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Archive for April, 2009

Pueblo del Arroyo and South Gap

Pueblo del Arroyo and South Gap

As I mentioned briefly in discussing Linda Cordell’s chapter of The Prehistoric Pueblo World, Cordell was not the only discussant involved in the conference that resulted in the volume, though her discussion was the more “traditional” of the two concluding chapters. The other, chapter 17, is by David Wilcox of the Museum of Northern Arizona, one of the most creative, dynamic, and controversial thinkers in contemporary southwestern archaeology. Wilcox’s theories about the Chacoan system, especially, occupy the far reaches of one end of the spectrum of current models, with Gwinn Vivian’s theories perhaps occupying the other end.

Wilcox basically sees Chaco as a highly centralized, hierarchical, militaristic state that attempted to impose hegemony on the surrounding area through shows of force. He differs from many other advocates of a more centralized Chaco, however, in seeing the scale of successful Chacoan hegemony as being rather limited, with the rest of the Chacoan “regional system” occupied by competing polities organized along similar lines and attempting to impose their own hegemony. This is in contrast to both the highly centralized but unitary proto-state envisioned by Steve Lekson and the diffuse network of competitive but autonomous local elites proposed by Lynne Sebastian, among others.  The evidence Wilcox presents for his model is rather weak and dubious in several respects, and his theories are not widely accepted.  He plays an important role, however, in challenging and provoking other archaeologists and pointing out new avenues for possible research that have received less attention than they deserve.

Tower Kiva at Kin Ya'a

Tower Kiva at Kin Ya'a

That gadfly role is more or less what he sets out to play in this chapter, which is only nominally about the conference and resulting book.  Or, perhaps more accurately, Wilcox takes the remarkable achievement of data-collection represented by the conference and uses it as a starting point to exhort his colleagues to adopt new ways of thinking about their data, particularly methods of analysis based on graph theory.  He uses his interpretation of the Chaco regional system, which is heavily based on spatial relationships, as an example of how this can be done.

Wupatki Pueblo

Wupatki Pueblo

Beyond the specific methodological proposals Wilcox offers, however, he also suggests that southwestern archaeologists need to look beyond their own regional specialties and look at processes and developments on a much larger scale.  He has some suggestions about how this might be done for the Pueblo III period that is the topic of this book; these involve a macroregional interaction sphere on a scale well beyond anything proposed by any of the other contributors to the volume.  Key aspects of this system involve trade routes for shell from different coastal areas into the interior of the continent, connections between a Chaco system argued on very thin grounds to survive into the thirteenth century and other regional systems such as the Hohokam, Fremont and Chumash, and the mysterious site of Wupatki playing a key role as a point of contact connecting several of these systems.  With masonry and settlement patterns oddly reminiscent of Chaco and a Hohokam-style ballcourt, Wupatki is certainly worthy of close study in a macroregional context, especially since it seems to postdate both the decline of Chaco and the end of Hohokam ballcourt construction.  Overall, however, this scenario is based on very shaky interpretations of a lot of the evidence, and many of its details are highly improbable.

Ballcourt at Wupatki National Monument

Ballcourt at Wupatki National Monument

The importance of Wilcox’s point, whatever the status of his specific theories, is considerable.  As I have recently noted with regard to contact with Mesoamerica, evidence is mounting for extensive contact and influence on a scale that would have been laughable only a few years ago, and it’s becoming more and more clear that to fully understand developments at Chaco and elsewhere we need to look at things in a much broader context.  If Wilcox succeeds in convincing his peers of nothing else (and he may not), hopefully his entertaininly over-the-top theories can at least draw attention to the scale at which they operate.  With careful and detailed data collection such as that represented in this book, the possibility of archaeologists looking at things on this scale becomes more likely.  As such, this chapter is a fitting end to an important book.

Huerfano Mesa from New Alto

Huerfano Mesa from New Alto

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Whan That Aprill

Back Wall of Pueblo Bonito

Back Wall of Pueblo Bonito

Many recent theories about the origins and nature of the Chaco Phenomenon, from a variety of perspectives, have focused on pilgrimage as a key aspect of the system.  This is indeed an elegant way of addressing many of the more puzzling characteristics of the Chacoan record, particularly the presence of so many valuable imported goods in a location without any obvious resources that could have been offered in exchange.  The (somewhat controversial) evidence for periodic feasting events at some of the great houses and the oddly impractical nature of the road system are other things that make a lot more sense in the context of Chaco being a pilgrimage destination.

Pilgrimage is by no means a silver bullet for explaining Chaco, however, and the theories employing it still end up in very different places on account of the other assumptions they add.  While “ritual” aspects of the Chaco system tend to be invoked primarily by advocates of a more egalitarian Chaco, there is no necessary contradiction between ritual and hierarchy, and some of the pilgrimage models see elites harnessing the ceremonial authority granted them by virtue of association with a pilgrimage destination and turning it into more “secular” political and economic power.

