Pick from the Past
Natural History, September 1946

Man and His Baggage

All along the rough road from savagery to civilization
man has found it an increasingly complex problem
to carry the things needed for life.

AN alone of all the creatures of the world carries baggage. Animals often carry food and building materials to their “nests.” And they sometimes migrate to distant points, but they carry no baggage with them. People, on the other hand, are apparently never so primitive that they do not carry something in the way of baggage. This and speaking a language are their most exclusively human traits.

Chimpanzees in captivity show astonishing cleverness in learning to use some of our baggage, but when allowed to escape, they abandon such objects without hesitation, nor do they entertain any observable impulses to replace them with gadgets of their own devising or selection.

Museum collections pertaining to man are for the most part samples of his precious baggage. Many of the objects in early man’s traveling kit are sufficiently indestructible to tell us when and where he first appeared upon the earth;
Museum collections pertaining to man are for the most part samples of his precious baggage.
and the current of his history from that remote time to the present can be read in the rows of cases in your nearest large museum. The museum materials are so real, so much a part of human life, containing, as they do, the unimpeachable truth about our ancestors, free from designing falsifications, that they are the unfailing rock to which we can anchor our faith in the reality of extinct races. Without these relics of the past, students of man would only flounder in a lost world of senseless make-believe.


In many parts of Central America, most of the native goods are still carried on the back—a hold-over from Aztec days. Modern Indians of the Lake Atitlan region, Guatemala.

The parts of man’s baggage on which the objective science of archaeology is based range from bits of shaped stone and a broken or carved bone, to skillfully fashioned metal objects. As just stated, none of the existing apes habitually construct artifacts or carry such objects about with them, nor can we assume that they ever did. Thus it is that when a curious apelike skull is found in bedrock, or in compact earth, the decision as to whether it is human or simian awaits the finding of artifacts associated with it or with other skulls of the same species. The use of fire is one of man’s earliest habits, so when an obvious fireplace with ashes and charcoal is found near such a skull, it is pronounced human. Yet the additional discovery of artifacts is even then awaited as confirmation.

Is fire a part of man’s baggage? It certainly was and is: we still carry matches. The simplest savages observed by the
Is fire a part of man’s baggage? It certainly was and is: we still carry matches.
writers of books, either carried living fire with them or implements for rekindling it. These may not have been the first pieces of baggage to be carried, a club or a stone hand-axe may well have been the first. All this shows us how impossible it is to conceive of a human way of living without baggage. If any other form of animal has ever appeared with such a trait of behavior, neither paleontologists nor archaeologists have ever discovered him.

It is natural that there have been many inventions to increase the amount of baggage a family could transport. Many inexperienced museum visitors overlook the most commonplace devices, such as baskets, bags, nets, pack-lines, carrying frames, belts, pockets, etc. Even a simple twisted string or strip of skin may have been a great invention in the beginning. The lowly Tasmanian women knew how to twine together certain green blades of plants to provide a crude container for carrying home the clams they dug on the seashore. Both they and their men tucked bits of flint and other small tools into the whirls of their hair, the forerunner of the pocket.

Among every people some individuals have fewer than the average number of objects considered desirable when on the march, whereas others have more. In relative terms the rich and the poor have always been found in every community; they will certainly be with us to the end.

The aim of this article is to compare the baggage carried by a few contrasting geographical types of mankind. The aboriginal natives of the more arid parts of Central Australia seem to carry the least of any people known to us. A possible exception may be the Bushmen of South Africa. These two groups run about an even chance to qualify as the world’s champion light travelers. In the first place, the Australians wore no clothing until required to do so by the encroaching white population. Thus they had no need for packing reserve clothing. The average baggage load carried by an Australian woman would comprise a large shallow wooden dish, called a pitchi, usually balanced on the head on a pad of fiber or skin and steadied if need be by a free hand; one or two small woven or netted bags for food and trinkets; a wooden, or bark, water bailer, used also as a scoop, drinking cup, etc.; a bark water vessel; a wooden fire shovel and cooking implement; a simple digging stick; and a small roll of skins for bedding. When on the march, the pitchi may be used as a container for all the other objects. When the water vessel is filled, it is suspended from one arm.

