killed about half of the survivors. The last survivors, including Ishi and his family, went into hiding for the next 40 years, and the Yahi were believed to be extinct. From 1859 to 1911, Ishi’s remote band became more of a mix of neighboring groups such as the Wintun, Nomlaki, and Pit River as the populations of all these groups dwindled to the point where they could not sustain themselves as distinct entities.

In late 1908, a group of surveyors came across a camp they reported as inhabited by a man, a young girl, and an elderly native woman (and possibly one other person).  This was Ishi, his younger sister, and his elderly mother, respectively. The former two fled while the latter hid herself in blankets to avoid detection, because she was sick and unable to flee. The surveyors ransacked the camp and took everything. University of California anthropologists tried to find the camp, but were unsuccessful. Ishi’s mother and sister died shortly afterwards.


Ishi lived three years beyond the raid in complete isolation. Finally, starving and with nowhere to go, at the age of about 49 on August 29, 1911, he was found by butchers outside a slaughterhouse near Oroville, and was presumed to be trying to steal meat. Initially, he was jailed by the Butte County sheriff, but U.C. Berkeley anthropologists, Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Talbot Waterman, took him to San Francisco and gave him housing at Berkeley Museum of Anthropology where he lived for the remainder of his life.

Waterman and Kroeber  worked with Ishi closely over the years and interviewed him at length to help them reconstruct Yahi culture. He described family units, naming patterns, and the ceremonies that he knew, but much of the tradition had been lost because there were few older survivors in the group in which he was raised. He identified material items and showed the techniques by which they were made. Ishi provided valuable information on his native dialect of Yana, which was recorded and studied by the linguist Edward Sapir, who had previously done work on the northern dialects.

Ishi's quiver and arrows

Ishi’s quiver and arrows

Ishi, having come to live in San Francisco, and having no immunity to Western diseases, was often ill. He was treated by a Professor of Medicine at UCSF, Saxton T. Pope. Pope became close friends with Ishi, and learned from him how to make bows and arrows in traditional fashion. He and Ishi often hunted together. Ishi died of tuberculosis, then an incurable disease, on March 25, 1916. His friends at the university initially had tried to prevent an autopsy on Ishi’s body since the body was to be kept intact according to Yahi tradition. But the doctors at the University of California medical school performed one before Waterman was able to stop it. Ishi’s brain was preserved and the body cremated. Included alongside his remains were “one of his bows, five arrows, a basket of acorn meal, a boxful of shell bead money, a purse full of tobacco, three rings, and some obsidian flakes.” Ishi’s remains were interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Colma, near San Francisco, but his brain was put in a deerskin-wrapped Pueblo pottery jar and sent to the Smithsonian Institution by Kroeber in 1917. It remained there until August 10, 2000, when it was sent to members of the Redding Rancheria and Pit River nations in accord with both the letter and the spirit of the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989, that requires the repatriation of human remains to suitable host groups.

There is now considerable controversy concerning Ishi’s background. I believe that there is little doubt that he was the last of the indigenous peoples of North America to have lived the bulk of his life without contact with Westerners. The question has more to do with whether he was distinctly Yahi/Yana or of a more multi-ethnic heritage.  The flint arrow points he produced, for example, do not resemble Yana examples from archeological assemblages, but look more like those produced by the Nomlaki or Wintu, who were living with the Yana around the time of Ishi’s childhood.  It has even been speculated that one of his parents was not Yahi.  He spoke Yahi, but possibly his descriptions of Yahi culture are more of a blend of cultures he grew up with.  I can’t say I am overly concerned about this given that every culture borrows from others.  Whatever his origins, Ishi provided early twentieth century anthropologists with a treasure trove of knowledge.

As is evidenced by Ishi’s grave goods, acorn flour was an important component of the Yahi diet (as it was throughout northern California), so a recipe involving acorn flour is in order.  The purists among you might consider making it yourselves. It is a major project, however.  The big issue is that acorns are very high in tannins so they have to be leached out before the acorn flour is edible.  Tannins are not only bitter, they can cause stomach upset if consumed in large quantities.  The basic process is as follows:

1. Store the acorns several months in a dry place (up to a year). This process can be reduced to a month if they are stored by a fire.
2. Remove the outer skin.
3. Use a grinder or food processor to reduce the acorns to a meal. Depending on usage this can be coarse (for acorn mush), or fine (baked goods).
4. Place the ground acorns in a bag, such as a flour sack, that will allow the passage of water, but not allow the flour to seep out.
5. Put the bag in gently flowing water for 7 to 8 hours (a river is great). A slow trickle from a tap is all right, but the process may take up to 24 hours. Taste the rinse water periodically to see that the bitterness has been removed. The time also depends on the fineness of the flour: the coarser, the longer.
6. Spread the leached flour out on trays in the sun to dry.

