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Original Plaster and Whitewash at Chetro Ketl

Original Plaster and Whitewash at Chetro Ketl

Given the obvious continuity in material culture between ancient and modern Pueblos, one potential source of information on the connections between prehistory and history in the region is the traditions of the modern Pueblos themselves. The florescence of Chaco was about 1000 years ago, so the events since then that led to the modern distribution of Pueblos are more recent than that, and potentially within the time depth for which the accuracy of oral traditions has been demonstrated in other parts of the world. Furthermore, the Pueblos do indeed have extensive oral traditions documenting how the various groups now residing in a given Pueblo got there, where they lived before, and what made them move. This seems on the face of it like an ideal situations, and indeed anthropologists at various points in the past hundred years or so have tried to match up the events in the oral traditions with what the archaeology shows. The efforts of Jesse Walter Fewkes with the Hopis in the early twentieth century, Florence Hawley Ellis with the Rio Grande Pueblos in the 1950s and 1960s, and various archaeologists associated with the Center for Desert Archaeology (now known as Archaeology Southwest) in the past few years with the western Pueblos are particularly noteworthy along these lines.

However, there are some big challenges to this type of work. First, it’s not clear how accurate the oral traditions are, and many anthropologists have distrusted them. Elsie Clews Parsons in the 1920s and 1930s pushed back strongly against the approach taken by Fewkes and others, pointing out that the traditions include many obviously mythical or legendary elements that must be brushed aside to treat them as “history” in the Western sense. Similarly, the rise of the “New Archaeology” in the 1960s and 1970s led to a tendency to downplay this kind of research on the archaeological side in favor of more “scientific” types of research focused on ecological factors. Lately the pendulum seems to be swinging back again, and many archaeologists as well as sociocultural anthropologists have begun to take oral traditions seriously as a source of information that can bridge the gap between prehistoric archaeology and the ethnographic present. Personally, I think these researchers are on the right track; the difficulties pointed out by Parsons and others are real, and the traditions can’t be accepted uncritically as fact, but they do very likely contain much information that is useful for historical reconstructions when interpreted carefully in context.

Pueblo Display at Chaco Visitor Center

Pueblo Display at Chaco Visitor Center

That more general issue aside, there are a lot of specific characteristics of the existing narratives that make them hard to work with, especially in the case of Chaco. For one thing, there aren’t that many of them that have been documented, and those that have overwhelmingly come from the western Pueblos of Hopi and, to a lesser extent, Zuni. The eastern Pueblos, which on geographical and other grounds are the ones most likely to have close ties to Chaco, have produced far fewer narratives, and those that are available are much less detailed and relevant. There are two main reasons for this, both stemming from the much more intense experience of Spanish colonization in these areas versus Hopi and Zuni:

  1. The Rio Grande Pueblos, especially, have been in such close contact with Spanish colonists that many traditions have been lost due to population loss and cultural change, and those that have been preserved have been influenced to some extent by European folklore elements. This is probably less of a concern with origin and migration stories than with more “informal” folktales.
  2. Due to the extreme repression of Native religion and culture by the Spanish missionaries, the eastern Pueblos are much more reluctant to share whatever traditions they have with white anthropologists than the western Pueblos are. This is probably the biggest reason for the lack of eastern Pueblo data, but its scale is impossible to estimate because we just don’t know how many traditions there are that have never been shared.

As a result of these two factors, we don’t have anything comparable to the extensive and detailed accounts of Hopi clan migrations that have been collected by numerous researchers, starting with Fewkes. There are a fair number of general creation stories from the eastern Pueblos, including those collected from the Tewa by Parsons and from Keresan Pueblos of Acoma and San Felipe by C. Daryll Forde and Ruth Bunzel respectively. These tend to be somewhat abbreviated, and sometimes also confusing in a way that suggests important parts have been omitted. Migration stories are much rarer, but a few have been recorded at least in a general fashion. George Pradt gave a brief overview of a western Keres migration tradition in introducing a story about Acoma:

THE oldest tradition of the people of Acoma and Laguna indicates that they lived on some island; that their homes were destroyed by tidal waves, earthquakes, and red-hot stones from the sky. They fled and landed on a low, swampy coast. From here they migrated to the northwest, and wherever they made a long stay they built a “White City” (Kush-kut-ret).

