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Anvil City Square, Nome, Alaska

Anvil City Square, Nome, Alaska

I realize it’s been pretty quiet around here the past few weeks. I’ve been very busy with work lately, especially attending conferences and traveling to far-flung corners of the state, and my life has been kind of crazy in other ways too, so I haven’t had much time to devote to blogging. I have been working on a post on the Numic Spread to continue some of the themes from my recent posts on the Fremont, but I need to wait until I have more time to finish it. There are also a lot of other topics I’d like to post about when I get a chance. Hopefully things will calm down a little in the next few weeks and I’ll have some more time. In the meantime, have some pictures of Nome, where I attended a meeting yesterday.

City Hall, Nome, Alaska

City Hall, Nome, Alaska

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Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

As I mentioned in the previous post, the most mysterious thing about the Fremont is what happened to them. Unlike the Anasazi, who obviously became the modern Pueblos, the Fremont have no obvious connections to any modern groups. Fremont sites appear to disappear around AD 1300 in most areas, although there is some regional variation and in part defining an end date depends on how you define “Fremont.” Since the practice of agriculture is closely associated with the Fremont complex, the latest dates of sites with clear evidence for agriculture is one convenient way to date the end of the Fremont. In their important 1998 review essay, David Madsen and Steven Simms give the following dates for the end of agriculture in different Fremont regions:

  • Uinta Basin: AD 1000
  • Parowan Valley and Great Salt Lake wetlands: AD 1100 to 1150
  • “Much of the Fremont region”: AD 1250 to 1300
  • Northwestern Colorado: After AD 1450

(Note that Madsen and Simms annoyingly cite their dates as “Before Present” without specifying what date they are using for the “Present” or whether these are calendar or radiocarbon years; in calculating the above dates I have assumed a “Present” of AD 1950 as conventionally used in radiocarbon determinations.)

The Madsen and Simms date for much of the region is very close to the “Great Drought” of AD 1276 to 1299 known from Anasazi sites to the south (assuming of course that their dates are in calendar years). Given the low precision of the radiocarbon-based Fremont chronology compared to the tree-ring based Anasazi one, however, it is risky to make too much of coincidences like this, and the wide variation across different Fremont sub-regions suggests that something more complicated is going on here than a simple reaction to a single prolonged drought. The Great Drought may well have affected Fremont farmers, of course, but the Fremont data are not clear enough to establish a definitive association. In general a rough date of AD 1300 for the end of Fremont in most areas is widely used and probably close enough for most purposes. It does seem that some form of the Fremont lifestyle persisted significantly longer in northwestern Colorado, which could have served as a refuge for Fremont farmers displaced from other areas.

In keeping with their general interpretation of Fremont as involving a wide variety of adaptive strategies and frequent movements of people between farming and foraging, Madsen and Simms interpret the end of the phenomenon as consisting largely of farmers switching to foraging, along with possible immigration of foragers from outside the region. Basically they see this period as a time when the precarious balance between farming and foraging characteristic of the Fremont period tipped decisively in favor of foraging, perhaps in response to climatic changes that made foraging a more effective subsistence strategy.

Whatever the mechanism for the collapse of Fremont as an archaeological complex, the question of what became of the people remains. There are three main logical options:

  1. They died out entirely and left no descendants.
  2. They changed their culture and stayed in the same region.
  3. They left the region.

The first option is apparently attractive to a lot of people, judging by the popularity of descriptions of ancient peoples as “vanished” and so forth, but it’s actually quite rare for a group to literally die out entirely. It’s certainly possible that this is what happened to the Fremont, especially given the lack of continuity with later groups, but the number of people and large area involved make it implausible. That leaves us with either continuity between the Fremont and the ethnographic inhabitants of their region or a migration of the Fremont to somewhere else.

The idea that the Fremont might have developed into the hunter-gatherers known ethnographically in the eastern Great Basin and northern Colorado Plateau has a respectable history in the literature; as I noted in the previous post, James Gunnerson proposed just this back in the 1960s. The distinction in material culture between the Fremont and the Numic-speaking groups that followed them (Shoshone and Ute) is quite marked, however, as Albert Schroeder pointed out at the time. Furthermore, Madsen noted in 1975 that the distinctive Numic pottery is associated with the very different Fremont pottery at several well-dated sites in the region, suggesting that the two groups were distinct but contemporaneous. It is certainly possible that some of the Fremont assimilated into Numic society in some areas, or that the two merged in various combinations, and Madsen and Simms suggest that some such merging may have occurred in the Great Salt Lake area, though it’s not clear from their discussion whether they see the immigrant groups that merged with the Fremont as specifically Numic, as they propose a hiatus between this merged society and the ethnographically known culture of the region, perhaps due to the spread of European disease in the contact era. The whole issue of the Numic groups and how they got to where they are today is important in understanding the prehistory of these areas, but it is a big, complicated issue and I’ll address it more fully in a subsequent post. The material culture differences are significant enough that it seems unlikely that assimilation in place is the answer to the question of what happened to the Fremont in general.

As an alternative to seeing the Fremont as turning into the modern Numic groups that occupy the same areas, they may have migrated elsewhere. But where? Another theory noted in my previous post is that proposed by Melvin Aikens in the 1960s that the Fremont originally came from the Plains and ultimately migrated back there to become one or more of the ethnographically known Plains groups, probably Athabascan-speaking (i.e., Apache and/or Navajo). He based this theory on some suggestive parallels in material culture between the Fremont and Plains groups, especially the later Dismal River culture, generally thought to be associated with the Athabascan Na’isha. There certainly do seem to be some Plains-like traits in Fremont culture, including an emphasis on bison hunting, use of the shield-bearing warrior rock art motif, wearing of moccasins rather than sandals, etc. It’s not clear, however, whether these result from actual migrations of people from the Plains to the Fremont area or vice versa (and the two migrations Aikens posits would not be necessary in any case to explain the similarities). Aikens also used some physical anthropological evidence from skull morphology to support his theory, but the usefulness of the type of data he used was disputed even at the time, and it is not taken seriously at all now. Furthermore, more recent physical anthropological research using DNA analysis suggests strongly that there is no genetic connection between the Fremont and modern Athabascans or other Plains groups. In a sample of remains from the Great Salt Lake area the most common mitochondrial haplotype among Athabascans was not present at all, which is quite striking since it is quite common among Native American groups in general. It is of course possible, even likely, that this sample was not representative of Fremont groups in general, but of all the Fremont sub-areas the Great Salt Lake is the closest to the Plains both geographically and culturally, so if there’s no evidence of a genetic connection to the Plains from there it’s very unlikely that one will be found anywhere else. The same study found no clear evidence for a connection to the modern Numic groups either. This DNA stuff is another interesting, complicated issue that deserves its own post, but for now the upshot of this is that the Plains traits seen among the Fremont probably result from contact and cultural diffusion rather than migration in either direction, and the fate of the Fremont remains mysterious.

