A Bear Effigy Bottle

The ancient American Indians would probably have lived up close and personal with the wild animals of their lands. They would have encountered, maybe on a daily basis, rabbits, squirrels, opossums, turkeys, deer and even the large and powerful mammals of the Ursidae family – the bears.  And the people would probably have thanked their gods for the food that these wild kingdom creatures provided and one way to do that would have been to create ceramic vessels in the likeness of the animals - such as this bear effigy bottle.

The word bear in our language comes from the Old English word “bera”.  Old English is itself actually a West German derived language that was used by the Anglo-Saxons during the period of AD 500 through the 1200’s. These caniforms, or “doglike” carnivorans, are well known to modern humans though most of us may have never actually seen a live bear except in a zoo cage. The Ursidae animals, whose closest living relatives are musteloids (weasels, skunks and raccoons) and pinnepeds (seals, walruses and sea lions) reside naturally today in all of North America, Europe and Asia and in parts of South America.  As best as can be now determined, they began their evolution in Eurasia more than thirty million years ago.  About 3 to 4 million years in the past, bear-like animals, that are today called the Ursus minimus, evolved in Europe and are believed to be ancestral to all modern bears. Today they are large bodied mammals with stocky legs, a short tail, long shaggy hair and long snout.  And they have plantigrade paws (meaning walking flat footed) with five non-retractile claws. It is difficult to determine exactly when the bears came to the Americas, but the current guess is one to two hundred thousand years ago during one of the ice ages, by crossing the frozen Bering Strait Land Bridge from Asia.  In this continent, they continued to evolve into three distinct types, brown bears, black bears and polar bears, depending partly on just where the further evolution took place.  The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) became strictly a carnivore in the Polar Regions and developed a heavy white fur coat necessary for living in that snow and ice covered zone.  The smaller black bears (Ursus americanus) which can be black or brown in color and larger brown bears became primarily forest dwelling creatures and developed as omnivores meaning they eat both vegetative matter as well as other animals. The brown bear species further evolved into animals now called brown bears (Ursus arctos) and a sub-species called grizzly (Ursus arctos horribilis).  These bears lived, depending on the species, from the southeast part of this country northward into what is now eastern Canada and westward throughout the mainland United States, Alaska and Canada to the Pacific Ocean.  And they are still here living and thriving in North America and not so far away from millions of modern humans. 

As the prehistoric native humans in North America also evolved, they transitioned from constantly moving hunter/gatherer groups to more settled people who lived in permanent villages and cultivated crops for consumption.  It is obvious to one studying these people that they had a keen interest in, if not even worship of, their animal neighbors.  Today it is believed that ancient peoples, throughout the world, did indeed worship animals and especially the bear and there certainly should be a belief that the Americans did this also.  The huge and strong bear could have been a symbol for a powerful warrior and indeed another Old English word “beom” is translated as having two meanings – bear and warrior.  There is not another animal in this continent that can come close to the bear in terms of strength, size and quickness.  So it would seem natural that the Amerinds would want to emulate the animal in their daily religious existence.  The early European explorers did make note of the fact that many native tribal entities were ruled by “bear clans” and the Cherokee Indians called these large animals “bear-people” so as to distinguish them from the native humans.  And if an Indian killed a bear for food, he must first apologize to the “bear god” and seek a humble supplication for his indiscretion prior to feasting on the animal.

During the period of AD 1000-1700, the natives in the Southeast made many thousands of ceramic vessels, most of which were simple utilitarian bowls, jars and bottles.  But they also made effigy vessels of the things seen in the world around them, mainly fish and fowl and land animals.  Pictured with this article is a hooded bear effigy waterbottle that was found in Pemiscot County, Arkansas.  It is made of well polished buff and grey Bell Plain ceramics and is 5 5/8 inches high with the rounded vessel body being 4 7/8 inches in diameter.  Placed on the very top of the vessel is a bear head with modeled ears and eyes, a slash mouth on the elongated snout and two simple piercings for the nostrils. The pouring spout opening of this hooded bottle is in the rear of the bear head.  Bear effigy vessels are quite rare and seem to be split equally between hooded bottles, head effigy jars and full body replications.  The American black bear and even the grizzly bear would probably have been reasonably common along the lower Mississippi River during that period.  So it seems logical that many bear effigy vessels would have been made but few have been found.  This solid bear effigy bottle has a certain simple elegance without being over the top in artistic exuberance.  The head of the bear is easily seen and understood and as it seems to sit proudly on the spherical bottle, one can imagine how proud the potter must have been with this creation.  But today, I must admit that I am probably just as proud to have this vessel in my collection – this rare and beautiful bear effigy bottle.



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            “More Notes on Symbolism”, SOUTHERN INDIAN STUDIES, Vol. XXII,

            October 1970

Domico, Terry                                                                        1988

            BEARS OF THE WORLD

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Griffin, James B., Editor                                             1952


Hathcock, Roy                                                                        1976


Hathcock, Roy                                                                        1983


Morse, Dan F. & Phyllis A. Morse                           1983


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Qui Zhanxioang           `                                               2003

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Townsend, Robert F.                                                  2004