The fifth White City was built somewhere in southern Colorado or northern New Mexico. The people were obliged to leave it on account of cold, drought, and famine.

Now this is of obvious interest in discussing Chaco and Mesa Verde connections to modern Pueblos! The first part is of unclear relevance and likely has little or no historical content, but the part about moving around and building a series of communities, the last of which was in “southern Colorado or northern New Mexico” (i.e., north of Acoma and Laguna and in the general area of Chaco, Mesa Verde, and other important late prehistoric Pueblo sites), matches up pretty well with what is now known of the archaeological record. Furthermore, the “White City” or “White House” concept recurs in other Keres-speaking Pueblos as well. Here’s the San Felipe version recorded by Bunzel, starting just after the Emergence:

Then the people came out and walked towards the southwest. There they built a little town, Kackatrik (White House). This was their first village. Then from there came every nation. All the different kinds of Indians had their language and their songs and their ceremonies. There were many people there. Then the people were starving. There was no food to eat at this time. Then they had a meeting to talk about it. “Why are we starving?” all the head men said, “We have stayed here a long time. We should move on to some other place.” So then they started to move again. There were all different kinds of people, and they had all different kinds of languages. So then from there they scattered. Some went to the east and some went to the west, and some came through the middle.

Again, this is pretty consistent with the archaeology of Chaco, and to some extent of Mesa Verde as well. The “White House” story seems to be specific to the Keres, which implies a particularly strong connection between that groups and the ancient sites of the Four Corners, as many anthropologists have concluded. That’s not to say they were the only ones up there, however. There’s also evidence among some of the other groups’ traditions indicating an origin in this area.

White House/Black Market, Santa Fe, New Mexico

White House/Black Market, Santa Fe, New Mexico

For the Tewa, Scott Ortman has done extensive research using several lines of evidence, including what little is known of Tewa migration traditions, to conclude that Tewa-speakers migrated to the Rio Grande Valley from the Mesa Verde region. He has a new book, which I have not yet read, making this argument in detail. He could well be right, in which case there may have been both Keres- and Tewa-speakers in the Mesa Verde region, and perhaps at Chaco as well given the close but complicated ties between the two areas. This would be similar to the modern situation in the central part of the Rio Grande Valley, which is also divided between Keres- and Tewa-speaking Pueblos.There are also clear ties between Chaco and the Zuni area, which has an unusual degree of settlement continuity extending to modern times compared to other Pueblo areas, which may imply that Zuni-speakers were involved in Chaco as well. Ties to the Hopis are more tenuous despite the larger corpus of Hopi traditions, which tends to trace most Hopi clans to the south or west rather than the east (with the exception of clans from other Pueblo regions that moved to Hopi and became assimilated to Hopi culture fairly recently).

So, tentatively, the limited information available from oral traditions suggests particularly strong ties to the Four Corners among the Keres, which makes sense since they are still the closest Pueblos to the area geographically. There is some evidence for connections to the area among the Tewa and Zuni as well. Little is known about Tiwa or Towa (Jemez) traditions, but it is noteworthy that Jemez is the only Pueblo that has not claimed cultural affiliation with Chaco under NAGPRA, which implies strongly that Jemez traditions point to a different history. The Hopi connection seems to be more distant, and primarily through groups that were not originally Hopi-speaking but immigrated to Hopi from other areas further east in recent centuries and became assimilated over time.

I think there’s a lot of potential for further research along these lines, mostly using the scattered and fragmented eastern Pueblo traditions collected decades ago. Individually each of these may not be very enlightening, but piecing them together may reveal some useful connections. It’s very unlikely that any of these groups will reveal any more of their traditions to outsiders; many are still angry at the early anthropologists who recorded and published traditions revealed surreptitiously by individual community members at considerable personal risk. Parsons comes in for particularly harsh criticism for publishing the names of her informants in some of her early work. It’s possible that in the future the relationship between anthropologists and the eastern Pueblos will improve to the point where the Pueblos are more comfortable revealing information, but we’ve got a long way to go.
ResearchBlogging.org
Pradt, G. (1902). Shakok and Miochin: Origin of Summer and Winter The Journal of American Folklore, 15 (57) DOI: 10.2307/533476

