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Archive for February, 2010

Chuska Mountains from New Mexico Highway 371

I’ve recently been  looking a bit into the important issue of the migration of Athapaskan-speaking groups ancestral to the Navajos and Apaches into the Southwest.  Although this is one of the most obvious examples of long-distance migration in prehistoric North America, surprisingly little is known about it.  There’s basically no archaeological evidence establishing when it happened or what route(s) it took, which seems to imply either that the durable aspects of Athapaskan material culture changed so much over the course of the migration as to obscure any continuity or that there was so little durable material culture to start with that nothing recognizable from it has survived in the archaeological record.  Linguistics, which is the source of basically all of the evidence that the migration took place at all, doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to say about the details either.  The main other source of information is ethnography, which is actually a pretty rich (if someone underutilized) source since many Athapaskan groups in both the Subarctic and the Southwest have been extensively documented by ethnographers.

Jicarilla Apache Camp at Salmon Ruins Museum, Bloomfield, New Mexico

One interesting contribution from this perspective is an article from 1983 by Richard Perry of St. Lawrence University, an expert on the Western Apaches.  In this article Perry attempts to use comparative ethnographic data on modern Athapaskan peoples to reconstruct the culture of the speakers of Proto-Athapaskan as completely as possible.  He models his methodology explicitly on the comparative method used in historical linguistics, looking particularly for aspects of culture shared by widely dispersed Athapaskan populations but not by non-Athapaskan groups in between.  His ultimate goal is to use the knowledge of Proto-Athapaskan culture gained by this method to analyze the changes unique to particular Athapaskan groups, but in this paper he focuses purely on the commonalities in order to gain a sound basis for later study of differences.  He relies most heavily on specific cultural beliefs and practices shared by Athapaskan groups at the far ends of the family’s range, i.e., in Alaska and the Southwest, and he relies particularly heavily on similarities between the Tanaina of the Anchorage area at the northern end of the Athapaskan range, whose language is apparently the most divergent of all the Athapaskan languages despite the close proximity of several other Athapaskan groups, and the Apaches at the far southern end of the range, whose language is also very divergent.  The idea behind this is that if a given practice is shared by Athapaskan groups that are both widely separated physically and, judging by the divergence of their languages, isolated from each other for a long time, it is likely to date back to the period before the groups separated, which in this case would have to be the Proto-Athapaskan period.

Mural of Apaches, Artesia, New Mexico

His results are interesting and pretty convincing, although I think he could have gone into more detail about how the commonalities he identifies among Athapaskan groups differ from the practices of non-Athapaskan groups.  For the most part the idea that the other linguistic groups didn’t share these traits is simply implied, and while this is plausible and I have no reason to doubt it, I think it would have been better to have it spelled out a bit more.  The commonalities he finds are primarily in the more abstract aspects of culture, which is unsurprising given the wide geographic range of the language family and the very different ecological settings and resulting material cultures of the various groups.  The southern groups in particular, both the Apacheans in the Southwest and the Pacific Coast Athapaskans in northern California and southern Oregon, seem to have been strongly influenced by neighboring societies in their material culture and, to a somewhat more limited degree, in their social systems and ideologies.  The major similarities Perry finds, however, apparently set these groups apart from their neighbors, although as I noted above it would have been nice to see this stated and supported more explicitly.

"Apache Indians" Sign, Artesia, New Mexico

The most important similarity Perry finds among the Athapaskans is a general belief that all objects in the world have powers that are not inherently good or bad but that can become dangerous to people under certain circumstances and must therefore be respected.  This is basically a sort of animism, and it lies behind much of the religion and ideology of the Athapaskan-speaking groups.  It is such an all-encompassing concept that it applies even to abstract qualities, one of which is “femaleness,” as Perry calls it.  This “femaleness” is considered so potentially powerful if particularly concentrated that many of the Athapaskan groups, especially in the north, have highly elaborated forms of menstrual seclusion and female puberty rites, as well as important taboos surrounding childbirth.  Perry considers these practices sufficiently important that he discusses them separately from animism in general, although he notes that they are strongly linked to more general animistic ideas.  Also based ultimately on animism but discussed separately are ideas about death and the human soul, which Athapaskan groups consistently divide into two parts, one identified with the breath and another associated with the shadow.  One of these, which among most but not all of the groups is the shadow, is thought to remain around a dead body after the other departs at death, which leads to very elaborate taboos concerning dead bodies and anything associated with them.  Many groups abandon or destroy houses where people have died, and destruction of a dead person’s possessions is also common.  Perry also mentions a few other aspects of culture that are fairly common across the Athapaskan spectrum, but the core of his reconstruction effort relies on the three related ideological factors of animism, “femaleness,” and the bipartite soul.

Office of Wilbur A. Tso, M.D., Farmington, New Mexico

This is all plausible enough, but it’s not a whole lot to hang a reconstruction of a culture on.  Perry seems to realize this, and before getting to the comparative portion of the paper he gives a “framework for reconstruction” in which he looks at various types of data to see what conclusions can be drawn about the likely circumstances under which Proto-Athapaskan was spoken.  For dating he relies on rather dubious glottochronological approaches that put the breakup of Proto-Athapaskan sometime in the last few centuries BC.  This is a very slim reed given the problems with glottochronology (which Perry, to his credit, does acknowledge), but it is consistent with the archaeology, at least in the sense that there don’t seem to be any sites that can be plausibly linked to Athapaskan-speakers until the first few centuries AD.  As for the place, Perry agrees with the common viewpoint that puts Proto-Athapaskan in Alaska, which has the greatest concentration of different Athapaskan languages, and he speculates that the Alaska Peninsula/Cook Inlet area, near present-day Anchorage, is a plausible choice for the specific location.  For one thing, this is the area occupied historically by the Tanaina, which as mentioned earlier are the most divergent Athapaskan group linguistically, and though Perry doesn’t say this explicitly the assumption behind his model seems to be that the Tanaina stayed behind when the rest of the speakers of the protolanguage left, presumably moving east.  It’s also close to the historic homeland of the Eyak, whose language is generally considered to be related to but not part of the Athapaskan family.

