Southwestern archaeology is distinctive among regional archaeological traditions, at least in the United States, in that the cultural tradition it addresses is still very much a living part of the area. The modern Pueblos are an inescapable feature of both the physical and cultural landscape of the Southwest, and comparisons to them are both inevitable and potentially quite fruitful for archaeologists looking at ancient sites that clearly belong to the same culture. There have been occasional fads of considering the ancient people of the Southwest “lost” or “mysterious” (such as the whole “vanishing Anasazi” thing that pops up from time to time), and we do get quite a few questions from visitors that clearly have something like this behind them, but among serious researchers in the field there has never been any real doubt that the modern Pueblos are the direct descendents of the people who built the ancient sites.
This unusual circumstance is both a blessing and a curse. It provides a ready source for ethnographic analogy that is clearly relevant, and since the modern Pueblos are fairly well documented ethnographically (not entirely by their own choice, it must be said), there’s a lot of material to work with and comb through for comparison to archaeological findings. It has a tendency, however, to lead to an exclusive focus on modern Pueblo traditions as the only ways to explain the archaeology, and the result is an explanation that emphasizes continuity over change to a degree that can become a bit implausible. Surely not everything that happened in the past can be understood by reference to what happens in the (ethnographic) present.
This can be bad enough in isolation, but it becomes considerably worse when, as happens with distressing regularity, archaeologists depend not only on the evidence of modern Pueblos but on preconceived ideas about them, often with an ideological tinge. Ever since the first studies of the Pueblos in the late nineteenth century there has been a persistent interpretation of them as gentle, peaceful people living in efficient villages and practicing ecologically sound agriculture. When the archaeologists saw this picture and then saw the striking similarities between the modern and ancient material culture and architecture many of them decided to project it back in time thousands of years, with the implication that there has been little meaningful change in that time. The result is an image that is as popular as it is misleading.
Steven LeBlanc’s Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest is one attempt to correct at least part of this problem. His intention is to show that warfare in the southwest was not only present in prehistoric times, but that it was a key feature of prehistoric societies that needs to be considered to come to any meaningful conclusions about southwestern prehistory.
LeBlanc sets the book up as part of a recent and emerging trend in anthropology to debunk the idea that people in “primitive” or “traditional” societies were generally peaceful, and that war, if it happened at all, was a minor part of society conducted for “ritual” purposes or otherwise peripheral to major concerns. He points out many examples of southwestern archaeologists downplaying the importance of warfare, although I think he overplays his hand a little here and is forced to concede that there have been quite a few people who have at least mentioned the possibility of warfare. As a result, the argument he makes in the book is not so much the straightforward and relatively uncontroversial one that warfare existed in the prehistoric southwest as the more difficult one that it was a major aspect of ancient social relationships. He discusses the various types of archaeological evidence that can serve to demonstrate the presence of warfare (or the threat of warfare, which is functionally equivalent), emphasizing settlement patterns and configurations rather than direct evidence such as burned settlements and human remains showing signs of violent death, which he points out are likely to be pretty rare. The fact that such direct evidence of warfare is actually surprisingly common in the southwestern archaeological record lends considerable support to LeBlanc’s thesis, and makes his main arguments based on settlement patterns more convincing.
While LeBlanc is quite clear about the preliminary nature of this research, and does not intend to demonstrate or prove the validity of any particular model of warfare’s nature or origins, he does discuss various models that have been offered and signals his support for a fairly straightforward environmental determinist account in which warfare increases as the population in an area approaches that area’s carrying capacity. He takes pains to point out that this model is not demonstrated in the book, but he does note how the evidence he considers at various points relates to it.
LeBlanc divides the whole span of southwestern prehistory into three periods: early, middle, and late. The early period, for which there is the least data for the longest span of time, runs from the earliest evidence for agriculture in the late centuries BC until around AD 900, basically covering the Basketmaker and Pueblo I periods in the northern southwest. (LeBlanc covers the whole southwest, including the Hohokam and Mogollon areas, but my focus here is on the northern part and primarily the Anasazi cultural tradition.) For this period there is sketchy evidence overall, and LeBlanc is unable to divide it into more satisfying chunks with which to find chronological patterns, but in general there is quite a bit of evidence for warfare, mainly in settlements either surrounded by palisades or positioned on defensible sites like hilltops. There is also some direct evidence for warfare, especially in the well-preserved Basketmaker II cliff dwellings in Utah excavated by the Wetherills, but the lack of general detail for the era makes it hard to put any of this in perspective. LeBlanc mostly falls back on his general framework, within which “primitive” warfare is endemic, and the data he has for this period fits that framework well. I’m a little dubious about the universality of this approach, which is based largely on ethnographic evidence from places like New Guinea, but if it fits the data, so be it.
The middle period, which LeBlanc defines as AD 900 through 1150 or so, is marked by a remarkable decline in evidence for warfare throughout the southwest. While LeBlanc suggests some explanations for why warfare may have occurred but not been reflected in the archaeological record, they’re pretty weak, and it does seem to have been a remarkably peaceful time. This fits well with LeBlanc’s carrying-capacity model, since paleoclimatological data show that this was a time of particularly suitable environmental conditions for agriculture, and it is resultingly the time when the Pueblo way of life reached its greatest extent. In the Anasazi area this period is known as Pueblo II. Among the various manifestations of the Pueblo tradition at this time, of course, was the Chaco Phenomenon.
