Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

Today is the summer solstice, on which I typically make posts about archaeoastronomy, so I’m going to take a break from my very gradual series of posts on tracing the connections between ancient and modern Pueblos to speculate a bit about the role of astronomy at Chaco. Briefly, what I’m proposing is that the rise of Chaco as a regional center could have been due to it being the first place in the Southwest to develop detailed, precise knowledge of the movements of heavenly bodies (especially the sun and moon), which allowed Chacoan religious leaders to develop an elaborate ceremonial calendar with rituals that proved attractive enough to other groups in the region to give the canyon immense religious prestige. This would have drawn many people from the surrounding area to Chaco, either on short-term pilgrimages or permanently, which in turn would have given Chacoan political elites (who may or may not have been the same people as the religious leaders) the economic base to project political and/or military power throughout a large area, and cultural influence even further.

I don’t have any specific research papers to discuss on this topic because as far as I know no one has really looked at it quite this way. It’s similar in some respects to the theories of the Solstice Project, although I don’t buy that astronomical alignments were quite as important in the Chacoan system as they propose. There is also some overlap with the theories of various archaeologists, but none of them have put the pieces together in quite this way. This may be because it’s demonstrably wrong, but if it is I haven’t seen the evidence that disproves it yet (but would be very interesting in doing so).

This theory first occurred to me when I was reading about Tiwanaku in Bolivia, which was a prehistoric society that, like Chaco, left very impressive physical remains in a very isolated location with few obvious economic advantages. As I noted in my post on Tiwanaku, the similarities actually go well beyond that, extending also to the shifting interpretations by archaeologists and the evidence for astronomical alignments. Most relevant in this context is the theory of John Janusek at Vanderbilt, whose theory of Tiwanaku is the model for the theory I’m suggesting here for Chaco. As he wrote in one paper, which I also quoted in the earlier post:

Tiwanaku’s long rise to power in the Andean altiplano was predicated on the integration of diverse local ritual cults and various symbolic dimensions of the natural environment into a reasonably coherent, supremely elegant and powerfully predictive religion. The shifting physicality of Tiwanaku’s religious monuments attests the construction and ongoing transformation of an urban landscape that not only visually expressed the altiplano’s ‘natural’ forces and cycles, but, via recurring construction and ritual, simultaneously shaped new social practices and Tiwanaku’s ever-increasing political influence and productive coordination, intensification and expansion. Tiwanaku was an imperfect and potentially volatile integration of religious cults, productive enterprises and societies. The material objectification of a seductive religious ideology that infused the monumental centre with numinous natural forces and simultaneously projected those forces across distant Andean realms helped drive Tiwanaku’s very worldly imperial mission.

Tiwanaku was apparently the first society in the altiplano to develop the level of astronomical skill which allowed it to develop such a “powerfully predictive” religion, and my application of a similar theory to Chaco relies on it also being the first place that developed a comparable knowledge of astronomy in the Southwest. I hadn’t really thought about this before reading Janusek’s work, but as far as I can tell it does in fact seem to be the case. Ray Williamson’s somewhat dated but still very useful book on Native North American astronomy (which I reviewed here) doesn’t mention any evidence of Southwestern astronomical knowledge predating Chaco, and I haven’t seen any other publications that do either. Granted, some of the evidence for astronomical evidence comes from rock art which is difficult or impossible to date, but at least when it comes to building alignments, which are more securely datable, the Chacoan great houses seem to be the earliest manifestation of detailed astronomical knowledge. Some earlier sites do show general alignments to cardinal directions and so forth, but the precise alignments to solstices and lunar standstills that are characteristic of Chacoan buildings do really seem to be innovative. I’m not totally certain that there aren’t counterexamples out there, though, so if anyone knows of any I’m very interested in hearing about them.

If this is in fact the case, it opens up several additional lines of inquiry. First, if Chaco was in fact the first place in the (northern?) Southwest to attain detailed astronomical knowledge, where did that knowledge come from? Many discussions of Chacoan astronomy have assumed, implicitly or explicitly, that the answer is “Mexico,” but I’m not so sure. There is definitely extensive evidence of contact with Mesoamerica at Chaco, but it’s all fairly indirect and there are lots of important aspects of Mesoamerican culture that are noticeably lacking. Mesoamerican astronomical knowledge was certainly impressive, and certainly predates the rise of Chaco, but given the general context I think it’s still an open question whether the Chacoans got their knowledge from contacts to the south (either directly or via the Hohokam and/or Mogollon) or developed it independently. This is an area that would definitely benefit from further study.

Secondly, why Chaco rather than somewhere else in the region? This is sort of the key question hanging over everything about Chaco, and so far no one has come up with a broadly convincing answer. I don’t have one either; the astronomy theory I’m proposing here answers the “how” of Chaco but not the “why.” It could be that, as some archaeologists have proposed, the physical setting of the canyon had unique attributes within the region that contributed to its ritual importance from an early period, which from my perspective would have provided the impetus for the development and/or integration of new astronomical knowledge into existing belief systems. Alternatively, as other archaeologists have argued, there could have been economic advantages to the location, which are not obvious to modern eyes but were sufficient to give Chaco an important role in the region, which may have made it a promising place for new ideas to develop or be introduced. And finally, maybe it’s all just a matter of historical contingency: this was where people happened to figure this stuff out, and that’s what made it attractive to others for both religious and economic reasons.

