One noteworthy thing about George Pepper’s interpretations of the effigy vessels found at Pueblo Bonito is his attempt to link them to specific Hopi kachinas. He does find a general similarity in facial and body decoration between one of the partial vessels, found in Room 38, and one kachina and notes at the end of his article that this type of iconographic analysis could be useful in tracing clan migrations and connections between ancient and modern Pueblo peoples. I think he’s righter about that last part than most archaeologists these days are prepared to accept, but that he’s probably wrong about the kachina identification.
The main reason is just that the timing is wrong. Pepper had no way of knowing this, of course, since there were no absolute dating techniques available to archaeologists in his day and even relative dating was in its infancy. More recent study, however, has shown pretty conclusively that the kachina cult arose somewhere in the southern Southwest in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, which is to say, over a hundred years after the decline of Chaco as a regional center and possibly after the total abandonment of the San Juan Basin. Indeed, there is essentially no evidence of kachina ceremonialism at Chaco or anywhere else in the northern Southwest during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which is most likely when the effigy vessels found at Pueblo Bonito were made. Some have argued that the roots of the kachina cult lie in the Mimbres region of southwestern New Mexico during this period, based largely on some alleged similarities between imagery on the famous Mimbres pottery and later kachina imagery, but there’s basically no evidence for a strong connection between Chaco and the Mimbres region either, so even if some early aspects of the cult were developing there at the time, which I doubt, it’s unlikely that they would have had much impact on Chaco.
Now, it’s important to note one major exception to these generalizations about what archaeologists believe about the kachina cult and the lack of a relationship between Chaco and the Mimbres: Steve Lekson, who has argued that the Mimbres area was incorporated into the Chaco system and that early forms of kachina ceremonialism were part of the distinctive Chacoan religious system. I think Lekson has a lot of interesting ideas, but that he’s just dead wrong about this one. I haven’t read any of the recent books that contain more developed versions of his theories, so my understanding of them is based on an article he wrote in 1995 with Catherine Cameron, but my understanding is that most of them major features of the argument there have survived into later versions.
What Lekson and Cameron basically argue is that the Chaco system extended over a much larger area than most theories posit, that it included the Mimbres area, and that kachina ceremonialism, which began to develop among the Mimbres to deal with the stresses of aggregation (which began much earlier there than elsewhere in the Southwest) was adopted at Chaco, but apparently not in other parts of the northern Southwest. Then, when things began to change in the twelfth century, people began to move into the previously non-residential Chacoan great houses and turn them into residential Pueblos, which required the development of new social integrative systems to deal with the stresses of aggregation. Among these was the kachina cult, which was adopted in the southern part of the old Chaco system, which continued to be occupied, but not further north in the Mesa Verde area, which was subsequently abandoned. They’re playing a bit fast and loose with the chronology here (typical for Lekson), but the basic idea seems to be that “protokachina” ceremonialism arrived at Chaco in the twelfth century, as people were aggregating into the great houses, but for some reason didn’t continue north, possibly because of the increasing isolation of the Mesa Verde area from the rest of the Southwest.
There are some interesting insights here, including the connection between early aggregation in the Mimbres area and a possible Mimbres origin for the kachina cult, which had not occurred to me before. The general thrust of the message, too, is pretty compelling to me, namely that Chaco didn’t really “collapse” in a catastrophic way but rather declined in importance within a regional context containing much continuity. There are also a lot of holes, however. To take one obvious example, if protokachina ceremonialism, with its community-integrating functions, was adopted at Chaco as people began to aggregate into the great houses, why was Chaco also abandoned at the end of the thirteenth century along with Mesa Verde? Indeed, they suggest at one point that more “traditional” Chacoan religion may have dominated at Aztec and made that area too inflexible to handle increasing aggregation, resulting in abandonment along with Mesa Verde, but don’t explain why this wouldn’t have also been the case at Chaco itself. (I think Lekson has modified his view of the relationship between Chaco and Aztec somewhat since this article, so it may not be totally fair to criticize it too strongly here.)
Cameron and Lekson don’t mention the effigy vessels in this article, but they are obviously relevant to an argument for an early arrival of the kachina cult or something like it during late Chacoan times, and Lekson may well discuss them in his subsequent books. In any case, he would presumably be receptive to Pepper’s argument that at least one of them represents a known kachina, since it would bolster his own very thin case for kachina imagery at Chaco (based mostly on the presence of macaws). Still, though, I don’t find Pepper’s argument very convincing. One interesting thing about the kachina cult, however, which may have been important in its success, is that it’s a very flexible system that can easily incorporate other religious traditions. New kachinas can easily be added to the system, and there is plenty of evidence of this having happened in recent times as new kachinas were introduced from one Pueblo to another. It’s possible, then, that whatever deities were represented by the Chaco effigy vessels (if indeed they did represent deities) were later incorporated into the kachina cult when it arrived, complete with their characteristic dress and decoration. It’s also possible that some of the same Mesoamerican influences that later resulted in the development of the kachina cult had earlier reached Chaco in a different form and resulted in the effigy vessels. I think it’s more likely, however, that whatever was going on at Chaco was totally different from the later kachina cult and the resemblances Pepper noted were just coincidental.
Lekson, S., & Cameron, C. (1995). The abandonment of Chaco Canyon, the Mesa Verde migrations, and the reorganization of the Pueblo world Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 14, 184-202 DOI: 10.1006/jaar.1995.1010