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Archive for May, 2009

Chetro Ketl Great Kiva from Above

Chetro Ketl Great Kiva from Above

Shortly before I began working at Chaco I read The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch.  This short book, published in 1960, was one of the foundational texts of the then-emerging field of urban design.  In it Lynch presents a not-very-rigorous methodology for analyzing urban form and a resulting theory dividing a city for analytical purposes into a set of elements: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.  These interact in various ways to form cityscapes that either work aesthetically or don’t.  Lynch concludes that while some American cities work better than others, they all have problems, and a properly designed city is imaginable but has not yet been created.  He also notes that in the modern era the proper scale of urban design is not the city in a narrow, traditional sense but the metropolitan area, a social unit on a scale beyond anything yet incorporated into architecture or city planning.  While he concedes that nothing like this is even close to happening in real life, he notes the possibility of using the aesthetic principles he has outlined in this book to form the basis for a system of design principles to be used to make the metropolitan area, a thing unimaginably vast and disturbing by the standards of ordinary human perception, into a comforting and aesthetically pleasing environment.

When I arrived at Chaco and began learning about it in detail, it soon occurred to me that while Lynch’s vision of large-scale design had not been implemented in any modern American city, the principles he outlined were strikingly relevant to the ancient canyon.  Indeed,  it seemed almost trivially easy to take Lynch’s methodology, apply it to the remains of the Chaco system, and conclude that the design of Chaco approximated a realization of Lynch’s ideal city much better than any actually existing modern American city does.  When I first began to conceive the idea of starting this blog, in fact, one of my first ideas for a potential post was to do just that.

South Entrance to Casa Rinconada

South Entrance to Casa Rinconada

As it turned out, I was not the first to come up with this idea, and I realized not long after I started working at Chaco that it had already been done.  The context was an edited volume, arising from a conference, called Anasazi Architecture and American Design.  This conference and the resulting book were intended to bring together archaeologists, historians, architects, planners, and others to discuss and reflect on the connections between past and present.  I bought this book and read it eagerly, because this is a topic of considerable interest to me.

I won’t say it was a disappointment, exactly, because there’s a lot of good stuff in the book, but I would definitely say that it could have done a much better job of what it purports to do.  The most interesting and useful chapters are those by archaeologists, including Michael Marshall’s description and interpretation of the Chacoan road system and David Stuart’s presentation of his evolutionary theory of prehistoric southwestern cultural change.  The chapters by planners and architects, in contrast, are surprisingly superficial and often seem to miss the most important points.  Many seem determined to harness evidence from prehistory to support preordained conclusions about the best ways of designing communities in a modern context; the worst in this regard is Paul Lusk’s chapter on site design, which makes extraordinary efforts to use Anasazi practices as evidence for the superiority of New Urbanism.  Stephen Dent and Barbara Coleman’s chapter applying Lynch’s urban design theories to Chaco falls into this same category.

Northwest Corner of Pueblo del Arroyo

Northwest Corner of Pueblo del Arroyo

It’s not that Dent and Coleman are wrong, exactly.  In fact, they apply Lynch’s theories to Chaco in pretty much the exact same way I was thinking of doing so.  There’s a really striking lack of depth or context, however.  The overall tone of the chapter is one of wonder at the achievements of the Chacoans and hope that we might be able to learn from and emulate them.  This is hardly surprising, since as I mentioned before Chaco clearly shows a coherence of design unmatched by any modern city.  It’s problematic, though, because the implication is that the Chacoans had it right and we should strive to imitate them as much as possible.  They authors don’t really grapple with what I would say is one of the most important thing about Chaco: its impermanence.

Chaco was quite impressive in its day, but in the greater scheme of things its day was quite short.  The Chaco Phenomenon, whatever it was, only lasted for about a hundred years, and it seems to have fallen apart rather suddenly and spectacularly.  All the focus that Dent and Coleman, along with the other planners and architects who contributed to this volume, put on Chaco, the perfection of its planning and architecture, and the importance of emulating it to create sustainable communities ignores the fact that Chaco itself, however sustainable it may have been in theory, was in practice not sustained.  (This attitude is even more problematic when applied to Mesa Verde, as is done in some other chapters.)