Another question is when this would have happened. Chaco was occupied for hundreds of years, but its florescence as a regional center was relatively brief, lasting roughly a century from AD 1030 to 1130 or so. One natural conclusion would be that the development of new astronomical knowledge happened at the start of this period, but I suspect it actually began earlier, probably during the period (roughly the late ninth and tenth centuries, or the late Pueblo I period) when Chaco was just one of several “proto-great-house” communities in the San Juan Basin that were more or less equal in size and influence. Over time, the advantages of the Chacoan rituals over the others would have become apparent, perhaps through fortuitous stretches of good weather and/or military successes by Chacoan warriors. This would have set the stage for Chacoan influence to expand on a vast scale during the eleventh century.

As the reference to military success in the previous paragraph suggests, I don’t see the expansion of Chacoan religious influence fueled by astronomical knowledge as having necessarily been entirely peaceful. Here again, the parallel to Tiwanaku is instructive. Note Janusek’s reference to Tiwanaku’s “very worldly imperial mission” in the quote above. I suspect what we would today see as “religious” and “secular” impulses were much more intertwined at Chaco, as indeed they have been shown to be in many societies.

All that said, I’m not totally convinced by this theory myself, and there are many strands of the Chacoan record that it doesn’t really seem to account for in an obvious way. I figured this was a good opportunity to toss it out there, though, to see whether it’s worth pursuing further.
Janusek, J. (2006). The changing ‘nature’ of Tiwanaku religion and the rise of an Andean state World Archaeology, 38 (3), 469-492 DOI: 10.1080/00438240600813541

Original Plaster and Whitewash at Chetro Ketl

Original Plaster and Whitewash at Chetro Ketl

Given the obvious continuity in material culture between ancient and modern Pueblos, one potential source of information on the connections between prehistory and history in the region is the traditions of the modern Pueblos themselves. The florescence of Chaco was about 1000 years ago, so the events since then that led to the modern distribution of Pueblos are more recent than that, and potentially within the time depth for which the accuracy of oral traditions has been demonstrated in other parts of the world. Furthermore, the Pueblos do indeed have extensive oral traditions documenting how the various groups now residing in a given Pueblo got there, where they lived before, and what made them move. This seems on the face of it like an ideal situations, and indeed anthropologists at various points in the past hundred years or so have tried to match up the events in the oral traditions with what the archaeology shows. The efforts of Jesse Walter Fewkes with the Hopis in the early twentieth century, Florence Hawley Ellis with the Rio Grande Pueblos in the 1950s and 1960s, and various archaeologists associated with the Center for Desert Archaeology (now known as Archaeology Southwest) in the past few years with the western Pueblos are particularly noteworthy along these lines.

However, there are some big challenges to this type of work. First, it’s not clear how accurate the oral traditions are, and many anthropologists have distrusted them. Elsie Clews Parsons in the 1920s and 1930s pushed back strongly against the approach taken by Fewkes and others, pointing out that the traditions include many obviously mythical or legendary elements that must be brushed aside to treat them as “history” in the Western sense. Similarly, the rise of the “New Archaeology” in the 1960s and 1970s led to a tendency to downplay this kind of research on the archaeological side in favor of more “scientific” types of research focused on ecological factors. Lately the pendulum seems to be swinging back again, and many archaeologists as well as sociocultural anthropologists have begun to take oral traditions seriously as a source of information that can bridge the gap between prehistoric archaeology and the ethnographic present. Personally, I think these researchers are on the right track; the difficulties pointed out by Parsons and others are real, and the traditions can’t be accepted uncritically as fact, but they do very likely contain much information that is useful for historical reconstructions when interpreted carefully in context.

Pueblo Display at Chaco Visitor Center

Pueblo Display at Chaco Visitor Center

That more general issue aside, there are a lot of specific characteristics of the existing narratives that make them hard to work with, especially in the case of Chaco. For one thing, there aren’t that many of them that have been documented, and those that have overwhelmingly come from the western Pueblos of Hopi and, to a lesser extent, Zuni. The eastern Pueblos, which on geographical and other grounds are the ones most likely to have close ties to Chaco, have produced far fewer narratives, and those that are available are much less detailed and relevant. There are two main reasons for this, both stemming from the much more intense experience of Spanish colonization in these areas versus Hopi and Zuni:

  1. The Rio Grande Pueblos, especially, have been in such close contact with Spanish colonists that many traditions have been lost due to population loss and cultural change, and those that have been preserved have been influenced to some extent by European folklore elements. This is probably less of a concern with origin and migration stories than with more “informal” folktales.
  2. Due to the extreme repression of Native religion and culture by the Spanish missionaries, the eastern Pueblos are much more reluctant to share whatever traditions they have with white anthropologists than the western Pueblos are. This is probably the biggest reason for the lack of eastern Pueblo data, but its scale is impossible to estimate because we just don’t know how many traditions there are that have never been shared.

