Given the rarity of human effigy vessels in the ancient Southwest, it seems clear that understanding them requires looking elsewhere. Specifically, it requires looking south, to Mesoamerica, where effigy vessels were quite common starting from an early date. Since most evidence of Mesoamerican influence in the Southwest seems to point to West Mexico as the proximate source, and since that is an area particularly known for human effigy vessels in particular, a look at the current state of knowledge on the archaeology of West Mexico seems advisable to try to understand the Chaco effigy vessels and many other aspects of the Chaco system.
A recent review article by Christopher Beekman provides a good start. He points out that understanding of many aspects of West Mexican prehistory has advanced considerably recently with more controlled excavations and radiocarbon dates, which are finally beginning to establish a firm framework within which to interpret earlier evidence. This is particularly important since until recently much of what was known about West Mexico came from artifacts in private collections, virtually all of them looted and without firm provience information. Beekman also points out that “West Mexico” is a very large and poorly defined area, and he divides it into four subareas with quite different cultural histories: the coastal plain, the western and eastern volcanic highlands (the distinction between the two is cultural rather than physical but quite important, with the dividing line roughly along the border between Jalisco and Michoacán), and the Sierra Madre Occidental. Another area that Beekman includes in West Mexico, although it is rather far east and I don’t think everyone else includes it, is the Bajío of southern Guanajuato and Querétaro, which patterns with the eastern highlands culturally. Beekman’s own research is mostly on the highlands of Jalisco, so he devotes more attention to the western highlands than to some other subareas, especially the coast.
West Mexico is particularly well known for the human effigy vessels, also sometimes rather confusingly called “figurines,” associated with the shaft tombs present especially in the western highlands but also in some parts of the coastal plain. Since most of the known effigy vessels have been looted from shaft tombs, neither the vessels nor the tombs are very useful for understanding the chronology or context of these very impressive artifacts. Recent controlled excavations, however, have shown that the shaft tombs date to a relatively short period of time in the Late Formative and Early Classic periods, roughly 300 BC to AD 600, and that they are contemporaneous with a distinctive tradition of surface ceremonial architecture focused on circular pyramids with surrounding structures. This was previously thought to postdate the shaft tombs, but newer evidence shows that the two phenomena were part of the same cultural tradition, which peaked quite early and was followed by many changes during the Epiclassic period.
The relevance of this for the Chaco effigy vessels is that the best-known West Mexican examples are earlier by a thousand years or so, and are thus not likely to be very useful in understanding the Chaco ones. This is not too surprising since, while there is clearly a general resemblance between the two types, there are a lot of differences in the details, and there is no particular type of shaft-tomb vessel that clearly looks like a model for the Chaco ones.
The most important period in West Mexico for understanding Chaco is, of course, the period that was contemporary with it, which is the Early Postclassic (ca. AD 800 to 1200). The changes during the Epiclassic had led to a substantial reorganization of the political structure of the region, and by the Postclassic many interior areas had been largely abandoned. At the same time, populations on the coast grew dramatically and a new set of cultural phenomena known as the Aztatlán complex arose in a series of towns, mostly on rivers a bit upstream from the coast. These towns were united by a common ceramic tradition, and they seem to have been intensely involved in agriculture, craft production, and especially trade. It appears that trade with the Southwest, in particular, became dominated by these coastal towns at this time, after having long been conducted mainly along the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Occidental. This would certainly explain the distinctively West Mexican qualities of Mesoamerican influence at Chaco, and it helps to pinpoint where to look for sources for that influence. Beekman doesn’t mention effigy vessels in talking about Aztatlán, but whether they were present at these sites and what they looked like if they were are things that I’ll be looking into. Unfortunately, the way he defines the region geographically for this review also excludes probably the most important Aztatlán site for Southwestern purposes: Guasave, in far northern Sinaloa, the northernmost of the Aztatlán sites and thus the closest to the Southwest. Interestingly, he mentions claims that some of these towns grew cacao along with some other specialty crops, although he doesn’t assess the plausibility of cacao specifically. These towns, like many other parts of West Mexico at this time, also practiced copper smelting, which had been introduced from South America around AD 650. The Aztatlán sites appear to have had some links to interior sites, especially those remaining in the highlands, but contacts with areas further east seem to have been weak, especially compared to some sites further south on the coast in Colima, which show much more evidence of connections to central Mexican sites such as Tula.
There’s plenty more in the review, of course, but those are the parts that seem most relevant to Chaco. Understanding the background and connections of the Chaco effigy vessels in particular looks to be quite a challenge, but I’ll see what I can do.
Beekman, C. (2009). Recent Research in Western Mexican Archaeology Journal of Archaeological Research, 18 (1), 41-109 DOI: 10.1007/s10814-009-9034-x