Tsin Kletzin from a Distance

Tsin Kletzin from a Distance

The archaeologists get this.  While the planners and architects tend to focus intensely on the well-known sites at Chaco and Mesa Verde, the archaeologists are more familiar with the broad sweep of southwestern prehistory and the way these cultures developed and adapted to changing circumstances.  Probably the most useful chapter in the book is Steve Lekson’s, in which he gives some context and shows that focusing on Chaco and Mesa Verde results in a dangerously skewed perception of what is typical and important about southwestern prehistoric cultures and their legacy.

It’s unfortunate that this book and conference couldn’t have done more to develop an interdisciplinary synthesis of the important lessons to be learned from Chaco and their application to modern problems.  I think such a synthesis is both possible and desirable, but it requires a much more serious effort on the part of modern practitioners to seriously grapple with the confusing and difficult archaeological record and the limited but telling glimpses it gives of past societies, their problems, and the solutions they devised, some of which were clearly more successful than others.  There are useful lessons for modern America to learn from Chaco, but for the most part they aren’t in this book.  Anasazi America, David Stuart’s later development of his ideas, despite some problems of its own, is a much more serious and useful book for these purposes.  I hope there will be others in the future, incorporating the perspectives of modern practitioners as well as archaeologists, but founded on a deep and meaningful understanding of the past.

Northwest Corner of Hungo Pavi

Northwest Corner of Hungo Pavi

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Pueblo Pintado Great House from a Distance

Pueblo Pintado Great House from a Distance

I’ve previously given some suggestions for books to read to begin to learn about Chaco.  Those books provide the essential background information necessary to understand any further discussion of or research on Chaco.  Most of that research and discussion, however, is very dry and academic, and not all that interesting to the general reader.  Like most academic scholarship in archaeology (as in other disciplines), it tends to have a very narrow focus and to not give much context or explain why any of this is important.  This is a common, perhaps even essential, characteristic of modern academia in general, and academics tend to bristle at being asked why anyone should care about what they do.  And rightly so, I think; there should be no requirement for scholarship to have any direct application to practical issues, and the structure of modern academia is deliberately designed to encourage basic research without regard for any applications it may or may not turn out to have.

When it comes to Chaco, however, I think there’s an unfortunate side effect of this scholarly narrowness.  Chaco is important.  I would say archaeology in general is important, of course, for the insights it can give us into the variety of possibilities for the organization and functioning of human societies.  But even beyond that general point, I think Chaco is of particular importance for us today because of the really striking parallels between the Chaco system, whatever it was, and modern American society.  Those parallels tend to be obscured, however, by the way research on Chaco presented carefully and slowly in relatively obscure academic venues.

Tunnel into Kiva at Casamero Pueblo

Tunnel into Kiva at Casamero Pueblo

This isn’t the fault of the archaeologists doing that research, by any means.  It’s important to uphold academic norms so that the quality of scholarship remains high, and in many cases presenting research in a more accessible format would tend to have a detrimental effect on scholarly rigor.  There is a need, however, for someone to try to bridge the gap between the scholarship on Chaco with its implicit lessons and the public which needs to know about it.  Bridging that gap is one major thing I am trying to accomplish with this blog, but there has been surprisingly little effort by others to make Chaco accessible.  (And when such efforts are made, they’re often by people with limited or superficial knowledge of the scholarship, which they present in inaccurate or misleading ways.)

One major exception to this trend, and a book that I think is absolutely required reading for understanding why Chaco matters, is Anasazi America by David Stuart.  Stuart is an anthropologist at UNM, and while he isn’t a specialist in Chaco specifically (and actually seems to be more of a sociocultural anthropologist than an archaeologist) his knowledge of the ancient southwest is quite solid.  While I don’t agree with everything he says about Chaco, and some of his arguments are considerably less well-supported by the data than others, this is still by far the best book I’ve seen at explaining the importance of Chaco and presenting concretely the lessons that we can and should take from its story.