Doorway in Back Wall of Pueblo Bonito

Doorway in Back Wall of Pueblo Bonito

With all this in mind, it is perhaps useful to examine a living pilgrimage tradition elsewhere in New Mexico, not too far from Chaco, to see what implications its history and characteristics might have for these theories.  The story turns out to be a great deal more complicated than it appears at first glance, and I think there are many lessons that can be profitably taken from it and applied to the study of Chaco.

The tradition I speak of focuses on the small Hispanic village of Chimayo in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico and a pit of dirt there that is reputed to have miraculous healing power.  It is described in a thorough and well-researched but short and very readable book by Elizabeth Kay.

Masonry Crosses at Santuario de Chimayo

Masonry Crosses at Santuario de Chimayo

The early history of Chimayo, before the coming of the Spanish, is shrouded in mystery, but the hill from which the village gets its name is considered sacred to the local Tewa-speaking pueblos, and there is some evidence that the area was inhabited from around AD 1100 to 1400.  Toward the end of this prehistoric occupation there was apparently a pueblo right by the place of the healing dirt.  This pueblo was apparently totally abandoned by the time of Spanish contact, but the people from the remaining pueblos continued to mix the dirt from the site with water and drink it as an elixir long after the settlement of the area by the Spanish after the reconquest of New Mexico in 1692.

There is little evidence of the Spanish paying much notice to this native tradition until the early nineteenth century.  Kay suggests that the devastating smallpox epidemic of 1780 and 1781, which caused immense death and suffering among both the pueblos and the Spanish settlers, was instrumental in causing the settlers to become more interested in traditional Indian remedies such as the healing dirt of Chimayo.  Northern New Mexico in those days was a poor, isolated frontier area far from the main population centers to the south and both the physical and spiritual well-being of the colonists were hampered by the lack of sufficient priests and doctors to tend to the far-flung villages.  Given this persistent vulnerability, it is hardly surprising that a devastating epidemic might test the villagers’ faith in the methods of their own society and cause increased interest in the practices of their neighbors who had lived in the area much longer and knew it very well.

Chimayo: Holy Chiles

Chimayo: Holy Chiles

Be that as it may, the first evidence for the villagers’ interest in the healing dirt comes from considerably later, and involves an odd and unexpected connection to a very distant place of pilgrimage with its own holy dirt.  It is not at all clear how the villagers in Chimayo learned about this other tradition or decided it was connected to their own area, but the implications of the transmission of such information over such a vast distance are intriguing.

The first direct mention of this connection comes in a letter written in 1813 by Bernardo Abeyta, a prominent citizen in the Chimayo area, to his local parish priest, who was based in the nearby village of Santa Cruz.  The letter was written on a new piece of high-quality paper, an extremely scarce and valuable commodity in colonial New Mexico, and in it Abeyta asked permission to build a formal chapel to venerate Christ “in His Advocation of Esquípulas,” which the villagers had been doing for three years in a makeshift shack next to Abeyta’s house which he had built at his own expense for the purpose.  The priest passed the request on to his superior, who was in charge of all the missions in New Mexico, and in 1814 the request was granted.  The villagers of Chimayo soon built a church next to the shack and dedicated it to veneration of the crucifix of the Black Christ of Esquípulas which, legend has it, Abeyta had found buried at the site of the healing dirt and attempted to bring to the church in Santa Cruz, only to have it miraculously return to its original location.  The church is still there and has become a major pilgrimage destination for Catholics throughout northern New Mexico.

Historic Marker at Santuario de Chimayo

Historic Marker at Santuario de Chimayo

But wait.  Who or what is this “Esquípulas”?  And what does he or it have to do with the healing dirt of Chimayo long known to the Tewa pueblos?

For the answer, strangely enough, we must leave nineteenth-century New Mexico for the moment and head for sixteenth-century Guatemala.  In 1524, when the Spanish entered the area occupied by the Chorti Maya bent on conquest by any means, a Chorti chief (or king) named Esquípulas surrendered his people immediately to avoid a violent confrontation.  Both the Spanish and the Chorti were thankful for this decision, which avoided the massive brutality seen so often in similar situations throughout what would become Latin America, and when the Spanish finally got around to displacing and resettling the Chorti about 50 years later they named the new town established for the purpose Santiago de Esquípulas.  Though a new colonial establishment, the town happened to lie on the ancient trade route to the major Maya city of Copán, which as a ceremonial center attracted a fair number of pilgrims.  The area around the town of Esquípulas itself had been known since precolumbian times as a pilgrimage center in its own right, famed for its sulphur springs and healing earth, which the Maya ate to cure a variety of ailments.  (Sound familiar?)

The Spanish missionaries, no fools, took advantage of the reputation of the sulphur springs in 1578 by building a chapel near them and equipping it with a crucifix carved out of dark brown balsam wood.  This “Black Christ” soon gained a reputation for performing the miracles previously (and to some extent still) associated with the healing dirt of Esquípulas, and the chapel became a famed destination for pilgrims throughout New Spain.