Navajo Trading Company, Farmington, New Mexico

Another advantage Perry sees in putting the Proto-Athapaskans on the Alaska Peninsula has to do with a distinctive characteristic of most Athapaskan-speaking groups: their flexibility in adopting subsistence strategies and general lack of specialization.  In general, Athapaskan groups have been remarkably adaptable to different ecological surroundings, which was likely a considerable asset on the long migration of the Southwestern and Pacific Coast Athapaskans  in particular.  Although it’s not really clear how much can be concluded about culture history from this, Perry sees it as consistent with all the groups descending from a group occupying the very diverse territory of the Alaska Peninsula, where the maritime resources of the Cook Inlet are in close proximity to the very different resources of the nearby mountains, streams, and lowlands.  Using all these resources would have required a considerable amount of seasonal mobility and a flexible social structure, and these are also common characteristics of ethnographic Athapaskan groups.  Although there are some notable exceptions, most Athapaskans historically have been characterized by a decentralized social structure based on widely scattered and largely autonomous small kin-based units, which nevertheless keep in contact with each other and may coalesce for certain specific purposes at times.  Most of these societies are also noteworthy for a large degree of individual autonomy, which is useful in a context of unpredictable and widely scattered resources that can be most effectively exploited on an ad hoc basis by individual hunters or gatherers.  He also notes an interesting tendency for Athapaskan groups to live in close proximity to mountain ranges, although here I think he’s going a bit far in trying to tie this tendency back to a mountainous Urheimat for the whole family.

Collapsed Hogan, Shonto, Arizona

Given the lack of secure dates, the archaeological upshot of all this is pretty limited.  It’s interesting, though, to see how many strong continuities there are among the Athapaskan groups, given their very large and non-contiguous geographical range.  More important than any of this ethnographic data, of course, are the very strong linguistic connections, but the ethnography adds a crucial independent line of evidence in trying to piece together the very complicated and confusing Athapaskan puzzle.
ResearchBlogging.org
PERRY, R. (1983). Proto-Athapaskan culture: the use of ethnographic reconstruction American Ethnologist, 10 (4), 715-733 DOI: 10.1525/ae.1983.10.4.02a00060

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Parry Lodge, Kanab, Utah

Several years ago I was in Kanab, Utah on the Fourth of July.  When the segment of the town parade representing the local office of the Bureau of Land Management went by, a man standing near me in the crowd yelled out “Management, not ownership!”  The people around him laughed and slapped him on the back good-naturedly.  It was obvious that he was just saying what they were all thinking.  This was just a few years after President Clinton’s controversial establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is administered by the BLM’s Kanab Field Office, and there was still a lot of obvious bitterness about that.

Sign for Anasazi Indian State Park, Boulder, Utah

I was there because my family had decided to do a big trip that summer to explore the new monument.  I was a teenager at the time and had never been to that area, but my parents used to go to Kanab and the surrounding area a lot before I was born and they were curious to see if and how it had changed with the new designation.  (It’s also just a beautiful area; I went through it again last year when I did a big road trip to California.)

Sign Describing Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Kanab, Utah

We did a lot of things on that trip.  We camped at Calf Creek in the monument itself and visited Anasazi State Park in Boulder, Utah, which is a fascinating place, of considerably more importance archaeologically than I realized at the time.  We ended up in Kanab, where we stayed at Parry Lodge, which prides itself on its history of housing movie stars who came to film in the area, and which was also where my parents used to stay when they had come to Kanab years before.  It’s a nice little town, but it’s definitely part of southern Utah and has its share of the political attitudes typical there, as shown clearly by the man’s outburst at the parade.

Linear Roomblock at Coombs Village (Anasazi State Park), Boulder, Utah

That kind of attitude toward the BLM in particular, and the federal government in general, is very common in southern Utah.  It’s particularly obvious right now in light of the outrage over a leaked government document mulling the possibility of establishing new national monuments throughout the West, including at two sites in southern Utah, but it’s been there for as long as there have been white people in the area and it’s never really diminished.  Another recent example of the same attitude is the local reaction to the arrests in the Blanding pothunting sting, many of which portrayed it as an example of the BLM and FBI overreacting to a harmless hobby and oppressing good people for no reason except to show that they could.

Entrance Sign for Natural Bridges National Monument

There’s a fundamental selfishness and sense of entitlement lurking behind this attitude, a feeling by many of these people that they should be allowed to do whatever they want just by virtue of being who they are.  How exactly “who they are” is defined differs in different contexts, but most of the time I think it boils down to being white people (often specifically white men) in a country where the untrammeled right of certain white people to do anything they want has long been a powerful ideal.  It’s an easy attitude to imbibe as a white person growing up in America, and I think it’s much more widespread than extreme examples in the rural West would suggest.  I’ve encountered plenty of good liberals who are quite happy to propose and support policies that restrict the ability of others (corporations, polluters, police, soldiers, etc.) to do whatever they want, but whenever their own freedom is threatened suddenly change their tune.  It’s an easy enough attitude to understand, and I don’t mean to be accusing anyone of hypocrisy here.  I’ve certainly done plenty of this sort of thing myself.  I’m mostly just suggesting a bit more humility and a bit less self-righteousness on everyone’s part, not as a transcendent moral principle but as a practical way to get along in a pluralistic society with lots of conflicting interests and opinions.

Southern Utah Regional Map, Kanab, Utah

It’s in that context that I note a good post by Keith Kloor on the monument kerfluffle, which includes a link to a very good meditation on some of these issues from an environmental journalist who is very clearly aware of his own sense of entitlement when it comes to issues of wildness and preservation.  Resource management and preservation are fundamentally difficult issues to address, and there are no easy answers.  There are too many conflicting priorities and contrasting opinions for there to ever be a simple way out.