So if they didn’t go east onto the Plains, where did the Fremont go? The next obvious option is that they went south and joined the Pueblo groups with which they had many cultural similarities. This is another idea that has been proposed by some archaeologists, and it also appears to have support from oral traditions. David Pendergast and Clement Meighan published a paper in 1959 reporting that during their excavations of a site in southwestern Utah that would today be considered Parowan Fremont (though Pendergast and Meighan called them “Puebloid”) local Paiutes (a Numic group) told them some things about the people who had inhabited the site that they considered surprisingly accurate given the archaeological evidence. The Paiutes referred to the Fremont by the term Mukwitch, which is also the Paiute term for the Hopis, and reported that they had moved south and joined the Hopis when they left Utah. While their comments on the lifestyle of the Mukwitch and the reasons they had left were rather inconsistent, the consistency of the accounts of where they went is striking. The Paiutes also said that the Mukwitch were quite different from the Paiutes but had lived peacefully alongside them, which is noteworthy in light of the Numic pottery found in association with Fremont pottery mentioned above.

This paper has not been taken very seriously by archaeologists, and in fact I have not seen it cited at all in other Fremont literature. The only mentions of it I have seen, in fact, have been in cautions about the problems with taking oral traditions seriously, presumably because of the inconsistencies in the accounts. The accounts certainly are inconsistent on certain points, but consistent on others, and I think this paper deserves more attention from archaeologists wondering what happened to the Fremont. It’s certainly plausible that they moved south to join the Anasazi, and the Hopi are the most likely of the modern Pueblos for them to have ended up at for straightforward geographical reasons. A look at some of the recorded Hopi clan traditions with this in mind would likely be interesting. It’s unlikely that all of the Fremont moved south to join the Hopis, but it’s plausible that at least some did. Others may have stayed in place and been assimilated into the Numic groups spreading across the region, and still others might have died out entirely due to drought, warfare, or other factors.

So in some sense we’re back where we started, with no clear answer. But in other senses we do have some answers, at least in ruling out some options: The Fremont don’t seem to have either come from or gone to the Plains, and the Apaches are probably not their descendants. Wherever they did go (or stay), they changed their material culture rapidly and completely to assimilate into other groups, whether Numic or Hopi. This sort of rapid and complete assimilation is actually not as implausible as it seems; there are other examples of it in the prehistoric Southwest, and it must have happened quite a lot if the archaeological record is to be reconciled with the ethnographic one. All this suggests above all that the late prehistoric period, from AD 1300 on, was a time of immense change in the Greater Southwest, which makes it very difficult to figure out what was going on before that. Difficult, but not necessarily impossible. There are some ways to see through the haze.
ResearchBlogging.org
Aikens, C. (1967). Plains Relationships of the Fremont Culture: A Hypothesis American Antiquity, 32 (2) DOI: 10.2307/277904

Armelagos, G. (1968). Aikens’ Fremont Hypothesis and Use of Skeletal Material in Archaeological Interpretation American Antiquity, 33 (3) DOI: 10.2307/278710

Gunnerson, J. (1962). Plateau Shoshonean Prehistory: A Suggested Reconstruction American Antiquity, 28 (1) DOI: 10.2307/278076

Madsen, D. (1975). Dating Paiute-Shoshoni Expansion in the Great Basin American Antiquity, 40 (1) DOI: 10.2307/279271

Madsen, D., & Simms, S. (1998). The Fremont Complex: A Behavioral Perspective Journal of World Prehistory, 12 (3), 255-336 DOI: 10.1023/A:1022322619699

Parr RL, Carlyle SW, & O’Rourke DH (1996). Ancient DNA analysis of Fremont Amerindians of the Great Salt Lake Wetlands. American journal of physical anthropology, 99 (4), 507-18 PMID: 8779335

Pendergast, D., & Meighan, C. (1959). Folk Traditions as Historical Fact: A Paiute Example The Journal of American Folklore, 72 (284) DOI: 10.2307/538475

Schroeder, A. (1963). Comment on Gunnerson’s “Plateau Shoshonean Prehistory” American Antiquity, 28 (4) DOI: 10.2307/278572

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Fremont River, Utah

Fremont River, Utah

Many of the prehistoric cultures of the Southwest are routinely described as “mysterious,” most often in popular accounts and tourist information but also sometimes in the more serious archaeological literature. This is certainly true in a sense, in that a lot of information about any given ancient society, especially one without writing, is gone forever and cannot be recovered even by the best archaeological techniques. The various archaeologically defined prehistoric Southwestern “cultures” actually vary quite a bit in how mysterious they are in terms of the big questions: where they came from, what happened to them, and which, if any, modern societies are their descendants. The irony is that the culture which is most often popularly described as “mysterious,” the Anasazi, is actually one of the least mysterious in these terms. While the details remain obscure, and connecting any given prehistoric site to its most likely modern descendant communities is currently not possible (and may remain so forever), on a large scale at least some of the answers are pretty clear: the origins of the Anasazi remain a bit murky but there is evidence that at least some developed out of preexisting Archaic groups, with others possibly descending from immigrant groups from further south, and it’s very clear that the Anasazi as a whole are ancestral to the modern Pueblo peoples. This is one of the main reasons that the term “Anasazi” is currently deprecated in certain circles in favor of “Ancestral Puebloan.” The latter term is certainly accurate, and I think it is useful in some contexts, but in this post I will stick to “Anasazi” in its traditional archaeological meaning, for reasons that will become apparent later on.

In contrast to this clear progression of Anasazi to Pueblo, many of the other prehistoric cultures have no obvious connections to any modern groups. The Mogollon of east-central Arizona and southern New Mexico are certainly quite different from the Apache groups that occupied these areas historically, and there is no archaeological consensus on what happened to them and who their descendants might be. The same is true of the Hohokam of southern Arizona; the modern group occupying their territory is the O’odham (Pima and Papago), and there have been arguments both for and against the idea of cultural continuity between the two groups.

The most mysterious ancient culture in the Southwest, however, might be the Fremont of Utah. Both the beginning and the end of the Fremont phenomenon have been subject to vociferous debate since the culture was first defined, and while there seems to be a general consensus at this point on where the Fremont came from, there is still vociferous debate on where they went. Understanding the issues here requires a brief discussion of the history of Fremont research and the different theories that have been proposed for who the Fremont were and what happened to them. The following discussion is based largely on the summary in an important 1998 review article by David Madsen and Steven Simms; there have certainly been new developments in Fremont research since them, and some criticism of Madsen and Simms’s approach, but the article remains influential and widely cited in recent work on the Fremont.