As a result of these two factors, we don’t have anything comparable to the extensive and detailed accounts of Hopi clan migrations that have been collected by numerous researchers, starting with Fewkes. There are a fair number of general creation stories from the eastern Pueblos, including those collected from the Tewa by Parsons and from Keresan Pueblos of Acoma and San Felipe by C. Daryll Forde and Ruth Bunzel respectively. These tend to be somewhat abbreviated, and sometimes also confusing in a way that suggests important parts have been omitted. Migration stories are much rarer, but a few have been recorded at least in a general fashion. George Pradt gave a brief overview of a western Keres migration tradition in introducing a story about Acoma:

THE oldest tradition of the people of Acoma and Laguna indicates that they lived on some island; that their homes were destroyed by tidal waves, earthquakes, and red-hot stones from the sky. They fled and landed on a low, swampy coast. From here they migrated to the northwest, and wherever they made a long stay they built a “White City” (Kush-kut-ret).

The fifth White City was built somewhere in southern Colorado or northern New Mexico. The people were obliged to leave it on account of cold, drought, and famine.

Now this is of obvious interest in discussing Chaco and Mesa Verde connections to modern Pueblos! The first part is of unclear relevance and likely has little or no historical content, but the part about moving around and building a series of communities, the last of which was in “southern Colorado or northern New Mexico” (i.e., north of Acoma and Laguna and in the general area of Chaco, Mesa Verde, and other important late prehistoric Pueblo sites), matches up pretty well with what is now known of the archaeological record. Furthermore, the “White City” or “White House” concept recurs in other Keres-speaking Pueblos as well. Here’s the San Felipe version recorded by Bunzel, starting just after the Emergence:

Then the people came out and walked towards the southwest. There they built a little town, Kackatrik (White House). This was their first village. Then from there came every nation. All the different kinds of Indians had their language and their songs and their ceremonies. There were many people there. Then the people were starving. There was no food to eat at this time. Then they had a meeting to talk about it. “Why are we starving?” all the head men said, “We have stayed here a long time. We should move on to some other place.” So then they started to move again. There were all different kinds of people, and they had all different kinds of languages. So then from there they scattered. Some went to the east and some went to the west, and some came through the middle.

Again, this is pretty consistent with the archaeology of Chaco, and to some extent of Mesa Verde as well. The “White House” story seems to be specific to the Keres, which implies a particularly strong connection between that groups and the ancient sites of the Four Corners, as many anthropologists have concluded. That’s not to say they were the only ones up there, however. There’s also evidence among some of the other groups’ traditions indicating an origin in this area.

White House/Black Market, Santa Fe, New Mexico

White House/Black Market, Santa Fe, New Mexico

For the Tewa, Scott Ortman has done extensive research using several lines of evidence, including what little is known of Tewa migration traditions, to conclude that Tewa-speakers migrated to the Rio Grande Valley from the Mesa Verde region. He has a new book, which I have not yet read, making this argument in detail. He could well be right, in which case there may have been both Keres- and Tewa-speakers in the Mesa Verde region, and perhaps at Chaco as well given the close but complicated ties between the two areas. This would be similar to the modern situation in the central part of the Rio Grande Valley, which is also divided between Keres- and Tewa-speaking Pueblos.There are also clear ties between Chaco and the Zuni area, which has an unusual degree of settlement continuity extending to modern times compared to other Pueblo areas, which may imply that Zuni-speakers were involved in Chaco as well. Ties to the Hopis are more tenuous despite the larger corpus of Hopi traditions, which tends to trace most Hopi clans to the south or west rather than the east (with the exception of clans from other Pueblo regions that moved to Hopi and became assimilated to Hopi culture fairly recently).

So, tentatively, the limited information available from oral traditions suggests particularly strong ties to the Four Corners among the Keres, which makes sense since they are still the closest Pueblos to the area geographically. There is some evidence for connections to the area among the Tewa and Zuni as well. Little is known about Tiwa or Towa (Jemez) traditions, but it is noteworthy that Jemez is the only Pueblo that has not claimed cultural affiliation with Chaco under NAGPRA, which implies strongly that Jemez traditions point to a different history. The Hopi connection seems to be more distant, and primarily through groups that were not originally Hopi-speaking but immigrated to Hopi from other areas further east in recent centuries and became assimilated over time.

