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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.