Blocked-Off T-Shaped Doorway at Casamero Pueblo

Blocked-Off T-Shaped Doorway at Casamero Pueblo

As the title implies, the book covers much more than Chaco.  It’s structured as an overview of the broad sweep of southwestern prehistory, starting at the very beginning with the Paleoindian period and continuing to the present day.  Stuart’s theoretical perspective is based in evolutionary theory and focuses on the process of constant adjustments in human societal adaptations in response to environmental changes and other factors.  His main focus is on the back-and-forth between two main types of societal adaptations, which he associates with the overarching concepts of “power” and “efficiency.”  In this formulation, which I think is somewhat idiosyncratic, societies range along a continuum from the most efficient, consisting of small, mobile bands of hunter-gatherers, to the most powerful, consisting of large, sedentary, complex societies based on intensive agriculture.  (He has presented this in somewhat more detail elsewhere.)  Shifts in environmental conditions can result in particular human groups moving in either direction along this continuum, and in the southwest Stuart sees a lot of movement over time in both directions.

That all sounds very dry and academic, but it really isn’t.  The theory plays a background role here, and the main focus is on the details of the narrative.  Although, as I mentioned, that narrative covers an enormous amount of time and a wide variety of adaptations to different environmental regimes, the key events in many ways are the rise and fall of Chaco.

Stuart is rather vague about the exact nature of the Chaco system and the amount of formal political hierarchy within it, which I think is actually one of the best ways to deal with this very thorny issue in a book aimed at a popular audience.  He definitely sees it as being a fairly centralized system run by elites with at least some ability to extract labor from people all around the San Juan Basin, and his core point about it is that it involved a level of societal inequality that was a major departure from the previously more egalitarian societies of the region.  This makes him very much what I have elsewhere called an “aberrationist.”  While there are plenty of quibbles that could be made about his presentation of specific aspects of the system, given the divisive nature of scholarship, in a book like this he has to present something in order to talk about it, and I think in general he does a good job of highlighting the really important elements of Chaco that make it different from other societies before and after.

Small House under Cliff

Small House under Cliff

As Stuart presents Chaco, it was a system involved a substantial and increasing amount of economic inequality between elites, who lived in the great houses and claimed exceptional authority on account of their ritual and ceremonial knowledge and power, and the bulk of the population, who lived in small houses and did all the work.  He relies crucially in making this distinction on the differences in health and well-being evident in human remains found in the great houses (mostly Pueblo Bonito) and the small houses, a line of evidence that gets surprisingly little play in most theories about Chaco.  Clearly, however, the great-house residents, if they are indeed the people buried in the great houses, were taller, better-nourished, and otherwise healthier than the rest of the population in all sorts of ways.  Their apparent rate of infant mortality was a lot lower than the appallingly high numbers seen in small-house burials, although assessing the representativeness of any of these burial samples is problematic to say the least.  The idea that the small-house residents were the ones doing all the work in constructing great houses, roads, and other projects is a leap, but by no means an implausible one, and if the great-house elites were the ones making the decisions about what to build, where, and when, which is equally plausible, the amount of inequality implied by their ability to harness the labor of the “commoners” is quite striking.

The basis of that authority, in Stuart’s view, was ceremonial knowledge, which is of considerable importance in the modern Pueblos.  While the exact nature of the rituals associated with the great-house elites is unclear, and given subsequent social changes is probably unknowable, this is a plausible enough interpretation in general, particularly when associated with the period of extended favorable rainfall during the eleventh century that coincides with the rise of the system.  If the elites managed to associate their new ceremonial system with that rainfall, as seems likely, it’s hardly surprising that they could use the resulting influence to expand the range of the system.

Drainage on Mesa Top

Drainage on Mesa Top

This would work only work as long as the rains held up, of course.  Stuart considers the short but severe period of drought in the early 1090s to be a crucial turning point in the trajectory of the system.  Oddly, at least on a superficial level, this drought seems to have spurred an intensification of the system.  A huge amount of the surviving architecture at Chaco and elsewhere seems to date to the very early 1100s.  There are some differences between much of this activity and earlier projects, but there are also a lot of similarities, and a certain amount of continuity seems inescapable.  Stuart resolves this apparent problem for his model by positing that the elites had enough influence accumulated that the drought didn’t immediately discredit them, and that they used the worrisome turn of events to, in effect, “double-down” on their methods, building more and more buildings and conducting more and more ceremonies in an attempt to pray their way out of trouble.  (He analogizes this, a little oddly, to the New Deal as a response to the Great Depression.)  This seemed to work at first, when the rains returned, and the system continued to function though perhaps with a few changes.

