Bent Trees Part 1: Pseudo-archaeologies

As you walk through a forest in Colorado, or anywhere else, really, there are trees that have not grown straight. In Colorado, particularly in the Pike’s Peak region of the Front Range, a contemporary mythology has grown around these trees. The myth takes many forms but the foundational logic is that these trees were purposely bent by the Ute Tribe, and the name given to the trees hints at why proponents of the practice think the Ute bent the trees- Prayer trees, burial trees, spirit trees, grandfather trees, marker trees, vortex trees, trail trees. The names change as the loosely formulated hypothesis are challenged by both professional archaeologists and the Ute themselves. This issue has become pernicious in the state- there is a small but passionate and incredibly vocal group of “Bent Tree people” who evangelize to anyone who will listen. This is a myth that was created by and is perpetuated largely by white people for their own benefit- they sell books, sell their services for identifying such trees, charge fees for talks and lectures, and gain prominence in a small, cultish community.

Evidence that challenges these claims are dismissed in the most unscholarly ways, sometimes even with threats of law suits. It is emblematic of the issues with pseudoarchaeology and pseudoscience in our society, and why it is difficult, but very important, to fight such claims. This blog post is a larger response to a panel that I helped organize at the Saving Places conference in Denver last week, that included both Native and non-Native professionals in Forestery, Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology, and Tribal perspectives. * Pseudoarchaeology, just like larger umbrella of pseudoscience, can be identified by certain hallmarks of both the claim and the claimant. For a more thorough discussion of pseudoarchaeological warning signs, see Fagan (2006) and Feagan (2016).

A peeled ponderosa pine, an example of an actual culturally modified tree. The outer layer of bark was removed by Ute peoples to access the sweet cambium layer beneath as food stuffs. The pliable inner wood was also used to make delicate items such as cradle boards. Please note the horizontal ax marks on the exposed scar.

I want to begin by stating as clearly as possible that “Bent Trees” are not cultural artifacts. There are legitimate types of artifacts called Culturally Modified Trees, or trees that were utilized by humans while the trees were alive and growing. There are visible diagnostic marks that indicate how these trees were modified, ethnographic evidence regarding their use by specifically identified ethnic groups, and a clear understanding of when, how, and why these trees were utilized.

Arborglyphs, an example of actual culturally modified trees. These are Aspens that were scarred by Basque Sheep-herders in Colorado in the first half of the 20th century.

Bent trees do not follow any of these diagnostic traits. The deformities of bent trees can be explained by biological sciences; the ethnic group most often affiliated with these trees disavow the veracity of the claim; and the explanations for why, how, and when these trees were bent are vague at best. The underlying theme of the “Bent Tree” phenomena is that while the Ute migrated around the region (and the Ute claim a 7-ish state region as their original homelands) individual trees were bent. The claim we are told the most often is that these trees point to something important, like Pikes Peak (a mountain that is 14,114 feet high and can be seen from as far away as Limon, a city on the eastern plains that is about 80 miles away). Proponents of Bent Trees also suggest that the Utes used these trees for mysterious and lost ceremonial purposes. They don’t know what kind of prayers or ceremonies, but because these trees are bent it must have been something very, very important. This is, of course, complete nonsense. There is no scientific or historical information that supports this claim. There are also no oral histories that support this claim. (The disavowment of this practice from the three Ute Tribes will get its own blog post, to explain how sovereignty and government-to-government relationships work if nothing else).

First of all, there is overwhelming scientific evidence from other disciplines that can explain all the crazy twists that a tree may exhibit. Just because you don’t know what caused the weird tree doesn’t mean no one knows what caused the weird tree.  Foresters have biological explanations for why a tree may not grow straight and perfect every time. There are tropisms that effect growth: gravitropism (gravity), phototropism (sunlight), thigmatropism (touching other plants- even trees have boundary issues); ungulate grazing; snow loads; lightening; and PORCUPINES! Porcupines are crazy destructive and will eat their favorite tree night after night; eventually the tree twists all on itself trying to correct the damage. Proponents of Bent Trees dismiss these explanations by foresters, usually by ignoring the science, or claiming that the foresters can’t tell the difference between natural and human causes. They claim that only the “Bent Tree people” have the ability to see the differences between porcupines and a medicine man.

