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The Last Stone Age American

July 2024
19min read

As an epilogue to his forthcoming book on the archaeology of the United States, C. W. Ceram, the author of Gods, Graves and Scholars, has chosen to tell a symbolic tale—the story of lshi. Chronologically, the story is quite modern; culturally, it reaches back to the Stone Age. Mr. Ceram’s new book, The First American, will be published later this month by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. A MERICAN H ERITAGE presents his moving epilogue—the end of “a chapter m History.”

The story begins at the fence of a slaughterhouse two or three miles outside the town of Oroville, California, at dawn on August 29, 1911. Oroville, then a town of some 3,800 people, is about seventy miles north-east of Sacramento.

The dogs began barking so madly that a few sleep-sodden butchers came out to see what was the matter. Leaning against the fence was a man whom they at first took to be a drunken tramp. Then they saw that he was almost naked; only around his shoulders was there a scrap of cloth resembling a poncho. And his face was obviously that of an Indian, but of a type they had never seen before. The poor creature’s black eyes glittered with a hunted look of terror.

The baffled butchers could think of nothing better to do than to summon the sheriff. He arrived, approached the stranger with drawn gun, and ordered him to come along. The response was a series of incomprehensible sounds. To be on the safe side, the sheriff handcuffed the fellow—who meekly accepted whatever was done with him but continued to show signs of intense fear—and took him to the Oroville jail, where he locked him in a cell normally reserved for the mentally ill.

At this point the sheriff realized that his prisoner was utterly exhausted. The man was undoubtedly an Indian, but his skin was somewhat lighter than that of the tribes the sheriff knew. All attempts at communication proved fruitless, even when a Mexican tried Spanish and a few Indians were fetched who spoke several Indian dialects.

The sheriff was unhappy about the whole affair, for within a short time word of the “wild man” had got around, and more and more curiosity seekers kept coming to have a look at him. At last the reporter of the local newspaper arrived. The “wild man’s” picture appeared in the newspaper next day, and the next day the story made banner headlines in the San Francisco papers. There, at the Anthropological Museum of the University of California, Professors Alfred L. Kroeber and Thomas T. Waterman saw them.

It was lucky for Ishi—we may as well give the wild man his name—and lucky for science that Kroeber and Waterman not only read the newspaper articles but also guessed at once that this might represent a unique case. If the strange man actually spoke an unknown language, might he not be one of the last survivors of a supposedly vanished tribe? That seemed a totally fantastic hope on the part of the two anthropologists. Nevertheless, on August 31, two days after Ishi had appeared, Kroeber sent the following telegram to Oroville: “Sheriff Butte County. Newspapers report capture wild Indian speaking language other tribes totally unable understand. Please confirm or deny by collect telegram and if story correct hold Indian till arrival Professor State University who will take charge and be responsible for him. Matter important account aboriginal history.”

The reply came promptly, and on that very day Waterman set out for Oroville and Ishi.

The anthropologists’ hope had but a single and perhaps flimsy basis. It was known that the country around Oroville had formerly been the territory of the Yana Indians, who had spoken various dialects. The languages of the two northern tribes had been preserved. The last survivors, a man named Batwi and called Sam, and a woman named Chidaimiya, Christianized as Betty Brown, had dictated an extensive vocabulary. But not a word of the language of the southern tribe, the Yahi, had ever been recorded; the tribe was considered extinct. If by a miracle Ishi were a Yahi, there would certainly be difficulties in communication, but what a coup for science it would be.

We can imagine the suspense with which Waterman, his Yana word list in hand, first approached Ishi in his cell. He opened the “dictionary,” pointed to objects, and pronounced the words, repeating them with varying intonations because he could not be sure about his pronunciation. Ishi sat hunched, impassive, weak; he had refused food because, as came out later, he thought the white men were trying to poison him. He merely stared at Waterman with an unfathomable look. Waterman began to lose heart; he was approaching the end of his list. Finally he pointed at the wood of the cot and said, “ Siwim ” which means yellow pine. And suddenly Ishi straightened up. “ Siwim ,” he repeated. And then the two were seized by excitement; they wildly tapped the wood again and again, exclaiming with beaming smiles, “ Siwini, siwini! ” They understood one another.