Sign for Butler Wash Ruins Overlook, Southern Utah

Keith’s quote from Ed Abbey is a case in point.  I’ve never read any Abbey, but I know my dad hated him, more for The Monkey Wrench Gang than for Desert Solitaire, which I don’t remember him ever mentioning.  I’m not sure what it was exactly about Abbey that rubbed him the wrong way, but I suspect it had to do with what Abbey represented: the outsider blundering crudely through a place extolling its virtues without ever really understanding it the way the locals did.  My dad was very much a local in the Southwest, and while he had his own strain of entitled-white-guy thinking, it was very different from Abbey’s.  It wasn’t so much Abbey’s environmentalism per se that annoyed people like my dad and his relatives, many of whom were strong supporters of the Sierra Club, Rachel Carson, and the “mainstream” environmental movement that they saw as totally compatible with their small-town petit bourgeois Republican worldview.  Abbey, though, was different, a representative of a worldview that, while “environmentalist” in some sense, seemed to be more about self-indulgent destruction and nihilistic romanticism than about stewardship and preservation.  It was people like Abbey, and especially his more extreme acolytes, who I think contributed heavily to the souring of local white people in the rural West on environmentalism in general and activist groups composed mainly of people from elsewhere in particular.  It’s a shame, too, because there is actually a lot of sentiment among westerners in favor of conserving natural resources and limiting destructive development, but these days that sentiment seems to be used mainly as a rhetorical cudgel against environmental groups, giving cover to exploitative corporations, some of which have become pretty good at ingratiating themselves with local communities.  I don’t mean to try to pin all of this on Abbey, since there has obviously been a lot of other stuff going on that has contributed to this dynamic, but I do think he played a role.

Butler Wash Ruins Overlook, Southern Utah

One other thing about Abbey that Keith notes in his post, however, is the fact that he was living in Hoboken, New Jersey when he completed Desert Solitaire, and he may even have written the whole thing there.  One way to interpret this, in light of what I wrote above, is that it reinforces his “outsider” status relative to the West, but I think there’s a better way to look at it.  Abbey’s West, like most people’s, existed primarily in his mind, and his perception of the landscapes he wrote about was filtered through his experiences and preconceptions.  That doesn’t make it any less “real,” however.  Abbey’s books, which I emphasize again I have not read, should stand or fall on their own merits, regardless of how much or how little time their author spent in the places they describe.  I’m a strong believer in the idea that physically being in a place, while helpful and perhaps necessary to having a “complete” or well-rounded understanding of it, is not a necessary precondition for talking about it at all.  Indeed, I could hardly think otherwise, given that I write all about the Southwest on this blog while living in (a different part of) New Jersey myself.  For me, then, the idea of Abbey sitting in a bar in Hoboken recalling the canyons of Utah makes me more sympathetic to him, not less.

Slickrock along Trail to Butler Wash Overlook, Southern Utah

Personally, I’m not a very adventurous type.  I’ve been a lot of places and I’ve seen a lot of things, and those experiences have been immensely valuable to me, but I’d fundamentally prefer to be sitting in a cute little coffeeshop somewhere, reading or writing a book, rather than hiking across slickrock canyon rims contemplating the beauty of the landscape.  Not that I don’t enjoy the latter, but it’s not my usual preference.  Personal preferences don’t matter that much to larger issues most of the time, but when aggregated across large numbers of people they do add up, and in the context of resource protection there are actually some important implications.  One way to look at it, and by no means the only one, is to ask a simple question: On the margin, who is impacting the landscape more, the reader in the coffeeshop or the hiker on the canyon rim?

Bench on Trail to Butler Wash Overlook, Southern Utah

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Turquoise-Covered Pottery, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Probably no single material is more closely associated with Chaco than turquoise.  The vast amounts found in Room 33 at Pueblo Bonito alone suggest its importance, but it has been found in considerable quantities at many different sites, both small houses and great houses and both inside and outside of the canyon.  There is considerable evidence that manufacture of turquoise jewelry became a major activity in Chaco and some of the outlier communities during the period when the Chacoan system was beginning to form, and probable ornament manufacturing areas have been found at both great houses and small houses.  It’s not clear what precise role turquoise may have played in the system (though there are some intriguing possibilities suggested by other lines of evidence), but it is apparent that it was an important one.  It’s also important to note that unlike some rare artifacts, such as shell trumpets, turquoise seems to have been associated with the system as a whole rather than with Chaco Canyon or Pueblo Bonito specifically.  Both finished artifacts and manufacturing debris are found in significant quantities at many outliers, especially to the south in the Red Mesa Valley.

Turquoise Display at Visitor Center Museum

What’s really remarkable about this apparent centrality of turquoise is that there are no turquoise deposits anywhere near Chaco, or indeed within the area covered by the Chaco system as a whole.  All of this turquoise had to be imported from somewhere, and this importation was clearly occurring on a vast scale and over a relatively long period of time.  The closest source of turquoise to Chaco is in the Cerrillos Hills south of Santa Fe, which have extensive turquoise deposits that show much evidence of being mined in antiquity (as well as in modern times), including some apparent campsites with material culture suggestive of a connection to the San Juan Basin.  For a long time most researchers assumed that most or all of the turquoise at Chaco came from Cerrillos, and for a while it was fashionable to come up with theories explaining the rise of Chaco as being based on control of the Cerrillos mines and the trade routes connecting them with the vast market for turquoise in Mesoamerica.  These theories have more recently fallen out of favor for a number of reasons, one being the general trend away from emphasizing Mesoamerican influence on the Chaco system and another being the inconvenient fact that many of the most productive turquoise deposits in the Southwest are in southern Arizona and New Mexico, considerably closer to Mexico than Chaco, which makes it difficult to explain how the  Chacoans could have sustained a monopoly on the turquoise trade.

Turquoise Display at Chaco Museum

This whole issue would benefit greatly from more precise information on the actual source of Chaco’s turquoise.  The idea that it came from Cerrillos is basically just an assumption based on geographical proximity, and while it’s a reasonable enough assumption there have been many attempts to use chemical properties of the turquoise to determine its precise origin and either confirm or deny the Cerrillos hypothesis.  Most of the early attempts to do this using trace element analysis were unsuccessful, due mainly to the complicated internal structure of turquoise as a material.  One recent  paper, however, reports on a remarkably successful attempt to use a new technique based on isotope ratios to characterize sources and assign artifacts to them.  The technique uses two isotope ratios: hydrogen to deuterium and copper-63 to copper-65.  The combination of the two ratios can be used to define a two-dimensional space within which individual samples can be placed to determine if samples from the same source cluster together.