An example of porcupine damage to a ponderosa pine. Due to the sweet cambium (the same layer targeted for human consumption) porcupines will claw open bark and bite the buds off a favorite tree time and again. The tree will then attempt to assert lateral branches as the dominant bud to correct damage.

There have also been serious questions about the age of individual trees that have been identified as “Ute Trees.” Core samples taken a couple of years ago on a tree that was identified as a “prayer tree” aged the tree to 67 years old, well after the Utes were forcibly removed from the Front Range to reservations in the Southwestern part of the state, nearly 8 hours away by modern car travel. I was personally told that this age is not accurate because “bending trees causes the DNA in a tree to change, so modern dendrochronology no longer works for aging a tree.” These kinds of arguments are just false, but no amount of fact-checking can refute such a blatant disbelief in scientific information.

Fresh porcupine scraping.

Coming back to my own discipline, there is a complete lack of ethnographic evidence, such as observations of tied-down trees, and a complete lack of archaeological evidence providing even basic information like the mechanism for tying down a tree. There is no historical ethnographic information regarding how a tree may be physically bent and tied down to create the deformations responsible for “bent trees.” There are no diary entries of settlers moving through the landscape coming upon bent trees (despite the thousands and thousands that have supposedly been identified just on the front range of Colorado). There are no anthropological descriptions of this activity (and this is the sort of things those Boasian anthros would have eaten up).

It would have taken years of actively tending a single tree to achieve the deformation that is attributed to these trees, and given how trees behave, it still would have failed more often than not. What no one discusses are the mechanics – How was the tree “tied parallel to the ground”? What kind of rope? What apparatus to keep it down? Was this apparatus moved after the act is complete? If not, wouldn’t we find it archaeologically? What kind of force is required to manipulate a tree in this way? Why is every bent tree bent in a different way? Was it different types of tying mechanisms? How was this achieved? Why aren’t these questions being asked by proponents of this practice???

This little tree bent itself over trying to reach adequate sunlight. It is an example of phototropism. If the larger trees continue to shade it out, it will be “frozen” in this shape the rest of its life.

As ridiculous as this issue is, you may be asking why I can’t just ignore it. I am a public servant and one of my duties as written in state statute is to disseminate accurate information to the citizens of this state. I am also charged with helping individuals and municipalities use archaeology to inform their policy decisions. My primary problems with this can be distilled down to three main issues: 1. This creates bad public policy; 2. We lose time and resources that can be spent on preserving historic resources, and 3. It creates a culture where other wild claims are perpetuated.

  1. This creates bad public policy. There are literally thousands of bent trees throughout the region- taken together they are not unique. Some of these trees are diseased, or are just not good stock for tree husbandry in an area that is actively managed and faces threats from natural disasters like wildfires and or human-made encroachment like development. As the idea of these trees being cultural resources spreads, actions are taken to specifically protect bent trees, which causes problems for land managers who are planning for forest health, fire management, and other practical decisions that have very real life and property consequences.
  1. As more time, energy, and money are focused on recording and protecting a fake category of cultural resources, actual resources that need recording and protecting are ignored or left out of the equation. In at least one case a county in Colorado hired a bent tree practitioner to survey for bent trees prior to forest management activities. Real archaeological, historic, and cultural resources were not surveyed for, and couldn’t be as the practitioner is not qualified to identify those resources. We don’t know what sites or artifact types were lost in subsequent management activates like controlled burns. What we do know is we are losing legitimate historic resources for the sake of a fantasy.
  1. The claims snowball, and we have a lot of fake artifact types that people are proponents of here in Colorado- false bear and bison “fetishes” that are lumpy rocks looked at in certain angles; rock formations and “fortress walls” that prove the Aztec were in the rocky mountains; my personal favorite is the big-foot researcher who is giving the prayer-tree people a run for their money claiming that Big-foot bent the trees (he’s apparently very clumsy- Big-foot, not the researcher); Utes “wood maps”  being found all over the floor of the forests that modern researchers are mistaking for insect-eaten sticks. Having all of these false claims living side by side in the causes regular people to not be able to discern between real and false stories about the past, and causes mistrust in the knowledge of actual experts (whether professionals or avocationals) and analytical processes. A populous that can’t tell the difference between real and fake science, and distrusts information presented to them is flirting with disaster.