We have weighed these objects in our museum collections; they approximate 12 pounds. To the full load carried by a woman we should add the weight of a small child, usually held against the mother’s body in the crook of one arm. Should a man possess two or more women, each would, for the most part, carry duplicates of the same objects. Thus, including the infant, the full load for a woman might range from 20 to 30 pounds.

The Australian man will carry two or three long slender wooden spears, a wooden spear thrower, one or two short throwing clubs, a pair of boomerangs, a wooden shield, and a stone hatchet. The spears may be
Among the aboriginal people of Central Australia, a family’s baggage would scarcely exceed forty-six pounds.
carried in one hand, the shield suspended from the shoulder, the clubs and axe under a slender belt made of human head-hair. In addition, the man may suspend from his belt a wallet, braided of hair-cords, containing a supply of hair for twisting new cord, and a wallet of skin, for charms, feathers, bird down, etc. The men are expected to be on the alert for game and enemies, to pursue or flee as the occasion requires. Likewise the women must be ready to run at full speed at any moment, holding on to their baggage.

We found the weight of the objects carried by a man to approximate twenty-one pounds.

The popular belief is that the savage woman always carried the heavier load, yet here the loads for women and men are about equal. However, if food is carried, it is added to the baggage of the women. Even so the family baggage would scarcely exceed an average of forty-six pounds.

The usual question is, “Why didn’t the Australians carry more baggage?” Perhaps under the conditions imposed by their way of living this was about all that could be handled. We see that they must run swiftly in case of need. They possessed no beast of burden, and seem not to have hit upon the idea of enslaving captives as burden bearers. Life was democratic in that each must carry his own baggage. The individual’s desire for luxury was curbed by his strength. To secure adequate food he must more often abandon what he could not carry. However, we note ingenious devices to combine several tools in one. The pitchi was for the most part a food-bowl, but when in camp it might serve as a cradle for the baby. We have seen photographs of women rocking the baby to sleep by tipping the pitchi between their feet while their hands were otherwise engaged. The man’s spear thrower was sometimes equipped with a small stone blade, a handy tool for cutting, scraping, carving, and many other operations. Again, the edge of its shaft was used as a firesaw to kindle new fire, or a war club in hand-to-hand fighting. Women used the digging stick for a club and its end for a stabbing and cutting implement.

Travelers often tell us of a gang of angry women armed with digging sticks driving a loafing, philandering man from the camp. Devices for carrying live fire from one camping place to another were in constant use, thus avoiding delay and annoyance in kindling new fire by wood friction. Yet all speculations as to “Why so little baggage” are probably futile; it should be enough to tell what they actually did carry. Science is often impotent to tell you “Why,” but may be able to tell you “How.”

The Plains Indians lived in moderately arid country but with sufficient grass coverage to support herds of buffalo, antelope, and other grass-eating animals. The buffalo were the most numerous. The food problem of these people was simpler than that of the Australians, yet its solution was not so easy as we may imagine. To make his daily kill of food the Indian was forced to follow the drifting herds of buffalo. Permanent housing was impossible.

The earliest exploring expedition into the Plains country was the Spanish Coronado expedition of 1540–42. The translated annals of that expedition should be interesting to our readers. The scribes of the party were familiar with the farming, sedentary Indians of Mexico and what is now New Mexico. After proceeding many days across the plains they came to a settlement of 200 tipis and noted the sharp contrast in the way of life of these Indians:

“. . .These houses were made of skins of the cows [buffalo], tanned white like army tents. The maintenance or sustenance of these Indians comes entirely from the cows, because they neither sow nor reap corn. With the skins they make their houses, with the skins they clothe and shoe themselves, of the skins they make rope, and also of the wool; from the sinews they make thread, with which they sew their clothes and also their homes; from the bones they make awls; the dung serves them for wood [fuel], because there is nothing else in that country; the stomachs serve them for pitchers and vessels from which they drink; they live on the flesh; . . . have no other means of livelihood. . . . [they] travel around with these cows, moving with them. They have [many] dogs, which they load, which carry their tents and poles and belongings . . . they make saddles for them like pack-saddles, and they fasten them with their leather thongs, and these make their backs sore on the withers like pack animals, . . . they have the poles of their houses dragging along tied to the pack-saddles, besides the load which they carry on top, and the load may be, according to the dog, from 35 to 50 pounds.

