Archive for the ‘Elsewhere’ Category

Montezuma Castle, a Sinagua Village

Montezuma Castle, a Sinagua Village

As I’ve mentioned before in reference to the Fremont culture of what is now Utah, while the Anasazi of the Four Corners region are by far the most famous of the prehistoric southwestern societies, and particularly famous for their allegedly mysterious disappearance, there’s actually very little mystery about what happened to them. They very obviously became the modern Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona. It has not been possible so far to trace connections between any specific prehistoric site and any specific modern pueblo (beyond obvious cases like the Zuni and Hopi pueblos that were abandoned in very late prehistory or very early historic times when the inhabitants moved to nearby communities that are still extant today). However, the general connections between the Anasazi and the modern Pueblos in material culture are quite clear and no one disputes them.

When it comes to the other prehistoric cultures, however, the situation is much less clear. While a few seem to have clear modern descendants, most show few if any obvious similarities to the modern indigenous cultures inhabiting their areas, and the extent of any continuity is controversial at best. A recent comment on my Fremont post mentioning the Gallina culture of north-central New Mexico reminded me of this. I may expand on some of these cultures in future posts, but for now I just want to list them so that people who are not familiar with the diversity of southwestern culture history get a sense for the range of cultures known from the archaeological record and the very limited extent to which it is correlated with the equally extensive ethnographic record of this region.

Before I get to the list, though, I should give a brief introduction to the “root-and-branch” system of southwestern archaeological taxonomy, which is necessary to understand what these archaeological units are and are not. This system was originally developed by Harold Gladwin, a New York stockbroker who moved to Globe, Arizona in the 1920s and established a nonprofit archaeological research institute known as Gila Pueblo that was immensely influential in the development of southwestern archaeology in the 1930s and 1940s. Gladwin’s conception of southwestern culture history was based on an analogy to trees, with “roots” as the basic units, which in turn were divided hierarchically into “stems” and “branches.” The data on which these units were based was mainly ceramic, as pottery is the most useful artifact class for distinguishing among the various cultural manifestations of the prehistoric Southwest. The “branches” were considered roughly equivalent to the “tribes” of the ethnographic record, but given the historical focus of archaeology at this time they were further divided into chronological “phases.” Gladwin’s scheme was revised by Harold Colton of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, who renamed some of the roots to avoid Gladwin’s association of them with specific modern linguistic groups, given the uncertainty involved in this kind of identification. Colton also generally downplayed Gladwin’s intermediate “stems” in favor of a simpler system of “roots” and “branches” (which he still analogized to modern tribes). The system that emerged from this interplay of Gladwin’s and Colton’s ideas has remained in use ever since as the main taxonomic scheme for southwestern archaeology.

Within this system, “Anasazi” refers to one of the roots, with “Chaco,” “Mesa Verde,” Kayenta,” etc. as branches. Note that I have avoided using the term “Ancestral Puebloan” in place of “Anasazi” in this post so far; there’s a reason for that. While the term “Anasazi” has been criticized based on its Navajo etymology, it refers to a very specific unit in a taxonomic system, and “Ancestral Puebloan” is a problematic replacement because most or all of the other units in that system are also likely ancestral to the modern Pueblos. For want of a better term, then, I’m sticking with “Anasazi” for this purpose.

With that prologue out of the way, below are the roots and branches currently recognized by most archaeologists that don’t have obvious modern descendants. Note that while the Chaco, Mesa Verde, Kayenta, and Rio Grande branches of the Anasazi root are not listed here since they are clearly ancestral to the modern Pueblos, some other Anasazi branches are included since it is much less obvious what happened to them. They may have ended up as part of one or more modern Pueblo groups, but it is also possible that they changed their culture so much as to become unrecognizable archaeologically, or died out altogether. The branches belonging to other roots may have contributed to the formation of the modern Pueblos as well, or they may have developed into other cultures or disappeared entirely as well.

  • Anasazi Root:
    • Gallina Branch: Inhabited north-central New Mexico until about AD 1300. Late Gallina sites exhibit extensive evidence of violent death, implying conflict with other groups, perhaps those entering the area from the north and west around this time. While the Gallina are generally considered a branch of the Anasazi, their material culture shows many similarities to Plains groups to the east and their actual ethnic and linguistic affiliation remain unclear.
    • Virgin Branch: Inhabited the Virgin River valley and adjacent areas of southern Nevada, southwestern Utah and northwestern Arizona from Basketmaker times until approximately AD 1150 (or possibly a bit later). They seem to have been part of the overall Anasazi culture area from early on, but the Virgin region was abandoned significantly earlier than other Anasazi areas further east, and it is unclear what this means.
  • Fremont Root: Inhabited most of modern Utah for centuries until fading away in the late prehistoric period. The relationship of the Fremont to modern Pueblo and Numic populations remains unclear, and it is also unclear just how coherent a cultural unit “Fremont” ever was.
  • Hohokam Root: Inhabited southern and central Arizona (below the Mogollon Rim) for millennia from the initial development of agriculture until the fifteenth century AD. Famous for their elaborate canal systems and distinctive pottery, as well as their apparently Mesoamerican-influenced ballcourts, the Hohokam remain one of the most mysterious of prehistoric southwestern cultures despite also being one of the best-studied. They may have been ancestral to the modern O’odham (Pima and Papago) peoples who inhabited the same area in historic times, but this is hotly disputed as there are many differences in material culture. There have also been suggestions that some Hohokam may have been ancestral to modern Pueblo groups (especially the western Pueblos of Hopi and Zuni) and Yuman-speaking groups west of the Hohokam heartland.
  • Mogollon Root:
    • Jornada Branch: Occupied south-central New Mexico until about AD 1400. Possibly descended in part from the Mimbres to the west and possibly ancestral to some of the Rio Grande Pueblos further north, the Jornada are among the less studied southwestern groups. Based on rock art, they have been proposed as the originators of the kachina cult that later became widespread among the Pueblos.
    • Mimbres Branch: One of the most talked-about, but not one of the most-studied, groups of the prehistoric Southwest, the Mimbres are known mainly for their unique pottery featuring naturalistic decoration. This area showed a long developmental sequence under apparent Hohokam influence followed by a brief period of possible (but disputed) Anasazi influence including aggregation into large, nucleated villages, followed by regional abandonment in the twelfth century AD.
    • Mountain Branches: There are several branches of the Mogollon proposed to have existed in the mountains of western New Mexico and eastern Arizona until around AD 1400 when this whole region was abandoned. There are many continuities between these settlements (which often took the form of large aggregated pueblos) and modern Hopi and Zuni, but the connection is not totally unambiguous.
  • Patayan Root: By far the least studied of any of the southwestern roots, the Patayan occupied the harsh deserts of western Arizona and are generally considered to be ancestral to the modern Yuman-speaking tribes of that area. (Gladwin even called the root “Yuman,”  which Colton changed to “Patayan” to avoid relating it quite so obviously to a modern ethnolinguistic group.) Despite the fairly straightforward relationship of at least some Patayan branches to modern Yuman groups, the root as a whole remains poorly understood, and the northern branches in northwestern Arizona (especially the Cohonina and Prescott branches) have seen very little research and their attachment to the root at all has been challenged by some archaeologists.
  • Sinagua Root: This group, occupying the area around modern Flagstaff, Arizona, shows clear evidence of influence from both the Kayenta Anasazi to the east and the Hohokam to the south (and possibly the Cohonina to the west as well). It is not at all clear that they form their own root, but if they don’t it’s equally unclear which root they belong to. This may be more a flaw of the classification system than a real mystery about the people. Whether they belong on my list is dubious as well, as they are probably ancestral to certain Hopi “clans.” Still, enough doubt remains about their origins and fate that I thought it was worth mentioning them.

