Chapter 3 of The Prehistoric Pueblo World, by Jeffrey Dean, looks at the Kayenta area of northeastern Arizona. Dean is a dendrochronologist at the University of Arizona‘s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, and he’s done a lot of work on the paleoclimatology of the southwest, but here he focuses mainly on the culture history of the Kayenta Anasazi and alludes only briefly to possible environmental factors affecting that history.
This chapter brings us closer to Chaco than the previous one, but as Dean notes at the beginning we’re still very much within the Western Anasazi culture area, which is distinct from the Eastern Anasazi area in a number of ways. Most of these ultimately reduce to the Western area, including Kayenta, being simpler and more flexible in social structure: sites are smaller, construction is simpler, there is much less functional differentiation among sites, regional interactions are apparently limited mainly to low-level trade, and the pace of change and development is markedly slower. The two areas, which are divided by the Chuska Mountains, seem to have developed separately perhaps as early as the Late Archaic period, with consistent differences apparent already in the Basketmaker II era. Those differences were reduced a bit in the following Basketmaker III period, when the two regions were as similar as they ever got. The similarities seem to mainly involve Kayenta settlements becoming more like eastern settlements, with aggregated villages appearing, the most famous of which, Juniper Cove, even had a great kiva (the only one known from the whole Kayenta sequence).
The Pueblo I period marked the return of major east-west differences, with the Eastern Anasazi rapidly developing toward the major achievements of the Pueblo II era while the west remained largely in Basketmaker III conditions. Kayenta architecture and site layout hardly changed at all, with the main developments being in ceramics and settlement locations. The upland areas that had been largely abandoned during Basketmaker III were reoccupied, and lowland settlements moved from the edges of floodplains out onto the floodplains themselves. The real sudden changes in Kayenta lifestyles came with the transition to Pueblo II around AD 1000, when there was a major shift from pithouses to above-ground unit pueblos, similar to those seen in the Eastern Anasazi tradition, with a block of rooms fronted by a kiva and a midden, though with the innovation in some cases of a “grinding room” between the roomblock and the kiva. As in the rest of the Pueblo world, Pueblo II was a time of explansion for the Kayenta people, who dispersed throughout the area and reached their widest geographical coverage, going beyond the Colorado and San Juan Rivers to the west and north, south as far as the Little Colorado River, and east as far as the Lukachukai Mountains. This was still a small-scale pattern of widely dispersed households with little aggregation, however, in contrast to the “communities” seen further east at this time, when Chaco Canyon also reached the height of its apparent influence.
The Kayenta expansion was fairly short-lived, however, and around AD 1150 the “Transition” period began, with one of the most notable changes being a reversal of the expansionary trend of the Pueblo II period. Kayenta contracted back to the small area of valleys and upland mesas around the modern town of Kayenta that had always been the culture’s heartland. It was also at this time that the first signifcant aggregation began, with the unit pueblos coalescing into larger villages located near good farmland, which was in short and decreasing supply due to deteriorating environmental conditions. Between the developing clusters of sites there came to be significant empty areas. A variety of site types also began to develop, with the main alternatives being highly aggregated “plaza-oriented” sites with roomblocks arranged around a plaza, pithouse villages with aggregations of the pithouses that had continued to be used for habitation in some areas, and idiosyncratic sites in unusual topographical situations where the layout of the site was dictated by the topography.
The Transition period was fairly short, as transitions tend to be, and the following period, known as the Tsegi Phase, is a major focus of Dean’s chapter. This phase began around AD 1250 and continued until the major depopulation of the area around AD 1300. It represented the culmination of the trends that began during the Transition, with settlement being increasingly aggregated and concentrated in the core Kayenta region. Gaps between Kayenta settlements and other cultural areas widened.
Contact with some other groups, however, actually increased. The longstanding relationship between Kayenta and the Tusayan area to the south continued, and may have played a mediating role in contacts between Kayenta and areas much further to the south, such as the White Mountains. There was also a considerable amount of contact with Mesa Verde populations, particularly in the Chinle Valley which separated the core Kayenta area from the core Mesa Verde areas to the northeast. Mesa Verde pottery is the most abundant type of trade ware found in Kayenta sites at this time, and while there is Kayenta pottery at Mesa Verde sites as well, the proportions are much lower, indicating a possible asymmetry of some sort to the relationship. Within the Chinle Valley there are several cliff dwellings with Mesa Verdean architecture but Kayenta-style masonry. Most of these sites seem to have had stronger Mesa Verde ties, judging from pottery assemblages, with the major exception of Poncho House, which seems to have been an important point of contact and trade.
This is a time when the functional uniformity of Kayenta sites began to wane, and several different types of structures with specialized functions begin to appear in the increasingly aggregated villages. The basic unit of habitation shifts from the unit pueblo to the room cluster, which contains one or two habitation rooms, several storage rooms, and sometimes a grinding room, all arranged around an unroofed courtyard. These are sometimes combined into larger complexes, either as independent sites or as smaller sections of much larger sites.