“The sun is what they worship most.”1

No one since that day has penned in so few words a clearer characterization of Plains Indians’ nomadic life. Practically all their physical needs were supplied by the buffalo. Their whole round of life was adjusted to the habits of that animal. It is clear that the use of the dog as a beast of burden and a traction animal enabled these Indians to carry a great deal more baggage than the Australians could. Hence, we are moved to say that their standard of living was higher.

It is not definitely stated that Coronado’s party saw the dog travois of later days. This was an A-shaped frame of two poles and a cross-framework, an invention seemingly suggested by the dragging poles and the pack-load. Obviously, a dog could drag a heavier load than he could carry on his back. The travois device was first observed in the northern plains by French fur traders, hence the name. That it was invented before the Indians came to use horses seems probable. When horses were acquired an enlarged travois was made for them. Yet dogs continued to be used long after horses became common, both horses and dogs appearing in the same cavalcade.

Available collections from Plains Indians of horse days dating from 1800 to 1900 suggest that the baggage carried in 1840 was not essentially different from that of 1540, except that a few trade-objects had displaced others of native make. We find that the average family outfit consisted of a tipi cover with twelve to twenty poles, a pair of back-rests and tripods for the same, two lengths of tipi lining or backwall, 36 wooden stakes or tipi pins, and four buffalo robes for bedding. A woman’s housekeeping equipment would contain a trade-kettle, spoons of wood and horn, a few small wooden or horn bowls, two or more water bottles of skin or paunch, a tripod for the kettle, a wooden kettle hook, sewing bags with sinew and bone awl, carrying straps, knife, stone maul, a steel axe, a bag of skin-dressing tools, toilet bag with hairbrush (tail of a porcupine), paints, etc., rawhide bags for pemmican and dried meat, a digging stick, a baby-board, extra saddles and horse gear, packing gear for several dogs, and a roll of tanned skins for new clothing.

The man had a bow, arrows and quiver, shield, lance, possibly a gun, stone-headed war-club, knife and sheath, fire-making tools, bag with paints, etc., pipes and tobacco, bundle of charms and ceremonial objects, extra saddle and horse gear.

The total weight of these objects as required for a man and woman was approximately 447 pounds.

Extra clothing for woman and man would add about 31 pounds. Children would require extra clothing, robes, toys, and games—about 17 pounds for each child. Thus a man with one wife and two children would require, on the average, 541 pounds, making no allowance for food carried.

So far we have weighed actual objects. In a camp of 200 tipis, such as noted by Coronado’s party, we might well expect at least one family to a tipi. The total baggage of the camp can then be estimated at about 100,000 pounds. For the transportation of this, about 2000 large dogs would be required, and part of the daily kill of buffalo would have to feed these 2000 dogs and an indefinite number of pups. Naturally if the number of dogs was not adequate, surplus baggage had to be carried on the backs of the family. Dogs would seem a weak substitute for horses, but they were retained even after horse days and helped to place the Plains Indians in a formidable position, making them more mobile and raising their standard of living by increasing their baggage, or equipment for better living. Discovery of how dogs could be used in this way must have created a “boom” in the life of the Plains Indians. The white man’s horse was a still greater gain. The Indians could mount upon his back, and by loading the baggage on horses and travois could move the whole camp quickly. For example, in 1877 the thousand-mile retreat of the Nez Percé Indians, under Chief Joseph, outdistanced a pursuing U. S. Army, though the Indians were moving their whole tribal cavalcade, including women, children, sick, wounded, and aged, with their tipis and family possessions.

Reindeer nomadism has survived almost to the present, so it has been possible to study it thoroughly as a way of life. The publications of the Jesup North Pacific Expeditions, conducted by the American Museum of Natural History, give full information. Large museum collections were made, showing the heavy baggage carried by these nomads as they followed their grazing herds of domesticated reindeer. Of all surviving nomads these were the grandest and the most powerful. They suggest to us the glory of the ancient nomads of Central Asia with their herds of cattle and horses. It appears that when the Siberian nomads began to tame reindeer they became even more nomadic than they had been as hunters of wild reindeer, because the ambition was to own larger and larger herds. The areas around the camps, as a result, were quickly overgrazed, necessitating more frequent movements to new pastures.