I think there’s a lot of potential for further research along these lines, mostly using the scattered and fragmented eastern Pueblo traditions collected decades ago. Individually each of these may not be very enlightening, but piecing them together may reveal some useful connections. It’s very unlikely that any of these groups will reveal any more of their traditions to outsiders; many are still angry at the early anthropologists who recorded and published traditions revealed surreptitiously by individual community members at considerable personal risk. Parsons comes in for particularly harsh criticism for publishing the names of her informants in some of her early work. It’s possible that in the future the relationship between anthropologists and the eastern Pueblos will improve to the point where the Pueblos are more comfortable revealing information, but we’ve got a long way to go.
Pradt, G. (1902). Shakok and Miochin: Origin of Summer and Winter The Journal of American Folklore, 15 (57) DOI: 10.2307/533476

Kachina Fast Tax, Winslow, Arizona

Kachina Fast Tax, Winslow, Arizona

As I mentioned in the last post, I don’t think the linguistic relationships among the modern Pueblo languages shed much light on the details of the relationships between ancient and modern Pueblo groups. However, that’s not to say that linguistics is totally useless in addressing this issue. There’s another type of linguistic evidence which has received less attention from researchers but has a lot of potential here: contact linguistics, especially loanword studies.

Due to the close historical connections and cultural similarities among the Pueblos, they form what linguists call a “Sprachbund”: a linguistic area where borrowing of both words and other linguistic features is common among unrelated (or distantly related) languages. Oddly, however, there hasn’t been a whole lot of study of this phenomenon among the Pueblos. Individual loanwords from one Pueblo language to another have been pointed out in descriptive accounts of the specific languages, and instances of unusual lexical or grammatical influence from one Pueblo language to another have been noted. There has been some research on loanwords from Spanish and English into various Pueblo languages (e.g., Hopi), mostly in the 1950s and 1960s when the process of acculturation was a major topic of anthropological interest. Nevertheless, there has still never been a systematic, comprehensive study of linguistic contact between Pueblo languages. My discussion here will therefore have to be limited to pointing out individual instances of contact that have been noted in the literature and suggesting possible implications for prehistoric relationships.

Known examples of loanwords tend to relate to ceremonial  concepts, and often are from Keres into other languages. For example, and of interest for the question of the origins of the kachina cult, the word kachina itself is apparently a loan from Keres into Hopi. That’s not necessarily evidence that the Keres originated the kachina cult, but it could be interpreted as evidence that they transmitted it to the Hopi, which would argue for an eastern rather than western origin for the cult. On the other hand, the Zuni word for “kachina,” koko, is apparently a loanword from a Piman language, which would seem to argue for a western origin of the cult, possibly even outside the Pueblo world itself. Teasing apart the implications of the various terms associated with the kachina cult in different languages would be a promising way to try to address the issue of origins, but it would be a huge and difficult task, and as far as I know no one has attempted it yet.

Similarly, I’ve previously mentioned Jane Hill’s argument from alleged Uto-Aztecan loanwords in Proto-Kiowa Tanoan that agriculture was introduced to the Southwest by migrants from the south speaking a Uto-Aztecan language. In that case the evidence for borrowing is more tenuous and less widely accepted than in the kachina case, but it’s still an interesting approach that could be fruitful if applied more broadly to both this and other puzzles of Southwestern prehistory.

It’s not clear if either of these examples sheds much light on Chaco or its relationship to the modern Pueblos, however. The introduction of agriculture, however it happened, was thousands of years before the era of the Chaco Phenomenon (although recent evidence has shown that agriculture at Chaco itself began much earlier than previously thought). The kachina cult, on the other hand, is generally thought to have originated in the post-Chacoan era, perhaps as one of many societal responses to the chaotic conditions in the aftermath of the decline of Chaco. There are some archaeologists who see some form of the kachina cult as having existed at Chaco, in which case the linguistic evidence about kachinas would be more important for understanding it, but I haven’t been convinced by their arguments.

So what can loanword and other linguistic contact evidence tell us about the relationship between Chaco and other prehistoric sites and the modern Pueblos? Given the limited research along these lines so far, not much. As I said above, though, there is still a lot of potential for studies of this issue, so I wanted to highlight it as a separate line of evidence from the more commonly used evidence from linguistic relationships.
Dockstader, F. (1955). Spanish Loanwords in Hopi; A Preliminary Checklist International Journal of American Linguistics, 21 (2) DOI: 10.1086/464324

Hill, J. (2008). Northern Uto‐Aztecan and Kiowa‐Tanoan: Evidence of Contact between the Proto‐Languages? International Journal of American Linguistics, 74 (2), 155-188 DOI: 10.1086/587703

Shaul, D., & Hill, J. (1998). Tepimans, Yumans, and Other Hohokam American Antiquity, 63 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2694626

Sandia Mountains from Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Sandia Mountains from Kuaua Pueblo, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Given the diversity of languages spoken by the modern Pueblos, and the diverse archaeological “cultures” of Pueblo prehistory (as described in the previous post), one obvious line of inquiry in making connections between past and present focuses on language. Specifically, the fact that some Pueblo languages are part of larger families and others are not seems to open the possibility of some Pueblo groups being relative newcomers to the Pueblo lifestyle, which leaves others as more likely to be the direct descendants of the prehistoric groups who inhabited sites like Chaco and Mesa Verde.

There have been several attempts to reconstruct Pueblo culture history along these lines, but I’m not going to discuss them in detail because I think the whole approach is unlikely to work. A closer look at the specifics of the relationships involved shows why.

