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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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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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Garden at Chucalissa Mounds, Memphis, Tennessee

One of the main ways Mississippian societies differed from earlier societies in eastern North America was in their much heavier reliance on maize agriculture for subsistence. There had been agriculture, and even maize, before in the east, but the Mississippians farmed much more intensively and used maize in particular much more heavily than people had before. The high productivity of maize agriculture presumably led to the increased population and more elaborate societies characteristic of the Mississippians, and also would have provided a dependable basis for the incipient urbanism seen in the biggest Mississippian centers like Cahokia. While maize had been introduced (ultimately from Mesoamerica and probably via the Southwest, although the details remain murky) to parts of the Eastern Woodlands hundreds of years before the rise of Mississippian societies after AD 900, it was only with the so-called “Mississippian Emergence” that it became a staple crop. The amount of maize typically found at archaeological sites in the east skyrockets after the Emergence, and intensive use of this crop seems to be a fundamental characteristic of the Mississippian lifeway.

Most of this has been known for a long time, based on the amount of maize found in Mississippian sites, but actually identifying and studying the fields where maize and other crops were grown had to wait until the incorporation of aerial photography into Midwestern archaeology in the 1960s. An important early contribution to knowledge of these issues is a paper published by Melvin Fowler in 1969. Fowler reports on work done by Southern Illinois University over the preceding few years at Mississippian sites in that incorporated aerial photography. He focuses on two sites specifically: the Lunsford-Pulcher site, a secondary mound center about 7 miles south of Cahokia, and the Texas site, a smaller farmstead on the Kaskaskia River about 50 miles east of Cahokia.

In both cases, aerial photography indicated the presence of parallel ridges that were not obvious on the ground in the proximity of the main architectural components of the sites. Surface collection of artifacts indicated a particular association between these ridges and fragments of the flaked-stone hoes that are very common at Mississippian sites, strengthening the hypothesis that the ridges indicated fields. Excavation further confirmed the hypothesis, revealing that the ridges consisted of dark topsoil piled up and revealing the lighter subsoil between the ridges. The narrowness of the ridges further indicated that they were definitely prehistoric and not the result of historic plowing. Fowler also refers to evidence from excavations in the 1930s at Ocmulgee National Monument, a major Mississippian center in Georgia, that revealed very similar ridges beneath at least one mound. This indicates that rather than an idiosyncratic practice in southern Illinois these ridges were a widespread Mississippian trait, apparently connected to hoe agriculture. He also refers to historical accounts from the nineteenth century indicating that similar ridged fields covered vast areas of Wisconsin and Michigan before white settlement.

Gardening Sign, Chucalissa Mounds, Memphis, Tennessee

The exact reason for the ridges was unclear to Fowler, and he offered just a few tentative ideas. It could have been a development stemming from the adoption of hoes, which would have been more effective than the digging sticks used previously and may have made it easier to pile up good soil for planting. The linear ridges of Mississippian agriculture may have been more efficient than the small hills used previously and associated with the use of the digging stick rather than the hoe. They may also have contributed to a more effective distribution of water to the plants; irrigation would not have been necessary in this wet climate, but a more efficient use of the copious rainfall may have been beneficial. It is also possible that the ridging allowed the use of low-lying land along rivers that would otherwise have been too swampy for planting. The two Illinois sites are certainly in locations where this would likely have been a factor, although Fowler notes that this is not the case for all the other reported areas with ridged fields.

Overall, this is an interesting study pointing out the advantages of aerial photography for identifying subtle archaeological features that may not be apparent on the ground. I am reminded especially of the Chaco road system, which was similarly identified via aerial photography a few years later. Also, and this has nothing to do with this particular article, I was interested to see the following notice in a box at the end of the last page:

NOTICE TO AUTHORS

A formal review procedure for all papers submitted to American Antiquity is being initiated. Papers will be evaluated by two referees; authors will receive copies of referee comments (unidentified as to source). Beginning immediately, THREE COPIES of all articles and submissions to Facts and Comments must be submitted. Contributions will not be considered for publication unless submitted in triplicate. Address inquiries to the editor-elect, EDWIN N. WILMSEN, Museum of Anthropology, Universitv of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 48104.