There are other groups as mysterious as these, including some whose very existence as cultural units is controversial (most notably the Salado of southeastern Arizona and adjacent areas). This list should give a general sense, however, of how much diversity there was in the prehistoric southwest and how little we know about the relationships among the various groups and their relationships to modern tribes. In this context, the Anasazi of the Four Corners don’t look particularly mysterious, and I suspect the unusual attention paid to them stems mostly from the picturesque nature of the remains they left behind, which certainly does distinguish them from most (though not all) of the other groups, which left less impressive architecture behind.
Colton, HS (1938). Names of the Four Culture Roots in the Southwest Science, 87 (2268), 551-552 DOI: 10.1126/science.87.2268.551

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Rio Grande from Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Rio Grande from Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Today is the winter solstice, which also makes it the fifth anniversary of this blog. I tend to like to post about archaeoastronomy on these occasions, and as I mentioned in the previous post I’m currently in Albuquerque and have been reading up on the archaeology of the Rio Grande Valley. Luckily, a recent article I read has a very interesting archaeoastronomical proposal specific to this region, which makes everything come together nicely. Getting to that point requires some explanation of the context first, however.

Today the northern Rio Grande Valley is one of the main centers of Pueblo population, and this was also true at the time the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. It’s been clear to archaeologists since the late nineteenth century that the modern eastern or Rio Grande Pueblos belong to the same overall cultural tradition as both the modern western Pueblos (Laguna, Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi) and the prehistoric Pueblo sites found all over the northern Southwest. Within this overall cultural tradition, however, there are noticeable differences in certain aspects of culture between the Rio Grande Pueblos and those further west, as well as between both groups and the prehistoric sites. The long and complicated history of interaction between the Rio Grande Pueblos and the Spanish has both led to cultural changes in this region and made the modern Pueblo residents very reluctant to reveal information about their cultures to anthropologists. Both of these phenomena make understanding the background of Pueblo diversity exceptionally difficult.

As a result, archaeological research in the northern Rio Grande area has proceeded along a somewhat different course from research further west. While extensive early research at well-preserved abandoned sites at places like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde led to the formulation of a robust and well-supported relative chronological scheme by the late 1920s that was soon anchored by the absolute dates provided by tree-ring dating, fitting the Rio Grande sites into this sequence proved to be a challenge. Alfred Vincent Kidder’s extensive excavations at Pecos provided clear evidence of continuity between prehistoric and historic Pueblo culture, which allowed the historic Pueblos to be easily placed at the end of the sequence, aligning earlier developments in the east and west proved to be a challenge. Pecos itself was founded quite late in prehistory, and very few other prehistoric sites had been excavated in the Rio Grande area. The so-called “Pecos System” of chronology and culture history was actually based primarily on western sites, and over time it became clear that it didn’t fit the emerging picture of Rio Grande prehistory pretty well. That picture, based primarily on survey and excavation work done by the Laboratory of Anthropology at the Museum of New Mexico starting in the 1930s, by the 1950s resulted in a new framework for eastern Pueblo prehistory.

The main architect of the new system was Fred Wendorf, an archaeologist at the Museum of New Mexico who had done a lot of the work of documenting sites in the region. He published a paper in American Anthropologist in 1954 describing his proposed system, which consisted of five periods:

  • Preceramic: Before AD 600
  • Developmental: AD 600 to 1200
  • Coalition: AD 1200 to 1325
  • Classic: AD 1325 to 1600
  • Historic: AD 1600 to present

Contrast this to the Pecos System, as presented by Joe Ben Wheat in a paper published in the same journal in the same year:

  • Basketmaker II: Before AD 400
  • Basketmaker III: AD 400 to 700
  • Pueblo I: AD 700 to 900
  • Pueblo II: AD 900 to 1100
  • Pueblo III: AD 1100 to 1300
  • Pueblo IV: AD 1300 to 1600

The most obvious difference between the two systems is that the Pecos System contains more periods. A more subtle difference is that in the Pecos System all of the periods are associated with agriculture, which appeared quite early in the Four Corners area. Exactly how early was not quite clear in 1954; Wheat says it was “about the time of Christ.” In the Rio Grande, on the other hand, the Developmental was the earliest agricultural period in Wendorf’s scheme as well as the first ceramic one, preceded by a Preceramic period that was totally undated at the time but that Wendorf suggested may have lasted quite late, even after the beginning of the Developmental.

This pattern of delayed appearance of typical “Anasazi” cultural phenomena in the Rio Grande persisted throughout Wendorf’s scheme. He defined the beginning of the Coalition period by the switch from mineral to organic pigment in pottery decoration, a trend which had been gradually diffusing east from Arizona over the past few hundred years. Similarly, the beginning of the Classic was defined by the appearance of glaze-decorated ceramics, which had appeared a few decades earlier in the Zuni area. The Historic period began with the onset of Spanish colonization. In general Wendorf’s period definitions depended heavily on trends in pottery decoration, in contrast to the Pecos periods which were defined by a broad suite of material culture changes, with architecture especially important. One reason for this was that architecture and other cultural traits were bewilderingly diverse within each of these periods, especially the Developmental, and this diversity was apparent even with the very small number of excavated sites at that time.

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Wendorf’s scheme was in conflict on various points with a different scheme for Pueblo culture history as a whole developed by Erik Reed of the National Park Service. After Wendorf’s paper was published, discussions between the two led to an updated version of it published under both their names the next year in El Palacio. This paper has been extremely influential and the framework it established has been used by most archaeologists in the Rio Grande area since. The basic outlines of the framework are the same as those in Wendorf’s 1954 paper, with the changes involving the correction of the numerous typos in that paper, the addition of data from more recent excavations, and a somewhat different discussion of attempts to correlate archaeological phenomena with the complex distribution of modern linguistic groups. The latter was a particular interest of Reed, whose theories on it had been criticized by Wendorf in the earlier paper. I find it interesting as well, but I won’t get into it here.

Instead my focus here is on Wendorf and Reed’s Developmental period. Wendorf originally defined this period based on extremely limited information as a time of low population, diverse architectural styles and settlement patterns, and evidence of cultural influence from the San Juan Anasazi to the west. Population was extremely limited until about AD 900, when many more sites appear to have been inhabited and sites began to appear in the northern part of the region for the first time. This is the time of the rise of Chaco, and local Rio Grande ceramics show clear similarities to Chacoan types. Some archaeologists, including Reed, had argued that this rise in population came from an actual immigration of people from the Chaco area, but Wendorf doubted this, pointing out that other cultural traits showed considerable differences from Chacoan patterns. He suggested that while there could well have been some immigration from the west at this time, it was more likely from somewhere like the Mt. Taylor area that was part of the general Chacoan sphere of influence but closer to the Rio Grande, and that the number of people was likely small.