It took hours before Waterman found other intelligible words, before he ascertained that Ishi was indeed a Yahi and that the language of this southern tribe was closely akin to the partly known dialect of the north, until he began to see the links and learn how to modify the pronunciation, until sentences formed and suddenly the moment came when Ishi asked his first question—a question, Waterman realized at once, to which he could give only one answer if he were to win the wild man’s trust. The question was “ I ne ma Yahi? ” (“Are you of our tribe?”) And Waterman, looking into those black eyes, said, “Yes.”

From that moment on Ishi emerged from the Stone Age into the world of modern man. But a few technical problems had to be solved first. The sheriff did not know what to do. Ishi was clearly neither insane nor dangerous, so what reason was there for keeping him in prison? On the other hand, what would become of him if he were released into a world that he could regard only as hostile and frightening?

The sheriff shifted the responsibility to Waterman, who gladly assumed it. Telegrams passed back and forth between Oroville and Kroeber in San Francisco. But this case was unprecedented; the Indian Bureau in Washington had to be consulted. After forty-eight hours the matter was finally settled. The sheriff signed a document that was probably unique in the annals of the law: a prisoner was turned directly over to a museum.

And then Ishi’s second life began.

Here we must turn the clock back to understand the kind of world from which Ishi had emerged and why his case was such a piece of good fortune for science. For Ishi’s life had followed the curve of a tragedy of almost classical Greek proportions, the tragedy of a whole people’s downfall.

From archaeological finds it can be more or less estimated that before the white immigration into California perhaps 150,000 Indians lived in what is now that populous state. They consisted of twenty-one nations, which were divided into more than 250 subgroups, tribes, and families in which 113 different dialects were spoken. Some of these dialects differed no more than Boston English from that of New Orleans, but many were as far apart as French and English. The Yanas constituted a sizable group. There were two or three thousand of them scattered east of the Sacramento River as far as Mount Lassen. About a thousand years before, they had retreated to the highlands and evolved into a predatory people. There were actually four tribes of them, of which the southernmost, the Yahi, lived in the vicinity of Mill Creek and Deer Creek. Linguistically, they belonged to the Hokan family. One curiosity, very rare throughout the world, was that men and women spoke a different dialect. The boys, for example, who were raised by the women, did not learn the male language until around their tenth year. And brothers and sisters addressed one another in the second person plural, making the respectful distinction that Frenchmen convey by tu and vous .

They lived the life of hunters, fishermen, and gatherers of fruits and roots; their basic food was acorn flour. They had no pottery but wove baskets for all purposes.


Their tragedy began with the California gold rush in 1849.

The land had drifted along under Mexican ownership. In 1848 it fell to the United States, and as a result of the gold rush there ensued a period of total lawlessness. In 1849 alone eighty thousand prospectors poured by sea and land into the river valleys and mountains, tough men with a high percentage of scoundrels among them. During the ten years to 1860 the white population increased to 390,000. The deeds and misdeeds of those years have undergone a romantic transfiguration; they have become legendary. Later it was said that they showed the American character at its best and at its worst. The group that suffered the most during that time were the Indians.

The aboriginals were driven back step by step. When they defended themselves with their few and poor weapons, when in their hunger they attacked wagon trains or plundered ranches, frightful reprisal campaigns were waged against them. Early in the sixties panic swept the country east of Sacramento when Indians, probably Yahi, killed five white children. But in the years 1862-67 tne whites had killed between three and four thousand Indians. One detail alone suggests the senseless cruelty of the times: the whites introduced scalping , which was unknown to the Californian tribes. Waterman relates: On good authority I can report the case of an old prospector-pioneer-miner-trapper of this region, who had on his bed even in recent years a blanket lined with Indian scalps. These had been taken years before. He had never been a government scout, soldier, or officer of the law. The Indians he had killed purely on his own account. No reckoning was at any time demanded of him.