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Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

It’s quite clear that, in a general sense, the modern Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona are the cultural descendants of the ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) groups of Chaco Canyon and other parts of the northern Southwest no longer occupied by people of Puebloan culture. Indeed, as the previous post explains, the descendants of the Chacoans are much easier to identify than those of pretty much any other prehistoric society in the Southwest. Nevertheless, the modern Pueblos are quite diverse in many ways. While they all have similar material culture, which is what most clearly shows their relationship to prehistoric sites like Chaco, the Pueblos speak six different languages belonging to four completely unrelated language families, and the linguistic divisions correspond generally (but not perfectly) to differences in other aspects of culture, such as kinship systems, sociopolitical structures, and religious practices.

With so much diversity, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that some modern Pueblo groups have closer connections to particular ancient sites than others. Demonstrating any specific connections has been frustratingly difficult for scholars so far, however. The immense upheavals of the Spanish colonial period led to significant changes in many Pueblos that make it difficult to trace their histories back into the prehistoric period, and archaeology has demonstrated considerable evidence for prehistoric upheavals that similarly obscure continuities of culture and population. Adding to the difficulty are the facts that the Pueblos have long had very similar material culture to each other, which makes it difficult to tell different ethnolinguistic groups apart archaeologically, and that the extensive migrations of the late prehistoric period seem to have involved rapid change in material culture as well, obscure whatever small differences had existed among different Pueblo groups.

On account of these difficulties, for a long time Southwestern archaeologists and anthropologists were often reluctant to try to reconstruct culture history in enough detail to connect specific ancient sites with specific modern Pueblos. In recent years this reluctance has decreased, however, and there is now a fair amount of interest in these questions, spurred in part by the requirements under NAGPRA for demonstrating cultural affiliation of modern groups in ancient sites. It’s interesting to compare this trend to the last period of considerable interest in this topic, which was similarly spurred by the effort in the 1950s to settle Indian land claims. In any case, archaeologists today have proposed various models of Southwestern prehistory to account for the distribution of modern Pueblo peoples.

With this context, and inspired in part by some interesting questions asked by commenter J. R. Barnett, I’ve decided to do a series of posts addressing this issue and the types of evidence available to address it. I’ll be focusing heavily on linguistic evidence, which is of particular interest to me personally as well as being of considerable importance in defining cultural differences among the Pueblos. I will, however, also discuss the evidence from archaeology, physical anthropology (including DNA studies), sociocultural anthropology, and oral traditions. In doing some reading on these topics recently, it’s been apparent that there really is quite a lot of relevant evidence out there. While we will surely never be able to recover every detail of the story, it’s worth taking a serious look at the available evidence to see what we can find out.

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

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Fort Smith Gallows, Fort Smith, Arkansas

Last year around Christmas I did a series of posts on the evidence for cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest.  I didn’t cover nearly all that there is to say about this important but controversial issue then, so I figured it would be a good idea to discuss it a bit more this year.  In this post I would like to take a look at what has become the main alternative explanation for the assemblages of human remains that are often seen as evidence of cannibalism: witchcraft execution.

The idea that the assemblages of broken, burned, and otherwise heavily “processed” human bones found in various parts of the Southwest represent the remains of the execution of alleged witches originates mainly in an article by J. Andrew Darling published in 1998.  In it, Darling notes that most of the evidence for cannibalism in these assemblages has come from osteological analyses of the bones conducted by physical anthropologists, with little contextual analysis by archaeologists or ethnographers that would allow better understandings of what the assemblages mean in cultural terms.  This is more or less true as of when he was writing, although more recent analyses have been much more thorough (perhaps in part as a response to critiques like Darling’s).  Importantly, Darling does not contest the osteological evidence.  He accepts the conclusions of physical anthropologists that it represents substantial “processing” of human remains around the time of death or shortly afterward, and he even agrees that the specific actions indicated are strongly reminiscent of the evidence for butchering found on animal bones.