Anthill at Pueblo Bonito with Piece of Turquoise

It turns out they do.  The researchers used samples from a variety of Southwestern turquoise sources, most of which show clear evidence of having been used in antiquity, including three in the Cerrillos area, one in southern New Mexico, two each in Colorado and Arizona, and four in Nevada.  They analyzed several samples from one of the Arizona mines to test internal variation within a single source.  There turned out to be little variation, suggesting that individual sources generally have homogeneous isotope ratios, and the three Cerrillos sources also clustered close to each other, suggesting that this similarity in ratios operates at a regional as well as local scale.

Sign at Santuario de Guadalupe, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The researchers also tested several pieces of turquoise found at several small houses in Chaco Canyon and one at the Guadalupe outlier community, which marks the far eastern edge of the Chacoan system and is the closest Chacoan community to Cerrillos.  Guadalupe plays a key role in models of Chaco that posit Chacoan control of the Cerrillos mines, since any transport of turquoise from Cerrillos to Chaco would almost certainly have to have involved Guadalupe as an intermediate stop.  Guadalupe is thus probably the outlying community most relevant to an investigation of Chacoan turquoise sources.

Santuario de Guadalupe, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The results were interesting.  Several of the artifacts seem to have come from Cerrillos, with a much higher proportion at Guadalupe than at Chaco, but a few other sources were present as well, including one of the Colorado sources at Guadalupe and the southern New Mexico source and two Nevada sources at Chaco.  Four artifacts matched none of the sources tested, implying that they came from some other, as yet unidentified, source.  The Chaco artifacts came from a wide range of chronological contexts, with earlier periods more strongly represented than later ones.  The Guadalupe artifacts unfortunately didn’t come from a securely dated context, so nothing much can be said about their relative or absolute chronology.  In general, the Chaco artifacts seem to have come from a wide range of sources in all time periods, but the sample size is so small that it is hard to come to any more specific conclusions.

Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

This paper is really just a pilot project, intended primarily to demonstrate the methodology used, and the conclusion mentions that continued research using more sources and artifacts is underway.  The main conclusion that can be drawn at this point is that assuming all the Chaco turquoise came from Cerrillos is no longer warranted, and it seems the trade networks in the prehistoric Southwest were much more elaborate and far-flung, at least for valuable, portable materials like turquoise, than such an assumption would suggest.  Chaco may or may not have been primarily about turquoise, but it certainly wasn’t about Cerrillos turquoise.
ResearchBlogging.org
HULL, S., FAYEK, M., MATHIEN, F., SHELLEY, P., & DURAND, K. (2007). A new approach to determining the geological provenance of turquoise artifacts using hydrogen and copper stable isotopes Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2007.10.001

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Chaco Amphitheater

There’s a spot near the west end of the Pueblo Bonito parking lot, close to the spot where guided tours begin, where you can yell something in the direction of the canyon wall and hear a very clear echo back.  Some of the tour guides at Chaco regularly demonstrate this impressive effect when beginning their tours, and it’s certainly an interesting way to capture people’s attention.  I never did it myself; I’m generally averse to this sort of thing because I’m never confident that I’ll get it quite right, and it would be very awkward if I tried it and it didn’t work.  (There’s a similar effect in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol which I never demonstrated when I gave tours there either.)  This is kind of silly, though, and says more about me than about the echo.  In general I think highlighting this kind of acoustic effect is a good way to show just how special Chaco is, and while this particular echo is in a very accessible location there are many other places in the canyon with similar characteristics.  There are several places in and around Pueblo Bonito where you can hear with crystal-clear precision everything people say up on the Threatening Rock overlook, and there are some spots where you can even hear things clear across the canyon.

Secret Passage into Casa Rinconada

These effects have been known to the park’s interpretive staff for a long time, but until recently they’ve received very little attention from scholars.  In the past few years, however, the growing field of archaeoacoustics has begun to look rigorously at echoes and other acoustic phenomena in the canyon with an eye to understanding what role they may have played in Chaco’s past.  Rich Loose, a former archaeologist and old Chaco hand, has been at the forefront of this research, in collaboration with our old friends John Stein and Taft Blackhorse.  Rich recently sent me a couple of articles of his that have recently been published on this issue, along with a paper by John and Taft that I don’t think has been published anywhere.  The most important of these articles, I think, is one in which Rich describes in detail the research the team has done at the so-called “Chaco amphitheater” between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.  Using sophisticated recording equipment and acoustic analysis software, they made a series of recordings of different sounds produced in various locations in and around the amphitheater and determined many of its important acoustic properties.  They also examined the cliff face in this area and concluded that there was considerable evidence that it had been deliberately sculpted, perhaps to improve its acoustic properties or for other purposes related to its use as a performance venue.  There is some evidence that there may have been a masonry wall along at least part of the sculpted area which could have created a “backstage” for performers, which Rich compares to the “secret passage” at Casa Rinconada.  There are also three large holes in the cliff face which appear to be natural but may have been enhanced as well.  One of these is large enough to fit a person and leads to a small cave that can apparently fit multiple people (though presumably in very close quarters).  Again, this has interesting implications for possible stagecraft.

Pueblo Alto and New Alto from Tsin Kletzin

One of the most interesting discoveries in Rich’s paper involves a small hill on the other side of the canyon, near Casa Rinconada, which he concludes was almost certainly deliberately constructed artificially for some purpose related to the amphitheater.  This hill, which is quite prominent and which I have often wondered about, apparently doesn’t show any sign of covering up a small-house site like the ones surrounding it, but neither does it appear to be natural.  It is, however, located almost exactly on the line along which sound from the amphitheater focuses, which also seems to coincide almost exactly with the north-south line between Tsin Kletzin and Pueblo Alto.  Sounds played from the hill could be clearly heard in the amphitheater, although their source could not easily be ascertained from there, and even speech from the hill could be heard in a somewhat garbled manner.

Canyon Wall from Pueblo del Arroyo

As with archaeoastronomy, archaeoacoustics suffers from the persistent problem that there’s no way to know for sure if the patterns it discovers are real or due simply to coincidence.  Rich is quite open in acknowledging this shortcoming in his articles.  In the absence of any means to verify results completely, a compelling combination of separate types of evidence is the best way to support an argument that the acoustic properties of a place are not accidental but reflect conscious decisions on the part of ancient people.  In the case of the Chaco amphitheater, I think Rich’s results clearly meet this standard.  Again as with archaeoastronomy, it’s hard to say what the specific implications of all this are for understanding prehistoric behavior, but in this case the acoustic evidence seems to shed at least some tentative light on several mysteries about Chaco.