Outdoor Shrine at Santuario de Chimayo

Outdoor Shrine at Santuario de Chimayo

Which brings us back to Chimayo.  The parallels between the two locations, with healing dirt long venerated by the local Indians becoming Christianized and accepted by Spanish colonists, are obvious and unmistakeable, but the process by which the New Mexican shrine became associated with the Guatemalan one remains quite obscure.  Clearly someone from Chimayo, possibly Bernardo Abeyta himself, had either traveled to Guatemala or heard detailed accounts of the shrine at Esquípulas from someone who had seen it.  Travel was quite restricted by the Spanish authorities in the colonies, but some people got around, and pilgrimage was one major way to do so.  Another was trade, and the main lifeline to the outside world for the villagers of northern New Mexico was the regular caravan that would bring whatever meager goods they had to sell down to the summer trade fairs in Chihuahua.

However Bernardo Abeyta learned about the cult of Esquípulas, he learned it in detail.  In his 1813 letter he spells the name correctly, which is quite remarkable given the general standards of education at the time and the long distance over which that name must have traveled.  He also seems to have learned about the distinctive dark crucifix, at least enough to identify it with the similarly dark image of Christ in his own chapel, and presumably about the healing dirt which was the main similarity between the two shrines.  Kay doesn’t go as far as to argue that Abeyta himself had traveled to Guatemala, but she does suggest that someone from Chimayo likely had, and I think the preponderance of evidence, circumstantial though it is, points to Abeyta as the most likely traveler.  Abeyta was also a key figure in the rise of the penitente brotherhood, which seems to have developed with at least some knowledge of similar organizations elsewhere  in the Hispanic world, so there is some additional evidence that he may have been unusually well-traveled for a resident of Chimayo.

Santuario de Chimayo

Santuario de Chimayo

Once Abeyta’s chapel was built it quickly became a focus for local pilgrims, and just as had happened in Esquípulas the crucifix of the Black Christ began to gain credit for the miracles formerly attributed to the healing dirt.  The hole with the dirt in it is still there, in a little room to the side of the main structure of the chapel.  This room is reputed to be the original shack built by Abeyta over the hole.  Today it is lavishly decorated with offerings brought by pilgrims, mostly religious art and the canes and crutches no longer needed by the miraculously healed.

The story would be interesting and improbable enough were that the entirety of it, but it actually goes on and takes another odd twist.  Bernardo Abeyta died in 1856, by which time his shrine, known as the Santuario de Chimyo, had become a major destination for pilgrims. Not long after Abeyta’s death, however, his neighbor Severiano Medina began to suffer from severe rheumatism and had a revelation in which he was told to pray to the Holy Child of Atocha.  He did so, promising to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Child’s shrine if he were healed.  He recovered and duly made his pilgrimage to the shrine, in the town of Plateros in the Mexican state of Zacatecas near the city of Fresnillo.  When he described his experience to the priest at the shrine and requested a statue of the Holy Child he was given a papier-mâché doll, apparently of German origin, which had been bent into the Holy Child’s traditional sitting pose and dressed in pilgrim’s garb.  He brought this statue back to Chimayo in February 1857.  The people of the village, entranced by Medina’s story, donated land for a private chapel to the Holy Child, which was completed by the next year.  It is very close to the Santuario built by Bernardo Abeyta to honor the Black Christ, and the miracles sought by pilgrims soon began to be attributed to the Holy Child.  Much as traditions about the healing dirt had become blurred with those about the Black Christ, so the stories of the Holy Child, who was said to wander about the countryside at night helping people, were added to the mix.  Since the Holy Child was said to wear out many pairs of shoes in night-time wandering, offerings at the chapel largely consist of pairs of baby shoes.  The tradition of offering shoes continues to this day, and the chapel is now festooned with innumerable pairs.

Chapel of the Holy Child of Atocha in Chimayo, New Mexico

Chapel of the Holy Child of Atocha in Chimayo, New Mexico

Medina’s chapel was such a hit that it began to overshadow the Santuario, which was still privately owned by the Abeyta family.  To try to compete with this new interloper, the Abeytas acquired a Holy Child of their own, but in their haste the statue they got was actually of the Holy Child of Prague, who carries a globe, rather than the Holy Child of Atocha, who carries the staff and gourd of a pilgrim.  As if that weren’t enough, the Santuario’s image somehow became associated with yet another Holy Child, known as the Lost Child, who represents Jesus Christ at age twelve when he allegedly got lost in the Temple in Jerusalem.  It’s not clear how the confusion arose, but the name stuck.