Ishi grew up during this period. As far as could be deduced, he must have been born around 1862. It may be that he never saw a white man close up, for his group was constantly in flight. And fear of the white man was burned into him from earliest childhood, when he heard stories of the latest massacres in which the remnants of his tribe had fallen. For the Yahis struck back. Robbed of the land that had nourished them, driven by hunger from the parched wilderness to which they had retreated, they had attacked a ranch in August, 1865, killing three white men. One moonless night, under the leadership of two legendary Indian killers, Robert A. Anderson and Hiram Good, both already proud possessors of many scalps, seventeen white men surrounded the small Yahi village on Mill Creek and slaughtered men, women, and children. Dead bodies were carried down the stream by the current. More such butchery was repeated in 1867 and 1868 and climaxed north of Mill Creek, where in a cave near Camp Seco thirty-three Indians were surrounded, killed, and scalped by only four white men, all heavily armed. During the massacre they shifted from their heavy rifles to revolvers, because the rifles, as the white participant Norman Kingsley later remarked, “tore them up so bad”—especially the infants.

After this slaughter the white settlers thought they had exterminated the Yahis once and for all. But then something mysterious happened. When several cowboys visited the cave a few days later, they found that the thirty-three corpses had vanished. This meant that there must be a few survivors, who had given their dead the last rites (these Indians practiced cremation). But these survivors did not reappear. They vanished without a trace into the wilderness for twelve years.


Theodora Kroeber, the great anthropologist’s wife, has displayed such empathy in her description of this period of concealment under threat of death that it would be a pity not to quote her: The twelve years from 1872 to 1884 were without incident or rumor. The concealment for those twelve years was complete. No horses or stock were hunted, no cabins were rifled, no grain stolen; not a footprint, not a telltale bit of ash, or wisp of smoke from a fire was seen; not a single broken arrowshaft or a lost spear point or a remnant of a milkweed rope snare was found on a forest or meadow floor as a sign that Indians were about. …

The years of Ishi’s total disconnection from history were most of the years of his life: a long interlude of stillness. The senses strain to understand what must have been the waking and sleeping of that time; and if Ishi could not light up for us its traumas and tragedies, he could and did describe and reenact for us, something of its day-to-day living.

The hidden ones fished with the harpoon and the net, and hunted with the bow and arrow, and by setting snares—silent weapons all. They gathered acorns in the autumn, enough if possible to see them through the winter. They ate green clover in April, and brodiaea bulbs in early summer. In midsummer they went to Waganupa, four nights’ journey, to its cooler air and deeper shade and more abundant game. For the rest, they lived on upper Mill Creek in small houses camouflaged so that from above, the only direction from which they could have been seen, the bent branches which covered them looked like nature’s work. Nearby were storage shelters disguised in the same way, and containing drying frames, baskets of dried meat and fish and acorns, and utensil baskets, tools, and hides. They traveled sometimes for long distances by leaping from boulder to boulder, their bare feet leaving no print; or they walked up or down stream, making of their creeks a highroad. Each footprint on the ground was covered over with dead leaves, obliterated. Their trails went under the heavy chaparral, not through it, and they traveled them on all fours. A cow could not find such trails; even deer sought more open ones. If a branch was in the way it was gradually bent back farther and farther, and if need be severed by charring and wearing through with a crude tool made from splitting a boulder, a slow but silent process. They never chopped, the sound of chopping being the unmistakable announcement of human presence. They kept their fires small so that the smoke dissipated harmlessly through the brush without rising beaconwise above the bay tree canopy, and they covered the site of a camp-fire with broken rock as soon as the fire was out. They went up and down the perpendicular cliffs of Mill Creek canon on ropes of milkweed fiber—a quick and safe way down, since the canon was well screened by trees that overhung its rim. They could bring up a catch of fish or a basket of water, or let themselves down for a swim with far less trouble and time than it took to scramble up and down the little branching trails which led to the water’s edge. Also, they preferred to use these trails sparingly so that they would not become too plainly marked but continue to appear to be no more than the runways of rabbits or weasels. … They wore capes of deerskin and wildcat, occasionally of bearskin. And they slept under blankets of rabbitskins. Ethnologists are agreed that they pursued a way of life the most totally aboriginal and primitive of any on the continent, at least after the coming of the white man to America.∗

∗From Ishi in Two Worlds , by Theodora Kroeber. Originally published by the University of California Press; reprinted by permission of The Regents of the University of California.