Huerfano Mesa from New Alto

One of these is the nagging question of why Chaco was chosen in the first place as the location for such a grandiose center, given that it has no apparent natural resources and is in a particularly harsh and inhospitable location even by local standards.  The acoustic properties of the canyon walls, however, which as I noted above are not limited to the phenomena at the amphitheater specifically, provide one possible answer.  The main way in which Chaco does differ from the surrounding San Juan Basin is that it is, of course, a canyon, and has a long stretch of exposed sandstone cliffs with acoustic effects that can’t be found in many other places nearby.  This doesn’t necessarily explain its advantages in a larger geographic context, of course, and there are many other places just a bit further away with similar sorts of cliffs, but it does potentially shed some light on the question of what leverage the Chacoans would have had over other people in the area that they could use to gain their important position in the region.  People often gesture vaguely to “spiritual authority” or something similar in trying to explain this, but the acoustics provide an explanation for how a reputation for spiritual power could arise in the first place.  The position of the amphitheater at the center of the canyon, at the intersection of many alignments between buildings, certainly suggests that it was an important focal point for the area, and the acoustic characteristics are very suggestive.

Looking East from the Pueblo Alto Trail

Since this research involves John Stein and Taft Blackhorse, of course, Navajo oral traditions also enter into the story.  Specifically, the unpublished paper by John and Taft talks about a connection between the amphitheater and a ritual involving the use of the hallucinogenic datura plant, as well as a connection to the Great Gambler (specifically that the Gambler came to Chaco to take advantage of the powers associated with the amphitheater).  Indeed, they even say that the amphitheater is still used by “Navajo ceremonial practitioners,” which Rich incorporates into his articles as a key piece of evidence backing up his acoustic studies.  I’m a little dubious about a lot of this, and I intend to look into it further, but I do think oral traditions are an important place to look for an independent line of evidence to serve as a check on conclusions derived from archaeoacoustic (and archaeoastronomical) research.

Shell and Jet Display at Chaco Museum

Another issue this acoustic research sheds light on is the remarkable number of musical instruments, many quite elaborate, found in excavations at Chaco.  Almost all of these were found at Pueblo Bonito; the flutes in Room 33 are probably the best known, but I want to focus here on the conch shells apparently used as trumpets, which were also quite numerous and found in many rooms at Bonito.  Rich mentions these in his articles as well, although he doesn’t go into great detail about them.  He does, however, note that a conch shell trumpet was one of the sound sources he used in his archaeoacoustic research, and adds this interesting statement:

I found the shell trumpets to be one of the easiest ways to produce a loud stimulus for an echo. They are simple, easily portable, don’t require batteries, and are nearly foolproof once you master the technique of blowing one.

As luck would have it, Barbara Mills and T. J. Ferguson have recently published an important article on shell trumpets in the prehistoric Southwest in which they record all the places they have been found and try to see what conclusions about prehistoric ritual and ideology can be drawn from the distribution of trumpets through time and space.  They conclude that there are at least two separate ideological systems associated with shell trumpets: one having to do with the plumed serpent and associated with rain and agricultural fertility, and another having to do with warfare and healing (these might be two separate traditions, in which case there would be a total of three traditions).  Temporally, they find that the plumed serpent tradition, which is quite strong at Hopi and Zuni today, appears rather suddenly in the early fourteenth century, a time of considerable population movement and cultural change, and may have something to do with influence from the major center at Casas Grandes in Chihuahua as well as with migration of large numbers of people from the southern Southwest into the Pueblo region.  During this period conch shells are found primarily at Casas Grandes and in a large area of east-central Arizona along the Mogollon Rim, as well as in the Hohokam region of southern Arizona and as far east as Pecos.

Kiva A at Pueblo Bonito from Above

There is basically no evidence for plumed serpent iconography earlier than AD 1300, although there are conch shells.  Their distribution is much more limited, however, being confined essentially to the Hohokam region and Chaco, although there is one isolated example from the Mimbres area of southwestern New Mexico.  The geographic isolation of Chaco is striking on their map of sites where conchs have been found; there don’t seem to be any examples from any other sites on the Colorado Plateau during this period, despite the large population of this area and the presence of many strongly Chacoan-oriented or -influenced regional centers.  Apparently there were no shell trumpets even at Aztec, which is in general pretty similar to Chaco in the numbers and types of valuable artifacts found.  There were a bunch of them at Chaco, however, at least 17 overall, and all except two of them came from Pueblo Bonito specifically.  Within Bonito they were generally found in significant locations such as rooms containing other rare artifacts and a wall niche in Kiva R, rather than in trash deposits, which suggests that they were particularly important items.  One was found in Room 33, and four were found in Room 38, which also contained many rare items of apparent ritual significance as well as macaws.  Others were found in Kiva A (the great kiva in the east plaza) and Room 6 (one of the earliest rooms in Old Bonito).  Clearly, then, conch trumpets seem to have been associated very closely not just with the Chacoan system or Chaco Canyon in general but with Pueblo Bonito specifically.  And Pueblo Bonito, of course, is right next to the amphitheater.  The combination of the impressive acoustics of the amphitheater with the exotic sound of the conch shell would likely have been pretty powerful, perhaps in more ways than one.

Intact Roof Beams in Room 6, Pueblo Bonito

So what light does this combination shed on the Chacoan system overall?  Well,  it’s hard to say for sure.  Mills and Ferguson make a strong case that the Chaco and early Hohokam conchs are associated with the warfare/healing complex rather than the plumed serpent one.  Evidence for this complex comes mainly from Zuni, where there are many stories about the use of a “Big Shell” that was used to magically defeat the enemies of the Zunis.  There is also an association between this shell and witchcraft, both in fighting it and in possibly causing it.

Shell Display at Visitor Center Museum

The (non-witchcraft-related) healing part of the complex comes from one of the medicine societies, best known at Zuni but apparently also present at Hopi and Zia, and historically at Laguna.  This society is apparently named for a “spiral shell,” and its rituals include shells, but otherwise it’s not clear how much it has to do with conch shells or trumpets specifically as opposed to shells more generally.  The songs of the society at Zuni are said to be in the O’odham language of southern Arizona, and its origin story mentions a series of long migrations.  To me this combination suggests a Hohokam origin about as clearly as is conceivable, and it’s possible that at least some of the Hohokam conchs, particularly the small ones that may have been used as standards on staffs rather than as trumpets, may have been associated with a precursor of this society.  As I said, though, I’m not totally convinced that conchs specifically have anything to do with this society.  Shells of all kinds were a very big deal among the Hohokam.