There are two Pueblo language groups whose languages are part of larger families: Hopi and Tanoan. The Hopi language belongs to the very large Uto-Aztecan family, stretching from the Great Basin south into Mexico and beyond. The Tanoan family is part of the Kiowa-Tanoan family, along with the single language Kiowa, spoken on the Great Plains. The other two Pueblo languages, Keres and Zuni, are isolates not known to be related to any other language (including each other).

Starting with Hopi, at first glance this seems like a good candidate for a language spoken by a mobile hunter-gatherer group, like the modern Numic speakers of the Great Basin, who only settled down to a sedentary agricultural lifestyle relatively recently. However, it’s important to note that Hopi forms its own branch of the Uto-Aztecan family (or possibly of the Northern Uto-Aztecan subfamily, the existence of which is a matter of dispute). It is no more closely related to Numic than it is to, say, the Piman languages spoken by the O’odham agriculturalists of southern Arizona. Depending on how the overall Uto-Aztecan family is reconstructed, it may even be equally close to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It’s not possible to assign specific dates to divisions of language families, but on a qualitative level, Hopi is sufficiently divergent from the rest of its family that it is very unlikely that its speakers entered the Pueblo culture area in the past few centuries. Archaeologically, there is abundant evidence that modern Hopi society emerged from the amalgamation of many different groups from different parts of the Southwest who migrated to the Hopi mesas in the post-Chacoan period, and the same impression is given by Hopi oral history. Which of these groups spoke the language ancestral to modern Hopi is impossible to determine from archaeological evidence, of course, but it’s reasonable to think at least one of them did, and had been speaking it while practicing a basically Pueblo lifestyle for many centuries before that.

Turning to Tanoan, the archaeology is a lot murkier but the general point still stands. The relationship to Kiowa suggests the possibility that the Tanoan-speakers only entered the Southwest fairly recently, presumably from the Plains. In a small language like this is it is even harder to quantify divergence than it is in large language like Uto-Aztecan, but again, the Tanoan languages are quite different from Kiowa. They are so different, in fact, that it wasn’t until the 1950s that the relationship between the two was established to the general satisfaction of historical linguists. The oral history of these groups is also murky, but what is known of Tanoan traditions doesn’t seem to point to origins outside the Southwest, and Kiowa traditions also don’t seem to record any knowledge of a relationship to any of the Pueblos. Who moved where when is hard to determine in this case, but nothing about the linguistic evidence points to a particularly recent adoption of Pueblo culture by Tanoan speakers. The eastern Pueblos, including the Tanoans, do show a lot of evidence of Plains cultural traits, but this is most likely a result of close contact with the Plains during the late prehistoric and early historic period, for which there is plenty of evidence.

That leaves Keres and Zuni, about which nothing can be said about external relationships. It is likely that both groups have been culturally Pueblo for a very long time, but there is no way to tell based on the linguistic evidence whether they have been so for longer than their neighbors to the east (Tanoan) and west (Hopi).

So basically, I think linguistic relationship is a dead end in determining historical connections between ancient sites and modern Pueblos. That’s not to say that linguistics is entirely useless, however. There are other, more subtle aspects of the linguistic relationships among Pueblo groups that may well have historical value. That’s a topic for another post, however.

Hopi Buttes from Homol'ovi Ruins State Park

Hopi Buttes from Homol’ovi Ruins State Park

The Lay of the Land

Northwest Corner of Pueblo del Arroyo

Northwest Corner of Pueblo del Arroyo

As a first step in evaluating the connections between prehistoric and modern Pueblo societies, it’s necessary to define exactly which societies we’re talking about here. This post is a brief overview of the prehistoric cultures and modern ethnolinguistic groups in question. As noted below, these are not necessarily equivalent units, and failing to recognize this has been a frequent problem with previous reconstructions of Southwestern culture history.

On the ancient side, we are primarily dealing here with  a handful of “branches” within the overall Anasazi “root.” (See my previous post on lesser-known prehistoric Southwestern societies for more on the “root and branch” system that has traditionally been used to organize Southwestern prehistory.) These branches inhabited various parts of the drainage of the San Juan River prior to AD 1300; how far back they go before that is unclear. These are the traditional branches:

  • Chaco Branch: The primary center of this branch is of course Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico, but it extended over the entirety of the southern San Juan Basin and further south into the drainage of the Rio Puerco of the West. There are various distinctive characteristics of this branch prior to about AD 1200, when it seems to converge with the Mesa Verde branch before disappearing entirely.
  • Mesa Verde Branch: While Mesa Verde proper is historically the area of main research focus for this branch, recent research has shown that it was much more widespread, extending thoughout much of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The exact nature of its relationship with the Chaco branch is still unclear, but there has been increasing evidence for cultural similarity and historical connections between the two. There is a clear pattern of alternating population concentration implying migration between north and south on a scale of centuries prior to the depopulation of the entire area before AD 1300.
  • Kayenta Branch: Located in northeastern Arizona, this branch shows some clear cultural differences from Chaco and Mesa Verde, but certain sites do show evidence of influence from Mesa Verde especially during the Tsegi Phase from AD 1250 to 1300. The cliff dwellings of Navajo National Monument and Canyon de Chelly are probably the best known Kayenta sites.