Under such circumstances Ishi grew to manhood. By 1884 the desperate survivors of the little band had become less cautious, and news of the last Yahis began to leak out. There was little to go by, no more than rumors. Here and there an Indian had been seen and had vanished like a shadow; here and there a cowboy’s depot of foodstuffs had been plundered, but only dim traces of bare feet remained. These observations reached the newspapers, eked out with all kinds of journalistic imaginings. Today we know that Ishi was still living with four members of his tribe. Their last abode was wowunupo mu tetna , “the grizzly bear’s hiding place.”

“The site of Wowunupo is a narrow ledge …” Mrs. Kroeber reported, “five hundred or more feet above the creek, the only place where even the simplest of shelters could imaginably be built anywhere on the steep canon wall. Trees grow tall along this ledge, shading it and screening it from below and from the other side. From the ledge to the rim of the cañon, another two hundred feet, is bare cliff, sheer and impassable, which provided the village with a sheltered rear wall and perfect protection from above.”

And yet it was not safe enough. The whites were coming closer. First two of them, then a single man, caught sight of an Indian—and was driven back by an arrow. In 1908 Wowunupo was discovered. What the party of whites found was an ancient, sick Indian woman, covered with mats, as if her relatives had tried to hide her at the approach of the whites. Food and blankets were also found. When the whites returned next day, the old woman had also vanished. Later it was learned that Ishi had lived there with his mother, his sister, and one old and one young man. By the time the camp was found, the younger man was already dead; the others dispersed in terror and died in the wilderness. Only Ishi survived. The last of his tribe, he hunted alone through the woods for another three years, until he could no longer find anything to eat. Then, half starved, for the first time in his life he crawled up to the dwellings of the whites and was found that morning by the slaughterhouse fence.

Ishi arrived at the museum on Labor Day, September 4, 1911, and next morning was taken to Kroeber. Ishi’s status was not entirely clear. Was he, for example, an American citizen with the right to vote? The question was in fact officially submitted to Washington but was then tacitly dropped. Who would pay for Ishi’s support? Kroeber found the solution by putting the savage on the payroll as assistant janitor, and to everyone’s astonishment it turned out that Ishi fully satisfied the requirements of the job. He cleaned and swept with care and devotion.

The influx of the curious exceeded all expectations. Not only reporters and photographers but circus directors and vaudeville managers flocked to the museum. They wanted to hire Ishi, and one of them had the effrontery to ask Kroeber to join the Indian in a two-man show. Record companies wanted Ishi to sing for them, and movie companies wanted to have him appear in documentary and entertainment films. He even received a marriage proposal.


The anthropologists were fascinated by two different aspects of the case. First, how would a Stone Age man behave in the civilized world of the twentieth century; and second, what would he have to tell about his own world?

The “civilizing” of Ishi took place swiftly, and with some surprising results. He instantly accepted the clothing that was offered him—except for the shoes, which he put on only for special occasions. He who had run naked all his life now absolutely refused to be photographed without clothes; it was only some time later, on an outing to the wilderness, that he allowed it once more. He was extremely neat and orderly. Every day he took a bath—but then he had also done that in the wild. In this respect he was probably cleaner than the average white inhabitant of the West. The anthropologists took him to restaurants and to the theater. He was shy but immediately learned the use of knife and fork and “did not attract attention,” Mrs. Kroeber reported.

In the theater he was fascinated by the audience but showed no interest in what was taking place on the stage, not even at a performance of acrobats. His guardians were surprised at this, but they had noticed the same reaction when they had taken him to the ocean. The ocean, too, made no impression on Ishi, whose eyes had remained riveted on the “audience,” that is, the swarms of white people on the beach. For most of his life Ishi had known no more than a dozen other human beings; only during the raids of the later years had he learned of the existence of the white men, but he had had no conception of their numbers, and it was this that now overwhelmed him. Incidentally, Ishi could count from two to twenty, and when his wages were paid in half dollars he was quite aware of the difference between twenty and forty. In order to cash checks he had to sign his name. He learned to do that.