Chaco Amphitheater in the Snow

So, given all that, it seems likely that if any conch-related ritual complex in the modern Pueblos is related to the conchs at Pueblo Bonito it’s the Zuni Big Shell, associated with warfare and witchcraft.  This is certainly intriguing, especially given the odd and ambiguous evidence about Chaco’s connections to warfare, although I think it’s ultimately inconclusive.  As Mills and Ferguson point out, it’s entirely possible that some of these prehistoric complexes have no modern equivalents at all.  Indeed, given the massive series of cultural changes and migrations separating Chaco from the modern Pueblos, it would hardly be surprising that the ritual traditions closely associated with Chaco specifically would have been lost or abandoned in favor of newer (or perhaps older) rituals considered more suited to the changing times.  It’s noteworthy that there don’t seem to be any modern (Pueblo) practices involving a combination of conch trumpets and cliff faces with special acoustic properties, given the strong circumstantial evidence that the two were connected at Chaco.  Whether or not any modern practices involving shell trumpets can be traced back to Chaco, however, the evidence for their importance at Chaco itself at its height is evocative and provides a hint of what Chaco may have been like for the Chacoans, even if what we hear today is only a faint echo of what they heard then.
ResearchBlogging.org
Mills, B., & Ferguson, T. (2008). Animate Objects: Shell Trumpets and Ritual Networks in the Greater Southwest Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 15 (4), 338-361 DOI: 10.1007/s10816-008-9057-5

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Poorly Drained Dirt Road near Bisti, New Mexico

One of the most frequent questions visitors to Chaco ask is why the road leading there hasn’t been paved.  That particular road, largely because it leads to Chaco, has a particularly thorny set of issues surrounding the idea of paving, which I’ve discussed before, but one thing I would often mention in dealing with these questions is the fact that paved roads are fairly rare throughout the Four Corners area.  Most roads are dirt, and there are a lot of them.  So it’s not really surprising that the road to Chaco would be dirt, since that’s sort of the default state for roads in the Navajo country.  This would often be surprising to visitors from other parts of the country, where dirt roads are rare to nonexistent.  To them paved roads are the default, and the lack of paving on a given road is odd and demands an explanation.

Informal Two-Track Road at Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, New Mexico

What all this doesn’t address, however, is why so few roads in the area are paved.  Especially since the Navajo country is so large and sparsely populated that for practical purposes driving is the only way to get places, it does seem odd at first glance that there isn’t more effort put into getting roads paved.  As Cindy Yurth points out in a fantastic article in the Navajo Times, however, it’s not that easy to pave a road, especially on the Navajo Reservation.  Some of the issues she mentions don’t really apply at Chaco, which is off the Reservation, but many of the others do, along with some additional complications, most of which have to do with the bewildering variety of governments and agencies that have a say in decisions around Chaco.  The issues of maintenance and the desire of many local residents for roads to remain unpaved, however, apply equally on and off the Reservation.  Anyway, it’s a great article, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this issue.

"Street Closed" Sign at Bisti Wilderness Area, New Mexico

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Wild Turkey

So, turkeys.  I mentioned in an earlier post that there’s been an important new paper about turkeys published in PNAS.  It’s been mentioned in two good media accounts linked by Southwestern Archaeology Today in two separate posts.  Unlike most PNAS articles, this one is Open Access, so both the article itself and its supplement are available freely as pdf files on the PNAS website.

"Crescent-Shaped Village" Sign at Mesa Verde

Like so many of the most interesting and important articles in Southwestern archaeology these days, this one is based on the application of laboratory techniques to archaeological material to take advantage of advances in scientific understanding that allow new revelations about the human past.  In this case, the techniques come from genetics and involve the analysis of DNA from archaeological turkey remains to determine the breed of turkey kept by people in the ancient Southwest, which in turn could potentially reveal when and where these turkeys were first domesticated.  The techniques are similar to those used in a study from a while back on an artifact in the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding made with macaw feathers and squirrel pelt.  That study analyzed the squirrel pelt and determined that it likely came from a local species, implying that the artifact was made in the Southwest rather than being imported from Mexico, with interesting further implications for the origin of the macaw feathers.

"Crescent-Shaped Village" at Mesa Verde

Before going into the details of the turkey study, it will be useful to give a little background on the presence of turkeys in the prehistoric Southwest.  Visitors to Chaco often ask about domesticated animals, especially in the context of the enormous amount of labor involved in the construction of the great houses, which would have been much easier with the use of draft animals than it actually was with only human labor available.  They are often surprised to hear the answer, which is that the only domesticated animals the Chacoans had were dogs and turkeys.  I, in turn, was surprised by how many people didn’t seem to know that horses were introduced by the Spanish.  (I think there’s a deeper significance to this particular belief, but that’s a matter for another post.)  Dogs were domesticated way, way back in the prehistory of humanity, before the crossing of the Bering Strait, but turkeys only appear in the archaeological record pretty recently.  They seem to appear sporadically in Mesoamerica in the last few centuries BC, but only appear regularly in domestic contexts there around AD 200, and the same rough chronology is true in the Southwest.  This implies that they were first domesticated sometime in the late centuries BC or very early centuries AD, either separately in Mesoamerica and the Southwest or once in one, from which they spread through trade, migration, or some other form of cultural contact to the other.  Given the large number of Mesoamerican traits that are known to have spread into the Southwest, if there was a single domestication event it’s generally thought that it must have been in Mexico.  The search for the origin of turkey domestication is considerably aided by the fact that wild turkeys in North America fall into a handful of distinct subspecies with mostly non-overlapping ranges.  These are the ones of interest in this context, with their known (historic) ranges:

  • South Mexican turkey (Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo): South-central Mexico, roughly the states of Jalisco, Colima, Guanajuato, Querétaro, Hidalgo, Michoacán, Guerrero, México, Morelos, Puebla, and Tlaxcala, along with northern Veracruz.
  • Gould’s wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana): Northwestern Mexico, roughly the states of Nayarit, Aguascalientes, Sinaloa, and Durango, along with eastern Sonora and western Chihuahua as far north as the US border.
  • Rio Grande wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia): From the southern Great Plains south into northeastern Mexico, roughly from the southwest corner of Kansas south through western Oklahoma and Texas to the Mexican states of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas.
  • Merriam’s wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami): Most of New Mexico, extending into eastern Arizona and southern Colorado, but, importantly, not in the easternmost part of New Mexico along the Texas border.
  • Florida wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo osceola): Central and southern Florida.
  • Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris): Most of the eastern US, from the eastern parts of South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas on the west to the Atlantic coast from southern Maine to northern Florida on the east and from the Gulf coast on the south to the Great Lakes on the north.