So what’s the story behind this Holy Child of Atocha, anyway?  Well, it turns out that the Spanish town of Atocha (now best known as the location of the main train station in Madrid) does not in fact have a tradition of venerating a Holy Child, or at least it didn’t at the time the Mexican cult began.  What it did have, however, was a church of the Dominican Order with a holy image of the Virgin Mary, with the Christ child on her knee, known as the Virgin of Atocha.  Early Dominicans active in the initial missionary efforts in the New World apparently introduced this cult to certain parts of the Spanish colonies, including the silver-mining town of Plateros in Zacatecas.  In the late eighteenth century a prominent citizen of Plateros apparently made some sort of pilgrimage to Atocha and brought back a statue of the Virgin, which was placed in the church there.  The church burned at some point in the earlyy nineteenth century, and this may or may not have been the reason that the statue of the child was separated from the Virgin, dressed in pilgrim’s garb, and venerated on its own as the Holy Child of Atocha.  The connection between the child and pilgrimage seems rather arbitrary, but it may relate to the ancient Aztec cult of a child god named Teopiltzintli who was a guardian of pilgrims and travelers.

Medina's Store, Chimayo, New Mexico

Medina's Store, Chimayo, New Mexico

As the attention of pilgrims to Chimayo became more and more focused on the Medinas’ Holy Child, the Abeytas’ Santuario began to suffer, and by the 1920s the family was becoming unable to afford to keep it up.  They began selling off pieces of devotional art that had accrued over the years, which attracted the attention of the growing community of Anglo scholars and amateurs, mostly in Santa Fe, who were concerned about the preservation of New Mexico’s rich cultural heritage.  They went into action to save the Santuario and managed to raise enough money to buy the property and donate it to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 1929.  The chapel thus became for the first time an official mission of the Roman Catholic Church, and so it remains.  It has since recovered some of its popularity as a pilgrimage destination, though the chapel of the Holy Child, still in the hands of the Medina family, continues to be a popular destination as well.  The main time for pilgrimages to Chimayo is Holy Week, when thousands make the journey on foot, but smaller numbers come throughout the year to take advantage of the strong spiritual power, whatever its direct association, adhering to the place.

So what does this all have to do with Chaco?  Quite a bit.  Most directly, the origin of the Chimayo pilgrimage tradition among the Tewa pueblos shows the importance of holy sites and pilgrimage within the living tradition of which Chaco was one manifestation.  This is a substantial piece of evidence indicating the plausibility of models of Chaco involving pilgrimage as a substantial aspect of the Chacoan system.  It also hints that the reasons for pilgrimage can be quite subtle.  A pit of holy dirt is not the sort of thing that is easy to find in the archaeological record.  Furthermore, the fact that there was apparently a pueblo at the site of the dirt in prehistoric times suggests that some communities may have had particularly strong roles in controlling access to pilgrimage destinations.  Perhaps the residents of that pueblo, like the residents of Chaco Canyon, derived political and economic power and influence from their proximity to a place of great spiritual power.  Or perhaps not; one of the key things about the prehistory of Chimayo is how little we know about it, which is good reason for humility in considering what we can determine from archaeology and ethnohistory.

Sealed Doorway, Back Wall of Pueblo Bonito

Sealed Doorway, Back Wall of Pueblo Bonito

On a more abstract level, too, the Chimayo example is instructive in evaluating pilgrimage models of Chaco.  One of the most striking things about the history of Chimayo is its complexity.  While the overall function of the place as a pilgrimage center has been quite constant, the exact nature of the devotion involved and its relationship to traditions elsewhere has shifted enormously just in the two hundred years or so for which we have written records.  Could similar shifts account for some of the puzzling and rather rapid changes seen in the Chacoan archaeological record?  It would be difficult to know for sure, but I think the likelihood is definitely there.

Also, the geographic scale of the influences involved is interesting, particularly in light of the recent discovery of chocolate at Chaco.  While transportation and communication systems in the southwest and Mexico were somewhat more elaborate and reliable in Spanish colonial times than in prehistory, largely due to the presence of draft animals, wheeled vehicles, and writing, travel and transmission of detailed information over long distances was still quite difficult.  And yet, it was done, and we see clearly here that quite detailed accounts of devotional practices in Guatemala could make their way more or less intact to northern New Mexico.  It just so happens that the chocolate found in Chaco was almost certainly grown in roughly the same area and brought roughly the same distance and by a similar route.  Given the important role of chocolate in Mesoamerican ritual, and the striking similarity of form between the cylinder jars used by the Maya in these rituals and the ones in which the Chaco chocolate was found, a process of information dissemination extraordinarily similar to the journey of the Black Christ from Esquípulas to Chimayo is looking remarkably likely eight hundred years before.

Ultimately, I think the most useful aspect of this comparison is the reminder that it’s important to look at things with an open mind.  A cult being transported from Guatemala to New Mexico sounds unlikely in either the eleventh or the nineteenth century, and yet we know for a fact that it did happen at least once.  Sometimes unlikely things do happen, and it’s important not to disregard possibilities just because they go beyond a conservative reading of the available evidence.  Occam’s Razor is an important and useful principle, but it shouldn’t become an ironclad law.

