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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.