When a much more extensive and long-term period of drought began in the 1130s, however, the system apparently couldn’t adapt as it had before.  This time Stuart sees the elites being largely discredited by the failure of their rituals to secure rain, and he sees the commoners simply walking away and migrating to other parts of the southwest where they could farm on their own and live a simpler, more egalitarian, and more “efficient” lifestyle.  (The evidence for this is very limited, and this is one of the more dubious parts of the book.)  Without their base of support the elites couldn’t keep the system going, and eventually they too were forced to leave amid an environment of shortage, conflict, and hostility.

The movement was first to the upland areas to the north and south, then, accompanied by considerable changes in social organization and subsistence methods, to the fertile river valleys such as the Rio Grande, where the survivors of the chaotic events since the fall of Chaco formed the highly egalitarian, communal lifestyle that enabled their communities to survive the intense challenges of the Spanish conquest and endure to the present day.

That’s the story in a nutshell.  The basic idea is that Chaco was an example of Pueblo society moving unsustainably far in the direction of power, so far that when substantial environmental changes happened it was too inflexible to adapt in place and instead disintegrated, emerging later in a very different and more efficient form that ended up being much more sustainable.

Corner at Casamero Pueblo

Corner at Casamero Pueblo

The implications for our own society are probably clear enough at this point, but Stuart makes sure to note them at each step along the way.  He makes a series of comparisons between ancient developments and characteristics of modern American society, focusing especially on economic inequality.  Many of these comparisons seem rather silly and forced, which I think is largely the result of the time when he was writing.  The book was published in 2000 and written in the late 1990s, a time when America was riding high on a tide of peace and prosperity.  Stuart’s argument, that inequality in America puts us at risk of the same sort of cataclysmic collapse that happened to Chaco, was a hard sell at that optimistic time, and he had to really dig deep to find parallels.  If he were writing the same book today, after ten years of increasingly dire events leading to a much more pessimistic and even apocalyptic national mood, he would have no difficulty finding parallels to Chaco right in the headlines.

Given the current state of things in America, with what seems like an endless parade of bad news and economic inequality coming to the forefront of public debate in a way it hasn’t in decades, Stuart often looks remarkably prescient.  His account of the rise and fall of Chaco, though problematic in some ways given the limited and ambiguous evidence, is plausible and consistent enough to show that the story is very relevant to the exact same issues we face today.  More troublingly, the way the story seems to have gone is not encouraging for the fate of modern America.  Not that the circumstances are exactly the same, of course, but Chaco didn’t end well, and the modern Pueblos that eventually replaced it are, as Stuart hastens to note, not really suitable models for us to try to imitate.  Their values are not quite our values, and adapting our society to be more like theirs would involve the abandonment of a lot of things about America, such as personal freedom and tolerance of difference, that we value very highly.

Apparent Path behind Casa Chiquita

Apparent Path behind Casa Chiquita

The nature of the end of Chaco, however, suggests that we really do need to change something.  The Chacoans, whatever their ideology suggested, didn’t really have the power to control the weather.  We do, at least to the extent that the activities of our society are actively making it change in a direction that makes the continuance of that society more difficult, so one obvious way to adapt would be to try to shift away from that.  Interestingly, Stuart doesn’t talk about this at all.  Global warming wasn’t quite the major public issue when he was writing that it is now, but it was certainly known about and discussed, so the omission is odd.  The area where he focuses his attention, however, is economic inequality, which contributes to the inflexibility of societies to adapt to changing circumstances.  The entrenched power of elites, and their interest in maintaining that power, can make needed changes politically impossible.  We are seeing evidence for that right now in the banking crisis and the Obama Administration’s reaction to it.  Getting the bankers who got us into this mess out of the driver’s seat seems like one obvious step to take, but it is very unlikely that it will be taken given the power and wealth that the bankers still hold.

Overall, despite some problems with the way it presents the story, Anasazi America is a crucial book.  It connects the prehistoric past to the present and its challenges in a serious and not at all superficial way, but it is also accessible to the nonspecialist reader.  I wouldn’t take Stuart’s account of Chaco as gospel, but I would say that he makes a strong case for its importance to modern society that makes continued research into the rise, fall, and nature of the Chaco system both urgent and essential.  This, in other words, is where to find the reason to pay attention to all those articles buried in American Antiquity and obscure edited volumes.  Not that there’s any reason for the general reader to actually read all those articles and try to evaluate their importance, of course.  That’s my job.