Chimayo: Holy Famous Chili

Chimayo: Holy Famous Chili

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Huerfano Mesa from Tsin Kletzin

Huerfano Mesa from Tsin Kletzin

The last two chapters of The Prehistoric Pueblo World, by the two discussants from the conference that resulted in the book, seek to summarize the conclusions of the other chapters and discuss their implications.  Chapter 16, by Linda Cordell, is the more straightforward of the two.  Cordell, a well-regarded and distinguished southwestern archaeologist, discusses the main common threads of developments in the various areas covered by the volume, and takes up some of the main themes of the book in more detail.  Among these are the everpresent Pueblo III processes of aggregation and abandonment, about which Cordell points out some interesting implications of the data presented in various chapters but refrains from making any sweeping conclusions.  Another theme she addresses, however, is considerably more directly relevant to the purpose of this blog, and that is the impact of Chaco and its collapse on regions both near and far.

As Cordell points out, the start date for the book, AD 1150, is by no means arbitrary.  It coincides roughly but clearly with the end of the Chaco system, whatever it was, and thus marks the period under discussion as the time when the regions heavily involved in the system had to readjust to its absence.  In other words, this book is (partly) about the aftermath of Chaco.

Different regions handled that aftermath differently, and Cordell proposes a useful classification of levels of involvement in the Chaco system that can be used to evaluate and compare post-Chaco developments.  At the lowest level are those regions that show little or no interaction with the system: the far west, the Kayenta region, Hopi, the Sinagua area, east-central Arizona, southeastern Arizona/southwestern New Mexico, the Rio Abajo, and the northern Rio Grande.  While there was a certain amount of contact between Chaco and some of these areas, as indicated by the presence at Chaco of trade goods like turquoise and obsidian, it was clearly minor, and these areas do not show outlying great houses, roads, or other quintessentially Chacoan traits.  When Chaco declined around 1150, little or nothing changed in these areas.  While they did all undergo various changes over the course of the period covered by this book, the most important of those changes came later and had no particular temporal connection to events at Chaco.

Petroglyph Panel Showing Three Quadrupeds

Petroglyph Panel Showing Three Quadrupeds

In contrast, the areas with outlying great houses, roads, and other clear signs of substantial connection to Chaco show evidence of major changes around 1150.  In some regions that seem to have been particularly closely integrated into the system, there is evidence that some aspects of it continued even after the end of the role of Chaco Canyon as a regional center.  Particularly in the Mesa Verde and Cibola areas, there is evidence for continued construction of great houses and other projects that may indicate a continued role for Chacoan ideology in local societies.  The most notable example of this, of course, is the extremely Chacoesque center at Aztec, which continued to function for quite some time after the end of activity at Chaco itself (though it likely never reached the scale of influence Chaco had had at its height).  Aztec is included in the San Juan Basin chapter of this book, and there is evidence for continued Chacoan influence in other parts of the basin and its peripheries as well, particularly in the Chuska Mountains.  In other parts of the Chacoan sphere of influence, on the other hand, such as in parts of the Acoma area, Chacoan traditions such as great-house architecture seem to have been abandoned more rapidly.

Overall, like so many other chapters in this book, this one is unable to come to any satisfyingly firm conclusions, and Cordell ends up focusing much of her discussion of the Chaco aftermath, like her discussions of aggregation and abandonment, on the need for more and better data on all of the topics under discussion.  Since one of the main purposes of the book was to gather together the available data and spur efforts to collect more, this is only fitting in a chapter devoted to summary and discussion of its contents.

Fence Lizard on Wall

Fence Lizard on Wall

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Mesa Verde from Escalante Pueblo

Mesa Verde from Escalante Pueblo

The southwest has always been something of a marginal environment for agriculture, and many theories that seek to explain the complicated history of human settlement in the prehistoric southwest appeal to environmental changes and fluctuations of various sorts as causal factors in many of the large-scale processes seen in the archaeological record.  The concept of carrying capacity looms large in many of these theories; while a slippery concept to define rigorously, it basically refers to the number of people that could be supported by a given environment at a given technological level.  Under this interpretation, major changes are often the result of population density reaching or exceeding the carrying capacity for a given area, which forces the people in question to make some hard choices.  The options available are typically to adopt new subsistence technology, move into a less populous or more fertile area, or stay and fight other groups over the diminishing resources in the area.

This is a pretty attractive framework for explaining many aspects of southwestern prehistory, and it is no surprise that many archaeologists have adopted it as part of their theories.  Among these is Steven LeBlanc in his book on warfare, in which he presents a theory of the origins of prehistoric warfare based on carrying-capacity constraints.  Warfare is particularly well-suited to arguments based on carrying capacity, since the connection between diminishing resources and violence is intuitive and straightforward.  Also amenable to this sort of explanation is abandonment, particularly the remarkably rapid and complete regional abandonments that swept the Colorado Plateau and other areas around AD 1300.

