The idea that the kachina cult was not an indigenous development among the Pueblos but was instead introduced from the south seems to have originated with a 1974 article by Polly and Curtis Schaafsma. As they note, while some previous scholars had noted some elements of the cult that suggested Mesoamerican influence, the general consensus had been that it developed in the western Pueblo area, probably among the Zunis, and spread at some point in prehistory to the Rio Grande Pueblos further east, perhaps through a migration of Keres speakers. This model was based largely on ethnographic evidence, particularly the way the cult is highly elaborated among the Hopis, Zunis, and Keres (as well as at Towa-speaking Jemez) but much more rudimentary among the Tewas and apparently absent entirely among the Tiwas. Archaeologists hadn’t paid much attention to it, probably because of its abstract nature and the difficulty of identifying specific material correlates of religious cults. Another likely reason for archaeological neglect could be that so much attention throughout the history of Southwestern archaeology has been focused on the Four Corners region, which shows no evidence of adoption of the kachina cult before its total abandonment around AD 1300.
This all changed with Polly Schaafsma’s pioneering studies of rock art throughout New Mexico. This is the main concern of the paper, which shows quite convincingly that the “Rio Grande style” of rock art that spread throughout the Pueblo area in late prehistoric times contains many elements that seem to clearly reference the kachina cult, particularly the masks that are worn by kachina impersonators. This is in stark contrast to the earlier rock art tradition centered on the Colorado Plateau, which since Basketmaker times had maintained a fairly stable mix of abstract forms such as spirals, simple anthropomorphs, and images of certain animals, especially quadrupeds and lizards. This is the style of rock art found at Chaco, and it’s quite widespread at pre-1300 sites throughout the northern Southwest.
Another style that bears much more resemblance to the Rio Grande Style, though in use at the same time as the Colorado Plateau style, is what the Schaafsmas call the Jornada style. This is named after the Jornada Mogollon who inhabited what is now south-central New Mexico, but the style actually spreads over a larger area of southern New Mexico and West Texas. It appears around AD 1000 in the Mimbres region of southwestern New Mexico, at a time when that region began to develop its distinctive culture, best known for figurative black-on-white pottery with designs that sometimes echo the rock art motifs. By AD 1150 the style had spread east to the Jornada proper, where it developed a high level of elaboration seen especially in painted mask designs at places like Hueco Tanks near El Paso, as well as in petroglyphs at sites like Three Rivers. The imagery in this style is strikingly similar to what would be seen in the Rio Grande style beginning around the time the Jornada people seem to disappear in the fourteenth century, which the Schaafsmas interpret as evidence for the kachina cult and its symbolism developing in the Jornada area and then spreading north up the Rio Grande. They point to some similarities between the Jornada style and some of the rock art in the Tompiro area just to the north as evidence for the early stages in this process.
That’s all well and good, and fairly convincing, although the broad application of the term “Jornada style” could be a bit problematic. They define it to include the Mimbres as well as the Jornada proper, which suggests that the route of transmission of the style and the cult could have been to the northwest from the Mimbres to the western Pueblos rather than to the north from the Jornada to the eastern Pueblos. It’s clear from their discussion, however, that they see the eastern origin and transmission as more likely, and they point to a relative lack of attestation of the style in the mountainous region between the Mimbres and the western Pueblos as evidence against that route. This isn’t all that convincing, though, and my understanding is that more recently some people have indeed argued for a Mimbres origin and/or western route of transmission.
All of this leaves out an important issue, though: What about the ethnographic evidence pointing to the western Pueblos as having developed the cult? If the cult came up the Rio Grande from the Jornada Mogollon, why don’t the modern Southern Tiwa Pueblos of Isleta and Sandia seem to have it at all, and why is it so much more developed among the Hopis and Zunis, further from the alleged source, than among the closer Tewas?
The Schaafsmas have a response to this concern that I think is pretty convincing. It’s important to keep in mind that the ethnographic Pueblos are the result of hundreds of years of close and often hostile relations with the Spanish and other groups, and especially early in the colonial period the Spanish missionaries were particularly aggressive in trying to stamp out the kachina cult. This effort was not ultimately successful as a general matter, but among some groups, especially the Southern Tiwa, it may have succeeded in extinguishing the cult entirely. Elsewhere, as among the Tewa, it may only have succeeded in encouraging the Pueblos to cut back on outward display of the kachina rites. Among the western Pueblos, less troubled by the Spanish, the cult was able to flourish and likely to change in various ways, and many of these changes may have filtered back to the eastern Pueblos once Spanish pressure declined, creating the illusion of the whole cult being introduced from the west.
The final issue the Schaafsmas address, and it’s an important one, is why the Pueblos adopted the cult. They note earlier explanations for the adoption of the kachina cult and other social integrative systems that cross-cut kinship connections tying them to the process of aggregation into ever-larger communities starting around 1200. The creation of these large communities out of previously autonomous groups, probably organized along kinship lines, resulted in social stresses that could be smoothed over by the adoption of organizational systems not related to kinship. The kachina cult, which is not at all connected to kinship, would have been a useful solution to this problem. Earlier proposals along these lines had posited an indigenous development of the cult as a response to the pressures of aggregation, but the Schaafsmas propose instead that it was introduced from the south around the same time that the process of aggregation was really taking off (the early fourteenth century), and that its popularity was due to the recognition that it offered a solution to the organizational problems communities were facing. It therefore spread throughout the region very quickly.
There’s much more to say about this proposal, of course, and I’ll get more into it later. This initial paper, though, makes a good case for it, and my impression is that while the details are disputed, there’s a general consensus that the overall model is more or less correct. One potential issue is that this particular paper rests entirely on rock art evidence, without considering other possible correlates of the cult such as pottery style and architecture. But that’s a matter for later.
Schaafsma, P., & Schaafsma, C. (1974). Evidence for the Origins of the Pueblo Katchina Cult as Suggested by Southwestern Rock Art American Antiquity, 39 (4) DOI: 10.2307/278903