Homo sapiens - a Basket Case

by Norm Kidder



Baskets: objects (usually containers) constructed from multiple pieces of material (usually plant) that are interwoven in such a way as to hold themselves together.

Baskets are usually thought of in terms of bowl shaped containers, but the same techniques that produce one shape can be modified to create many variations. The concepts involved in basketry are also used to make textiles, rafts and houses, originating with the most basic binding of two sticks together. The creation of a raft would therefore imply the ideas necessary to make a basket. The arrival of humans in Australia 40,000 or more years ago implies the making of rafts, so it is possible that basketry goes back to the early days of modern humans. At the minimum, basketry appears in archaeological records from the end of the Upper Paleolithic (pre-10,000 years bp). One of the earliest baskets in the Americas is dated to between 10, 300 to 11,000 years ago.

The origins of basketry are problematic, but logic tells me that it started as part of something else ­ such as a rim stick to hold open a hide bag, or a rim to strengthen or repair a gourd bowl. Over time, the rim grew, the other container shrank until, voila, a basket. A similar process has been proposed for the growth of plank boats from dugouts, with the log dugout finally reduced to the keel. The end of the Ice Age around 20,000 years ago led to the decline of big game, and the growing dependence of humans on smaller game, fish and plant foods. Whereas one can carry hunks of mammoth or bison without containers, carrying and processing these smaller items would have created the need for more sophisticated containers and harvesting tools, such as fish traps. Most cultures evolved varied types of baskets to deal with these needs, especially where gourds were not available. The evolutionary process is simple. One basic form finds many different uses. Gradually, forms become specialized for some uses, while remaining multipurpose for the rest. These also undergo changes to make them better adapted to local conditions.

In California, where I live and teach, the Native groups used an astonishing array of baskets. A woman used baskets for collecting and transporting firewood, nuts, berries, seeds, stems leaves, tubers and shellfish; for storage; for cooking; for eating; for water; for cradles; for winnowing; for seed beating; for sifting; for parching; for gifting; and as a hat. They played dice on basket trays and made basketry rattles for their children. Men made basket traps for fish, cages and traps for birds, backpacks and toolboxes. Baskets are flexible, repairable, long lasting and light to carry.

Baskets are made with many techniques and from all manner of materials, depending on locale. The most common are shoots, roots, rhizomes, bark, leaves, grass stems, and occasionally seedpods, bast fibers, animal hair and hides. The materials may be used whole, debarked, split or otherwise processed. Many materials require cultivation to create ideal growth. Coppicing by cutting or burning were common practices. Harvesting time is often critical. Shoots, for instance, need to be harvested during winter or early spring, as the outer growth rings are denser, and stronger at that time, while summer growth is much weaker. Making baskets from wild, native materials is more a lifestyle than a craft, being completely interwoven into the cultures of the people who depended on them.

As human evolution shifted from physical to cultural change, the evolution of baskets became a major focus for applying our Homo sapiens ingenuity.


This article was first published in The Bulletin of Primitive Technology (Fall 2002, #24)
E-mail your comments to "Norm Kidder " at atlatl1@aol.com

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