The rise and fall of Chaco actually coincides remarkably well with this period of both favorable climate and reduced warfare. The causality here is a bit murky. It certainly seems plausible that improved climate set the conditions within which Chaco could arise, and the deterioration of the climate at the end of the period made it no longer possible for Chaco to continue, but where warfare fits into this is unclear. LeBlanc is generally inclined to see the decline in warfare, which extends far beyond the sphere of direct interaction with Chaco, as being a direct result of the improved climate, with the implication being that peace caused Chaco, but he leaves open the possibility that at least in the eastern Anasazi area Chaco had a more direct role in the creation and enforcement of a peaceful regime. This is one of those areas where more research would be helpful, though it’s not entirely clear how that research would be done.
All was not entirely happy and peaceful during this time, however, and LeBlanc notes that it is during this period when a series of quite gruesome examples of violent death appear throughout the northern southwest. This is the evidence that Christy Turner has pointed to in constructing his theory of cannibalism as a key element in the Chaco system, and LeBlanc seems somewhat inclined to hear Turner out. LeBlanc suggests that, whether or not cannibalism was actually practiced (and he’s by no means convinced it did), a lot of people were being treated very poorly at this time, and he, like Turner, links this to the Chaco system and its techniques for maintaining control over the area of its influence. This control would have been maintained, in this interpretation, by occasional acts of brutal violence against people who were perceived as threats to Chacoan power. Needless to say, from looking at things this way LeBlanc definitely puts himself in the camp of scholars who see a very centralized, politically powerful Chaco, capable to coordinated action to safeguard its extensive control.
There are some problems with this analysis, I think. For one thing, I think LeBlanc gives Turner a bit too much deference in his interpretations of the physical evidence, many of which have been questioned by other physical anthropologists. Be that as it may, however, there is still plenty of evidence for these episodes of death and mutilation of bodies, and there needs to be some explanation for them. Since they do mostly fall within the sphere of Chacoan influence, it is natural to look to Chaco for an explanation, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to look at it.
For one thing, although LeBlanc doesn’t really address this, a close look at his data tables shows that the documented examples of these events don’t have a clear connection either temporally or geographically with the Chaco system. They are mostly in Colorado, to the north of the Chacoan heartland, and while there are some closer to Chaco there’s no particular correlation evident between distance from Chaco or evidence of Chacoan influence and presence of these events. Also, while LeBlanc presents them as mostly synchronous with the Chaco system, this is only true in a very general way. Of the events that can be well-dated, most seem to come in the 1100s, toward the end of the Chacoan heyday or even after it, with a few earlier but these mostly in the 900s, before the rise of Chaco as a major regional system. While the lack of these events before and after this period does suggest that there is something odd going on here that probably does have something to do with Chaco, connecting it to the Chacoan system directly is not very plausible based on currently available evidence.
The rise in episodes of mutilation as the Chaco system declined may, instead, have more to do with the following period, AD 1150 to 1250 or so, which is perhaps the most difficult to understand. There is certainly more evidence for warfare during this time than during the middle period proper, but not nearly as much as during the much more violent late period that follows. LeBlanc suggests that this may have been a time when conditions reverted to the endemic warfare seen in the early period, with whatever had kept it at bay during the middle period gone. Whether that was just the climate, which did begin to worsen at this time, or something more associated with the regional social networks like Chaco that developed at that time but then collapsed is hard to say, and LeBlanc doesn’t really go into it. I do wonder, however, if looking at the mutilation episodes in the context of this period might be more useful than trying to tie them to Chaco.
The late period, from AD 1250 until Spanish contact or so, was clearly a time of intense warfare throughout the southwest, and LeBlanc documents a considerable amount of evidence for this, most notably the abandonment of vast swathes of territory, particularly in the north, and the aggregation of previously scattered communities into huge fortified compounds, the “Pueblos” which would later so capture the imagination of romantic Anglo-American minds. LeBlanc goes into considerable detail about the effects of warfare on social relationships and structures during this well-documented time period, and he notes particularly not only the aggregation of the population into defensive sites but the clustering of these sites into small areas, with the number of sites per cluster and the overall number of clusters steadily decreasing over time. There is a lot to say about this period and its importance for the development of the modern Pueblos, and I won’t go into detail about it here except to say that LeBlanc makes a convincing case that this was a time of huge and very painful changes and dislocations that resulted in a world very different from that which preceded it.
And that, ultimately, is the most important thing to keep in mind, I think. It’s always dangerous to interpret the past in terms of the present, but in this particular case it’s particularly dangerous. We know a lot about the modern Pueblos, so it’s tempting to project that knowledge back to the time of the people who were clearly their distant ancestors, but when it comes to things like Chaco, we need to remember that there have been a lot of very major changes in the southwest between the time of Chaco and our own time. It would be foolish to disregard the continuities, but the changes are just as important. They are also, I think, among the things that make the study of the ancient past interesting and rewarding. There’s always more to find out.