Where Darling parts ways with the physical anthropologists, however, is in inferring from this evidence for butchering that the intent of this processing was to prepare human flesh for consumption.  He points out, again rightly, that little is known about the butchering of animals for purposes other than consumption, and that it cannot therefore be assumed that any processing of remains, human or animal, necessarily indicates consumption of those remains.  In other words, Darling agrees that people were butchering and mutilating the bodies of other people, but he does not agree that this means they were eating them.

At this point I think it is worth pointing out that Darling’s acceptance of this much of the physical anthropological evidence indicates how much the cannibalism side had already won the debate at this point.  Indeed, the objections of Darling and those who cite him may reveal more about the societal mores of modern anthropologists than those of ancient Puebloans.  “Yes, okay, they did gruesomely butcher and dismember people, but that doesn’t mean they ate them” is a rather odd line of defense to offer against accusations of cannibalism.

Note also that Darling was writing before the publication of the data on the Cowboy Wash assemblage, including the infamous coprolite that tested positive for human muscle tissue.  His arguments that the evidence of butchery on the bones doesn’t necessarily indicate consumption of the flesh therefore stand on their own, but they don’t apply at all to the coprolite evidence, which is just about the most solid evidence for actual consumption of human flesh imaginable.

Leaving all that aside for the moment, Darling’s alternative explanation for the heavily processed assemblages is that they represent the remains of executions of suspected witches.  His evidence for this draws mostly from modern Pueblo ethnography, especially records of witchcraft trials at Zuni in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as ceremonies conducted at several Pueblos to cure ailments attributed to witchcraft.  He notes, importantly, that this does not mean he is merely projecting the ethnographic present into the past; indeed, the modern activities he describes would likely not account for anything like the prehistoric assemblages.  The Zuni trials, many of which were subject to intensive interference by Anglo anthropologists and government agents, provide interesting data on Zuni attitudes toward witches, but they resulted in very few executions, and there is little to no data on the way those few executions were carried out.

For data that could possibly account for the intensive processing of the remains of executed witches, Darling points to the ceremonies, which in modern times largely consist of the symbolic hunting, capture, dismemberment, and burning of the witches in the form of effigy dolls.  Combining this with the evidence from the Zuni trials, the idea seems to be that at some point in the past similar “trials” often ended up with executions carried out similarly to the ritual destruction of the dolls.  This is a bit speculative, but it’s not a hugely implausible theory.

It’s not totally clear, however, that this is actually an alternative to the cannibalism theory.  I think it could just as easily be seen as a supplement to it, with the intensive processing of executed witches at some times in the past also involving consumption of their flesh. Darling doesn’t address this objection specifically, but it seems like it has occurred to him, as he makes a big deal about how cannibalism itself is strongly associated with witchcraft in Pueblo thought.  Indeed, one of the reasons he argues the cannibalism theory is wrong is that this association is so strong that Pueblos would never engage in cannibalism, even under conditions of severe subsistence stress, for fear of either being thought of as witches or even actually becoming them.  This is fair enough, as far as it goes, but Darling doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that some of these attitudes toward witchcraft and cannibalism may have developed relatively recently, perhaps even in reaction to prehistoric incidents of cannibalism.  Whether or not the people who dismembered and perhaps cannibalized others in the twelfth century interpreted what they were doing as punishing witches, it seems pretty plausible to me that later Puebloans reinterpreted those events as the actions of witches themselves, and incorporated cannibalism into their cultural ideas of witchcraft.

Overall, Darling’s article raises some important points, and presents some interesting data on Pueblo witchcraft ideas, but it is highly unconvincing in presenting an alternative to the cannibalism theory.  As noted above, it is totally inadequate as a response to cannibalism evidence that comes directly from coprolites rather than indirectly from bones, and the alternative theory it proposes is actually not necessarily incompatible with cannibalism at least in some instances.  The fact that some archaeologists continue to rely on it as the basis for arguing against cannibalism as an explanation for certain assemblages just goes to show how few other interpretations are really plausible at this point.
ResearchBlogging.org
Darling, J. Andrew (1998). Mass Inhumation and the Execution of Witches in the American Southwest American Anthropologist, 100 (3), 732-752 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1998.100.3.732

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Chaco Wash and Escavada Wash Near Their Confluence

