Albert McKeon

Mar 10th 2021

Clues to Native American Culture Possibly Found in Rattlesnake Bones


In the classic film “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” archaeologist Indiana Jones looks into an underground Egyptian tomb and, after observing dozens of reptiles slithering on the ground, wryly says, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

When anthropologist Robert Goodby led an archeological excavation along the banks of the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, he was thrilled to find snakes. To be clear, these were the bones of snakes, dating from 600 to possibly as far back as 6,000 years ago. Their presence, Goodby believes, offers clues about how snakes played a role in ancient Native American culture.

The dig found nothing else to directly explain why the bones were found in an area not known for venomous snakes. For that matter, New Hampshire itself isn’t crawling with them. But the remains could serve as a connection to other archeological records that show snakes were eaten as nourishment and part of a spiritual ritual.

“Whether they were eaten for food like a burger or eaten like a wafer at communion, that’s impossible to tell from the archeological record,” Goodby said. “But what we know is these animals had sacred importance. We can think about how that played out.”

A Dig Before the Land Vanished

The excavation happened over the summers of 2004 and 2005; Goodby publicized his research only this year, in an issue of the Archaeology of Eastern North America. “I had to do a little bit of catching up,” he recently joked about the time lag. He noted that the gap between the dig and publication is typical of archeologists who quickly get consumed by other work and vow to get back to cataloging and writing about their discoveries.

Goodby, who is an anthropology professor at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., learned about the spot from Art Whipple, a friend who was an “avocational archeologist and a real outdoorsman” and who had found dozens of other Native American sites in the state. The strip of land for this dig — along the banks of the Connecticut River and in the shadow of Wantastiquet Mountain, in Hinsdale, a town in southwestern New Hampshire — was being consumed by water erosion accelerated by a nearby dam.

The area had long stood out for archeological sites that had uncovered the lives of the Abenaki, a Native American tribe and First Nations group from Canada who belonged to the larger Algonquian tribe of northeastern North America. Goodby, agreeing with Whipple that the remaining sliver of land would soon slide into the river, gathered a group of his students along with those who belonged to the State Conservation and Rescue Archaeology Program (SCRAP).

Over the two summers, they uncovered pottery, spear heads and stone tools typically found in Abenaki sites in the area. They also came across burnt skeletal remains of deer and turtle, an unsurprising find, as well as the charred tiny vertebrae of an unidentified species. Testing by a herpetologist and zoologist identified the remains as those belonging to snakes: a water snake, a garter snake, a few black rat snakes, one northern copperhead and 20 timber rattlesnakes.

Much Is Unknown, but Meanings Are There

Many of the snake bones ranged in age from about 600 to 700 years, but the oldest remains could be as old 6,000 years, tying them to the ancestors of the Abenaki, Goodby said. The bones were burned — a reason why they remained preserved but also an obstacle in revealing why they were cooked. “It doesn’t answer if they were ordinary food or a special offering,” he said.

But an archeological dig in neighboring Vermont in the 1970s connects dots, Goodby said. In a 3,000-year-old cemetery, the remains of a middle-aged man were well preserved. He was buried with a leather bag. “Inside, there were complete skeletons of a timber rattlesnake and a rattlesnake, along with the bones of mammals. The archeologist who discovered that believed it was a medicine bag.”

Considered in that context, it would be reasonable to posit that the venomous snakes that Goodby’s team found were used in some sort of spiritual ritual. Goodby holds that as a possibility, just as much as he suggests the snakes could have been simply something to eat. That perspective is in line with the overall attitude about archaeology: There is usually more than one story to consider with any relic.

“Were they sacred?” he questioned of the rattlesnakes. “It’s one of those things, if in archaeolog, you limit yourself to only what you can prove scientifically, you get interesting things, but it’s a one-dimensional view. When you also look at these things from a spiritual perspective, you don’t get much of a physical sense of that, but you get an idea of (the Native American) worldview. These things were part of their lives, even if we can’t prove what they did.”

Goodby added, “It’s not as if we’re completely lost. If you look at native cultures, rattlesnakes were sacred animals. It’s widespread. That helps you interpret things. You know they were used by Native Americans. In the historical period and modern period, they believed the snakes were sacred. Archeologists have not done enough with oral traditions. Combined with archeological data, those traditions can help us interpret the role of the rattlesnakes in Native American culture.”