Modern Community of Pueblo Pintado from Pueblo Pintado Great House

Modern Community of Pueblo Pintado from Pueblo Pintado Great House

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Noticeable Rock above Casa Chiquita

Noticeable Rock above Casa Chiquita

One question that comes up from time to time on tours or in other interactions with the public, generally when I’m talking about the origins of Chaco or its place within a larger context, is “But didn’t they come from the north originally?  Across the Bering Strait?”  The answer is yes, of course, but I think the very fact that the question gets asked is troublesome.  Not unremarkable, by any means, especially since the peopling of the Americas across the Bering Strait is probably the most talked-about aspect of American prehistory in public discourse in the US.  The idea that Native Americans came originally from Asia is interesting to the public in general, controversial in some ways because of its obvious incompatibility with tribal creation traditions, and controversial in other ways because archaeologists have begun arguing among themselves about the specifics of when and how people came across much more than they did for a long time, a shift ably and accessibly documented by Charles Mann in 1491.

As a result of all this attention, the public is quite aware of the Bering Strait issue.  If typical Americans know nothing else about prehistoric America (and they don’t), they do know about the Bering Strait.  So, when they come to a place like Chaco and hear about its origins and place in prehistory, it’s only natural that they wonder how the Bering Strait fits in.  So they ask.

Pueblo del Arroyo from a Distance

Pueblo del Arroyo from a Distance

The thing is, though, that for all practical purposes the crossing of the Bering Strait is irrelevant to Chaco.  It’s trivially true, of course, that if there had been no crossing there would be no Chaco, but beyond that it doesn’t matter at all.  In fact, I would say that the fact that the Bering Strait is so much better known than any other part of the story of prehistoric America is a significant problem when it comes to popular impressions of places like Chaco.

The major problem with all the attention that the Bering Strait gets is that whenever the crossing occurred, and as I mentioned there is an increasing amount of dispute over when that was, it was definitely many thousands of years before Chaco.  People argue over exactly how many thousands of years, but there’s no dispute that “many thousands” is the proper order of magnitude.

Low (Surviving) Walls at Tsin Kletzin

Low (Surviving) Walls at Tsin Kletzin

There are a variety of models that have been proposed for the initial peopling of the Americas, not all of which rely on the Bering Land Bridge hypothesis, but even the “short chronology” theories see the crossing as having happened at least 11,000 years ago.  Since the florescence of the Chaco system began roughly 1,000 years ago, that leaves 10,000 years at the very least between the time people entered the New World and the beginnings of Chaco.

By human standards, this is an enormous amount of time.  (By, say, geological standards it’s nothing, of course, but here we’re talking about people.)  A hell of a lot of stuff can (and did) happen in that much time.  This tends to get overlooked in an American context, due partly to the fact that the public doesn’t know much about what happened after the initial peopling of the Americas and partly to the fact that the archaeological record for most places doesn’t show a whole lot of chronological precision or cultural detail.  It may be better, then, to look at what was going on in a better-known area, namely Europe and the Near East (including Egypt), during the period between the Bering Strait and Chaco.