I’ve never read any of Jared Diamond‘s books, so I’ve been reluctant to say much about him and his ideas.  Chaco is one of his main case studies in Collapse, however, so I really should read it at some point and try to figure out what I think of it.  I’ve heard conflicting things about how accurately it presents and interprets the evidence he gathers from archaeologists.  A lot of people seem to really like it, but most archaeologists seem to hate it and think that it’s riddled with errors.  I browsed through it a little once in the Chaco bookstore (which, yes, carries it, or at least did at the time), and I didn’t see any obvious errors of fact in the parts of the Chaco chapter I looked at, but the caption for one of the pictures, an overview of the canyon as it appears now, seemed to imply that the current desolate look of the area was the result of the overexploitation of the local environment by the Chacoans, which presumably led to their collapse.  My understanding of Diamond’s message, based mainly on the subtitle of the book (“How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”), is that the main driver of collapse he sees is environmental degradation, and the book’s popularity in environmentalist circles certainly makes sense in this light.

In any case, I’m skeptical about the whole idea that Chaco “collapsed” in the way that Diamond seems to think.  I’ve put forth my case in detail elsewhere and won’t repeat it now, but the basic idea is that what happened at Chaco is more complicated than a simple catchword like “collapse” (however it’s defined) implies.  On the narrow point of whether whatever happened at Chaco was the result of “choices” the Chacoans made about whether to “succeed or fail,” I guess it depends on what choices you mean by that.  David Stuart argues that the rigid, hierarchical social structure that allowed Chaco to become so impressive in the first place made the system too brittle to withstand severe climatic fluctuations, with the result that it was replaced by the more egalitarian and resilient social structures of the modern Pueblos.  He sees some clear lessons for our own society from this, primarily about the problems with economic inequality (a timely topic these days).  That’s one way of looking at “collapse.”

Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

I’m not sure if it’s what Diamond is talking about, though.  I’ve seen him described as an “environmentalist” in the old sense, i.e., an environmental determinist who sees major aspects of human societies as inevitable results of their environmental situations, with the twist that he obviously doesn’t have a completely deterministic view of human reactions to the environment but rather, more in line with the modern meaning of “environmentalism,” he recognizes that the interaction between humans and their environments goes both ways.  Under this view, presumably the most enlightening examples of past “collapses” to look at for insights into how we should address our own environmental problems are those where collapse was the result of ecological “overshoot,” or human use of natural resources outstripping the ability of the environment to provide them.  Joseph Tainter, who knows a lot about “collapse” from an archaeological perspective, has vigorously criticized Diamond’s (and others’) use of this approach, and I think choosing Chaco as an example of this type of collapse is particularly questionable.

It’s not that the Chacoans didn’t have major effects on their local environment.  The permanent resident population of the canyon may not have been very large, but it’s not an area that’s exactly abounding in resources, and the fact that the Chacoans imported all kinds of stuff from outside the canyon strongly implies that there wasn’t enough of all sorts of things locally to support the community.  I believe Diamond makes a big deal specifically out of the evidence for importing wood from the distant mountains, which I presume he sees as evidence that the Chacoans had deforested their local area more or less completely, with the attendant implications for overshoot and collapse.  Hence the caption on the picture I noticed when leafing through the book: the implied sequence of events is rise of Chaco leading to deforestation leading to collapse leading to a treeless desert wasteland even 1000 years later.

Intact Roof at Pueblo Bonito

But of course the evidence for importing timber from 50 miles away also implies that the Chacoans had the ability to organize some seriously impressive procurement for those resources they were lacking locally (whether because they had outstripped them or because they were never there to start with).  It’s not that they didn’t deforest their local area; they totally did, and fast!  But if that had been enough to make the system collapse, it never could have gotten going in the first place.  The abiding mystery of Chaco, after all, is not that a major center of its scale arose in the Southwest but that it arose where it did, in one of the least inviting environments in the whole region.  Somehow, the people at Chaco were able to marshal the resources of a much bigger area with many more resources, until suddenly they couldn’t.  The thing that needs to be explained by any “collapse” narrative is why that social power stopped so abruptly, which presumably also requires an answer to the question of how it developed in the first place.  We don’t know the answers to any of these questions, which is why Chaco remains such a fascinating and mysterious place even after over a century of intensive study.