How do you fight misinformation? I feel very fortunate that we have built an army of people who respond to the claims, answer inquiries, and speak out publicly about what kinds of culturally modified trees do and don’t exist, and why these claims are inappropriate. As a State Archaeologist who is responsible for permitting professionals and disseminating information to the public, I take no quarter when it comes to pseudoscience. There is a larger army of people who are fighting other types of pseudoarchaeology, some that have a much larger claim on the public imagination. These claims stick for a variety of reasons, not the least of which some of these folks are very earnest, and honestly believe they are helping to preserve the past. It would be marvelous to find a way to channel that passion and energy into projects that desperately need passionate and energetic people to help them succeed. As archaeologists, historic preservationists, civil-servants, and history buffs, we also have to actively acknowledge the fact that a lot of pseudoarchaeology, including Bent Trees, has its roots in racism and erasure of Native Americans in contemporary society. If this isn’t addressed head on we will never debunk these racist claims. As archaeologists we have to be better about communicating our science, providing opportunities for people from all walks of life to participate in archaeological and preservation projects, and be better about giving space for under-represented, marginalized, indigenous, and other peoples to tell their own stories.

Notes and References

This was a particularly difficult post to write. I value transparency, and speaking plainly about issues, including citing resources that I may not agree with. However, this issue has become increasingly fraught, and legally I cannot address the arguments around bent trees head-on the way I would actual scholarly disagreements. It is not my intention to obfuscate. Someday I hope to write an article that is more clear and in-depth. Until then, thank you for your understanding.

* February 7, 2019 Saving Places panel, New Threats to Cultural Resources: The Case of Bent Trees, Denver Colorado. The participants in this session included an archaeologist who had studied Culturally Modified Trees for decades, a Cultural Anthropologist who has been looking in to this phenomena; a professional forester; an Archaeologist employed by a city who deal with these claims on a daily basis; a federal agency tribal liaison; and a cultural representative with a federally recognized tribe. I am drawing much of my information from our formal presentation and the conversations we have had over the last couple of years. This is a non-peer reviewed post. While this was a public symposium, given the amount of harassment, including threats of lawsuits, that everyone on the panel have taken in response to our speaking on this subject, I am not naming my colleagues outright. I did, however, shamelessly steal their photos. Any errors here-in are strictly my own.

Garrett Fagan (2006) Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology mispresents the past and misleads the public provides a concise summary of what some of the hallmarks of pseudoarchaeology are, including “1. Dogged adherence to outdated theoretical models; 2. Disparaging academia; 3. Appeal to academic authority; 4. Huge claims; 5. Selective and/or distorted presentation; 6. The ‘Kitchen-sink’ mode of argument; 7. Vague definitions; 8. Superficiality, sloppiness, grossness of comparison; 9. Obsession with esoterica; 10. A farrago of failings; 11. Expectation of a reward at quest’s end” (pgs 25-36)

Carl Feagan (2016) also provides a nice discussion of what to look out for when a claim sounds too good to be true in Seven Warning Signs of Pseudoarchaeology:  “1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media; 2. The discoverer says a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work; 3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection; 4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal; 5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries; 6. The discoverer has worked in isolation; 7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation”

Check out David S. Anderson, who has made it a singular mission to fight pseudoarchaeology in the popular press and media. Anderson’s educational efforts are not just aimed at the public who may be taken in by unscrupulous con-men masquerading as researchers, but also directs his efforts at professional archaeologists, who have allowed this problem to fester under our watch.

5 Comments

  1. Excellent post! I have a blog debunking a piece of linguistic nonsense and practically all of your seven points apply equally well to the particular twit I’m attacking, Daniel Cassidy. One of the most disturbing things about the modern versions of pseudoscholarship is that very often, people are accused of being racist, Anglo, or following an establishment line when they tell the truth. Lazy thinkers find it so easy to pretend that you have a conservative agenda when you attack their particular myth and as soon as they do that, almost nobody will accept that you’re just telling it like it is. Like I say, you have an agenda (though it’s actually the people accusing you of having an agenda who have the agenda)- you’re pro-British, anti-Irish, anti-Native American, etc. etc. Anyway, keep up the good work!

    Like

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