Peer review was slow to catch on in archaeology, it seems.

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Fowler, M. (1969). Middle Mississippian Agricultural Fields American Antiquity, 34 (4) DOI: 10.2307/277733

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Core Samples Taken for Tree-Ring Dating, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Despite their impressive preservation, the Gila Cliff Dwellings have gotten surprisingly little attention in the archaeological literature.  This is apparently because they were so thoroughly ransacked by pothunters early on that there wasn’t much left intact for archaeologists to study, and possibly also because the early establishment of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907 has led most subsequent research to be done by the National Park Service, which has often had a tendency to keep findings in internal reports for management purposes rather than publishing them in peer-reviewed journals or books.  The surviving structural timbers have clearly been sampled for tree-ring dating, and the interpretive material put out by the monument discusses the results of this analysis.  The museum at the visitor center also displays some artifact that were apparently found in the cliff dwellings, although it’s not always clear if they were excavated by the NPS or recovered from private collections after having been looted and sold.  The NPS does have an online administrative history of the monument; I haven’t read it yet, but from a casual look through the section on archaeological research it seems to confirm that there has been some excavation by the Park Service, mostly in the 1960s, but that the data have not been thoroughly analyzed or reported.

The only substantial discussion of the cliff dwellings that I have found in the published literature is a short article published by Editha Watson in 1929.  She discusses several cave sites in the Upper Gila River area, but gives the most detailed description (which is still not very detailed) of the caves in the monument.  She discusses the highly looted state of the sites and some of the things found in them, although she does not make it very clear who found them or how:

Corncobs are plentiful in this ruin. They are very small, and the dry atmosphere has preserved them so beautifully that they may be indented with the fingernail. Black-and-white pottery and corrugated ware blackened on the inside are the only sorts noticed among the sherds. Turquoise beads have been found here. As this is a national monument, excavation is forbidden, but vandals have torn up the floor in search of treasure.

She also mentions a “desiccated body of an infant” found in one of the caves.  According to the administrative history four such mummies were allegedly found in the cliff dwellings at various points in the late nineteenth century and sent to the Smithsonian, which apparently never received any of them.  It’s not clear which of these Watson refers to, or where she got her information.

Pictographs on Cave Wall behind Room, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Watson also mentions the red pictographs found in the caves, which she says are “supposed to be the work of later tribes.”  As the administrative history notes, it’s not clear who is supposing this or why.  More recently, Polly Schaafsma has classified these pictographs as belonging to the Mogollon Red style, which is also found to the northwest in the area around Reserve, New Mexico.  She also thinks the pictographs in the caves were made by residents of the cliff dwellings standing on rooftops, which makes sense given their positions and firmly dates them to the late thirteenth century AD.  There are other pictograph locations in and around the monument, including one in Lower Scorpion Campground that is quite impressive in its number and variety of designs.

Pictographs at Lower Scorpion Campground

The Mogollon Red style is very different from most other Southwestern rock art styles, at least the ones I’ve seen examples of.  It includes a lot of abstract geometrical designs and stick-figure humans, and is always in the form of pictographs rather than petroglyphs.  It is particularly different from the Jornada style found to the east in the Mimbres and Jornada Mogollon regions, which consists mainly of petroglyphs and has a lot of naturalistic animals and human faces or masks.  Schaafsma has proposed that the Jornada style represents an ideological system that later developed into the kachina cult of the modern Pueblos.  The Mogollon Red style forms another link between the Gila Cliff Dwellings and areas to the north and west, reinforcing the impression from pottery styles that link them to the Tularosa area.  This is interesting given their geographical proximity to the Mimbres area, with its very different iconographic traditions, and strongly supports the idea that the builders of the cliff dwellings were immigrants from somewhere to the north.

