Native American Marker Trees. Interesting, but is the Science Sound?

Dennis Downs sitting next to an “Indian Marker Tree”

Today, I had the privilege to attend a presentation by Dennis Downes at the Trinity River Audubon Center in Dallas, Texas.

There were perhaps 100 or so people in attendance, many elderly or retired types, and many seemed to share interests with the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition and Audubon. Quite a few hands in the audience went up when the hostess (Mary Ann Graves?) pointed out DHTC members.

Downes’ presentation left me less than convinced of his conclusions. The conclusions seemed to be just about any tree that was bent at the trunk only to grow skyward again (like this ?? )are anthropogenically altered. I have no doubt that Native Americans marked trails this way. I think I even did it as a kid, trekking through the woods of Virginia -though I didn’t expect the saplings bent over to stay that way for generations.

There’s a certain bit of intuitive logic to Downes’ hypothesis. A  bent sapling can grow to a tree that marks a trail for many generations, pointing the way to copper or chert deposits, marking springs, delineating a place on a bank where you want to beach your canoe and find an upland trail, etc. A full grown tree can stand above a winter snow-line, wet season flood-line, etc.

And there is a bit of archaeological theory to back the notion of storing information through symbols and signs (Colin Renfrew has written a bit on this).

Downes also points out several known anthropogenic examples and claims that ethnographic study bears out the notion that Native Americans marked trails in this fashion.

But I still felt less than convinced by his presentation. Perhaps it was the manner in which it was presented or the way he seemed to hype the significance of just about everything except the data. Certainly not short of anecdotes and stories of people he met as he visited these trees over the last 30 years, Downes provided photo after photo on slides of trees that were bent. Some were taken in the past few years, others were from the early 1900s and perhaps 1800s. Interestingly enough, nearly every photo of the last decade or so included him!

Downes dropped name after name, pointing out the qualifications and “renowned expertise” of several “foremost authorities.” I’ve no doubt these are well deserved experts, people like Raymond Janssen and the recently departed Helen Hornbeck Tanner. But it kept me wondering what Downes’ own expertise is. His bio included “artist, author, and researcher” written on something at the talk (banner, pamphlet, … ? I don’t remember which). He’s certainly a talented artist, one of his sculptures was on display which showed amazing attention to detail. Of a marker tree, of course.

The “researcher” part might be a little overly stated, however. I approached Downes at the end of the talk and asked a quick couple of questions about the data. Essentially, where are the data? What are the data? I specifically asked if GIS and other data have been provided to the SHPOs of states he’s worked in. He didn’t answer. I don’t think he intended to be rude, I think it was a kind of question that simply caught him off-guard. Instead, he stated “email me… I gotta sign this” and he turned to a book to sign for another attendee. To be fair, the other guy just gave him 40 bucks… I was asking for free info 🙂

My concluding thoughts:
Until now, I’d not heard of Indian Marker Trees. I remember the discussion on the Texas Archaeological Society list a few months back, but I didn’t really pay close attention to it then. It seems an interesting topic, particularly for a graduate student looking for a thesis or dissertation project since it could involve data collection, synthesis, and a decent paper as a result. Possibly even a book. I suspect, however, that the results might not be favorable to Marker Tree community (and there is a clear community devoted to this). Steve Hauser and others of DHTC were in attendance today, and they showed a few photos of trees they seemed certain were marker trees, but there was no mention of dating, statistical analysis, correlations to known prehistoric sites and resources (springs, copper, etc.), non-anthropogenic comparisons, etc. There was an anthropologist in attendance from the DHTC (her name escapes me) and she mentioned the need for volunteers with GIS expertise, so this is certainly a step in the right direction. I think a detailed scientific study of these trees might reveal some inconsistencies that prevent anthropogenic conclusions. Sitting there, I thought of many non-anthropogenic ways these could have formed: tornadoes, wind sheer, bedding deer, dead-fall from other trees…

That’s not to say that Native Americans didn’t mark their trails in this fashion. I’m sure they did. I just don’t think that because the tree is bent like this ?? that it’s a marker. It might just be a fouled up tree.

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