“Overshoot” is not a very helpful explanation in this context.  Stripping the canyon of all its productive potential clearly didn’t lead to the collapse of Chaco, as the Chacoans were able to draw on the much greater potential of the whole region, at least for a while.  Overshoot doesn’t really explain why that control ended, either, since the overall resources of the region that the Chacoans apparently had access to were much too abundant for them to deplete.  They easily deforested the mesas above the canyon, but they never came close to deforesting the Chuskas or Mt. Taylor.  Those are big mountains, covered in trees!  And the same goes for all the other imported goods.  You could perhaps make a case for overshoot in some particular area perhaps contributing to the collapse of Chacoan power in some roundabout way, but it would definitely not be as simple as a straightforward story of overshoot leading to collapse implies.  That picture doesn’t show the enduring effects of Chacoan deforestation on the canyon; it shows what the canyon probably looked like when the Chacoans first encountered it.  Indeed, the canyon ecosystem we see today is the result of over fifty years of protection from grazing, and over a hundred years of protection from most other impacts.

Juniper Trees on the South Mesa Trail

So those are my thoughts on Diamond, and I really should read the book at some point to get a better sense of what he actually argues and whether this is a fair interpretation.  What I find interesting, though, is that noted archaeological iconoclast Steve Lekson has recently written an impassioned post in support of Diamond.  He points out that most archaeologists seem to hate Diamond’s books and spend a lot of time pointing out the flaws in them, but he argues that doing this is missing the more important point:

I’m sure there are errors – real errors.  Any work of this scope will have errors.  But much of the carping seems to concern not facts, but interpretations.  Diamond necessarily works from other archaeologists’ interpretations and I suspect the authors upon whom he relies would have something to say about all this.  The interpretations he accepts are not necessarily wrong; they are simply inconsistent with those of his critics.

I’m not saying that Diamond gets it “right.”  It’s hard to get things completely “right,” especially in science when many very reasonable hypotheses are probably wrong.  But the vehemence of academic reaction to Diamond is, I think, far disproportionate to his sins – sins of omission, commission or (worst of all) failure to cite the critic.  It is my opinion that much of the heat comes from Diamond’s success as a popular writer.  It’s not jealousy — well, maybe a little: after all, the guy won the Pulitzer with our data.  We don’t want anyone else to tell our story, even though we almost never tell it ourselves – accessibly.  And, it must be said, there is antipathy, even hostility from academics towards popular writers, even when that popular writer is an academic.     We all should re-read Article 4 of the SAA’s Principles of Archaeological Ethics, especially the bit about “Archaeologists who are unable to undertake public education and outreach directly should encourage and support the efforts of others in these activities.”

Fair enough.  I do obviously agree with the value of outreach and it’s true that Diamond has been a wildly successful popularizer of archaeology.  Lekson goes on to give a very interesting account of what he sees as the important “collapses” in Southwestern prehistory.  I note that Chaco, specifically, doesn’t appear on the list, although the depopulation of the Four Corners around AD 1300 does.  I have my doubts about that one too, but it really depends a lot on how you define “collapse.”  It’s not clear if Lekson has actually read Diamond’s book(s) (although obviously I’m hardly one to judge on that score), and he doesn’t directly address any of Diamond’s claims or interpretations about Chaco specifically, even though he is of course much more of an expert on Chaco than either Diamond or me.  Still, his general points about the reaction to Diamond are fair.  It would probably be more helpful for archaeologists who object to interpretations of their data put forth in popular accounts like Diamond’s to explain their objections in similarly popular fora, rather than just whining amongst themselves.  Diamond’s work may have a lot of problems, but at least he’s trying to draw conclusions from archaeological data and apply them to modern issues in accessible way, which is much more than you can say for most archaeologists, with a few notable exceptions like Stuart and, to a lesser extent, Lekson himself.  In any case, I think it’s clear that this conversation is really just getting started, so anyone who is really upset by the direction it’s taken so far has plenty of opportunity to jump in and contribute a different perspective.

View from Doorway at Pueblo del Arroyo

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Sign at State of New Mexico Archives Building, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Several months ago Steve Lekson sent me a review copy of his latest book, A History of the Ancient Southwest.  I recently got around to reading it, and it’s very good.  The importance as well as the idiosyncratic nature of this book begins with its title.  While the title sounds generic, it’s actually carefully chosen and worded, and in a subtle way it expresses the unusual approach Lekson takes to Southwestern archaeology, not just in this book but in many of his other recent publications.