To the three types of sites developed during the Transition another is added: the courtyard pueblo. This is an important addition in which room clusters are grouped around small “courtyards” rather than larger plazas, with the overall settlement often being oriented along rows of “streets.” There is a lot of variation in courtyard pueblos, and they seem to occur mainly in locations where plaza pueblos wouldn’t fit, such as the tops of steep mesas and cliff alcoves. These are more defensive locations than the more moderate high points where plaza pueblos are typically found, and it’s hard to avoid the thought that defense played a key role in village siting. Steven LeBlanc‘s notion of smaller sites needing more defensive locations than larger ones comes to mind. Dean seems less inclined to posit warfare as an explanation for settlement types and hierarchies, but he does concede that this is one area where others have proposed warfare and done quite a bit of research on its spatial implications.
In addition to the larger, more aggregated sites, there are higher levels of social organization than the single site apparent at this time. They range from groups of room clusters near choice farmland to valley-wide networks of sites organized around “central pueblos” that seem to have served specialized community functions. These central sites don’t seem to be particularly wealthier or even necessarily larger than other sites in their area, but they do show specialized architecture in the form of “spinal” roomblocks featuring a unique type of “double-faced” masonry around which the rest of the rooms are situated. These spinal roomblocks don’t seem to have had a single function, judging from the contents of the ones that have been excavated, but they and their surrounding roomblocks seem to have functioned as community centers for the surrounding villages. Dean notes that some have interpreted the specialized architecture of central pueblos as defensive in nature, although he seems to prefer a religious explanation. These central pueblos themselves seem to have been organized into line-of-site networks spanning entire valleys and possibly greater areas, although they don’t seem to all combine into one huge network, suggesting the presence of multiple antagonistic alliances.
After this very un-Kayenta-like period of aggregation came the final abandonment of the Kayenta area around AD 1300. Dean presents this as a response to both “push” and “pull” factors. The pushes included environmental deterioration (probably the biggest factor), high population density in the core Kayenta area, and (although Dean doesn’t mention it) possible conflict and warfare. The pulls, which probably increased in importance over time as emigration reduced the urgency of the pushes, were apparently related mainly to social developments in the Tusayan region, which had always had close contact with Kayenta, that encouraged the absorption of immigrants. This was likely linked to the adoption of the kachina cult and possible also with increasing social complexity. The events of this era, with social changes facilitating considerable immigration from multiple directions, resulted in the creation of one of the most successful and enduring social adaptations in the history of the southwest: Hopi.
Luckily for me, at this point Dean directly addresses the issue of what this all has to do with Chaco. His conclusion: not much. He decries the “Chacocentric paradigm” within which much southwestern archaeology takes place, and argues that while Kayenta clearly had at least some contact with the Chaco system, there is no evidence that it was ever directly involved in that system. Kayenta was always simpler and less organized than Chaco, and it is missing all the key features of the Chaco system: great houses, great kivas, roads, earthworks, etc. There are some parallels, especially in the spread of Chaco and Kayenta to their widest geographic extent and their subsequent fall/contraction over the same time period, but they are pretty weak and abstract, and probably to be accounted for by environmental changes throughout the region. Dean does, however, suggest that more research on possible connections between Chaco and Kayenta would be welcome.
Ultimately, Dean concludes that Kayenta developments during what is elsewhere known as the Pueblo III period were due to both preexisting conditions and contingent variables. The conditions include the innate nature of Kayenta society and the overall state of the natural environment in northeastern Arizona, while the variables include population, low- and high-frequency environmental fluctuations, the behavioral options for dealing with change developed within the culture, and the historical results of dealings with other groups and responses to environmental changes. He sees the key strength of Kayenta society as being its simplicity, which resulted in a greater degree of flexibility than was seen further east. The ubiquitous unit pueblos could and did combine into aggregated villages or split apart as conditions required, and the low levels of hierarchy that developed during the Tsegi Phase were unusual but probably necessary reactions to conditions affecting a basically egalitarian society in a very marginal environment. That marginal environment, which had a limiting effect on agriculture not seen in more fertile areas to the east, kept Kayenta society from becoming too hierarchical and inflexible to respond to rapidly changing circumstances. The increased density necessitated by the poor conditions of the Tsegi Phase, however, may have led to significant social stresses, which, combined with possible competition/conflict, may have been the key factor in the development of settlement hierarchies.
This is all well and good, but this paean to the flexible, adaptive nature of Kayenta society does begin to run up against the ultimate fact of abandonment. Doesn’t that suggest that this ultimately not a successful way for a society to adapt?
Interestingly enough, Dean deals with this complication by redefining abandonment so that it is not equivalent to societal failure. He notes that constant movement has long been a key part of Pueblo life, and that transfering a system to an area with better resources can be a way to save it rather than an indication of its failure. In the Kayenta case, movement to Hopi was just one more example of a flexible society adapting to changing conditions. (The fact that little of the Kayenta system seems to have survived in a recognizable form at Hopi casts a little doubt on this interpretation, but I still like it overall.)
In the end, Dean sees Kayenta history as having little to do with Chaco. Rather, it chronicles the creative responses of a simple, flexible society to two main issues, a growing population and environmental fluctuation in a marginal agricultural area, and secondarily a third issue, interactions with other groups, including that mysterious, complicated place on the other side of the mountains.