As Carla Van West points out in chapter 15 of The Prehistoric Pueblo World, however, it’s important to look carefully at the available evidence before applying these theories too broadly.  She presents the results of an elaborate computer simulation of carrying capacity in the Mesa Verde region from AD 900 to 1300.  While it is always possible to quibble with the choices made in constructing these simulations, Van West seems to have done an impressive job of at least trying to account for all the variables that are likely to have affected the carrying capacity of this region.  The Mesa Verde region is both one of the most fertile areas of the southwest and one of the most complicated in its prehistoric population patterns, culminating in its apparently total depopulation at the end of the Pueblo III period.  Van West’s simulation is intended in part to evaluate the relationship between environmental conditions and demographic trends, and it offers an excellent opportunity to evaluate the role of carrying capacity in processes such as regional abandonment.

Mesa Verde from Durango, Colorado

Perins Peak from Durango, Colorado

The results are somewhat surprising.  While the actual population figures the simulation produces vary depending on a number of factors both natural and social, in all cases the figures are quite high, indicating that the prehistoric population of the Mesa Verde region never came close to maxing out the carrying capacity of the land.  The abandonment of the area, therefore, must be due to other factors, although the possibility of more localized constraints on carrying capacity affecting individual communities remains open.

This result sounds a cautionary note for theories that veer too far in the direction of environmental determinism, but in some respects it’s not very surprising.  This region is one of the few areas of the southwest that is today primarily used for intensive (and quite productive) agriculture, so its high capacity for supporting agricultural communities might be both expected and idiosyncratic.  That is, if any part of the southwest could support large populations, surely it’s this part.  This, in turn, implies that the results of this simulation may not be that relevant to other, more marginal areas such as the southern San Juan Basin.

On the other hand, the mere fact that one of the most productive agricultural regions was also one of the most affected by regional abandonment is meaningful in and of itself, especially since some areas that weren’t abandoned, and even gained population during this time, were and are much more marginal for farming.  The Hopi area, for example, is much less reliable and productive than Mesa Verde, and it surely had a much lower carrying capacity, and yet it gained population when other regions were being totally depopulated.

The main lesson here, perhaps, is that we need more research like this.  Careful analysis of the data available can be very valuable, and innovative techniques such as simulation can be particularly so, but to truly be capable of answering the most important questions we need to have more of these models covering more areas.  A detailed simulation like this is useful but limited in its relevance to a rather small area, and there would certainly be no way to apply it directly to other regions.  With the increasing availability of advanced computing technologies, it should become easier to do this on a wider scale, and that can only improve our understanding of the past.

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

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Wukoki Pueblo at Wupatki National Monument

Wukoki Pueblo at Wupatki National Monument

In his important book on warfare in the ancient southwest, Steven LeBlanc presents himself as arguing against an orthodox, consensus position in southwestern archaeology that consistently downplays the importance or even presence of warfare as a factor in the prehistory of the region.  He makes some good points about the lack of emphasis on warfare as a possible causal variable in many discussions of regional processes, but in some ways he has to temper his rhetoric and acknowledge the fact that many archaeologists have at least noted the possibility of warfare, and some have even anticipated many of his own arguments about its centrality.  This results in a more nuanced and subtle argument about the importance of warfare, which LeBlanc presents, sometimes a bit misleadingly, as a brave contrarian attack on long-held orthodoxies.

Nonetheless, this more nuanced position strikes me as quite clearly correct, and various chapters in The Prehistoric Pueblo World certainly give ample evidence of the general tendency of southwestern archaeologists to downplay the importance of warfare even when they do acknowledge it as a possible factor.  Chapter 14, however, by Jonathan Haas and Winifred Creamer, is a major exception.  Haas and Creamer make an argument in this chapter about the importance of warfare to the major developments of the Pueblo III period, such as widespread aggregation and regional abandonment, that anticipates in many ways the argument that LeBlanc would later make at greater length (which LeBlanc, to his credit, does acknowledge).

Eroded Boulder House at Hovenweep National Monument

Eroded Boulder House at Hovenweep National Monument

The main thrust of Haas and Creamer’s argument here is that while, as many others have proposed, environmental deterioration was a major causal factor in processes of aggregation and abandonment, the means by which environmental changes had these effects was increasing competition and conflict caused by more limited resource availability.  With a less productive environment, in other words, the resource base available to many groups was reduced significantly, and one way to rectify the situation for those groups was through warfare with more prosperous groups.  Given enough of this, and on a wide enough scale, aggregation for defense is an obvious next step, and if warfare continues like this for a considerable period of time abandonment and movement to more promising areas looks increasingly attractive as well.  Haas and Creamer’s specific work has focused mostly on the Kayenta area, but here they broaden their focus to include the entire area covered by this book, an area which seems to show remarkable uniformity in processes of aggregation (and, to a lesser degree, abandonment).  LeBlanc would later extend this argument to an even greater scale both geographically and temporally.