The pdf of the article has a helpful map that might be more understandable than these geographic descriptions.

"Pitroom" of "Crescent-Shaped Village" at Mesa Verde

Looking over the range of the various subspecies of wild turkeys, it seems pretty obvious that any domestication of turkeys in central Mexico, where the earliest archaeological specimens are found, must have been from the South Mexican subspecies.  If domesticated turkeys were introduced from Mexico into the Southwest, presumably this would have been the same breed and its DNA would be similar to Mexican examples.  If, on the other hand, turkeys were independently domesticated in the Southwest, the most obvious source would be Merriam’s turkey, and archaeological examples would presumably show more genetic resemblances to modern examples of that subspecies than to Mexican varieties.  These are the two most plausible a priori predictions for an analysis of the genetics of archaeological turkeys.  An additional wrinkle, however, in doing this kind of study is that the distribution of these subspecies has changed over time in very drastic ways.  The South Mexican turkey is apparently extinct in the wild, but the domesticated variety used by the Aztecs was imported to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors and quickly became very popular there, eventually being selectively bred into the various modern domestic breeds and reintroduced to the New World by English colonists on the Atlantic seaboard.  From there it spread across the continent with their descendants, displacing indigenous turkeys left and right.  There are still some relic populations of the North American turkey subspecies that have been genetically sampled, however, and there are museum specimens of wild South Mexican turkeys that are also available for DNA sampling, so these difficulties can be largely overcome.

Sign Describing "Pitroom" of "Crescent-Shaped Village" at Mesa Verde

For this paper, the authors compared the DNA of a wide variety of archaeological turkey bones and coprolites from the Southwest to museum samples of wild South Mexican turkeys from the Smithsonian and samples of modern domesticated turkeys from supermarkets.  The Southwestern bones came from a variety of sites, including Pueblo Bonito and other Chacoan great houses (specifically Aztec, Bluff, Escalante, Ida Jean, and Albert Porter) as well as other sites both earlier and later.  The coprolites all came from the well-preserved midden deposits at the aptly named Turkey Pen Ruin in Grand Gulch, Utah; most are from the Basketmaker II occupation, but one dates to the later Pueblo II/III reoccupation.

T-Shaped Doorways at Escalante Pueblo, a Great House in Colorado

The results were pretty surprising.  As expected, the modern supermarket examples closely matched the archival Smithsonian examples, but the Southwestern examples didn’t match either.  This would seem to argue for domestication within the Southwest from Merriam’s turkeys, but while a few of the archaeological examples do match modern Merriam’s examples and seem to be examples of either hunting or domestication of local wild turkeys, over 85% of the archaeological specimens that could be successfully sequenced belonged to a different group that didn’t match either the Merriam’s or South Mexican examples.  This group didn’t exactly match any of the other modern subspecies either, but it was closest to the Rio Grande and Eastern types.  There’s always some doubt inherent in the results of these sorts of studies, but as these things go this one is pretty clear-cut, and what it says is that the Southwestern examples, which were remarkably homogeneous over the more than 1000 years represented by the samples, came from a carefully managed domestic breed of turkeys descending from ancestors domesticated outside the Southwest and later introduced by people, but not from central or northwestern Mexico.

T-Shaped Doorway at Aztec Ruins National Monument

So what does this mean?  For one thing, it means that turkeys did not accompany the spread of agriculture north from Mexico into the Southwest.  Those farmers who may or may not have migrated north from Mexico and may or may not have spoken one or more Uto-Aztecan languages didn’t have turkeys with them.  This finding is reinforced by the notable absence of turkey remains from the earliest agricultural sites in the southern Southwest.  It also means that while people in various parts of the Southwest at various points in its prehistory did use local wild turkeys, though whether they were actually domesticated and kept in captivity or just captured by hunters is unclear, the vast majority of turkeys kept in prehistoric communities came from a specific breed with a single origin.  This breed seems to have gone extinct in captivity sometime in the eighteenth or nineteenth century under pressure from the domestic animals, including but not limited to Mexican-descended turkeys, introduced by the Spanish.  A few modern Merriam’s turkeys do seem to match the ancient specimens, however, probably the result of domestic turkeys joining wild populations at some point or other.  The authors of the article suggest that this may have occurred in part as part of the abandonment of most of the Colorado Plateau around AD 1300, when people quickly leaving their villages and leaving the region may have left their turkeys behind.  No way to tell about that, really, but it’s as plausible as anything.

Interior T-Shaped Doorway, Pueblo Bonito

The results of this study are surprising and intriguing.  They definitely need a lot more data, especially about the genetics of the Rio Grande and Eastern wild turkeys, to be useful in understanding cultural processes.  I find the preliminary implications fascinating, though.  The idea that turkeys entered the Southwest from the east or southeast, rather than from the south, is kind of mind-blowing, since so little other evidence of contact between the Southwest and the Plains or Gulf coast is known for this early period.  The only possible evidence for such contact I can think of offhand is the trade in certain types of shell which seem to have come from the Gulf, unlike most trade shells which came from the Pacific.  Seems like this turkey evidence might prompt a new look at some of those shells.  Beyond that, it’s hard to know what to think about this finding.  Like so much else in Southwestern archaeology, it answers some questions and poses many more.
ResearchBlogging.org
Speller, C., Kemp, B., Wyatt, S., Monroe, C., Lipe, W., Arndt, U., & Yang, D. (2010). Ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis reveals complexity of indigenous North American turkey domestication Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0909724107

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Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center

It’s snowing like crazy here in New Jersey right now.  Rutgers canceled all classes today and morning classes tomorrow, so I’ve got a lot of unexpected time off.  Seeing all this snow is reminding me, as always, of Navajo linguistics.  Words for “snow” play a disproportionately important role in understanding the history and dialectology of the Navajo language.