On the modern side, there are 19 Pueblos in New Mexico, plus several on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona and a few communities of Pueblo ancestry in the vicinity of El Paso, Texas. They belong to six known linguistic groups, listed below.

  • Hopi: This language belongs to the Uto-Aztecan family, one of the more widespread and well-documented families of North and Central America. As the name implies, the family includes both the Great Basin hunter-gatherers of the Numic subfamily (Ute, Paiute, and Shoshone) and the complex agricultural Aztecs of the Basin of Mexico, as well as many groups in between. As a result, this family is among the best examples in the world of a lack of correlation between language family and economic orientation. The Hopis fall in between the extremes of the Numa and the Aztecs, and their language forms its own branch of Uto-Aztecan sufficiently different from the others to make it very difficult to draw any culture-historical conclusions. The three Hopi mesas (unimaginatively named “First,” “Second,” and “Third” in English) have distinctive dialects that further complicate the situation.
  • Zuni: Today this is just a single pueblo, speaking a language generally considered an isolate unrelated to any other. Prior to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 there were several Zuni pueblos, however. In addition to language, there are several other aspects of Zuni culture that tend to distinguish it from the other pueblos, although there are also enough similarities to Hopi to distinguish the two as “western” pueblos in contrast to those further east.
  • Keres: This is another language isolate, but spoken by several historically autonomous pueblos that still retain separate identities and speak slightly different dialects of a single mutually intelligible language. The Keres pueblos form a “bridge” in some respects between the western and eastern pueblos. Acoma and Laguna tend to pattern more with Hopi and Zuni, while Zia, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Cochiti, and Santo Domingo are located further east and tend to have more similarities to the Rio Grande Pueblos.
  • Tanoan: This (sub)family is located entirely in the Rio Grande Valley and is divided into three languages/subfamilies, which are in turn related to a fourth language, Kiowa, spoken on the Great Plains. The Tanoan subfamilies are:
    • Tiwa: This subfamily is in turn divided into Northern and Southern divisions, which occupy the extreme north and south portions of the modern Pueblo domain. Northern Tiwa is spoken in Taos and Picuris, while Southern Tiwa is spoken at Sandia and Isleta in the vicinity of modern Albuquerque. Tiwa was also spoken historically at Ysleta del Sur near El Paso, Texas, which was founded by Southern Tiwas displaced during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. There is some evidence that the Piro pueblos south of the Southern Tiwa also spoke a language closely related to Tiwa, although this language is poorly documented and is now extinct.
    • Tewa: This subfamily occupies the portions of the northern Rio Grande valley near modern Santa Fe, in the pueblos of San Juan, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Nambe, Tesuque, Pojoaque. A closely related dialect was also spoken further south in the Galisteo Basin until approximately 1700, when the remaining residents of that area moved to the Hopi area of Arizona and founded the pueblo on First Mesa known as Hano (or Tewa), which continues to speak a dialect of the Tewa language to this day.
    • Towa: Today this language is spoken only at Jemez Pueblo on the western edge of the Rio Grande region, but until the 1830s it was also spoken at Pecos on the eastern edge. When the pueblo of Pecos was abandoned its remaining inhabitants moved to Jemez, where their descendants still form a distinctive segment of the population.

So that’s the present situation. The picture is complicated, and it’s hard to figure out what the historical events that resulted in this arrangement would have been. The fact that Tiwa occupies both the northern and southern ends of the Rio Grande culture area, while Towa occupies the eastern and western peripheries and Keres occupies both a core part of the center of the region and an area further west that is more similar culturally to Hopi and Zuni, makes it difficult to fit the known facts into a simple scheme of migration or cultural diffusion. Clearly the story must be more complicated, and digging into those complexities will be the purpose of the following posts in this series.

Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Tracing the Connections

Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

It’s quite clear that, in a general sense, the modern Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona are the cultural descendants of the ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) groups of Chaco Canyon and other parts of the northern Southwest no longer occupied by people of Puebloan culture. Indeed, as the previous post explains, the descendants of the Chacoans are much easier to identify than those of pretty much any other prehistoric society in the Southwest. Nevertheless, the modern Pueblos are quite diverse in many ways. While they all have similar material culture, which is what most clearly shows their relationship to prehistoric sites like Chaco, the Pueblos speak six different languages belonging to four completely unrelated language families, and the linguistic divisions correspond generally (but not perfectly) to differences in other aspects of culture, such as kinship systems, sociopolitical structures, and religious practices.

With so much diversity, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that some modern Pueblo groups have closer connections to particular ancient sites than others. Demonstrating any specific connections has been frustratingly difficult for scholars so far, however. The immense upheavals of the Spanish colonial period led to significant changes in many Pueblos that make it difficult to trace their histories back into the prehistoric period, and archaeology has demonstrated considerable evidence for prehistoric upheavals that similarly obscure continuities of culture and population. Adding to the difficulty are the facts that the Pueblos have long had very similar material culture to each other, which makes it difficult to tell different ethnolinguistic groups apart archaeologically, and that the extensive migrations of the late prehistoric period seem to have involved rapid change in material culture as well, obscure whatever small differences had existed among different Pueblo groups.