Architecture during the Developmental period was varied, with site sizes ranging from ten to 100 rooms and one to four kivas. The kivas were round and lacked most of the typical Chaco/San Juan features such as benches, pilasters, and wall recesses. They also usually faced east, in strong contrast to Chaco kivas, which usually faced south or southeast, even when they were associated with east-facing surface roomblocks (a common pattern for small houses at Chaco).

While the Wendorf and Reed system has remained in general use among Rio Grande archaeologists, the Developmental period in particular has seen much more data emerge from subsequent research, much of it associated with cultural resource management salvage projects. Cherie Scheick argued in a 2007 article that the period was much more diverse and complex than Wendorf and Reed had portrayed it as, illustrated by two nearby and contemporaneous sites in what is now Santa Fe that nevertheless had quite different ceramic assemblages which would place on in the Developmental period and the other in the Coalition period based on the Wendorf and Reed system. (This sort of thing is a major flaw with chronologies based mainly on ceramic styles, since time is by no means the only factor affecting differences in pottery.) Basically there seems to have been a long transitional period between the Developmental and Coalition in which communities with a variety of ceramic styles existed in close proximity. In particular, the introduction of carbon pigments seems to have been more variable than Wendorf and Reed realized, and they coexisted with mineral pigments for a substantial period. Scheick also points out that, contrary to what some earlier researchers had thought, there are no particular patterns over time in the architecture, such as larger villages developing later in the Developmental period.

Lurking in the background of all this research is the question of the abandonment of the Mesa Verde region and whether any of the apparent increases in population in the Rio Grande correspond to an influx of people from that area. Wendorf and Reed placed this migration in the middle of their Coalition period, with the appearance of a ceramic type, Galisteo Black-on-white, that is very similar to late Mesa Verde Black-on-white, and various other changes in material culture in the region that accompanied a population increase. However, recent research in the Mesa Verde region itself has suggested that the depopulation was a longer-term process beginning much earlier than previously thought, so some of the changes in the early Coalition period, could also be due to immigration. The basic problem is that while there are plenty of individual examples of similarity between San Juan/Mesa Verde culture and Rio Grande culture over a long period of time, there are no sites showing a complete package of San Juan cultural traits. There seems to be an emerging consensus that this is because the migration was primarily not of entire communities moving as units but of smaller units (families or lineages) that joined existing communities in the target region, perhaps ones that they had had earlier contact with through trade or other activities.

Round Kiva at Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument

Round Kiva at Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

An additional piece of evidence for this idea comes from the paper I mentioned at the beginning of this post, published by Steven Lakatos in 2007. Lakatos did an analysis of features in Rio Grande pit structures (kivas) during the Developmental period. He looked at size, orientation, and presence or absence of a hearth, an ash pit, a deflector, and a ventilator in a total of 131 excavated pit structures in the Rio Grande Valley dating to AD 600 to 1200. He looked at specific types of each of these features and came up with a wide variety of statistical comparisons. The sample sizes for most of the subsamples he looked at are so small, however, that I doubt many of these comparisons are meaningful. His overall conclusions, however, are probably reliable.

Lakatos found that there is a consistent pattern of features in pit structures throughout the Developmental period: hearth, ash pit, deflector, and ventilator, sometimes accompanied by sipapu and/or ash grinding stone, in a row aligned to the east-southeast (average azimuth from true north of 118 degrees for the Early Developmental period and 123 degrees for the late developmental). This is in strong contrast to the San Juan (Chaco/Mesa Verde) kiva pattern, where ash pits are rare, other features like benches and pilasters are common, and orientation is usually to the south or south-southeast. Lakatos notes that this Rio Grande kiva pattern continues into the Coalition period and later, as kivas become more formalized community-scale integrative structures, and while all the features in the complex potentially had originally mundane uses, the formalization of the pattern and its persistence over time suggest that at some point it acquired ritual significance. He notes the ritual importance of ash to modern Rio Grande Pueblos as a way of explaining the ash pit and ash-grinding stone as ritual features. The persistence of the pattern into the Coalition period and beyond suggests to Lakatos that immigrants to the Rio Grande from Mesa Verde and elsewhere not only joined existing communities, but largely assimilated to existing religious and cultural practices in an area that had developed a distinctive identity already. Thus, the reason it is so hard to pinpoint continuity between San Juan and Rio Grande archaeological sites is that the San Juan immigrants changed their culture to conform to Rio Grande practices.

I’m not sure I buy that there was quite as much continuity in the Rio Grande as Lakatos and other Rio Grande archaeologists tend to think. Looking at it from the outside, the ceramic evidence certainly seems to imply at least some continuity with Mesa Verde culture, and a close examination of what little ethnographic information is available on the Rio Grande Pueblos may reveal other traits of western or northern origin. Still, Lakatos’s evidence for continuity in kiva form looks convincing to me, and the patterns he identifies are certainly quite different from those of Chaco and Mesa Verde. The fact that his interpretation meshes well with other research suggesting migration by small groups into established communities is also encouraging.

So what does all this have to do with the winter solstice? Well, Lakatos also calculated the azimuth of winter solstice sunrise for the Albuquerque area in AD 1000, and it was 119 degrees east of north. This is strikingly similar to the average azimuths of the kiva alignments he analyzed, which have small standard deviations indicating strong clustering around the average values. The variation that does exist could easily correspond to local horizon variation in this rugged, mountainous region. Lakatos expresses surprise at this finding, but it makes perfect sense to me. The winter solstice is an enormously important event for the modern Pueblos, as Lakatos discusses, and pointing their kivas toward it would be a natural response to that importance. And with that in mind, I wish all my readers a happy solstice.

Lakatos, SA (2007). Cultural Continuity and the Development of Integrative Architecture in the Northern Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, A.D. 600-1200 Kiva, 73 (1), 31-66

Wendorf, F (1954). A Reconstruction of Northern Rio Grande Prehistory American Anthropologist, 56 (2), 200-227 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1954.56.2.02a00050

Wendorf, F, & Reed, EK (1955). An Alternative Reconstruction of Northern Rio Grande Prehistory El Palacio, 62 (5-6), 131-173

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Mercer Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania

Mercer Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania

I was in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, and the next day I went with my family to the quaint nearby town of Doylestown, where we visited two local museums: the Michener Museum (named after, yes, that Michener, who grew up in Doylestown and spent most of his life in the area) and the Mercer Museum. The Michener is basically a local art museum, and we went there to see an exhibit about Grace Kelly, who is a big deal in the Philadelphia area. Not really my kind of thing, but it was fine.

The Mercer, on the other hand, is a really unusual sort of museum. It was established by Henry Mercer, a Doylestown native who had a variety of interests and a good deal of money with which to pursue them. He studied law but never practiced it, instead going into archaeology in the 1890s. I haven’t found much information about his specific contributions to American archaeology, which was in its infancy at that time, except that he apparently supported the authenticity of the obviously forged Lenape Stone that allegedly contains an image of a mammoth and is now part of the Mercer Museum collections (though not on display).

In the late 1890s, however, Mercer came to the realization that the advancement of industrialization meant that most aspects of traditional life in the US were likely to disappear forever, and he began to collect what were then considered mundane objects for the museum of the Bucks County Historical Society. He collected huge numbers of things from all aspects of pre-industrial life, over time branching out to the US as a whole and eventually other parts of the world as well. His collection got so big that he built a new building to house it, using an innovative design and construction approach using poured concrete. He organized the collection thematically by the sorts of societal needs that objects served, and put together display cases by category.