On his first walks wagons and cars did not startle him (although even the wheel lay quite outside his ken). But the railroad trains made a deep impression, for he was seeing them for the first time, although he had known of their existence. On his wanderings he had often heard them in the distance and regarded them as evil demons. Yet he now had no objection to using trains when accompanied and was soon riding on the trolley alone. The tall houses did not strike him as marvellous; the cliffs in the canyon had been higher, he remarked.

“Remarked” is the word, for in the course of time he learned English and soon possessed a vocabulary of about five hundred to six hundred words, not appreciably less than many European first-generation immigrants. There was only one time when he reacted with sheer horror. That was in the nearby hospital, where he had struck up a friendship with Dr. Saxton Pope, who regularly examined him and treated his frequent colds. By chance Ishi wandered into the morgue. He quailed at the sight of the dead bodies and stammered about spirits and evil demons.

Regular visiting times for him were set, Sundays from two to four thirty. At one of the first museum receptions he attended, a thousand persons showed up. Ishi was a model of dignified bearing; he shook hands with everyone who was brought to meet him, each time smiling pleasantly and carefully repeating the visitor’s name. He also made a great effort to recognize persons he had seen before. Interestingly, he applied his own tribal name, “Yana,” to a Chinese, whereas the whites remained “Saltu,” the “Others.” That might be taken as a convincing piece of evidence for the Asiatic descent of all Indians, but of course its basis could also have been quite superficial. Still, it is worth noting that Ishi, like the Chinese, could not pronounce the American r and substituted l for it.

All his friends, Kroeber, Waterman, and Pope in particular, had the impression that Ishi felt at home in the museum. But none of them had realized just how much it had come to mean to him. For when the plan arose to undertake a long journey of exploration into Yana country with Ishi, he was utterly dismayed. Far from wanting to see his homeland again, he belabored his friends with descriptions of the hardships they would encounter. There would be terrible storms. Snakes and mountain lions were a perpetual menace. They could expect hunger and thirst; there would be no soft beds for them at night. Were they going to subject themselves to all that just to get to know his wilderness? He pointed to the bath, to the heating, to the chairs and chests of drawers. It seemed to him insane to give up all these comforts, even if only for a few weeks!

At this point we must relate what Ishi taught and not only what he learned. He taught his friends everything he knew and could do. He began with his language, gradually dictating his entire vocabulary. But he also sang his songs and imitated the countless calls of wild animals and birds, a trick he used in hunting. He demonstrated the manual skills by which a Stone Age man was able to survive in the wilderness. For Dr. Pope’s records he narrated forty different stories, tales of the woodland world, a tissue of dreams and spirits, fear and love. In the museum garden he built a hut such as he had had in Yana land. But he did not make baskets, because he either could not or would not, for that was women’s work. A man’s task was to produce implements for hunting. In that realm he displayed abilities that were priceless to the scientists. Here was a chance to watch how a man chipped a spearhead out of a piece of obsidian one thousand or ten thousand years ago. Ishi needed thirty minutes to produce a perfectly formed, deadly, needle-sharp point. Before the scientists’ eyes he made harpoons, fishing tackle, and nooses and wove ropes out of milkweed fibers or deer sinews. And as his crowning feat he made a bow and arrow. This was a drawn-out task, for the wood had to be repeatedly dried at various stages of the work, and in addition certain mystic rites had to be observed. Dr. Pope became his eager pupil and subsequently published several treatises on the art of wielding a bow. Waterman was less fortunate. He watched attentively as Ishi produced sparks and kindled a fire by means of a wooden drill and a piece of softwood. Somewhat too hastily, Waterman told his anthropology students that they could not pass the course unless they learned to use a fire drill like Ishi. He would show them the technique, he said, whereupon he turned and turned the drill without producing a spark.