On account of these difficulties, for a long time Southwestern archaeologists and anthropologists were often reluctant to try to reconstruct culture history in enough detail to connect specific ancient sites with specific modern Pueblos. In recent years this reluctance has decreased, however, and there is now a fair amount of interest in these questions, spurred in part by the requirements under NAGPRA for demonstrating cultural affiliation of modern groups in ancient sites. It’s interesting to compare this trend to the last period of considerable interest in this topic, which was similarly spurred by the effort in the 1950s to settle Indian land claims. In any case, archaeologists today have proposed various models of Southwestern prehistory to account for the distribution of modern Pueblo peoples.

With this context, and inspired in part by some interesting questions asked by commenter J. R. Barnett, I’ve decided to do a series of posts addressing this issue and the types of evidence available to address it. I’ll be focusing heavily on linguistic evidence, which is of particular interest to me personally as well as being of considerable importance in defining cultural differences among the Pueblos. I will, however, also discuss the evidence from archaeology, physical anthropology (including DNA studies), sociocultural anthropology, and oral traditions. In doing some reading on these topics recently, it’s been apparent that there really is quite a lot of relevant evidence out there. While we will surely never be able to recover every detail of the story, it’s worth taking a serious look at the available evidence to see what we can find out.

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Montezuma Castle, a Sinagua Village

Montezuma Castle, a Sinagua Village

As I’ve mentioned before in reference to the Fremont culture of what is now Utah, while the Anasazi of the Four Corners region are by far the most famous of the prehistoric southwestern societies, and particularly famous for their allegedly mysterious disappearance, there’s actually very little mystery about what happened to them. They very obviously became the modern Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona. It has not been possible so far to trace connections between any specific prehistoric site and any specific modern pueblo (beyond obvious cases like the Zuni and Hopi pueblos that were abandoned in very late prehistory or very early historic times when the inhabitants moved to nearby communities that are still extant today). However, the general connections between the Anasazi and the modern Pueblos in material culture are quite clear and no one disputes them.

When it comes to the other prehistoric cultures, however, the situation is much less clear. While a few seem to have clear modern descendants, most show few if any obvious similarities to the modern indigenous cultures inhabiting their areas, and the extent of any continuity is controversial at best. A recent comment on my Fremont post mentioning the Gallina culture of north-central New Mexico reminded me of this. I may expand on some of these cultures in future posts, but for now I just want to list them so that people who are not familiar with the diversity of southwestern culture history get a sense for the range of cultures known from the archaeological record and the very limited extent to which it is correlated with the equally extensive ethnographic record of this region.

Before I get to the list, though, I should give a brief introduction to the “root-and-branch” system of southwestern archaeological taxonomy, which is necessary to understand what these archaeological units are and are not. This system was originally developed by Harold Gladwin, a New York stockbroker who moved to Globe, Arizona in the 1920s and established a nonprofit archaeological research institute known as Gila Pueblo that was immensely influential in the development of southwestern archaeology in the 1930s and 1940s. Gladwin’s conception of southwestern culture history was based on an analogy to trees, with “roots” as the basic units, which in turn were divided hierarchically into “stems” and “branches.” The data on which these units were based was mainly ceramic, as pottery is the most useful artifact class for distinguishing among the various cultural manifestations of the prehistoric Southwest. The “branches” were considered roughly equivalent to the “tribes” of the ethnographic record, but given the historical focus of archaeology at this time they were further divided into chronological “phases.” Gladwin’s scheme was revised by Harold Colton of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, who renamed some of the roots to avoid Gladwin’s association of them with specific modern linguistic groups, given the uncertainty involved in this kind of identification. Colton also generally downplayed Gladwin’s intermediate “stems” in favor of a simpler system of “roots” and “branches” (which he still analogized to modern tribes). The system that emerged from this interplay of Gladwin’s and Colton’s ideas has remained in use ever since as the main taxonomic scheme for southwestern archaeology.

Within this system, “Anasazi” refers to one of the roots, with “Chaco,” “Mesa Verde,” Kayenta,” etc. as branches. Note that I have avoided using the term “Ancestral Puebloan” in place of “Anasazi” in this post so far; there’s a reason for that. While the term “Anasazi” has been criticized based on its Navajo etymology, it refers to a very specific unit in a taxonomic system, and “Ancestral Puebloan” is a problematic replacement because most or all of the other units in that system are also likely ancestral to the modern Pueblos. For want of a better term, then, I’m sticking with “Anasazi” for this purpose.