There was some sporadic archaeological work in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries at sites that would later be considered Fremont, most notably Neil Judd’s work in the 1910s in southwestern Utah, before his more famous work at Chaco Canyon in the 1920s. This work generally interpreted the sites in question as similar to the Anasazi/Pueblo sites further south but relatively crude and backward, leading to the notion of a “Northern Periphery” of the Anasazi culture area. The Fremont culture was first defined, however, by Noel Morss in 1931 based on excavations along the Fremont River in south-central Utah. Morss considered these sites not as “peripheral” to the Anasazi sites to the south but as a different and equally developed culture, showing some Anasazi influence but also many distinctive traits. He defined his Fremont culture fairly narrowly, however, and excluded the sites further west excavated by Judd and others. Morss’s position was not very popular over the next couple decades, however, and all of these sites continued to be widely considered part of a “Northern Periphery” of the Southwest, often termed “Puebloid” to emphasize that they were both similar to and different from true Pueblo sites to the south. In the 1930s the work of Julian Steward added to this mix a large number of sites in northern Utah around the Great Salt Lake. While Morss and others had interpreted the sites in southern Utah as the result of a society which relied on both corn agriculture and foraging of wild foods for subsistence, Steward separated his sites into a sedentary, agricultural “Northern Periphery” culture and a mobile, foraging “Promontory” culture, which were apparently contemporaneous.

By the 1950s a consensus began to emerge that all of these cultures, except maybe Promontory, were really regional variations of a single overarching culture which became known as “Fremont,” following Morss but expanding his terminology significantly. The sites in western Utah (the eastern Great Basin) excavated by Judd and later researchers were acknowledged to be different in some ways from those further east on the Colorado Plateau and were described by some as “Sevier Fremont” (after the Sevier River, along which many of the largest sites were located), but the overall unity of “Fremont” as a cultural unit equivalent to “Anasazi” or “Hohokam” became widely accepted.

Now that some consensus had emerged on the unity of Fremont culture, attention turned to who these Fremont people were, where they had come from, and what happened to them. Most researchers decided that they had developed in situ out of preexisting Archaic foraging groups (which would explain the evidence for continued foraging) with the adoption of some cultural traits diffused from the Anasazi (such as pottery and agriculture). There were some dissenting voices, however, such as James Gunnerson, who argued that the Fremont developed from the immigration northeastward of Virgin Anasazi groups from the Virgin heartland in southwestern Utah and southern Nevada, and that the Fremont proper and Sevier Fremont developed subsequently into the Utes and Shoshones, respectively, who occupied the equivalent parts of Utah in the historical period. The latter part of this reconstruction was quickly shot down by Albert Schroeder and others, who pointed out how different Ute and Shoshone material culture was in the archaeological record from the preceding Fremont levels.

A more influential dissent came from Melvin Aikens, who argued based on work in the Great Salt Lake basin in the 1960s that Steward’s Promontory culture was part of the Fremont complex, which itself was neither indigenous or the result of Anasazi migration north but rather the result of migration south, from the northwestern Plains, by groups that probably spoke Athabascan languages and later moved back out onto the Plains and became the Apaches and Navajos. Gunnerson had previously argued that the Promontory culture might have been Athabascan, as Steward himself had previously suggested, by pointing out similarities between Promontory and the Dismal River culture of the central Plains, which has been widely associated with the historic Na’isha (“Kiowa Apaches”). Gunnerson saw Promontory as a late incursion from the Plains roughly contemporaneous with Dismal River, which dates to the seventeenth century, while Aikens argued based on some of the same evidence that all of Fremont, including Promontory, stemmed from a much earlier migration from the Plains and ended with a migration back out. This was an elegant solution to both the origin and demise of Fremont, which by this point had become dated to about AD 500 and 1400 respectively, but it never achieved any wide acceptance among either Fremont or Plains archaeologists. For one thing, in addition to the resemblances to Dismal River, and the general Plains cast of certain Fremont traits (bison hunting, use of moccasins rather than sandals, the “shield-bearing warrior” rock art motif), Aikens appealed to alleged evidence from physical anthropology that skulls from Fremont sites resembled types associated with the Plains rather than those of the Southwest or Great Basin. This reliance on a typological approach to skull morphology was already considered old-fashioned, as George Armelagos pointed out in a response to Aikens. Madsen and Simms consider the real virtue of Aikens’s hypothesis that it stimulated research into regional variation within the recently defined Fremont “culture.”

This research quickly showed that variation was considerable, and in fact it was extremely hard to assemble a list of traits that characterized all Fremont groups without including any other cultures. Nevertheless, regional “subcultures” were soon defined: the Parowan, Sevier, and Great Salt Lake variants in the Great Basin and the San Rafael and Uinta variants on the Colorado Plateau. Many of the differences between these groups seemed to be primarily ecological in nature, given the very wide variety of environmental situations these groups found themselves in. In concert with the ascendance of the “New Archaeology” in American archaeology generally during the 1970s, Fremont archaeology came to focus extensively on adaptations to local environmental conditions, and new evidence of continuity in many areas between preceding Archaic groups and later Fremont variants led to a continued acceptance of an in situ origin for Fremont with the diffusion of Anasazi traits northward and their acceptance to varying degrees by indigenous foragers who still kept many of their previous practices, including a  heavy dependence on foraging in addition to horticulture.

At the end of the 1970s Madsen challenged the whole idea that “Fremont” denoted a coherent cultural unit. He pointed out the impossibility of defining it based on traits, and proposed instead that there were two or three separate cultures lurking inside the concept. He reserved the term “Fremont” for the Colorado Plateau variants (San Rafael and Uinta), reducing the concept to more or less Morss’s original formulation, and redefined the Great Basin variants as a separate culture called “Sevier.” The major distinction he proposed for these two was in subsistence. He saw the Fremont as being primarily corn agriculturalists who did some hunting and gathering, while the Sevier were more focused on wild resources and farmed only supplementarily. This conclusion was based largely on his own research at Backhoe Village in the Sevier valley, a large, permanent site which he interpreted as having an economy based primarily on gathering of wild cattails rather than corn agriculture. In general Madsen’s Sevier were more like other Great Basin foraging groups than Fremont archaeologists had generally assumed, with a heavy emphasis on the resources in wetland areas surrounding lakes and relatively little use of agriculture. Madsen also held out the possibility of a third culture in the Great Salt Lake area with Plains affinities, much as Aikens had argued, although he refused to give it a name. (It’s not clear why he didn’t use Steward’s name “Promontory” for this culture, which seems to overlap to some extent with Steward’s concept.) Responses to Madsen’s proposal were skeptical, and it has not been any more influential than Aikens’s Plains theory. It’s noteworthy that in his 1998 review article written with Simms Madsen shows that he has grudgingly backed off of this division and accepted the Fremont concept at least as a scholarly convention.