The museum is still much as he designed it, although there have been various changes over the years. It’s a fascinating place, idiosyncratic and full of extremely detailed information. What I found especially interesting, however, was the way the museum’s own self-descriptions explicitly tied Mercer’s collecting of what most people considered “junk” to his earlier interest in archaeology. That is, one way to see what Mercer was doing was taking an archaeological approach to studying and preserving the material culture of the present and recent past, to ensure it would be understood in the future. This approach was quite ahead of its time for both history and archaeology, and the museum that resulted is fascinating and well worth a visit.

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Utah Welcome Sign

Utah Welcome Sign

The initial discovery of chemical markers for chocolate on potsherds from Chaco Canyon in 2009 was a hugely significant development in understanding Chaco. The evidence for the presence of chocolate, a Mesoamerican product that couldn’t possibly have been locally grown and is very unlikely to have been gradually traded northward through a series of intermediaries, gave a huge boost to the “Mexicanist” school of thought about Chaco, which holds that many of the unusual aspects of the Chaco system are due to influence from Mesoamerica.

The initial study only involved a few sherds, though, and understanding the exact role of chocolate at Chaco and its implications for Mexican contact needs a much deeper understanding of where and when cacao was present in the ancient Southwest. Thus, soon after the initial discovery further research by a different set of researchers (using somewhat different methods) began to test other pots from Chaco and elsewhere. They did find further evidence that at least some of the famous cylinder jars from Chaco were used in the consumption of chocolate, but they also found traces of cacao in vessels of similar form from the later Classic Hohokam period in southern Arizona, and, most surprisingly, also in vessels from the “small-house sites” at Chaco and elsewhere that are thought to have housed the lower classes of Chacoan society. The previous evidence for chocolate came from distinctive vessels at the “great houses” that are the hallmark of the Chaco system and seem to have been used by elites (though exactly what they used them for remains unclear and controversial). This is exactly the kind of setting where it would be unsurprising to find unusual, exotic things, and indeed the great houses clearly contained many such things in addition to the chocolate. Finding this sort of exotic foodstuff in more mundane pots at the small houses implies that it may have been more widely accessible than previously thought, which has important implications for understanding the nature of the Chaco system.

Well, now things have become even more complicated. The same researchers who did that follow-up study have done another, this time looking at a much earlier period and a different part of the Southwest. They used their same techniques to test for the presence of chocolate in pottery at Alkali Ridge Site 13 in southeastern Utah, a very important early village site dating to the eighth century AD. Site 13 was one of the earliest large villages established in the northern Southwest during the Pueblo I period, and its architecture shows some striking parallels to later Pueblo I villages such as McPhee Village in the Dolores, Colorado area, as well as to some of the early great houses at Chaco and elsewhere that developed even later. The early Pueblo I period in southern Utah is also associated with the introduction of a new type of pottery, San Juan Red Ware, which was widely traded from an apparently rather restricted production area and probably used for ceremonial purposes of some sort. In addition to being a different color from the more common gray and white pottery of the area, San Juan Red Ware also featured a distinctive design system in its decoration, one without obvious local antecedents. Combined with the distinctive architecture, this has led some archaeologists to posit that there was a migration into southern Utah during early Pueblo I from somewhere to the south, bringing these distinctive traits.

In that context, looking for cacao makes sense, as that would be a clear sign of ties to the south and cultural distinctiveness. Dorothy Washburn, who was the lead author on both this and the previous study,  has actually written mainly on design style in ceramics and other handicrafts, focusing on symmetry patterns. Based on the changes she has found in these patterns, she has argued for a very strong Mexicanist interpretation of Chaco, involving actual migration of people from far to the south bringing a distinctive pottery decoration style. She seems to have a similar view about Alkali Ridge, for similar reasons.

In any case, the study found that there was in fact evidence for cacao on several of the vessels found at Site 13, including some (but not all) of the redware ones. The conclusions, understandably, focus on the association between the new ceramic design system and the use of chocolate, but in fact the redware vessels don’t seem to be much more likely to have evidence of chocolate use than the other ones that were tested. It’s quite possible that San Juan Red Ware was associated with consumption of chocolate specifically, but it seems that other types of pottery were also used for chocolate-related purposes.

This is all very interesting, but it’s also confusing and hard to interpret, in a way that the authors of this paper don’t really address. Back when it seemed like chocolate was limited to cylinder vessels at Chaco great houses, that was easy to interpret: chocolate, like many other exotic goods found at these sites, was part of an extensive trading systems for elite goods, probably used for ritual purposes, which the elites of Chaco participated in (and perhaps dominated and directed). Finding it in the Hohokam vessels implied a similar system operating among elites at Classic Hohokam sites, which is consistent with some interpretations of Classic Hohokam society, plus the Hohokam in general show lots of evidence of contact with Mesoamerica in general so the presence of chocolate is much less surprising there than it was at Chaco. Finding it in the small houses at Chaco complicated the story somewhat and implied that the chocolate imported to Chaco wasn’t as restricted as had been thought, but since it was already known to be present at the great houses it’s not too surprising that the contemporaneous small houses had it too.

Alkali Ridge, though, is much earlier and much further north than any of these other sites. Getting chocolate there in significant quantities would have required a pretty elaborate and robust supply chain over a very long distance, much of which was inhabited by societies that are not generally considered to have been capable of this kind of long-distance coordination. Checking some of those intermediate areas (especially the Hohokam region) to see if they too had chocolate this early is necessary to understand the logistics of this.

There’s also the question of time. We now have evidence of chocolate from Utah in the eighth century, New Mexico (and to a lesser extent Colorado and Arizona) in the eleventh, and Arizona in the fourteenth. There are some big gaps there that need to be filled in to determine if these are three snapshots of a long-term and continuous tradition of chocolate consumption in the Southwest (which would have important implications about trade networks and relations with Mexico) or three separate episodes of chocolate being introduced from the south, possibly through population movement (which would have important implications for regional culture history in general). I think the most important place to look for evidence of continuity between Alkali Ridge and Chaco is in the large late Pueblo I villages in southwestern Colorado, especially the Dolores-area ones like McPhee Village. These sites have apparent connections to both earlier villages like Site 13 and later developments at Chaco. If they also reveal evidence for chocolate use, that would be a strong indication of continuity. The most important places to check for continuity between Chaco and the Classic Hohokam would probably be the Pueblo III communities in east-central Arizona, which again show connections in both directions. Both of these sets of sites are among the best-studied in the Southwest and there should be plenty of pots available for these analyses.

Finally, there is a methodological issue here. It’s possible that these tests aren’t actually detecting chocolate at all, but something else. The authors of the recent paper noted this possibility and looked into whether there are any plants native to the Southwest that might have chemical profiles similar to cacao that would throw off the analysis. They didn’t find any, but they note that many plants have not been analyzed in this way and it’s possible there is a different plant that is showing up in these analyses instead. Another possibility is that there is something about their method itself that is leading to false positives. It’s noteworthy that they have been finding much more extensive evidence of chocolate than the team, led by Patricia Crown and Jeffrey Hurst, that did the initial Chaco study found. That team hasn’t published any more about chocolate at Chaco since then, but I hear Crown was able to do some re-excavation in Room 28 at Pueblo Bonito this summer so there may be more from her on this in the future. Ideally I’d like to see a test of both methods on the same vessels to see how they match up.