The crucial thing about the title, and about the book, is the word “history.”  This book is both an attempt to tell the story of what happened in the ancient Southwest, and thus a “history” of the Southwest in ancient times of the sort an historian might write, and a parallel attempt to tell the story of the development of Southwestern archaeology as a (sub)discipline, i.e., a history of “the ancient Southwest” as an idea and of the ways that idea has been studied and interpreted over time.  The title also refers, quite deliberately, to a book with the same title that Harold Gladwin published in 1957.  Gladwin’s a fascinating character, as is Lekson himself in his own way, but in this context the most important thing about him is his fondness for synthesizing archaeological data and presenting it as an accessible narrative.  Lekson is seeking to do the same thing in this book, and he mostly succeeds.  This is a more impressive accomplishment than it sounds, because summarizing the entire prehistory of the Southwest in narrative form is an astonishingly ambitious project, and there’s a reason no one else has tried to do it since Gladwin.  Furthermore, Lekson adds on top of this enormously difficult task the additional task of adding a parallel intellectual history of Southwestern archaeology.  And yet, like I say, he mostly succeeds in this near-impossible task.

How does he do it?  Partly by limiting his narrative to the highlights of both stories, which admittedly makes it seem a bit thin at times.  This is largely countered by his the very extensive notes, where he relegates most of the in-depth argumentation over scholarly minutiae that would get in the way of the overall story.  And when I say “extensive,” I mean it; this is a book with 250 pages of text followed by 100 pages of notes.  I haven’t read through all the notes in detail, but they’re a mix of perfunctory citations for statements in the text and really long and detailed discussions of various archaeological points of contention and Lekson’s positions on them.

Part of the reason for this shoving of so much into the notes is to make the text more accessible.  The book is aimed both at professional Southwestern archaeologists and at popular audiences, and this dual purpose sometimes leads to some tension but mostly works.  Lekson is a very good and engaging writer.  He has a very idiosyncratic style, which some may not find appealing, but I like it, and it definitely contrasts with the turgid prose that is more typical of archaeological publications.  The story he tells here will probably appeal to the two audiences somewhat differently; other archaeologists are likely to look through the text and notes for questionable statements to contest (and there are plenty), while lay readers are probably more likely to just take in the story without thinking too much about it.  Neither of these approaches is ideal, perhaps, but the book does adequately provide for both in an innovative way.

The structure of the book involves parallel stories: each chapter includes both one period in the history of Southwestern archaeology and one period in the actual history of the ancient Southwest as determined (primarily) by that archaeology.  Lekson tries to unify the two parts of each chapter with a common theme, which works better for some than for others but often seems a bit forced.  In general, the intellectual history portions of the chapters are a bit weaker than the archaeological portions, which makes sense since Lekson is an archaeologist rather than an intellectual historian.  Still, he does make a serious effort to evaluate the research of his predecessors and colleagues in the context of their times and the prevailing intellectual currents both within the discipline and within society as a whole.  This is more than most archaeologists are willing to attempt, and it helps put the archaeological data he uses to reconstruct the “history” of the prehistoric societies he discusses into its own appropriate context.

Building with Pro-Book Sign, Carrizozo, New Mexico

That “history” really is history, too.  This is a story focused on events, rather than adaptations, and part of the importance of Lekson’s discussion of the history of archaeology is to situate himself within that history and, in general, to distinguish what he’s doing here from what archaeologists typically do.  Basically, he’s seeking to write history rather than science, whereas most archaeological research in the US since the 1970s or s0, as he demonstrates, has sought to be science.  (Longtime readers will know that I have my own opinions on this question, and that they’re mostly in line with Lekson’s approach here.)  His version of “history” will probably seem a little over-simplistic to many actual historians, just as his account of the history of archaeology will doubtless seem simplistic to actual intellectual historians and historians of science, but for the general reader and for most Southwestern archaeologists the general point should come across loud and clear.