In the 1980s the idea of “adaptive diversity” became influential in Fremont studies. Simms was one of the major figures in this shift, which emphasized the idea that the well-known mix of farming and foraging within the Fremont phenomenon may have involved shifts between the two lifestyles even in the lifetimes of individuals. An article published by Simms in 1986 demonstrated the existence of ephemeral structures similar to ethnographic Great Basin wickiups associated with Fremont material culture, and in his 1998 review article with Madsen the implications of this approach are spelled out in more detail. Basically, the idea is that the Fremont complex may have included full-time farmers, full-time foragers, and individuals shifting between the two subsistence strategies either routinely or over the course of a lifetime in response to changing environmental conditions. Thus, the defining characteristic of Fremont subsistence is not a single approach but a flexible attitude. This focus on individual behavior in response to changing circumstances is what Madsen and Simms mean by a “behavioral approach” to the Fremont complex. Given how influential their article seems to be in contemporary Fremont studies, this approach seems to have been more successful than the earlier attempts to redirect Fremont researchers by Aikens and Madsen.

That said, it’s not like there’s nothing to criticize in this approach. For one thing, it interprets the Fremont primarily through a frame of reference developed through studies of hunter-gatherers. The Fremont certainly did hunt and gather to some extent, but they also definitely farmed, and it’s not totally clear that the former is a more appropriate context than the latter for understanding Fremont societies. It certainly aligns Fremont studies with archaeological research in the Great Basin rather than with the very different tradition in the Southwest (with which it was aligned during the “Northern Periphery” period). This might be appropriate; after all, part of the Fremont region is in fact in the Great Basin, and if the Fremont did develop out of a local Archaic base that would also associate them with the Great Basin. As I noted in the previous post, however, this approach sets the Fremont apart from the Southwest and makes events in the Fremont region hard to line up with concurrent events further south, which is problematic because there is reason to think there may be connections between the two regions. This becomes even more of an issue when it comes to the question of what ultimately happened to the Fremont, which I have barely touched on in this post. That’s a subject that probably deserves its own post, though.
ResearchBlogging.org
Aikens, C. (1967). Plains Relationships of the Fremont Culture: A Hypothesis American Antiquity, 32 (2) DOI: 10.2307/277904

Armelagos, G. (1968). Aikens’ Fremont Hypothesis and Use of Skeletal Material in Archaeological Interpretation American Antiquity, 33 (3) DOI: 10.2307/278710

Gunnerson, J. (1956). Plains-Promontory Relationships American Antiquity, 22 (1) DOI: 10.2307/276168

Gunnerson, J. (1962). Plateau Shoshonean Prehistory: A Suggested Reconstruction American Antiquity, 28 (1) DOI: 10.2307/278076

Judd, N. (1917). Evidence of Circular Kivas in Western Utah Ruins American Anthropologist, 19 (1), 34-40 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1917.19.1.02a00070

Madsen, D. (1979). New Views on the Fremont: The Fremont and the Sevier: Defining Prehistoric Agriculturalists North of the Anasazi: Reply American Antiquity, 44 (4) DOI: 10.2307/279114

Madsen, D., & Simms, S. (1998). The Fremont Complex: A Behavioral Perspective Journal of World Prehistory, 12 (3), 255-336 DOI: 10.1023/A:1022322619699

Schroeder, A. (1963). Comment on Gunnerson’s “Plateau Shoshonean Prehistory” American Antiquity, 28 (4) DOI: 10.2307/278572

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Fremont River, Utah

Fremont River, Utah

Today is Cannibal Christmas (for previous installments see here and here), and this time I’d like to discuss some instances of alleged cannibalism well beyond the boundaries of the Chaco system or even the Anasazi culture area. These assemblages are in sites belonging to the poorly defined Fremont Complex of Utah, which is roughly contemporary with Chaco and included people practicing a range of lifestyles including varying amounts of maize agriculture. Beyond those two features, however, the various groups included under the label “Fremont” display so much internal diversity that it has been very difficult for archaeologists to determine what, if anything, the “Fremont Complex” corresponds to in social reality. One widespread characteristic of Fremont groups, however, is evidence of contact with and influence from Anasazi groups to the south, most notably in the adoption of agriculture and pottery but to some extent in other phenomena as well.

It’s possible that whatever practices are behind the mysterious assemblages of extensively mutilated and burned human bones known from Anasazi sites such as Cowboy Wash in Colorado were among the Anasazi influences on the Fremont as well. A paper reporting on assemblages like this at Fremont sites in central Utah was published by Shannon Novak and Dana Kollmann in 2000, around the same time that the Cowboy Wash papers and Christy Turner’s Man Corn were also published and drew considerable attention to the issue of Anasazi cannibalism. That context is important for understanding Novak and Kollmann’s interpretation of the Fremont sites, which explicitly takes Turner’s interpretations as a starting point and presents the Fremont evidence as incompatible with them.

To recap, Turner argues that the cannibalism assemblages in the Anasazi are are associated specifically with the rise of Chaco as a regional system, and further that the driving force behind all of this was Toltecs from central Mexico coming up to Chaco and establishing a violent, hegemonic tributary system involving extensive warfare and cannibalism. (I should note that I have not read Man Corn myself, and this interpretation of Turner’s ideas is based primarily on summaries by other authors who are critical of them, so it’s possible that this is a misrepresentation of Turner; in any case, this is certainly what Novak and Kollmann take Turner to be saying.) This theory is problematic for a whole bunch of reasons, and Novak and Kollmann present some more.

According to Novak and Kollmann, there are three Fremont sites with evidence of cannibalism: Backhoe Village, Nawthis Village, and Snake Rock Village. They are all in close proximity to each other in central Utah (near modern Richfield), and were occupied around the cultural peak of the Fremont period, around AD 1000. This makes them roughly contemporary with the florescence of the Chaco Phenomenon to the south, although it’s important to note that Fremont chronology is mostly based on radiocarbon dates and is less precise than the tree-ring based Anasazi chronology so it’s hard to demonstrate very close correspondences between events in Fremont and Anasazi sites. This will be important in interpreting these cannibalism assemblages, as discussed below.

Although Novak and Kollmann mention three sites with evidence of cannibalism, their paper contains a detailed discussion of only one, Backhoe Village. This is the site with the largest number of cannibalized individuals, eight, compared to three from Nawthis and two from Snake Rock. Backhoe also has a fairly secure context and was carefully excavated, as opposed to Snake Rock, where looting had disturbed the remains and rendered their context unclear.

The assemblage at Backhoe was clustered in a single pithouse and was initially interpreted by the excavators as a secondary burial (otherwise unknown for the Fremont) burned at some point by the same fire that burned the roof timbers found above it. Novak and Kollmann question this interpretation and argue instead that this assemblage instead shows the same signs of cannibalism found at Anasazi sites to the south, including cutmarks and burning. Methodologically they focused on reconstructing the processing sequence applied to the remains, which is an interesting approach that I haven’t seen applied in other analyses of cannibalism assemblages (though it’s possible I just haven’t noticed it). The patterns they found, especially for skulls and long bones, were consistent with the people having been killed (in some cases with “a series of heavy blows to the face”), scalped, dismembered, and roasted. Four men, two women, and two children were represented in the assemblage. This evidence looks convincing to me, and I’m quite prepared to accept the interpretation that this is an instance of cannibalism much like those documented at Cowboy Wash and elsewhere.