The ultimate message here is that even important discoveries, like chocolate at Chaco, require many further studies and refinements to interpret properly. We’re nowhere near a full understanding of the true role of chocolate at Chaco or any other site in the prehistoric Southwest, but every study gets us closer.
Washburn DK, Washburn WN, & Shipkova PA (2013). Cacao consumption during the 8th century at Alkali Ridge, southeastern Utah Journal of Archaeological Science, 40, 2007-2013 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.12.017

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Visitor Center and Fajada Butte from Una Vida

Visitor Center and Fajada Butte from Una Vida

I often read articles on the archaeology of other parts of the world to gain a better understanding of the context for Chaco. The areas I focus on for this are primarily those that had interesting things going on contemporaneous with the Chacoan era, but I also look to some extent on archaeological phenomena in other places that are comparable to the Chaco Phenomenon itself to see if there are any lessons for understanding Chaco to be drawn from them.

Recently I’ve been reading a bit about the archaeology of Tiwanaku, Bolivia, which falls into both categories. The period of Tiwanaku’s florescence overlaps with Chaco’s to some extent, although it falls most earlier, but more importantly the history of research there has some intriguing parallels to the history of Chacoan studies and may hold some useful lessons. My account of Tiwanaku here is drawn mainly from John Janusek’s 2004 review article, as well as some other papers by Janusek and others who seem to share his general perspective.

Tiwanaku itself is a major site located on the Bolivian altiplano near Lake Titicaca. It is in a very stark and desolate-seeming location, which makes its monumental architecture seem incongruous (sound familiar?). Early explorers noted that the site pre-dated the Inka empire, and some considered it the oldest site in the whole Andean region. Archaeological investigations in the early twentieth century showed that the latter characterization was definitely not accurate, but they also found little evidence of domestic occupation, and the idea arose that Tiwanaku was a vacant ceremonial center and pilgrimage destination, which some interpreted as the center for a religious movement that was spread by the expansionary state centered at the site of Wari further north in Peru.

Starting in the 1950s, however, a new archaeological program sponsored by the nationalist government of Bolivia and led by Carlos Ponce Sanginés conducted extensive excavations at the site and concluded instead that Tiwanaku was the urban capital of an expansionist state, which rivaled Wari and eventually even conquered it. By the 1980s researchers from the US were invited to work in the area as well, and their research has generally supported this reconstruction of Tiwanaku rather than the “vacant ceremonial center” hypothesis, although the idea that Tiwanaku actually conquered Wari didn’t hold up. Janusek is part of this research tradition, which is why the fact that my information on the site comes mainly from him is important. There are apparently still other archaeologists who still hold to the older interpretation, but there don’t seem to be many.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of research at Chaco should see the similarities here. One important difference, of course, is that the early research at Chaco assumed that it was a residential rather than a ceremonial center. It was not until the work of the Chaco Project in the 1970s that it began to seem like the great houses in the canyon were something other than “pueblos” in the traditional sense. While the idea of Chaco as a vacant ceremonial center was never universal, and it arose rather recently in the history of Chacoan research, it has been quite influential in recent years. Recent research, such as that of Chip Wills, Steve Plog, and Steve Lekson, has been moving away from this idea, however, and back to the idea of a substantial population in the canyon. In parallel with Tiwanaku, however, many of these recent interpretations have seen Chaco as more of a complex, hierarchical society than a set of autonomous, egalitarian villages. This makes the monumental architecture that is a hallmark of the Chaco Phenomenon seem like more of an expression of hierarchical than spiritual ideals.

One important lesson of Tiwanaku, however, is that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The monumental architecture and art at the main site and other sites considered to be regional centers of the same polity (“outliers” in Chacoan terminology?) is generally interpreted as reflecting a religious ideology that supported the hierarchical structure of the Tiwanaku state. This is hardly unusual in early states, of course, but the fact that Tiwanaku was not originally considered to be such a state makes it more relevant to the case of Chaco, which is in the same situation.

Another important similarity between the two systems is in the presence of astronomical alignments in the monumental buildings, and the resultant implication that astronomical observation and the maintenance of a calendar were important elements in the societal system. Tiwanaku was apparently the first society in the region to show this astronomical focus, and Janusek, in a paper on Tiwanaku religion, links this explicitly to its success as a state. In that paper he argues that the changes in monumental construction at Tiwanaku proper were linked to changes in the religious ideology of the site, which over time came to incorporate diverse regional traditions as well as cosmic cycles into a complex, syncretic religion that supported and justified the spiritual and material power of the Tiwanaku elites. As Janusek concludes:

Tiwanaku’s long rise to power in the Andean altiplano was predicated on the integration of diverse local ritual cults and various symbolic dimensions of the natural environment into a reasonably coherent, supremely elegant and powerfully predictive religion. The shifting physicality of Tiwanaku’s religious monuments attests the construction and ongoing transformation of an urban landscape that not only visually expressed the altiplano’s ‘natural’ forces and cycles, but, via recurring construction and ritual, simultaneously shaped new social practices and Tiwanaku’s ever-increasing political influence and productive coordination, intensification and expansion. Tiwanaku was an imperfect and potentially volatile integration of religious cults, productive enterprises and societies. The material objectification of a seductive religious ideology that infused the monumental centre with numinous natural forces and simultaneously projected those forces across distant Andean realms helped drive Tiwanaku’s very worldly imperial mission.

I haven’t seen this same argument applied explicitly to Chaco, but I think it may apply there as well. The part about incorporating diverse cultural traditions seems to match pretty closely with the well-known diversity of material culture at Chaco, with different sites within the canyon, and even different parts of some of the larger sites, showing ties to different parts of the region. I don’t know of any pre-Chacoan sites in the Southwest that show obvious astronomical alignments the way Chaco does, so it seems probable that the Chacoans were the first to figure out these alignments, and they may have also been the first to develop the rigorous calendrical knowledge that such mastery of astronomy implies. I hadn’t really thought about that as a source of Chacoan power before reading about Tiwanaku, but it certainly makes sense. This is a good example of the way reading about these far-flung places has practical advantages for understanding Chaco.
Janusek, John W. (2004). Tiwanaku and Its Precursors: Recent Research and Emerging Perspectives Journal of Archaeological Research, 12 (2), 121-183 DOI: 10.1023/B:JARE.0000023711.96664.1b

Janusek, John W. (2006). The Changing ‘nature’ of Tiwanaku Religion and the Rise of an Andean State World Archaeology, 38 (3), 469-492 DOI: 10.1080/00438240600813541

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Colonnade at Chetro Ketl

Colonnade at Chetro Ketl

With increasing evidence for Mesoamerican influence at Chaco in recent years, it’s worth taking a close look at what was going on in Mesoamerica itself during the Chacoan era. As I’ve mentioned before, there is some reason to believe that the most likely area to look to for direct influence in the Southwest is West Mexico, but developments in Central Mexico are also worth considering. The Chacoan era  corresponds generally to the Early Postclassic period in Mesoamerican history, and in Central Mexico this period is dominated by the Toltecs and their widely influential state with its capital at Tula, in the modern state of Hidalgo northwest of Mexico City.