Snow-Covered Vehicles Parked at Chaco Visitor Center

As Edward Sapir noted in the paper on Navajo linguistic origins I discussed a little while ago, there are two basic “snow” terms in the Athapaskan languages.  One refers to snow lying on the ground, and the other refers to falling snow.  The terms don’t resemble each other at all, and there is no etymological relationship between them.  In Navajo, the “falling snow” term is chííl (usually used in the verb form níchííl “it is snowing” or “the snowstorm has arrived”), and the “snow on ground” term is yas in the western dialect and zas in the eastern.  As Sapir also notes, this is one of the very few native isoglosses differentiating the two dialects, which are completely mutually intelligible and differ mainly in that the eastern dialect has borrowed more vocabulary from Spanish.

Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center Entrance

This dialect difference is odd, and hard to explain.  According to Sapir, and supported by the cognates he gives in other languages, yas is the older form, and forms with z are found in only a few Athapaskan languages.  Most relevant to the Navajo case is that some of the Apache languages, specifically Jicarilla, Mescalero, and Chiricahua, also have zas.  These are all Eastern Apache languages; Sapir doesn’t give a cognate from Western Apache, which is closer to Navajo (so close, in fact, that the two are largely mutually intelligible), but given the rest of the data the term, if it hasn’t been lost, would be yas.  To me this suggests that zas is probably a loanword into the eastern dialect from one of the Apache languages.  It seems odd that such a basic item of vocabulary would be borrowed, but since the languages are all closely related it becomes more plausible than it might be otherwise.  Also, since the eastern dialect is known for its greater number of Spanish loanwords, it makes sense that if either dialect were to borrow an Apache word it would be this one.

Snow-Covered Law Enforcement Vehicle at Chaco Visitor Center

So if the word zas was borrowed by the eastern Navajos from one of the Apache groups, when and where did this happen?  The number of possibilities is actually considerably more limited than might be thought from the linguistic similarities, since the Navajos in historic times were more often at war than at peace with the various Apache groups.  Relations were complicated, however, and trade and intermarriage are known to have occurred.  I think the most likely context for this borrowing, however, is a very specific historical event where the Navajos and some of the Eastern Apaches were thrown together against their will.

Snow-Covered Hogans, Shonto, Arizona

I am referring, of course, to the US government’s ill-conceived attempt in the 1860s to confine the Navajos and the Mescaleros to a reservation in southeastern New Mexico on the Pecos River, near Fort Sumner, at a place called Bosque Redondo.  The Long Walk in which the US Cavalry under Kit Carson rounded up the Navajos and marched them to this reservation is one of the key traumatic experiences suffered by the Navajo people, and it looms large in Navajo history.  Perhaps even worse, however, were the atrocious conditions at the reservation itself, due largely to the government’s terrible miscalculation of the number of people  it would have to hold.  The authorities didn’t have good information about how many Navajos there were, and it turned out there were way too many for the allotted land to support in any kind of humane condition.  The supplies the government provided were also grossly inadequate, and the suffering of the Navajos was acute.  Malnutrition and disease were rampant, and many people died in the four years before the government realized the project was a disaster and ended it in 1868.  By that time the Mescaleros, who were both less numerous and more familiar with the area, which was close to their traditional homeland, had just left and returned home.  The Navajos were too far from their own home to just do that, but they did manage to negotiate a new treaty that gave them a new reservation in the area where they had been living before the Long Walk.  They returned home and have been there ever since.

Sign at Shonto Trading Post, Shonto, Arizona

The four years at Bosque Redondo were traumatic, but they also involved contact with new people, products, and ideas for the Navajos.  Much of what is now known as “traditional” Navajo culture developed during this period, when the Navajos were introduced to manufactured tools, processed foods, and other products initially provided by the government and later, after the return, supplied by traders at trading posts throughout the Navajo country.  There was also ideological influence from the Apaches, and a couple of ceremonies taken from the Chiricahuas, and still named as such, have since become some of the most popular healing rituals among the Navajos, probably due in part to their being shorter and less expensive than traditional Navajo ceremonies.  I suspect that the word for “snow” may have been borrowed at this time under similar circumstances from the Mescaleros and/or the closely associated Chiricahuas.

People Sledding by the Side of the Road into Shonto Canyon, Shonto, Arizona

But if the Navajos borrowed the word zas from the Apaches at Bosque Redondo, why is it only present in the eastern dialect?  Shouldn’t both dialects have it?  Well, not necessarily.  Although the number of Navajos at Bosque Redondo totally overwhelmed the governments expectations, there were actually quite a few groups who were able to hide out in the rugged canyon country of Utah and Arizona and escape capture by the cavalry.  These groups were later joined by returnees, but they managed to preserve a slightly different variety of Navajo culture, less influence by the Hispanics and Apaches in New Mexico, which eventually managed to become today’s western Navajo cultural system.  The differences between east and west, with the boundary roughly corresponding to the Arizona-New Mexico border and the Chuska-Lukachukai-Carrizo mountain ranges, are subtle but many, and they have had important effects on Navajo politics and culture in the subsequent Reservation period, extending to this day.

Fajada Butte Obscured by Falling Snow

You can learn a lot from words if you look close enough.  Sapir’s article used the “snow” words for a very different purpose, to show that the ancestors of the Navajos were unfamiliar with agriculture but very familiar with snow, and both the semantic shift he describes and the fact that there are separate words for snow indicating if it is falling or on the ground strongly point to an origin for the language in the north.  The later dialect division I have discussed here, however, sheds some possible light on later developments after the arrival of the Athapaskans in the Southwest, whenever that took place.  Every little piece of evidence helps to fill in the puzzle of the past.
ResearchBlogging.org
Sapir, E. (1936). Internal Linguistic Evidence Suggestive of the Northern Origin of the Navaho American Anthropologist, 38 (2), 224-235 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1936.38.2.02a00040

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