Novak and Kollmann then go on to situate their results in the context of Turner’s Chaco-based theory of Anasazi cannibalism. They argue that these sites were well beyond the Anasazi culture area, which is true (there are Fremont sites in close proximity to the Anasazi frontier, but these sites are considerably further north), and that as small agricultural hamlets, they would have little to offer the Chacoan tribute system, which is more questionable. After all, many of the Anasazi communities within the Chacoan sphere of influence were also pretty small and wouldn’t necessarily have had much to offer in tribute. All these communities were growing at least some amount of corn, and at a minimum could have contributed that. The sheer distance from Chaco to central Utah is a better argument against simply extending Turner’s theory to include these assemblages, I think.

Fremont Shield-Bearing Warrior Petroglyph, Moab, Utah

Fremont Shield-Bearing Warrior Petroglyph, Moab, Utah

In contrast to Turner’s theory, Novak and Kollmann tentatively propose that this is perhaps an example of a behavior diffusing from the Anasazi to the Fremont and perhaps acquiring new meanings along the way. This would certainly not be a surprise, given all the other behaviors that appear to have undergone the same process. They note the prominence of warrior motifs in Fremont rock art as context for violence within Fremont society. Finally, they situate the evidence for violence among the Fremont within a pattern of rising violence in the Southwest in general:

Escalated violence within the American Southwest around AD 1000 is apparent, and this violence appears to have reached further north than previously identified. What we may be seeing in the Anasazi Culture Area is perhaps merely the culmination of widespread and endemic warfare. Fortification of Anasazi villages, evidence of numerous trauma deaths, and the butchering of men, women, and children imply more than simply accusations of witchcraft. Violence between neighbours can be vicious, and real and imagined atrocities often accompany this conflict.

Fair enough in terms of explaining these specific assemblages, but from a broader southwestern perspective this looks a little odd. Escalated violence around AD 1000? In most of the Southwest the period from about 1000 to 1150 is actually considered remarkably peaceful, and in the Chaco area this is sometimes explained as some sort of “Pax Chaco” in which the influence of Chaco led to a period of widespread peace. (It is hard to say which way the causation goes, however; maybe the peace was instead a necessary condition for the rise of Chaco in the first place.) Obviously this is in contrast to Turner’s interpretation of the rise of Chaco as involving widespread war and cannibalism in a Mesoamerican fashion, but that interpretation has basically no support in the archaeological record. Almost all of the well-dated and firmly established cannibalism assemblages date to AD 1150 or later, and the earlier ones are generally earlier than AD 900 and date to an earlier period of extensive evidence for warfare and violence.

So what’s going on here? One possibility is that we’re seeing the consequences of the mismatch in chronological precision I mentioned above. “Around AD 1000″ may mean very different things at Fremont and Anasazi sites. At the Fremont sites, dated primarily by radiocarbon, this could refer to a period of a couple hundred years, in which case it might extend as late as the post-Chaco period of cannibalism and violence (0r as early as the pre-Chaco one). At Anasazi sites, on the other hand, with their very precise tree-ring dates, “around AD 1000″ would generally mean very close to the actual calendar date of AD 1000, maybe within twenty or twenty-five years. This is a considerable difference in precision! It’s also noteworthy that “around AD 1000″ is also more or less the conventional date for the “peak” of Fremont settlement and cultural development from roughly 1000 to 1300, so its being applied here could just mean that these sites date to that period, within which the level of violence rose throughout the Southwest (which is certainly true).

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

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

That said, however, there does actually appear to be a fair amount of evidence that there was in fact a considerably higher level of violence in the Fremont region than elsewhere in the Southwest even in the “Pax Chaco” era. A general summary of Fremont archaeology by David Madsen and Steven Simms discusses some of this evidence. Madsen and Simms describe the period of 1000 to 1300 as one of “demographic fluidity” involving the apparent abandonment of certain parts of the Fremont region and intensified settlement with defensive features in others. This appears to have begun at least in some areas as early as AD 900 and is most noteworthy in the eastern Fremont area on the northern Colorado Plateau, where there also seems to have been a breakdown in the traditional boundary between Fremont and Anasazi along the Colorado River and the expansion of sites with Anasazi features north of the river. It is not clear to what extent this reflects a migration of Anasazi people as opposed to increased Anasazi influence on local Fremont people, but it’s clear that something was going on along the Anasazi-Fremont boundary during the height of the Chacoan era. It’s noteworthy that one site Madsen and Simms mention as having granaries built in a characteristically Anasazi form is Snake Rock, one of the same sites that has a cannibalism assemblage. The puzzling Coombs Village site (now Anasazi State Park in Boulder, Utah), which is clearly Kayenta Anasazi in culture but located very far north in traditionally Fremont country, also dates to around this time. In fact, as Joel Janetski notes in a paper on Fremont long-distance trade, there is some evidence of pottery exchange between Coombs and Snake Rock, about 50 miles to the north.

The upshot of all this is that there was clearly extensive contact between the Anasazi and the Fremont during the Chacoan era, and there is some evidence that it was not nearly as peaceful in this area as it was in the Anasazi heartland at the same time. The much “blurrier” chronology of the Fremont sites makes it frustratingly difficult to pin down exactly what was going on in Utah at the same time as the various important events in the history of Chaco, but these indications that Utah was “out-of-phase” with areas to the south in some ways is, I think, potentially significant for understanding the history of both.

It’s also worth noting that while the actual Anasazi interacting with the Fremont were from the Kayenta and Mesa Verde cultural “branches” rather than the Chacoan, there is reason to think that at least some people at Chaco would have had a keen interest in events in Utah. For one thing, the Janetski paper on Fremont trade notes that while long-distance trade goods like turquoise and shell are much rarer in Fremont than in Anasazi sites, they are present among the Fremont to some extent, and there is some evidence that the turquoise found at some Fremont sites came from the same sources as that at some Anasazi sites, including Chaco. Janetski interpreted this as indicating that the Fremont turquoise came from the Anasazi, which is certain one reasonable interpretation, but he also mentions evidence that some of the Fremont turquoise came from sources in Nevada, which more recent sourcing has confirmed for some of the Chacoan turquoise as well. Maybe, instead of getting turquoise from the Anasazi, the Fremont were giving it to them as part of a wide-ranging trade network. This might even explain why so little turquoise is found at Fremont sites, if they didn’t actually have much interest in it but used it to trade for Anasazi goods that they did want. Interestingly, Janetski also notes that most of the turquoise in Fremont sites appears to date to after the period of its most common appearance in Anasazi sites from 900 to 1100 (which is driven mostly by the vast amounts found at Chaco), which could be explained if the Fremont, having relatively easy access to turquoise from trading partners in the Great Basin, began holding on to it once Anasazi demand weakened with the decline of Chaco.

