Monday, May 24, 2010

Ishi: America's Last Known Hunter-Gatherer

by Patrick Baker

Imagine being the last of your kind and entering a world that is nothing like the world your grandparents knew. What if you could no longer live in the homeland that had sustained your ancestors for centuries? This is exactly what happened nearly a century ago for a Native American man known to the modern world as "Ishi."

Ishi ("man" in his native Yana language) was believed to be the last of the Yahi people, and is believed to be the last Native American to have lived the majority of his life outside of American culture as it existed in 1911. Ishi was the name given to the last known hunter-gatherer in America by Alfred Kroeber, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley in 1911.

Ishi, the last of the Yahi people, shown with anthropologist A.L. Kroeber in 1911
Ishi shown with anthropologist A.L. Kroeber in 19111

Dr. Cordain has been researching Ishi intensely for the past six months, having been first introduced to Ishi by his father at about 11 years of age. Dr. Cordain stated that "I now believe I have an answer to Ishi's final two to three years of existence" in his ancestral home on Deer Creek, located east of present day Los Molinos, California - before his appearance in October, 1911 at a slaughter house in Oroville, California.

Kroeber stumbled into Ishi's life following his "death walk" from his hunter-gatherer home on Deer Creek to the slaughter house near Oroville. Kroeber wrote of and exploited this Native American's life and culture before Ishi’s death in 1916 from tuberculosis.

Cordain states that "sleuthing via Google Earth and the early records of Dr. Kroeber in the academic literature has given me insight into the exact location of his final 'village' of residence, and how he spent the last two to three years of his life with his paralyzed mother at another location on Deer Creek." Historically, this site was known only to the long-dead Kroeber and his colleagues. Cordain states that "modern anthropologic and forensic examination of this site would help to clarify and demystify the legend of Ishi."

Dr. Cordain believes that eventual carbon dating of this site - once verified and reexamined - will reveal the missing two to three years of Ishi’s life before he became known to the world of 20th century America. Cordain has compiled his information and will contact the appropriate members of the California Anthropological community before deciding how to proceed.

Cordain’s research and writings indicate that a contemporary diet that precisely mimics hunter-gatherer diets is "obviously impossible, as most of us don’t have unlimited access to wild game and plant foods." However, Cordain’s studies indicate that "our health, well being and mental state improve, and we can emulate Ishi's personality, psychological state and health" by consuming fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats and seafood, as documented in his book The Paleo Diet. Dr. Cordain’s dietary recommendations in The Paleo Diet include avoiding processed foods, grains, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, and salted foods.

Dr. Cordain goes on to say that "Ishi's story is heart-wrenching, sad, warm, but human above all else. His spirit, optimism and love of life - despite the awful events which sealed his fate - represent a truly remarkable and final tale" of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as it was once practiced by Native Americans and other indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, much of Ishi's life will remain undocumented and unknown, and, according to Dr. Cordain, "the available historical, archaeological and forensic evidence about his final days on Deer Creek as America’s last known hunter-gatherer are vaguely understood and highly speculative."

For many of our readers, the story of Ishi may be unknown, and lost in the fog of a long forgotten history our great-grandparents knew - particularly those among us who lived with Native American inhabitants of this continent, after the American population of European descent had settled in the American West.

  1. Heizer, Robert F. (Editor), Kroeber, Theodora (Editor). Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History. University of California Press, 1981.
  2. Kroeber, Theodora. Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America. Deluxe Edition. University of California Press, 2004.
  3. Starn, Orin. Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last "Wild" Indian. W.W. Norton & Co., 2005.
  4. DVD Documentary. The Last Yahi (2002). Linda Hunt (Vocals), Jed Riffe (Director), Pamela Roberts (Director)


  1. It is really interesting to note the difference between Ishi's face and that of Kroeber. Ishi appears to be shorter, but his head is BIG, while Kroeber's is tiny. I've been noticing that in the kids at school too: many kids have very tiny narrow heads, while my own kids have wide skulls (and plenty room for their teeth, as Price pointed out).

    Nice writup. Thanks!

  2. Dear Paleo Diet Blog,

    Can one eat sesame products on the Paleo diet? Do sesame seeds contain dietary lectins that cause an immune response in humans? I live in Korea, and nearly every dish is made with small amounts of sesame oil. I understand that sesame oil has a high ratio of omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, but the amount of sesame oil a normal person uses should not pose a problem in this instance.


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