I don’t have a whole lot else to say about this chapter that I haven’t already said about LeBlanc’s work, so I’ll just note my agreement with this general perspective on aggregation.  There have been many other models proposed to explain aggregation, but many of them make rather dubious claims about the benefits of aggregation for various purposes and most of them tend to overlook the very real costs.  I think defense is a much more reasonable explanation.

The Citadel at Wupatki National Monument

The Citadel at Wupatki National Monument

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Foothills of Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Foothills of Sangre de Cristo Mountains

When the Spanish first entered what is now the southwestern United States in the sixteenth century, they found a very different pattern of population density and distribution from that prevailing during Chacoan times five hundred years earlier.  While the heartland of the pueblo world during the Chacoan era had been the southern Colorado Plateau, which had a large population loosely grouped into low-density communities with smaller populations on its fringes shading into the surrounding culture areas, at Contact only a handful of highly aggregated pueblos were left on the plateau and the majority of the population was concentrated in huge sites in one of the former fringe areas, the Rio Grande valley.

So what happened?  In some ways that is the key question confronting southwestern archaeology, and so far it has proven remarkably intractable.  Five hundred years is a long time.  A lot can change in a period like that, and in this case a lot did.  In addition to the obvious changes of population aggregation and migration, there were a lot of more subtle but no less important changes in other aspects of culture such as architecture, pottery, and (apparently) ritual practices which make it surprisingly difficult to trace any given group of people through this complicated series of events.  While it’s clear from the overall continuities in culture that the ancient Puebloan people as a whole were the ancestors of the modern Pueblos as a whole, it’s been practically impossible to connect any particular ancient group to any particular modern one.  The combination of large-scale movement and massive societal change has significantly obscured the details of the story.

Kiva Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Kiva Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico

This series of changes is the main overall topic of The Prehistoric Pueblo World, and the various geographic areas covered by its chapters include both those that ended up being abandoned by their inhabitants and those that ended up being where those people went when they left.  So far in this series of posts we’ve discussed most of the “destination” regions, including Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and the Rio Abajo.  In this one we tackle what is probably the most important, and in some respects the most difficult to understand: the northern Rio Grande (or “Rio Arriba”).

This region is the subject of chapter 13 of the book, written by Patricia Crown, Janet Orcutt, and Timothy Kohler.  Crown is a prominent archaeologist at UNM who has published on a wide variety of southwestern topics; most recently she is known for her discovery of chocolate on ceramics at Chaco Canyon, a breakthrough that is likely to significantly alter understandings of the Chaco Phenomenon.  Orcutt and Kohler are more known for their work in the Mesa Verde region.  All, however, have done significant amounts of work on the northern Rio Grande, and they do an excellent job here of summarizing the information available on the various subregions.  In a pattern that is becoming very familiar, the quantity and quality of available information on those subregions varies widely, but to the extent that information is available the trends in each are strikingly similar.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Chimayo, New Mexico

Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Chimayo, New Mexico

What’s most remarkable about this region, especially given its fertile nature and high population at Contact, is that it was extremely sparsely populated until the thirteenth century.  All of the regions show a continual increase in aggregation through time, and all except the rather unusual Gallina area (which patterns more with areas to the west) show huge increases in population between 1250 and 1350.  Given the very low populations before this time, it seems overwhelmingly likely that most of this population increase is due to immigration, sometimes of entire communities which seem to appear fully formed in some areas.  Since many other regions were being abandoned at this same time, it seems pretty clear where the people were coming from in a general sense, but as always specific connections are elusive.

Sign for Santa Fe County Road 46

Sign for Santa Fe County Road 46

In addition to the issue of migration, which the authors present as primary in understanding developments in this area, the accompanying trend toward ever-increasing aggregation cries out for explanation.  This is always a difficult process to explain, but the authors offer some tentative suggestions, noting the apparent uniformity of the trend throughout the region and suggesting that environmental change is likely a factor.  Another factor, and not necessarily an unrelated one, is increasing competition and conflict, which could be expected to increase along with population density, which in turn is linked to environmental conditions and available resources.  In some subregions there is considerable evidence for warfare and defensive concerns, which some have proposed as the main impetus for aggregation.  The fact that aggregated communities seem to grow in place in some areas and be imported whole in others certainly suggests that the reasons, whatever they were, for concentrating communities were regional rather than local, and the related factors of environmental change and increasing conflict do potentially meet that criterion.

In the end, the spotty nature of the data makes firm conclusions elusive, and the purpose of this book is in part to present the data now available and spur efforts to gather more.  This chapter fulfills those roles nicely.