Edge of the Cedars Great House, Utah

Edge of the Cedars Great House, Blanding, Utah

Much of that is speculative, but if the Great Basin was in fact one of Chaco’s main sources for turquoise, and if some of the trade routes for that turquoise went through the Fremont, Chaco would have a clear interest in the Fremont area. It would certainly have had contact with some Anasazi groups near the Fremont frontier, as there are communities showing Chacoan influence in Utah north of the San Juan River (though not as far north as the Colorado, as far as we know), with Edge of the Cedars in modern Blanding being a clear example. This area would presumably have been the source of whatever migration or influence extended north of the Colorado in this area after AD 1000, so a Chacoan connection is not as implausible as it might seem at first glance. Further west Chacoan influence is harder to see among the Kayenta Anasazi, but some level of contact is at least possible.

It’s not clear what implications this possibility of Chacoan involvement in Utah would have for the cannibalism assemblages Novak and Kollmann discuss, however. For one thing, I think Turner is just wrong that cannibalism in the Southwest is associated with the rise of Chaco; it seems to correlate more closely with its fall. Also, the specific sites in question seem to be beyond the reach of any plausible Chacoan direct influence, although at least one clearly had some contact with the Kayenta Anasazi at Coombs. They could also have been involved in the turquoise trade, of course, and according to Janetski small amounts of turquoise were found at Snake Rock and Backhoe. The lack of any known cannibalism sites between these and the better-known Anasazi examples also limits the extent to which we can figure out what was going on. Interestingly, Novak and Kollmann note that one other site, Turner-Look, which is near the Colorado-Utah border and hence much further east than the other sites and much closer to the Anasazi cannibalism assemblages, has been suspected in the past of having evidence for cannibalism, but they say a recent reanalysis has found no such evidence, although there is some evidence for violence. If more Fremont sites with assemblages like this begin to emerge, especially further east, it might be possible to get a better sense of how this all fits together.
ResearchBlogging.org
Janetski, J. (2002). Trade in Fremont society: contexts and contrasts Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 21 (3), 344-370 DOI: 10.1016/S0278-4165(02)00003-X

Novak, S. A., & Kollmann, D. D. (2000). Perimortem Processing Of Human Remains Among The Great Basin
Fremont International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 10, 65-75

 

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Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Today is a momentous day, of course. As the winter solstice, it marks the fourth anniversary of this blog. It also might be an important date in the Maya Long Count (although opinions differ). It’s not the end of the world, which should be apparent by now. In recognition of the Maya date and my general practice of blogging about archaeoastronomy on significant celestial events, I thought I’d write about a couple of papers focusing on a Mesoamerican symbol with apparent astronomic significance and a thought-provoking connection to the Southwest.

The first paper, published in 1978 in Science, was written by Anthony Aveni and two co-authors (one of whom appears to have been one of his students). Aveni is a prominent figure in archaeoastronomy, especially of Mesoamerica, and was one of the first researchers to do careful measurements of astronomical alignments at ancient sites. In this paper he and his co-authors discuss a symbol found at several Mesoamerican sites consisting of a cross concentric with one or more circles, with the arms of the cross usually extending beyond the circle(s). These symbols were usually made by pecking a series of dots into either a rock face or the floor of a room, and their alignments appear to have often been significant. They are most common at Teotihuacan, where they were generally oriented with the arms of the cross aligned with the city’s street grid. This orientation had led some earlier authors to interpret them as surveying marks used in laying out the streets. The authors of this paper consider that interpretation a possibility, but not necessarily the only one. There are other examples of these symbols in sites near Teotihuacan that have other orientations, some of which seem to align with prominent landmarks on the horizon that may have been used in astronomical observations.

Aveni et al. also make a big deal out of the number of dots from which these figures are made, which is quite consistent in many cases with the total often tantalizingly close to 260, the number of days in the pan-Mesoamerican ritual calendar. There may be something to this, but as is often the case with these numerological theories there’s a question of how close is close enough. (This also applies to alleged astronomical alignments.) They kind of throw a whole slew of interpretations at the numbers of dots in various parts of various examples; some of these may be meaningful, but it seems doubtful that all of them are at the same time.

A more interesting pattern is the geographical distribution of these apparently rare symbols. While they are most numerous in and around Teotihuacan, they are also present surprisingly far afield: as far south as the Maya cities of Uaxactun and as far north as the area of Alta Vista near the Tropic of Cancer. While widespread, these are all areas known to have been influenced by Teotihuacan during its period of greatest power, and the authors make the reasonable suggestion that the pecked cross symbol was associated with this influence. In trying to interpret its meaning, they note similarities to diagrams of Mesoamerican calendars (which are indeed intriguing), as well as the previously mentioned idea that they were orientational devices for surveying, and even the resemblance to descriptions of the holes pecked into house floors as boards for the game patolli in Conquest-era sources. It’s quite possible that they were all of these, of course, or that different examples had different functions. The main conclusion the authors come to is that they are associated strongly with Teotihuacan in some fashion.

An article in American Antiquity two years later made an effort to flesh out what that connection might have been. Written by the Mayanist Clemency Coggins, this article interprets the cross-in-circle motif in Mesoamerica as an example of a larger class of “four-part  figures” that are associated primarily with the sun, especially with its daily cycle through the sky as well as its yearly cycle. Coggins notes various examples of Maya hieroglyphs and other symbols that have the form of quartered circles or crosses and pushes back against earlier interpretations of them as referring to the cardinal directions. Indeed, she argues that the Maya didn’t even really have a concept of “cardinal directions” comparable to the European one: instead, they had two directions that mattered, east and west, where the sun rises and sets, with accompanying symbolism. The areas in between sometimes had symbolism associated with them, but they usually functioned as stand-ins for “up” (north) and “down” (south), which were much more symbolically charged. Coggins sees the quartered circle as representing the daily movement of the sun and as properly interpreted vertically rather than horizontally. Thus, the four points stand for sunrise, zenith, sunset, and nadir, not east, north, west, and south. The position of the sun at zenith (directly overhead) was an important phenomenon for the Maya and probably other Mesoamericans; it only happens in the Tropics and is a foreign concept to societies in temperate zones.

Coggins interprets an early structure at Uaxactun, a pyramidal platform with four stairways, as a symbol of this four-part idea. She argues that its function was likely as a solar observatory, as the three small temples to the east line up with the positions of the sunrise on the solstices and equinoxes viewed from it. This same group of buildings is also noteworthy in that three stelae erected there commemorate the endings of twenty-year periods known as k’atuns, and two of them are the earliest known examples of stelae marking this sort of calendrical event. (Or at least they were at the time Coggins was writing; I don’t know if this is still the case, but if earlier k’atun-marking stelae have been found since then that would undermine her argument somewhat, as explained below.) The event we are (maybe) observing today is the ending of a much longer cycle known as a bak’tun, but is conceptually similar. Coggins distinguishes these “calendric” celebrations and monuments from “historic” ones tied to important events in the lives of kings. She argues that the latter were the focus of all previous monuments and indicate a focus on royal dynasties and the private rituals of the nobility in Maya political life, whereas the celebration of the end of a k’atun and the erection of a monument commemorating it is a more public, popular, universal sort of ritual less focused on the glory of particular lineages and kings.