With that prologue out of the way, below are the roots and branches currently recognized by most archaeologists that don’t have obvious modern descendants. Note that while the Chaco, Mesa Verde, Kayenta, and Rio Grande branches of the Anasazi root are not listed here since they are clearly ancestral to the modern Pueblos, some other Anasazi branches are included since it is much less obvious what happened to them. They may have ended up as part of one or more modern Pueblo groups, but it is also possible that they changed their culture so much as to become unrecognizable archaeologically, or died out altogether. The branches belonging to other roots may have contributed to the formation of the modern Pueblos as well, or they may have developed into other cultures or disappeared entirely as well.

  • Anasazi Root:
    • Gallina Branch: Inhabited north-central New Mexico until about AD 1300. Late Gallina sites exhibit extensive evidence of violent death, implying conflict with other groups, perhaps those entering the area from the north and west around this time. While the Gallina are generally considered a branch of the Anasazi, their material culture shows many similarities to Plains groups to the east and their actual ethnic and linguistic affiliation remain unclear.
    • Virgin Branch: Inhabited the Virgin River valley and adjacent areas of southern Nevada, southwestern Utah and northwestern Arizona from Basketmaker times until approximately AD 1150 (or possibly a bit later). They seem to have been part of the overall Anasazi culture area from early on, but the Virgin region was abandoned significantly earlier than other Anasazi areas further east, and it is unclear what this means.
  • Fremont Root: Inhabited most of modern Utah for centuries until fading away in the late prehistoric period. The relationship of the Fremont to modern Pueblo and Numic populations remains unclear, and it is also unclear just how coherent a cultural unit “Fremont” ever was.
  • Hohokam Root: Inhabited southern and central Arizona (below the Mogollon Rim) for millennia from the initial development of agriculture until the fifteenth century AD. Famous for their elaborate canal systems and distinctive pottery, as well as their apparently Mesoamerican-influenced ballcourts, the Hohokam remain one of the most mysterious of prehistoric southwestern cultures despite also being one of the best-studied. They may have been ancestral to the modern O’odham (Pima and Papago) peoples who inhabited the same area in historic times, but this is hotly disputed as there are many differences in material culture. There have also been suggestions that some Hohokam may have been ancestral to modern Pueblo groups (especially the western Pueblos of Hopi and Zuni) and Yuman-speaking groups west of the Hohokam heartland.
  • Mogollon Root:
    • Jornada Branch: Occupied south-central New Mexico until about AD 1400. Possibly descended in part from the Mimbres to the west and possibly ancestral to some of the Rio Grande Pueblos further north, the Jornada are among the less studied southwestern groups. Based on rock art, they have been proposed as the originators of the kachina cult that later became widespread among the Pueblos.
    • Mimbres Branch: One of the most talked-about, but not one of the most-studied, groups of the prehistoric Southwest, the Mimbres are known mainly for their unique pottery featuring naturalistic decoration. This area showed a long developmental sequence under apparent Hohokam influence followed by a brief period of possible (but disputed) Anasazi influence including aggregation into large, nucleated villages, followed by regional abandonment in the twelfth century AD.
    • Mountain Branches: There are several branches of the Mogollon proposed to have existed in the mountains of western New Mexico and eastern Arizona until around AD 1400 when this whole region was abandoned. There are many continuities between these settlements (which often took the form of large aggregated pueblos) and modern Hopi and Zuni, but the connection is not totally unambiguous.
  • Patayan Root: By far the least studied of any of the southwestern roots, the Patayan occupied the harsh deserts of western Arizona and are generally considered to be ancestral to the modern Yuman-speaking tribes of that area. (Gladwin even called the root “Yuman,”  which Colton changed to “Patayan” to avoid relating it quite so obviously to a modern ethnolinguistic group.) Despite the fairly straightforward relationship of at least some Patayan branches to modern Yuman groups, the root as a whole remains poorly understood, and the northern branches in northwestern Arizona (especially the Cohonina and Prescott branches) have seen very little research and their attachment to the root at all has been challenged by some archaeologists.
  • Sinagua Root: This group, occupying the area around modern Flagstaff, Arizona, shows clear evidence of influence from both the Kayenta Anasazi to the east and the Hohokam to the south (and possibly the Cohonina to the west as well). It is not at all clear that they form their own root, but if they don’t it’s equally unclear which root they belong to. This may be more a flaw of the classification system than a real mystery about the people. Whether they belong on my list is dubious as well, as they are probably ancestral to certain Hopi “clans.” Still, enough doubt remains about their origins and fate that I thought it was worth mentioning them.

There are other groups as mysterious as these, including some whose very existence as cultural units is controversial (most notably the Salado of southeastern Arizona and adjacent areas). This list should give a general sense, however, of how much diversity there was in the prehistoric southwest and how little we know about the relationships among the various groups and their relationships to modern tribes. In this context, the Anasazi of the Four Corners don’t look particularly mysterious, and I suspect the unusual attention paid to them stems mostly from the picturesque nature of the remains they left behind, which certainly does distinguish them from most (though not all) of the other groups, which left less impressive architecture behind.
Colton, HS (1938). Names of the Four Culture Roots in the Southwest Science, 87 (2268), 551-552 DOI: 10.1126/science.87.2268.551


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