If you do not want to go to all this trouble it is possible to get acorn flour in some health food stores, or online. Click here for a good source.

Here’s the thing.  Prepared acorn flour comes from the genus Quercus – the classic oaks – but the peoples of northern California used acorns from the tanoak or tanbark-oak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus), and, to the best of my knowledge, flour from these acorns is not commercially available.  It is richer and more flavorful than flour from regular oak acorns, and is what Ishi ate.

Tanoak acorns

Tanoak acorns

The simplest recipe is for mush, for which coarser flour is best. Place a quantity of acorn meal in a non reactive pot (do not use aluminum) with double the quantity of water.  Simmer slowly for 1 to 2 hours. The mush should resemble oatmeal or cream of wheat.  It can then be used to accompany meat dishes such as hearty stews.  Northern California peoples also made acorn pancakes by taking a very thick mush and using it like a batter, baking it on hot flat stones in a fire.  You could do the same with a heavy iron skillet.  My efforts in this regard have not been highly successful. The pancakes tended to fall apart and were not especially appealing.  What works best is a 50-50 acorn flour and regular flour mix made into a batter with eggs and griddled as you would regular US-style pancakes.


May 272013

Ibn Khaldoun

Today is the birthday (1332) of Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī (بو زيد عبد الرحمن بن محمد بن خلدون الحضرمي) commonly known as Ibn Khaldoun, one of the greatest thinkers in the fields of history, economics, sociology, and anthropology of all times, and is now rightly considered by many experts in those fields to be their great-great grandfather.  Yet most of his work remained unknown in the West for centuries until it was rediscovered in the nineteenth century when many of his fundamental ideas were reinvented by scholars.  Even now in the social sciences his name is hardly a byword.  I first learned about him in graduate school when I took a class on the pre-modern history of anthropology.  Many of his ground breaking theories are current to this day.

Ibn Khaldoun (or Ibn Khaldūn) was an Arab Muslim born in Tunis into an upper-class Andalusian family of Arab descent, the Banu Khaldūn. His family, which held many high offices in Andalusia, had emigrated to Tunisia after the fall of Seville to Reconquista forces around the middle of the 13th century. After the fall of Tunis to the sultan of Constantinople in 1352, he relocated to Fez (Morocco) where he took up the position of writer of royal proclamations for the sultan, Abu Inan Fares I.  However, he got himself in hot water fairly soon for scheming against the sultan and landed in prison for 22 months. He was released on the sultan’s death but had mixed fortunes subsequently.  He decided to move to Granada, capital of the province of Granada in Andalusia, where he expected to be well received because in his time at Fez he had assisted the sultan of Granada, Muhammad V, regain power following his exile. There he came into conflict with the sultan’s vizier and so relocated to North Africa once again where he bounced around, because of his seemingly insatiable desire to cause trouble, finally ending up in Egypt, where he died in 1406. During his time in North Africa and Egypt he mostly devoted himself to writing and some teaching.  These were the years that produced his greatest works.

His best known book is the Muqaddimah, commonly called the Prolegomena in English because it is the introductory volume in his proposed grand history of the world.  In it he lays out his basic methods and theories to be applied in the body of the work.  He starts out with a critique of previous methods in history pointing out that they are often unreliable because of 7 critical errors in method, such as writing with the purpose of currying favor with a ruler, failure to examine the reliability of sources, and bias towards a particular creed or cultural norm (what we now call ethnocentrism). My favorite of them all, the cornerstone of all cultural anthropology, is the error of  failing to place events in their proper historical and cultural contexts and, hence, failing to interpret their true meaning — a principle I live by in my own writing.