When discussing the Toltecs, it’s important to note that most of the available information about them comes from later Aztec sources dating to the period after the Spanish conquest, and there is considerable debate about how historical these accounts actually are. Some scholars have argued that the stories of the Toltec “empire” with its capital at a city known as “Tollan” reflects a longstanding tradition in Mesoamerica dating back to long before the period of the site now known as Tula. There is considerable evidence that the Aztecs, at least, identified Tula with Tollan and venerated it as the capital of the legendary Toltecs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much for the actual history of the site. Setting aside the ethnohistoric traditions about the Toltecs, then, the archaeology of Tula itself is worth a close look. What do we know about this site and its history?

As Dan Healan explains in a recent review article, the answer at this point is, “not much.” Tula actually seems to be surprisingly poorly understood for a major Mesoamerican city. Presumably this is largely because it has been overshadowed by the more impressive remains of Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan in the same region dating to earlier and later, respectively. As Healan notes, the nature of the city itself, which was built mainly of adobe, meant that it ended up with a much less impressive physical appearance than Teotihuacan, which was made primarily of stone. The lack of a precise chronology is also a problem; despite several decades of research, only a small number of radiocarbon dates are available for Tula. The chronology is therefore based primarily on ceramic cross-dating, but even this is not very precise or secure. Typically for Central Mexico, as opposed to the Maya area, there is also a lack of monumental inscriptions to provide an alternative means of dating construction and related events.

As a result of all these difficulties, the picture that emerges from research at Tula is still pretty blurry. It’s not completely dark, though. As Healan presents the evidence, Tula appears to emerge in the Epiclassic period after the fall of Teotihuacan as one of several small polities in the general area. Judging by ceramic styles, at least some of the people inhabiting the Tula region at this point appear to have had strong connections to the west, specifically to the area known as the Bajío in what is now southern Guanajuato and Querétaro. These apparent migrants from the west may have merged with remnant Teotihuacan-influenced populations to form the core of the Toltec state.

Developments at Tula itself are hard to trace due to the dating problems mentioned earlier, but there are two distinct ceremonial centers at the city, known as Tula Chico and Tula Grande, which are very similar in layout and seem to have succeeded each other in time. Interestingly, Tula Chico appears to have been burned early in the development of the Tula polity but to have remained in a ruined state while the city grew around it and it functions were assumed by the new center at Tula Grande. The reasons for this are hard to discern, but Healan suggests that whatever violence was involved may have been internecine, with the victorious faction leaving the old civic center destroyed as a reminder of its victory. This is plausible enough, but other explanations are also possible.

Whatever the backstory, at the height of its power Tula was clearly influential over a wide swath of Mesoamerica, although its area of direct control is harder to discern. In addition to the well-known similarities between Tula and Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, which Healan doesn’t discuss in much detail given the already vast literature discussing them, sites with clear Toltec characteristics are found as far north as southern San Luis Potosí and as far south as western El Salvador. This suggests Tula played an important role in the developing trade networks that extended throughout the region beginning in this period. Interestingly, while these sites suggest a large area of north-south influence, some areas quite near Tula to the east and west show essentially no influence from it. Perhaps this indicates a specific axis of Toltec influence, with other states having more of a role in other areas.

The extension of Toltec influence quite far north is of course significant for developments in the Southwest. To my mind it suggests the possibility of a trade system running north-south along the eastern flank of the Sierra Madre Occidental, connecting Tula to the Mimbres area. This would be somewhat distinct from the parallel system running along the Pacific coast and controlled by the polities of the Aztalan tradition connecting Michoacán and Jalisco to the Hohokam area. Chaco may have been connected to either or both of these networks; it is still unclear how much contact the Chacoans had with either the Mimbres or the Hohokam. One way or another, however, Mexican trade goods reached Chaco. Some of them (e.g., copper bells) definitely came from West Mexico, but others (e.g., chocolate and macaws) came from much further south and could have come up through either pathway.

One interesting suggestion of connections with Tula specifically is architectural. While Pueblo architecture is very different from Mesoamerican architecture as a general rule, and Chaco is no exception, the distinctive core-and-veneer masonry associated with Chacoan  “great houses” finds an echo in the “small-stone veneer” architecture of Tula. This isn’t a perfect parallel, as it seems the Tula version is a true (non-structural) veneer of stone stuck onto a structural wall of adobe or rough stone, while the Chacoan version is actually a structural facing without which the wall wouldn’t stand up at all. Still, the similarity is striking, as is the rarity of this technique both in the Southwest and (apparently) in Mesoamerica as well. The Tula walls are also plastered, sometimes even with mud, as at Chaco, but more often with lime, which is abundant in the area and appears to have been a major export to both Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan in the periods bracketing the florescence of Tula.

Another more straightforward architectural parallel between Tula and Chaco is the use of columns. Both Tula and Chichen Itza are known for their huge numbers of square columns. This is a distinctive architectural feature that is otherwise rare in Mesoamerica, and it has therefore been one of the main pieces of evidence for a close connection between these two Early Postclassic centers. At Chaco, columns like these are found in the “colonnade” at Chetro Ketl, a single row of square masonry columns facing the plaza apparently added quite late in the history of the site and filled in even later to form a solid wall. It’s very unclear how this feature should be interpreted, but the similarity to the columns at Tula is striking.

It’s frustrating that so little information is available about Tula. At a minimum, a more precise chronology would be a huge help in determining how it relates to other contemporaneous cultures in both Mesoamerica and the Southwest. At the end of his article Healan laments the ongoing destruction of many portions of the site outside the monumental core due to modern urban development. Complaints of this sort seem to be pretty common among Mesoamerican archaeologists discussing various important sites, and certainly the loss of archaeological resources is unfortunate. As Healan notes, however, development at Tula has been accompanied by salvage archaeology to at least document the sites that are being destroyed, although the reports resulting from this work are not always widely available. Another way to look at increasing development, then, would be to see it as a great opportunity to document parts of the site that might not have otherwise have been excavated (and to collect more radiocarbon dates to firm up the chronology). This attitude appears to be increasingly popular among archaeologists in the US, but I’ve noticed that Mesoamericanists tend to be more reluctant to consider salvage projects to be anything other than a necessary evil. As Mexico becomes more prosperous, however, development is only going to continue, and documenting the country’s rich prehistoric heritage can go hand in hand with that process. It’s especially important that it do so in areas that are important but relatively understudied, such as Tula.
Healan, D. (2012). The Archaeology of Tula, Hidalgo, Mexico Journal of Archaeological Research, 20 (1), 53-115 DOI: 10.1007/s10814-011-9052-3

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Sign Describing Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

Sign Describing Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

The Great Basin and northern Colorado Plateau were occupied at the time of European Contact (generally between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century for this region) by a variety of relatively small groups of hunter-gatherers, all of whom spoke closely related languages belonging to the Uto-Aztecan language family. By the early twentieth century these groups had become of considerable interest to anthropologists due to the harshness of their physical environment and the apparent simplicity of their social structure.