Highly Elaborated Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Highly Elaborated Quartered Circle at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

But what does all this have to do with quartered circles? Well, Coggins notes that shortly after these two stelae were erected in Uaxactun (in AD 357), another stela at Uaxactun shows an individual with non-Maya costume and weapons more associated with central Mexico, which at this time would have been dominated by Teotihuacan. This stela also refers to the nearby city of Tikal, which is well known to have seen extensive central Mexican influence at this time, including a king named Curl Snout who was apparently at least partly Mexican himself. This is also the period when the pecked cross at Uaxactun discussed by Aveni et al. was likely made, and here we see some supporting evidence for their theory that the pecked crosses are associated with the expansion of Teotihuacano influence. The first k’atun ending stela at Tikal was erected by Curl Snout and marks the first k’atun ending of his reign (in AD 396). Coggins concludes from this association between Mexican influence and the celebration of k’atun endings that the latter practice was introduce as part of the former phenomenon.

She supports this idea in part with the clear evidence that the god Tlaloc was of considerable importance to these Mexicans in the Maya country, which is unsurprising since he was probably the most important god at Teotihuacan itself. Tlaloc is a god of rain, which was very important to agricultural people in the Valley of Mexico, which is high and relatively dry (at least compared to the lush Maya Lowlands). He was associated as well with the celebration of the solar year, the cycles of which are closely connected to seasonal changes in rainfall patterns among many agricultural societies. This may account for the prevalence of the pecked cross/quartered circle motif at Teotihuacan, if as Coggins implies it symbolized not just the solar day but the solar year as well. Apparently some of the Tlaloc images in Curl Snout’s tomb at Tikal had similar symbols on their headdresses, so the association between the god and the symbol seems well-supported regardless of its origin. Coggins interprets Curl Snout as having introduced a Tlaloc cult to Tikal, presumably from Tenochtitlan, which involved the celebration of the solar year and the sidelining of the old rituals of the established noble lineages that had previously been the focus of Maya official religion. This cult apparently also included the celebration of the twenty-year k’atuns, though Coggins never gives a good explanation for why this would have been the case.

Over time the Mexican kings apparently became assimilated to Maya culture, and Tlaloc was similarly conflated with the Maya rain god Chac, but the celebration of k’atuns continued and by Late Classic times it involved special complexes of paired pyramids with four stairways each, much like the early structure at Uaxactun but on a much grander scale. These were paired on the east and west sides of a plaza and apparently used primarily for the celebration of k’atun endings. The north and south sides often had smaller structures with celestial and underworld symbolism respectively, consistent with the idea that they represented zenith and nadir. All of this is best known from Tikal, but Coggins notes that there are some indications from other sites such as Uaxactun and Yaxha that similar processes of Mexican influence and a shift to k’atun celebration occurred similarly.

That’s the story Coggins tells, anyway. It’s an interesting one, and somewhat convincing at least in some of its broad strokes, but I can’t help thinking that Maya archaeology has come a long way since 1980, especially with a better ability to understand the writing system, and I wonder if Coggins’s historical interpretations, based on essentially art-historical methods, still hold up. In any case, the association between Teotihuacan, Tlaloc, and the quartered circle is the key thing I take away from this paper, and that probably holds up better than the political history. The association is important because there’s another place that is known for its quartered circles, one which is not mentioned at all in either of these papers. That’s probably because it’s very far away from both Teotihuacan and Tikal.

Complex Panels at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Complex Panels at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Three Rivers in southern New Mexico is one of the most spectacular petroglyph sites in the whole Southwest. It’s one of the most important locations for rock art of the Jornada Style, associated with the Jornada Mogollon culture that existed in south-central New Mexico and adjacent West Texas from about AD 1050 to 1400. Unlike the rock art of the Anasazi area further north, including Chaco, which was highly stylized and repetitive, Jornada Style rock art is astonishingly naturalistic and elaborate. It is full of lifelike human faces and masks, animals with fully realized eyes and teeth, and imagery that is often remarkably Mesoamerican. The examples of parallels to Mexican art are numerous and fairly obvious, and not very surprising given the Jornada’s southerly location and proximity to the very Mesoamerican-seeming center of Casas Grandes, which flourished during this same period. What’s more surprising is the similarity between the Jornada Style and the later Rio Grande Style further north, which contains many of the same symbols and stylistic conventions. This implies that the Jornada served as a conduit for Mesoamerican ideas to the later Pueblos. Polly and Curtis Schaafsma have argued, convincingly in my view, that the kachina cult that is so important among the modern Pueblos originated among the Jornada, citing the masks and other symbols in Jornada rock art as their main line of evidence.

Kachinas are rain spirits, and as Polly Schaafsma notes in her book on Southwestern rock art, the kachina cult bears many notable similarities to the Tlaloc cult in Mexico. And, indeed, one of the most common motifs in Jornada rock art is the goggle eyes that are among Tlaloc’s standard attributes further south. Other Mexican gods such as Quetzalcoatl appear to be present in the Jornada petroglyphs as well, and Tlaloc is surely not the only deity who was transmitted in altered form to the Pueblos, but given the importance of rain in the arid Southwest the appeal of a rain cult is obvious.

What about the quartered circle? As we saw from the first two papers, this symbol was certainly associated strongly with Teotihuacan, where Tlaloc was the most important god, and it was probably associated to at least some degree with Tlaloc himself, whose popularity in Mexico lasted much longer than Teotihuacan’s political power and cultural influence. And yet, the quartered circle is virtually absent from the Southwest. Simple crosses, often outlined, are common, but they are generally interpreted as stars and typically associated with the Feathered Serpent, which is probably a version of Quetzalcoatl. The cross and circle, however, is almost never seen in the Southwest, except in one place: Three Rivers.

Two Quartered Circles at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Two Quartered Circles at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Schaafsma says in her book that what she calls the “circle-dot motif” is actually the most common element at the site, citing an obscure unpublished manuscript. It’s not clear how she defines this motif, as there are many petroglyphs at Three Rivers that consist of circles surrounded by dots, with the inside of the circle sometimes blank, sometimes filled with a larger dot, sometimes filled with a series of concentric circles, but often filled with a cross. (The illustration in Schaafsma’s book for this motif shows one of the crosses.) These quartered circles, usually but not always surrounded by dots, are very prominent at the site. What’s striking about this is how unique they are to this one site, especially given the importance of similar symbols in Mesoamerica as documented by Aveni et al. and Coggins. Aveni et al. actually mention some similar symbols in the rock art of California and Nevada, but they seem to have been unaware of the Three Rivers examples. The dots are especially interesting, given that the Teotihuacan examples are made of dots. That isn’t the case here, but the dots are clearly important. They give a solar feel to many of the symbols, especially those with concentric circles, which ties in to Coggins’s interpretation of the symbol as reflecting the passage of the sun. And remember those Tlalocs with their goggle eyes, present at Three Rivers as well as at virtually every other Jornada Style site. They clearly show not only that Mesoamerican religious symbols could and did travel this far north, but that the specific god associated with the quartered circle elsewhere was among the most prominent examples.