Jemez Electric Pole in Chimayo, New Mexico

Jemez Electric Pole in Chimayo, New Mexico

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Rio Abajo Family Practice, Los Lunas, New Mexico

Rio Abajo Family Practice, Los Lunas, New Mexico

Chapter 12 of The Prehistoric Pueblo World, by Katherine Spielmann, addresses a very large area including the section of the Rio Grande valley known as the Rio Abajo (roughly the Albuquerque area and further south) and the area of pueblo settlement further east toward the Great Plains.  There has been very little research on the Pueblo III period in this area, which reached its heyday somewhat later, and Spielmann notes that she herself is actually a specialist in the later periods but is writing this chapter anyway because there are so few archaeologists with knowledge of the area available.

One result of the lack of attention to this area during this period is that dating of sites is very rough and based mostly on pottery types.  This is the case in many other regions, of course, but it is particularly troublesome here because of the limited nature of the data in general.  Given that developments in better-dated areas seem to have often occurred very quickly and in very small areas, it is difficult to make many conclusions about overall patterns in a large area without many precise dates.

Spielmann notes these difficulties but does her best to make sense of the data that is available.  The main trends here, as elsewhere, during the Pueblo III period involve aggregation and abandonment.  While there is a general temporal sequence to these events, with pithouse sites being supplemented as aggregation increases by sites of jacal, adobe, and sometimes masonry, with the end state being either total aggregation or total abandonment, without better chronological control it is difficult to see what exactly is going on in each local area and how the developments in different areas relate to each other.  In most areas there seems to be a period of architectural diversity preceding the period of most notable aggregation, but it is impossible to tell how many of these different types of sites (pithouse, jacal, adobe, masonry) are actually contemporaneous and how many are replacing each other as populations aggregate.

Bridge over the Rio Grande at Los Lunas, New Mexico

Bridge over the Rio Grande at Los Lunas, New Mexico

Spielmann condenses the trends discernible from the data into a few hypotheses about overall trends:

  • There are a lot of similar changes between AD 1200 and 1300, particularly in the eastern border areas.  These include a period of diverse architecture from 1200 to 1250 and increasing aggregation resulting in the whole population being concentrated in large pueblos by 1300.  These pueblos are often composed of rectangular roomblocks surrounding a central plaze, a form that persists in these areas throughout the fourteenth century.  This type of community layout is typical of other parts of the southwest during this same period as well, and its prevalence seems to increase over time.
  • While the time period covered by this book is really supposed to end around AD 1350, there is a second period of aggregation in the eastern border areas during the 1400s that bears mentioning.  The furthest-east areas, those closest to the Great Plains, are abandoned completely by 1400, and there are some tantalizing hints that the inhabitants may have shifted to a lifestyle based on mobility and buffalo hunting.  In the remaining areas, the aggregated pueblos of the Pueblo III era further consolidate into a few larger pueblos.
  • Aggregation began considerably earlier in the Rio Abajo area proper, with the period of diverse architecture taking place during Pueblo II rather than Pueblo III.  However, it is possible that extensive aggregation here was actually simultaneous with that in the eastern border areas; the lack of precision in dating makes it difficult to tell how rapidly aggregation took place.  The resulting pueblos certainly look similar architecturally in the two regions.

These developments, to the extent that they can be identified at all, are puzzling, and Spielmann admits that she doesn’t have any solid answers.  She reviews several models that have been proposed to explain aggregation in general, including warfare, proximity to resources, competitive emulation, and adaptation to environmental change.  She finds most of these unpersuasive or inapplicable to this region, but has the most sympathy to a combination of adaptation to a changing environment and the effects of traditional patterns of land-use and ownership rights (a model most closely associated with the work of Michael Adler).  She identifies some tentative correlations between periods of ow rainfall and periods of aggregation, and also notes that at least in some areas the locations of aggregated sites are more favorable for agriculture than the locations of many earlier dispersed sites.  The data is, as always, fuzzy, but many of the correlations she notes are indeed suggestive.  Her proposals for the role of land-use rights are less convincing, but certainly plausible.  They involve patterns of settlement within the better agricultural areas noted above and mostly involve the locations of aggregated communities atop earlier sites and the movement into some areas of groups who may have previously used those areas seasonally.

How to Get to Isleta Pueblo

How to Get to Isleta Pueblo

Overall, the patterns identified here are tentative but intriguing.  The eastern border areas in particular seem to show aggregation remarkably late compared to other regions, and while the beginnings of aggregation seem to have been earlier in the Rio Abajo itself, it’s possible that the really substantial movement of population into aggregated pueblos was rather late there too.  There is also evidence for considerable immigration into many of these areas toward the end of the Pueblo III period, after a notable lack of such evidence earlier, which suggests some connections to developments elsewhere.  The nature of those connections, however, as well as the meaning of developments during this period for the better-known events of later periods, will have to await further, and hopefully more detailed, study.

Warning Sign at Rio Grande Bridge, Los Lunas, New Mexico

Warning Sign at Rio Grande Bridge, Los Lunas, New Mexico

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