We note that the reindeer-skin tents of the herders were large and heavy. They were 25 feet and more in diameter and 15 feet high, circular but provided with vertical walls, like modern circus tents, supported by elaborate frameworks of poles. Several families would live in such a tent, so there were internal skin partitions that added to the total weight. The cold climate required heavy fur clothing and bedding. Large sleds were used for transport, and the amount of baggage was considerable. A camp, or band, usually comprised a minimum of five families, living in two or three large tents. With housekeeping equipment and personal property, 50 or more sleds were necessary. Such a camp would own some 400 reindeer, but a rich herder, leading a band of ten or more families, might own 5000 deer and at least 150 sleds, requiring 200 to 300 mature reindeer trained to harness.

The essential baggage items were tent covers, tent poles, bedding and rugs of fur, stools, lamps for heating and cooking, kettles, mauls, adzes, water vessels, wooden ware, knives, bellows, fire-making tools, drying racks, serving kits, mats, snow scrapers, shovels, food bags, etc. Among other needed objects were snowshoes, ice creepers, lassos, saddles, driving whips, harness, thongs, weapons, pipes and tobacco, tools for working bone and wood, and outfits for ceremonies, religious and otherwise. Extra clothing would be in the “must” class, such as fur suits, boots, caps, and mittens. Finally, a few extra sleds, too small for freight, were reserved for passengers only.

We did not weigh all of these articles available in the museum collections, since we were informed that two reindeer could draw a sled load of 200 pounds and that from 50 to 150 sleds were standard for a camp. So the baggage for individual camps could range from 10,000 to 30,000 pounds. For a single family unit of moderate economic status, the baggage load could be 2000 pounds in contrast to a Plains Indian unit of some 541 pounds and an Australian unit of 46 pounds.

Man with baskets

With a baby in each basket, the Chinese refugee can move his family great distances on foot, even when he lacks the traditional wheelbarrow.

With this information in hand we can say there is obviously a ratio between the amount of baggage a people carry and their way of life. If they domesticate large animals like reindeer, cattle, etc., they may possess a large amount of baggage and still be nomadic. If they are without such domestic animals and doomed to travel afoot, their load will be light indeed. There are intermediate levels, in which the people, because they must follow wild herds of reindeer, buffalo, etc., have increased their baggage by use of dogs and thus raised their standard of living above that of the Australians and the Bushmen. In previous articles we have shown that the domestication of plants is accompanied by drastic changes in housing, resulting in permanent villages and eventually cities and city-states, or nations, with corresponding increases in personal property. The domestication of animals also changes man’s whole view of life and enables him to carry more and live better.

However, we must not apply these generalizations blindly, especially in respect to the relationship between ways of living and the size of the baggage load. For example, the ancient Mexicans did wonders without using carts
The ancient Mexicans did wonders without using carts or transport animals, but only human packers.
or transport animals, but only human packers. However, they did domesticate plants. Here we can generalize with greater assurance: where there is no agriculture, populations are sparse, with very low standards of living. It is when both animals and plants are domesticated that large populations and great accumulations of personal property are possible. Recent history hints that draught animals may not be an important factor in the future, when man will be wholly dependent upon mechanical transport and may even produce his food by biochemical processes. Yet this threatens to increase his baggage to larger and ever larger proportions.

Some recent applications of scientific principles lure man to expect great advances in the use of atomic power, but realistic thinking offers no hope of escaping an overwhelming load of new baggage, unless man casts off civilization and returns to savagery. That he will do so willingly seems unlikely. So he must bravely face the future, striving for more mechanical devices to carry and house the increasing load.

1George P. Winship (Translator), The Journey of Coronado 1540-1542 from the City of Mexico to the Grand Canon of the Colorado and the Buffalo Plains of Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska; A. S. Barnes and Co., New York, 1904.

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