In general, Lekson gives the general outlines for the story of the ancient Southwest as he sees it, but he downplays some of his own more controversial ideas.  The Chaco Meridian is confined to the notes and occasional brief allusions in the text.  There are plenty of quibbles I have with some of his specific interpretations, especially about Chaco, but the overall picture he presents is probably broadly acceptable to a relatively large number of other archaeologists.  He definitely comes down on the side of hierarchy and extensive Mesoamerican influence, but local origin, for Chaco, which shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who’s read any of his other recent Chaco stuff.  He also tries to tie everything together into a larger story, emphasizing the likely connections between developments at Chaco and among the Hohokam in Arizona, the Mimbres in southwestern New Mexico, and other Southwestern groups, as well as contemporaneous developments in Mexico and in the Mississippi Valley.  These broad-scale connections are controversial among archaeologists, but I think Lekson’s right on track in emphasizing them.

I’m not sure how well this book will work as an introduction to Southwestern archaeology for people who know literally nothing about it.  For those who know nothing about the ancient Southwest and have no intention of learning about it in great depth, this would be an entertaining and informative read.  Moving on from this to anything else written on the ancient Southwest (with the possible exception of some of Lekson’s other stuff) would be a pretty severe shock, however.  The difference in both tone and content is huge.  For people who are interested in the subject and have read one or two other books on it, however, this would be a very useful introduction to a very different way of thinking about these issues.  All professional Southwestern archaeologists should absolutely read it, not so much because they’ll learn much from it, although they might, but because it outlines a very different way of thinking and writing about the ancient Southwest that they should really be familiar with, even if they don’t want to do it themselves.

Personally, while I don’t agree with all of Lekson’s interpretations, I find this book inspiring.  Lekson is really pioneering a new way of writing the story of the ancient Southwest, and reading his version really makes me want to follow in his tracks and write my own version of the story, using his guidelines but reaching my own conclusions.  I don’t know if I’ll actually be able to follow through and write my own book, but it’s something I’ve been considering for a while now and reading Lekson’s attempt has made me more tempted than ever to actually do it.  After all, I’ve got plenty of time on my hands these days.

The Library Bar & Grill, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

This is a fascinating example of a serious attempt to design an urban cooperative community based on the concept of a canyon.  The term “urban canyon” is often used to describe the narrow streets surrounded by skyscrapers in many big cities, and I think there is actually more to that comparison than the people who make it often realize, but this project takes the idea in a very different direction.  Produced for a design competition in Dallas a couple of years ago where the goal was to come up with a totally sustainable urban block, “Co-op Canyon” is clearly influenced by Anasazi precedents, and the architects even used the term “cliff dwelling” in describing it (although they don’t mention the Anasazi specifically).  It goes well beyond just copying the outward forms of Anasazi architecture, as modern architects often do, and incorporates agriculture throughout the staggered terraces that make up the inward-facing development with an internal “canyon” at its center.  There’s also an innovative cooperative concept for the organization of the community, in which residents contribute work in the gardens or in other parts of the community to earn their keep, along the lines of Habitat for Humanity’s  “sweat equity,” in which residents help to build their own houses in order to purchase them.  This cooperative idea is probably influenced by popular ideas about Anasazi social organization as well, although for the Mesa Verde cliff dwellingsspecifically this may not be very accurate.  The design didn’t win, so it won’t actually be built in Dallas, but it’s a great example of architects really thinking through the possibilities and implications of precedents drawn from the archaeological record.

Cliff Palace and Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

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Walls at Peñasco Blanco

I’m basically done with the cannibalism stuff, at least for the time being, so I figured I’d put together a list of my recent posts on the subject for easy reference.  Many of them are from the period between Christmas and New Year’s when people may not have been reading blogs as regularly as usual and may therefore have missed them.  There’s obviously much more that could be said about this very complicated and controversial subject, but I think these posts have covered the basics of it as it relates to Chaco.  Here are the posts:

  1. The C Word
  2. Cannibal Coprolite Christmas Continues
  3. What Happened at Cowboy Wash?
  4. Was There Any Cannibalism during the “Great Drought”?
  5. Cowboy Wash Is Not an Easy Place to Live
  6. Sacred Ridge
  7. Holy Wars in Holy Lands

I’ll have some new posts on other topics soon.  Stay tuned.

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