You would be amazed at the breadth of his theorizing in diverse fields, and at how well his work continues to accord with contemporary theory. In economics he expounded on markets, laws of supply and demand, labor and human capital, exchange, and the effects of taxation on productivity. In sociology and anthropology he theorized on the nature of social cohesion, the effects of nomadic versus city life on culture, and the ways in which social bonds weaken as cultures move from a subsistence base to one of surpluses, and, eventually, luxury. He proposed that this progression was the ultimate cause of the cyclic downfall of empires. His political theory might best be summarized by his definition of government: “an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself” which we must all ruefully admit is the case.   He made major contributions to the philosophy and method of history which includes such sentiments as, “History is a science,” “Myths have nothing to do with history and should be refuted,” and “To build strong historical records, the historian should rely on necessary rules for the evaluation of truth.”  Those in the know believe that Ibn Khaldoun was one of the greatest thinkers of all time.

Few people nowadays realize that what is often referred to as the “Mediterranean Diet” has strong Arab influences dating back to the Middle Ages. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Ibn Khaldoun’s ancestral, and actual, home of Andalusia in southern Spain.  This recipe is my modern adaptation from the 13th century anonymous cookbook, Kitab al-tabikh fi al-Maghrib wal-Andalus  (Book of Dishes from Morocco and Andalusia). It is for a raised dough (rather like egg bread) that is shaped into braids, shallow fried, and drizzled with scented honey then dusted with sugar. The original medieval recipe (which is typically vague about quantities and methods) calls for durum flour in preference OR plain wheat flour otherwise. You can choose your own proportions based on preference, experience with durum flour, and availability.  I prefer a 50-50 split because in bread making this makes a lighter product. The original recipe calls for both cinnamon and Chinese cinnamon.  What you buy in the stores today is Chinese cinnamon, also known as cassia. Cinnamon here means “true cinnamon” which is a different species and much more aromatic than cassia. However, you can use one or the other, or mix the two.

Dafaîr (Fried Dough Braids)



10 ½ oz (300 gm) durum wheat flour, all purpose flour, or a mix of the two
¼ cup (½ dl) water
1 package ( ¼ oz/7g) fast acting yeast
2 large eggs
pinch of salt
½ tsp powdered saffron
2 oz (56 g) coarsely chopped blanched almonds
Vegetable oil for frying and coating the dough

Honey sauce

2/3 cup (1 ½ dl) honey
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tsp (50g) true cinnamon, cassia, or a mix
½ tbsp (7.5 g) finely ground lavender flowers or 1- 2 drops of lavender essential oil
caster sugar for dusting.


Put the yeast into a cup with 2 tablespoons of lukewarm water. Stir and let it sit for 5 minutes.

Put the flour and salt in a bowl and incorporate the water little by little. Then add the yeast.  Knead until the dough is elastic.

Pour the saffron into a bowl with the two eggs and beat the mixture thoroughly. Then pour it over the dough, add the almonds and mix them well together. Knead the dough again for a few minutes to be sure all the ingredients are evenly distributed.  Oil the surface of the dough and place it in a clean bowl. Cover with a moist towel and leave it to rise in a warm place.

It should take about an hour for the dough to double in size but you should check it periodically starting after 45 minutes. If a finger pressed into the dough springs back immediately it has not proofed enough. If a finger causes an indentation that remains it has proofed too long.  You ought to be able to press in and have the dough spring back after about 5 seconds. Then it is ready.

While the dough is rising, gently heat the honey so that it is slightly more runny than when cold.  Add the cinnamon, as much ground black pepper as suits your tastes, and the lavender. If you are using lavender oil, add one drop and check for flavor.  Add one drop more if the flavor is too light. Keep warm.

Divide the dough into six portions. Sprinkle the worktop and your hands with flour. Take one portion of the dough and keep the rest covered with a towel. Roll and manipulate the dough until you have a thin sausage about 15 inches long. Cut this in three equal lengths and braid them together, pinching both ends when you are done.  Repeat for the other five portions. Let the braids rest for 15 minutes.

While the braids are resting, pour vegetable oil into a heavy skillet to a depth of about ½ inch and heat until it reaches 340 F (170 C).

Place the braids gently into the skillet without overcrowding. You may need to do this in batches. Fry them  to a golden brown on the bottom , then flip them and cook the other side in the same way.

Place the cooked braids on racks over trays to drain. Don’t use paper towels because then they just continue to sit in the oil. You may pat them with paper towels though.

When the braids have drained, drizzle with the spiced honey, and sprinkle lightly with caster sugar.

Yield: 6