The most influential ethnographic studies of these groups were those conducted by Julian Steward among the Western Shoshonis in the 1930s. Steward developed a model of Western Shoshoni society in the Great Basin that emphasized the constraints imposed by this harsh environment and the consequent need for small group size and frequent movement in search of subsistence resources. Steward focused heavily on the political structure of Western Shoshoni society, which he divided into two fairly different forms of social organization: “village” and “band.” “Village” groups he characterized as small groups of people who generally aggregated in small villages during the winter at favored locations and dispersed into even smaller family groups in the other seasons to gather scattered resources. Each village group roamed through a territory which was not sharply defined but typically consisted roughly of a single valley, but the groups were fluid and people and families frequently moved from one to another for a variety of reasons such as resource availability and kin or trading ties.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Office, Lone Pine, California

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Office, Lone Pine, California

“Band” groups, on the other hand, were larger and generally found in areas of greater concentration of resources than is typical in the arid Basin. The Owens Valley Paiutes were the preeminent example of this type of organization, as Owens Valley was teeming with resources and was divided into a number of band territories which were carefully guarded and defended by their resident bands. (This may seem incongruous to anyone who has been to Owens Valley recently and seen how dry and desolate it looks, but the story of how it got that way is of course a famous one.) Some of the Shoshoni groups in nearby valleys had similar social organization to the Owens Valley Paiute, but Steward considered band organization in most of the rest of the Basin to be a post-Contact phenomenon associated with the introduction of the horse and extensive cultural influence from the Plains buffalo-hunting cultures further east.

Steward considered all the cultures he documented in the Great Basin to be of relatively recent origin and the result of influences from many directions, some of them post-Contact (most obviously the case with horses). Archaeologists, however, were very impressed with the way the social models he outlined, especially the “village” one, evidenced a very close relationship between the resources of the land and the social structure of the people living in it. This seemed like a description of society at its most basic in a harsh environment, which might be a reasonable model for prehistoric societies who inhabited similarly harsh locations, including the Great Basin itself. As more discoveries came to be made extending knowledge of North American prehistory in what is now known as the Archaic period, especially in the deserts of the Southwest, archaeologists began to interpret them in light of Steward’s ethnographic data. In the 1950s this approach was codified by Jesse Jennings of the University of Utah into the concept of a “Desert Culture” that looked basically like Steward’s “village” societies and existed throughout the desert Southwest from the end of the Paleoindian period until the adoption of agriculture in some areas and until Contact in others (the latter being the societies Steward studied).

Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

The idea of a relatively unchanging culture limited by ecological conditions and lasting for thousands of years was especially attractive to the “New Archaeologists” who emerged on the scene beginning in the 1960s and were very concerned with deriving general conclusions about social processes from the archaeological record using the scientific method (which led to them eventually being known as “Processualists”). Unlike in many areas where the cultural record was clearly very complicated and many different societies with different economies had followed each other over the millennia, here was a case where a single social model had endured for almost the entirety of the archaeological record, in some areas right down to the ethnographic present. Environmental and archaeological data could be gathered and compared to each other to test various hypotheses derived from explicit theories based on the baseline data established by Steward and Jennings. Most of the other variables that tended to confound such theory formation and hypothesis testing in other areas were held constant here by the harsh environment and the resultingly simple and stable societies that were adapted to it.

As a result, the Great Basin by the 1970s became the site of several major archaeological research projects sponsored by prominent institutions seeking to capitalize on this opportunity. They collected an enormous amount of useful data that shed important light on both general anthropological questions and the culture history of the Great Basin itself. The region was a triumph of processual archaeology and a showcase of its potential.

Datura Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

Datura Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

There was a nagging problem with all this, however. The archaeology and ethnography (which were generally treated as basically the same) of the region painted a picture of remarkable cultural stability, but the linguistic evidence pointed in a very different direction. Explaining how requires some backtracking and explanation of the linguistic situation at Contact.

As I said earlier, it was apparent to anthropologists by the late nineteenth century that the languages spoken by the Basin groups were closely related to each other and more distantly related to many other languages of western North America (including Mexico) within what came to be known as the Uto-Aztecan language family. The internal structure of this language family was much harder to establish than its existence, however, and there’s actually still no consensus among linguists about how it should be divided. In 1925 Alfred Kroeber of the University of California proposed a division whereby most of the languages north of the US-Mexican border constituted a “Shoshonean” family that was subdivided into four branches. The branch consisted of the groups occupying the Great Basin and adjacent portions of the Colorado Plateau was known as “Plateau Shoshonean,” a label that stuck for decades afterward, and was divided into three branches itself. Steward in the 1930s kept Kroeber’s basic division of both the overall Uto-Aztecan family and the Plateau Shoshonean subfamily, although he gave the sub-branches different names. These three branches, with their general areas of occupation, are:

  • Northern Paiute (Steward), Mono-Paviotso (Kroeber); from Owens Valley northward through western Nevada to southeastern Oregon
  • Shoshoni (Steward), Shoshoni-Comanche (Kroeber); from Death Valley northeastward through eastern Nevada and northern Utah to western Wyoming, with the Comanche as an offshoot that migrated in the eighteenth century to the southern Plains
  • Southern Paiute (Steward), Ute-Chemehuevi (Kroeber); from Panamint Valley and possibly southern Death Valley eastward through southern Nevada and southern Utah to western Colorado

The overall division of the linguistic groups and their general territories have not been controversial, and this three-part scheme continues to be the standard way to divide up these languages. Looking at a map of the territorial distributions, an interesting fan or wedge shape is very evident. Each of the three subdivisions extends from one or more isolated valleys in eastern California at the western edge of the Great Basin (the narrow end of the wedge) out across the Basin and, in some cases, beyond (the wide end of the wedge). Steward and Jennings didn’t have much to say about this distribution, but it would later become a crucial point of evidence in a very different interpretation of Basin prehistory that directly challenged the long-term and unchanging nature assumed in the Desert Culture framework.

Yucca Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

Yucca Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

In the 1950s a linguist named Sydney Lamb conducted extensive linguistic fieldwork among speakers of these languages and came up with much better data than Kroeber or Steward had been able to secure. He published an important paper in 1958 reporting on his resulting conclusions about the internal relationships of the languages and the implications for the prehistory of the region.

Lamb’s work confirmed Kroeber’s three-part division of Plateau Shoshonean, but undermined the notion of “Shoshonean” itself as a basic division of Uto-Aztecan. Instead he considered the “Shoshonean” subfamilies to be independent branches of Uto-Aztecan, and proposed new names for them to indicate this. “Plateau Shoshonean” thus became “Numic” after the word for “people” in the languages in question. In subsequent research the related term “Numa” has also become popular as a collective noun referring to speakers of these languages.

Entrance Sign, Death Valley National Park

Entrance Sign, Death Valley National Park

Within Numic, Lamb found that each of the three subfamilies consisted of two languages, closely related to each other but not quite mutually intelligible and quite distinct from the languages in the other subfamilies. In each case one of these languages was spoken in the eastern California valleys at the southwestern end of the subfamily’s distribution and the other was spoken over the vast area to the north and/or east that made up the remainder of the distribution, with little variation over these huge areas.

Based on this distributional evidence, combined with some tentative glottochronological dates that Lamb prefaced with appropriate skepticism about the validity of glottochronology, Lamb concluded that the Numic languages had originated in the valleys of eastern California and had spread from there across the Great Basin quite recently, perhaps around 1000 years ago. Importantly, the subfamilies were apparently already distinct at this point, and their speakers seem to have moved in similar ways and directions but independently, which implied that there was some common force drawing them further into the Basin (or, perhaps, out of California). Lamb tentatively suggested that access to bison might have been part of the motivation for the migration, but without going into detail. The most important point, however, is that Lamb concluded that the linguistic uniformity of the Great Basin Numic languages suggests strongly that Numic speakers, including Steward’s famous Western Shoshoni whose culture was the basis for Jennings’s Desert Culture, were recent immigrants into most of the Basin, and not the surviving remnant of a widespread Desert Culture that had existed there for thousands of years. He acknowledged that this conclusion was in sharp contrast to the archaeological consensus, but put it out for discussion nevertheless.