In May, 1914, Kroeber prepared the expedition to Yana land in spite of Ishi’s lack of enthusiasm for the trip. And now the scientists could see him in his own world. He led them to all the places he remembered because of some special occurrence—the site of a massacre during his childhood, the place where a cremation had been held, the spot made unforgettable by a lucky arrow or a battle with a cinnamon bear. And in Wowunupo, the grizzly bear’s hiding place, they relived the end of the last members of his tribe.

Here also they saw him using his wonderful bow. He shot a bird in flight, rabbits at five yards, and deer at distances up to forty yards. They watched him gliding with perfect noiselessness through the thickets but could never manage to imitate his silent movements any more than they could master the acrobatic art with which he swung over the canyon cliffs on a rope he had made himself. They eagerly took notes as he gradually identified more than two hundred plants and explained their uses as food or medicine. And they were deeply moved by the stoic patience with which he would lie in ambush for hours, if need be, not moving a muscle, waiting for game to emerge from hiding, for he recognized its presence infallibly.

All through this time the scientists kept expecting that their friend Ishi would turn away from them emotionally, that he would want to stay in the wilderness where he had grown to manhood. But nothing of the kind happened. Instead, Ishi kept begging them to go home, and “home” was his room in the museum. When the Bureau of Indian Affairs once more raised the question of whether Ishi should not be sent to live among his own kind on a reservation, Kroeber had to transmit the proposal to him. Ishi replied: “I will live like the white man for the remainder of my days. I wish to stay here where I now am. I will grow old in this house, and it is here I will die.”

And that was how it was.

In 1915 Ishi fell sick, and his condition steadily worsened. Soon there could be no doubt that he had tuberculosis. He spent a long time in the hospital under the care of his friend Dr. Pope. Then he asked to be taken “home” to die, and once again he meant his museum. His wish was granted. And there, on March 15, 1916, the last wild Indian of North America died.

Ishi was given a handsome funeral that showed the sentimental attachment, in the best sense of the word, that his friends had formed toward him over the years—those scientists who had initially been interested in him only as a case. When the question arose of releasing his body for autopsy for scientific purposes, Kroeber, who happened to be in New York at the time, telegraphed, “Science can go to hell.” He added: “We have hundreds of Indian skeletons that nobody ever comes near to study. The prime interest in this case would be of a morbid romantic nature!” But since Kroeber was not on the spot, a compromise between science and sentiment was arranged. The autopsy was held; then Ishi’s body was cremated in the manner of his ancestors and his ashes placed in an Indian vase. Along with him were buried his bow, five arrows, a basket of acorn meal, some obsidian points, and other small items.

Kroeber, later asked for a brief characterization of Ishi, replied: “He was the most patient man I ever knew. I mean he had mastered the philosophy of patience, without trace either of self-pity or of bitterness to dull the purity of his cheerful enduringness.”

And Dr. Pope provided this obituary: “And so, stoic and unafraid, departed the last wild Indian of America. He closes a chapter in History . He looked upon us as sophisticated children—smart, but not wise. We knew many things, and much that is false. He knew nature, which is always true. His were the qualities of character that last forever. He was kind; he had courage and self-restraint, and though all had been taken from him, there was no bitterness in his heart. His soul was that of a child, his mind that of a philosopher.”

Ishi was soon forgotten, not by his friends, but by the world. When interest in Ishi revived belatedly in 1957 and the boxes containing the wax cylinders on which his voice, songs, and vocabulary had been recorded were fetched and opened, it turned out that though the bulky and fragile cylinders were intact, not a single one of the old gramophones on which they had to be played could be made to work. Finally an ingenious student managed to put together a single usable machine out of several old gramophones, and the cylinders could be replayed and rerecorded onto modern tape. But the movies taken of Ishi appear to have been irretrievably lost. For museum purposes the California Motion Picture Corporation had shot some five thousand feet of film on Ishi. But the film had been stored for four decades in a room near heating pipes, of all places. When the cans were opened, their contents proved to be shapeless lumps of melted celluloid.


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