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Earth Notes: Tumplines

    Photograph of a Havasupai Indian woman, Yunosi, carrying a "Kathak" or basket on her back, ca.1900. She is wrapped in a brightly patterned blanket or cloth under which she wears a patterned dress. A strap around her forehead supports the large conical basket hanging on her back. She is standing in profile facing her right in front of a crude dwelling constructed from sticks and foliage. A gourd[?] and blankets are at her feet. A blanket with a zig-zag pattern hangs, bunched up, from the side of the structure.
Pierce, C.C., California Historical Society Collection, 1860-1960, public domain
A Havasupai woman, Yunosi, carries a "Kathak" or basket on her back, bearing its weight with a strap around her forehead, ca. 1900.

Backpackers are always searching for newer, more efficient ways to carry heavy loads. Yet tumplines, a textile placed over the forehead to carry a load on the back, have been an important tool for over a millennium. In fact, with correct posture, the use of the head to carry weight can actually be more efficient, functional, and safer than our contemporary techniques.

Tumplines are still used in cultures around the world today. For example, Tibetan and Peruvian sherpas use them on Himalayan and Machu Picchu tourist expeditions. They’ve also been found at archaeological sites throughout the Southwest, where tumplines were made from plant fibers such as cotton, yucca, and agave, often with intricately beautiful designs.

Recent research on tumplines may shed light on an archaeological mystery: How did pre-contact tribal peoples transport 200,000 hefty construction timbers more than 60 miles from the Chuska Mountains and surrounding areas to Chaco Canyon? Two researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder wanted to test the reliability of tumplines for this task. Together, they carried a ponderosa log weighing over 130 pounds for 15 miles on a forest road using tumplines.

The team’s findings affirm tumplines could be the answer for how people carried heavy loads over longer distances. Their results suggest supplying Chaco Canyon with timber may not have been as back-breaking as archaeologists used to think.

This Earth Note was written by Carrie Calisay Cannon and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University, with funding from the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies.

Carrie Calisay Cannon is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, and also of Oglala Lakota and German ancestry. She has a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and an M.S. in Resource Management. If you wish to connect with Carrie you will need a fast horse; by weekday she fills her days as a full-time Ethnobotanist with the Hualapai Indian Tribe of the Grand Canyon of Arizona, by weekend she is a lapidary and silversmith artist who enjoys chasing the beautiful as she creates Native southwestern turquoise jewelry.
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