So what’s the explanation here? I confess that I don’t have one except to suppose that this symbol was of particular importance to the people who made the petroglyphs at Three Rivers, probably primarily people who lived at the contemporaneous village site nearby. I think it’s quite likely that this was a symbol particularly associated with that community, or perhaps with a specific social group within it, and that it is ultimately connected in some way to the symbols further south. Note that some of the pecked crosses described by Aveni et al. were quite far north in Mexico, some near the Tropic of Cancer and one described in a nineteenth-century source as being near the US border (though its exact location is unknown). The latter in particular would probably more or less close the geographic gap between the others and Three Rivers, while the examples near the Tropic of Cancer may have been associated with the nearby site of Alta Vista, which was occupied at a time that would fill much of the temporal gap between Teotihuacan and Three Rivers as well. It’s certainly hard to come to firm conclusions about things like this, of course, and the fact that the quartered circle doesn’t appear to have spread from Three Rivers to any other Jornada Mogollon groups or to the later Pueblos is problematic. Still, it’s a fascinating little glimpse into the complexity of the past and the possibilities that emerge from careful study and an open mind.

ResearchBlogging.orgAveni, A., Hartung, H., & Buckingham, B. (1978). The Pecked Cross Symbol in Ancient Mesoamerica Science, 202 (4365), 267-286 DOI: 10.1126/science.202.4365.267

Coggins, C. (1980). The Shape of Time: Some Political Implications of a Four-Part Figure American Antiquity, 45 (4) DOI: 10.2307/280144

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Alaska Energy Authority Building, Anchorage, Alaska

Obviously it’s been pretty quiet around here lately. I’ve been very busy over the past few weeks, and I haven’t had much time to write anything here. Nor have I had much to say, since I haven’t had time to read or think much about the topics I usually cover here. I just finished my internship with the Park Service Alaska Regional Office, and on Monday I will start a new job with the Alaska Energy Authority. This is a great opportunity and I’m very excited about it, but it means I’m likely to continue to be pretty busy with the transition and unlikely to have much time to spend here in the immediate future. So, expect it to be pretty quiet around here for a while.

It may continue to be pretty quiet at this particular blog even longer. I’ve decided that I’d like to refocus this blog specifically on Southwestern prehistory and related subjects, construed pretty broadly but not broadly enough to encompass absolutely everything I might want to talk about. For the other topics I’ve been thinking and reading about recently, especially those having to do with Alaska, I’ll be setting up a new site (or maybe more than one). I’ve read a lot of interesting stuff over the past few months, and once I get through the period of transition to my new job I’ll hopefully have time to write about some of it. Most of this stuff isn’t particularly connected to Chaco or the Southwest, though, so I think a different venue than this blog would be the best place for it. I will of course link to any new site(s) from here when I decide exactly how I’m going to do this.

Before I do this reorganization,  however, I would like to do a series of posts based on some books about Alaska that I read as part of my Park Service gig. Those will most likely go here, probably pretty soon, as I’m unlikely to have a new site set up soon enough for when I want to do them. After that series, however, this blog will transition to a focus on Chaco and related Southwestern topics, and Alaska stuff will go somewhere else.

I’d like to thank whatever readers I have left for bearing with me through all this. This has been a tumultuous period in my life, and I haven’t had as much time to devote to the blog as I would have liked. Things will hopefully settle down soon, though, and at that point I should have more for all this.

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Sign with Summer Solstice Sunrise and Sunset Times, Anchorage, Alaska

Today is the summer solstice, and here in the “land of the midnight sun” the longest day of the year is very long indeed. In Anchorage, we don’t quite get to 24 hours of daylight, but it is nevertheless well after 11:00 pm as I write this and the sun is still up. North of the Arctic Circle they do have periods where the sun doesn’t set at all, for varying lengths of time depending on latitude. The northernmost community is Barrow, which gets several weeks of non-stop daylight in the summer (with a corresponding period of darkness in the winter, of course).

Given that the solstice falls right in the middle of this period of extreme daylight, it might be expected that Arctic peoples would mark it in some way, as many other societies around the world do (including the indigenous cultures of the US Southwest, as extensively documented in prior posts here). And this does indeed appear to be the case, though with a typically Alaskan twist.

Whalebone Arch with Umiak Frames, Barrow, Alaska

The Inupiaq Eskimos of the North Slope of Alaska, which lies entirely above the Arctic Circle, have traditionally had a whaling-based subsistence system, and to a considerable degree still do. They hunt whales in the spring (and in some villages also in the fall) using a type of traditional skin boat known as an umiak. These are large, open boats made of a wooden frame covered with the hides of walruses or seals, made according to a rigorous traditional protocol. They are used in other areas further south along the Bering Sea coast as well, but their close association with whaling is most pronounced on the North Slope. A recent article by Susan Fair discussed them in the context of their architectural uses as temporary shelters in various settings and their cultural importance in both whaling and the demarcation of ceremonial and other culturally important spaces at certain times.

One of those times is the Whale Feast, often known as Nalukataq (although that name technically refers only to the blanket toss that is one of the most famous elements of it). This ceremony is held only in years when at least one whale has been taken, and while its exact date varies it is scheduled for sometime around the summer solstice. As the name “Whale Feast” implies, the main focus of this event is on sharing the meat from harvested whales with the community, and it is an opportunity for the whaling captains (known as umialiit) who own the umiaks to demonstrate their generosity and show off their prowess.

Umiak on Sea Ice, Barrow, Alaska

Fair focuses in her article on the role the umiaks play in both the ceremony and the social system behind it, in which the small number of umialiit in a village form an elite within it and the umiak serves as a symbol of their power and prestige, but I was more interested in the timing of the feast. The spring whaling season at least in Barrow generally ends in late May or early June (it had recently ended when I was up there at the end of May and there were umiaks with flags raised indicating whaling success all over the place), so having the feast in late June makes a certain amount of just practical sense given the preparations necessary, but I do wonder if there is a deeper significance to the association with the solstice, perhaps as a vestige of a large role for indigenous astronomy in the pre-Contact era. I have not been able to find much information on archaeoastronomy or ethnoastronomy in Alaska, but given the high latitude and spectacular celestial phenomena that abound here I’m sure Native people have long been attuned to the sky. Recent changes, especially aggressive Christian missionization that sought to stamp out Native religion, has obscured a lot of the earlier cultural practices, but I wonder if things like the timing of the Whale Feast preserve bits and pieces of aspects of traditional knowledge that are otherwise forgotten. Certainly a topic that could use more attention, I think.

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