Back Wall of Hungo Pavi

Back Wall of Hungo Pavi

Eleven thousand years ago, the Neolithic (or “New Stone Age”) was just beginning in the Near East with the earliest domestication of wild plants.  Europe was dominated by various hunter-gatherer cultures, and much of northern Europe was still covered by glaciers.  Over time agriculture and other changes began to spread into Europe and other areas, while in Mesopotamia and Egypt complex societies of settled farmers gradually developed into the first literate civilizations.  During the Bronze Age, these civilizations began to act on a larger scale, with major political units such as the united kingdom of Egypt and various Mesopotamian empires warring with and conquering nearby peoples.  In the Late Bronze Age these developments begin to spread to Europe, starting in Greece with the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete.  The Greeks become much more of a force during the succeeding Iron Age, when other European cultures such as the Celts also appear on the scene.  At the same time that Greece is rising in power, Egypt is declining, while elsewhere in the Near East the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires conquer much larger swathes of land than any of their predecessors, but are unable to consolidate their conquests and eventually fall to the incoming Persians, who create an empire on an even vaster scale.  The Greeks and Persians come to have a series of conflicts, with Alexander the Great eventually conquering the Persian Empire and spreading Greek cultural influence as far east as India.  After his death his empire is divided among his generals, whose descendants are able to hold onto their territories until they encounter the rising power of the latest newcomer, Rome.  The Roman Empire lasts for a few hundred years and encompasses most of Europe and the Near East (some parts only briefly), then begins to lose its hard-won territory to a resurgent Persia in the east and newly assertive Germanic tribes in the north.  The tribes end up taking over all of the western part of the empire and converting it to a series of small kingdoms, while the eastern part, having changed quite a bit and adopted the new religion of Christianity, manages to hold on against the Persians and keep most of its territory, at least for a while.  The Persians themselves end up being unable to fend off a new threat in the form of another new religion, Islam, which comes out of the Arabian Peninsula and spreads through conquest until it dominates most of the Near East.

This is more or less where Chaco enters the picture.  Note that the Sumerians, Akkadians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and Persians have all risen and fallen in power and influence during this ten-thousand year period.  We know this because these are all literate civilizations and we can follow their history in written form.  We have no such luck with North America, so it all seems like something of a blur, with one archaeological “culture” defined by pottery technique or arrowhead form supplanting another all over the continent and the cycle then repeating again and again for millennia.  This makes it seem like there was much less going on than there was in places like Europe, and it also makes those thousands of years seem to have gone by quicker.

Viga Hole at Una Vida

Viga Hole at Una Vida

There wasn’t and they didn’t, however.  The fact that we can’t see the events in America with the resolution as those of Europe doesn’t mean that they were any less detailed.  There’s no way for us to know just how comparable they were, of course, but despite the rather different trajectory of the technological developments that we can see, there is every reason to think that the events and cultural developments we don’t see were very complex.  For one thing, whenever the light comes on with the beginning of writing in some part of the Americas (rather early in Mesoamerica with its indigenous writing systems, much later in the rest of the hemisphere with the coming of literate Europeans) the picture suddenly becomes vastly more complicated and reconciling the historical and ethnographic record with the purely archaeological evidence from the immediately preceding period is no small task.

The upshot of all this is that, just like in Europe and the Near East, there was more than enough time between the Bering Strait crossing and the rise of Chaco for the societies of the New World to have developed in ways that leave the land bridge far behind.  It is those developments, and not their origin in the far-off past, that are the important context in understanding things like Chaco.

Side Wash by Chetro Ketl

Side Wash by Chetro Ketl

I never think to say something like this when people ask these questions, but a good response to “Didn’t they originally come from Asia?” might be “Well, they originally came from Africa, as did we all.”  It’s just as true, and about as relevant.

This is kind of a small thing in and of itself, but I think it’s symptomatic of a much larger and more problematic issue with popular understanding of American prehistory, and that’s the concept of “The Indians.”  There’s a tendency, to which 1491 is an excellent counterweight, to see precolumbian America as a timeless land of simple cultures exactly like those encountered by European explorers, maintaining the same broadly similar lifestyles all over the hemisphere for thousands of years.  This is the attitude that was nearly universal in the US for a long time, and while modern archaeology and ethnohistory have gone a long way in debunking it in educated circles, it’s definitely still out there to varying degrees.  If “The Indians” (as people with this attitude are apt to call them) are seen in this light, and one thing I’ve learned in this job is that to surprisingly many people they are, then focusing on the Bering Strait makes sense.  After all, if The Indians came across the Bering Strait and then stayed the same until the Europeans came along, their culture must have developed at the time of the crossing or earlier, in Asia, and understanding it can be best accomplished by going back to that time.

Peñasco Blanco Midden

Peñasco Blanco Midden

Since this way of looking at precolumbian America is totally wrong for all sorts of reasons, however, the Bering Strait is of extremely limited relevance.  When it comes to something like Chaco, it’s hard to see what relevance it might have at all.  While the origins of Chaco ultimately reach back to Asia, and further back to Africa, the aspects of those origins that are actually meaningful and interesting are all right here in America.

Una Vida from Petroglyph Area

Una Vida from Petroglyph Area

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