Sign at Border of Ute Mountain Indian Reservation

Sign at Border of Ute Mountain Indian Reservation

Initially, at least, archaeologists didn’t buy it. They were quite confident of the validity of their Desert Culture model, and the subsequent rise of processual approaches only intensified the split between linguistic and archaeological interpretations of Great Basin prehistory. Not all linguists agreed with Lamb either, and various papers by both linguists and archaeologists in the succeeding decades proposed alternative explanations for the distribution of the Numic languages. Overall, though, most linguists came to be convinced by Lamb’s evidence that his interpretation was the most plausible, and by the 1980s even archaeologists began to be convinced.

Note that when I say “archaeologists” here I’m referring specifically to archaeologists who specialized in the Great Basin, especially those who focused on the western part of the Basin where Steward had done his work. Those archaeologists who studied the eastern Basin and the Colorado Plateau, many of whom were more associated with Southwestern archaeology, had much less trouble accepting the idea that the Numic-speakers were recent arrivals in the Basin, as they obviously were in the Plateau. The ethnographic literature on the Utes and Southern Paiutes contains various references to the remains of the Fremont associating them with the Hopis rather than with Numic-speakers, and Steward himself recorded a tradition among the Northern Paiutes that the area around Lovelock Cave had been inhabited by non-Paiutes fairly recently. Remember that Steward considered the cultures he studied to be relatively recent, which is consistent with a recent Numic spread and inconsistent with Jennings’s Desert Culture theory.

Owens Lake, California

Owens Lake, California

The first major theory based on a recent Numic spread to be proposed by archaeologists was that of Robert Bettinger and Martin Baumhoff of UC Davis, who published an important paper in 1982 making their case. They argued that Lamb’s Numic spread could be explained through a processual model. Under this model the pre-Numic cultures of the Basin were said to be based heavily on the hunting of big game, especially bighorn sheep, while the Numic cultures were based on a more intense gathering of small seeds, a lower-ranked resource that was more effort to get and process but more reliable as a source of calories. Bettinger’s own fieldwork had been focused mostly on Owens Valley, which he concluded had been where the Numic speakers had developed this focus on seeds out of necessity given the density of resources and population (recall that Steward had also argued that this was an area of more elaborate cultures than most of the Basin, for the same reason). Bettinger and Baumhoff argued that population pressure stemming from the adoption of this strategy was the impetus for the Numic groups to begin to spread out into the rest of the Basin, where their more effective seed-based economic strategy allowed them to out-compete the pre-Numic groups, who were unable to adapt to a similar strategy fast enough to compete effectively because of societal inertia. Climatic changes that reduced the availability of game may have played a role as well. They supported this idea of a discontinuity by pointing to differences in rock art and artifacts between earlier and later periods in the Great Basin archaeological record, especially the increased presence of specialized seed-beating equipment in the later period, presumably Numic.

The Bettinger-Baumhoff hypothesis immediately aroused considerable controversy, and in the next few years many objections to it were raised, mostly by archaeologists but occasionally by linguists as well. Bettinger and Baumhoff responded to some of these objections in follow-up papers, and overall their arguments have sparked a serious and generally productive discourse on the prehistory of the Great Basin and how to reconcile the archaeological and linguistic evidence. Over time the general trend has been toward increasing evidence of a variety of types in favor of some sort of recent Numic spread, and more and more archaeologists have begun to accept the reality of it. DNA evidence demonstrating a major discontinuity between at least some pre-Numic human remains and modern Numic groups has added an important independent line of evidence for a Numic spread, and additional intensive research in Owens Valley has further clarified the archaeological picture there and given more context to cultural changes (such as the adoption of pottery) that may have played a role in the origins of the spread.

Kaibab Paiute Housing Development from Pipe Spring National Monument

Kaibab Paiute Housing Development from Pipe Spring National Monument

So that’s the history of research into Numic prehistory in a nutshell. My take on it is that Lamb was clearly totally right that there was a Numic spread and that it was relatively recent (though his specific glottochronological dates are of course unreliable), and that Bettinger and Baumhoff may have been correct about its nature but that there remain some weak points in their theory. I think the archaeological reluctance to accept the idea of a Numic spread is due to a number of factors that have been problematic in the history of Americanist archaeology throughout the twentieth century but are particularly extreme in this case.

For one thing, there has long been a tradition of archaeologists projecting ethnographic data on post-Contact Native American groups uncritically back into the past. This was particularly common in the early twentieth century before it was widely accepted that the Americas had been occupied more than a few thousand years, and in that context it was at least understandable that Native cultures would have little time-depth. With the extension of the archaeological record further back in time and the development of more accurate and precise dating techniques, it became less justifiable to use ethnographic analogy and the Direct Historical Method so straightforwardly, but it has continued to some extent throughout the US, and the perceived harshness of the Great Basin environment and the relatively extensive ethnographic record there has made this tendency particularly pronounced there.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

The “New Archaeologists” of the 1960s and 1970s defined their approach explicitly in contrast to previous generations’ overreliance on specific ethnographic data and naive projection of it back into prehistory. In many parts of the US this meant a major shift, but again the specific characteristics of the Great Basin made the New Archaeological method look a lot like old-fashioned culture history. The apparent lack of change in the Basin’s archaeological record over millennia had meant that the culture history was interpreted as a story of stasis ending up with the ethnographic Numa, and this story of ahistoricality was easily translated into a story of consistent adaptations to a harsh and severely limiting environment. In both cases there was not actually any evidence strongly in favor of continuity of population (as opposed to adaptation), but that was a reasonable null hypothesis and, as often happens, over time it expanded from that to an unstated assumption. Bettinger and Baumhoff’s theory was presented very explicitly in the terms of processual archaeology but was nevertheless very controversial because of this assumption.

The generally ahistorical approach of the processualists is now less dominant in American archaeology than it was in 1982, and this is probably a factor in the increasing acceptance of a Numic spread among archaeologists. I find it a fascinating story both because it sheds light on the dynamic nature of prehistory and relationships between linguistic and cultural groups and because it illustrates important trends in the intellectual history of American archaeology in particularly vivid fashion. It’s also a story that seems to be more or less completely unknown among the general public, which is unfortunate, and I’d like to make more people aware of it. This post is a start.
Bettinger, R., & Baumhoff, M. (1982). The Numic Spread: Great Basin Cultures in Competition American Antiquity, 47 (3) DOI: 10.2307/280231

Jennings, J., & Norbeck, E. (1955). Great Basin Prehistory: A Review American Antiquity, 21 (1) DOI: 10.2307/276104

Kaestle, F., & Smith, D. (2001). Ancient mitochondrial DNA evidence for prehistoric population movement: The Numic expansion American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 115 (1), 1-12 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1051

Lamb, S. (1958). Linguistic Prehistory in the Great Basin International Journal of American Linguistics, 24 (2) DOI: 10.1086/464442

Steward, J. (1937). Linguistic Distributions and Political Groups of the Great Basin Shoshoneans American Anthropologist, 39 (4), 625-634 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1937.39.4.02a00070

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