That’s about all I’ve found in the published literature about the cliff dwellings.  Clearly they have a lot of potential to shed light on a number of issues important in the study of Southwestern prehistory, especially interregional relationships and migration, but so far they have not been widely incorporated into discussion of those issues.
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Watson, E. (1929). Caves of the Upper Gila River, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 31 (2), 299-306 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1929.31.2.02a00070

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Basketmaker Pithouse, Mesa Verde

The Basketmaker III period (ca. AD 500 to 750) is a very important time for understanding the prehistoric Southwest.  Maize agriculture had been introduced earlier, although exactly how early is still a matter of debate, and it was definitely well-established by the immediately preceding Basketmaker II period, but Basketmaker III saw the introduction of beans, pottery, and the bow and arrow, all of which led to major changes in the lifestyles of local agriculturists.  Residence was in pithouses, which are clearly ancestral in form (and probably in function) to the “kivas” of later sites, and while these are usually found isolated or in very small groups, there are a few known examples of large “villages” containing dozens of pithouses.  The processes that led to the formation of these sites, as well as their relationships to the more common isolated sites, are very poorly understood, but it seems pretty clear that residential aggregation in certain locations during this period set the stage for the later formation of large villages during the succeeding Pueblo I period and afterward.

Two of the largest and best-known Basketmaker III villages are in Chaco Canyon.  The better-known of these, by far, is called Shabik’eschee Village, and it is located on the lowest terrace of a finger of Chacra Mesa at the east end of the current Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  Shabik’eschee was excavated by Frank H. H. Roberts in the 1920s as part of the Smithsonian/National Geographic project led by Neil Judd.  The main focus of the project was the excavation of Pueblo Bonito, but Judd had other members of the team, including Roberts, excavate several other sites in and around the canyon as well.  Roberts published his results in 1929, and this publication has been enormously influential in shaping subsequent interpretations of Basketmaker III villages and the period as a whole.

Looking South from Peñasco Blanco toward 29SJ423

The Chaco Project in the 1970s did some additional work at Shabik’eschee, as well as at the other Basketmaker Village in the canyon.  This site, known as 29SJ423, is just south of Peñasco Blanco at the far west end of the canyon, near the confluence of the Chaco and Escavada Washes.  It is situated in a similar location to Shabik’eschee, on a lower terrace of West Mesa (but above Peñasco Blanco, which is on the lowest terrace).  Tom Windes excavated a small portion of 29SJ423 in 1975, but he and other Chaco Project personnel soon came to the conclusion that additional excavation there would not be worth the considerable effort involved.  The collections from this excavation are important, however, since they were acquired using more careful, modern methods than Roberts’s.  Similarly, a very small amount of additional excavation at Shabik’eschee in 1973 has provided important supplemental information with which to evaluate Roberts’s interpretations.

Windes and Chip Wills published an article in 1989 looking back at Roberts’s interpretations at Shabik’eschee in the light of the additional knowledge gained by the Chaco Project excavations.  They concluded that some of Roberts’s ideas, such as his proposal that the site had two discrete periods of occupation separated by a hiatus during which it was abandoned, are likely untenable, and they also concluded that the site was considerably larger than Roberts thought.  They agreed with Roberts that some of the pithouses had been abandoned and their materials were used in subsequent construction, but they saw this as more of an ongoing process related to the short use-life of pithouses and the demands of demographic processes rather than a discrete series of two occupations.  They also saw more spatial patterning in the layout of pithouses within the site than Roberts did, suggesting that the pithouses grouped into what might be family residence units, although they were quite tentative in this finding and did not use these groups as units for any subsequent analysis.

Pinyon Trees, Pipe Spring National Monument

Wills and Windes also posited a novel interpretation for the site as a whole.  Rather than seeing it as a permanent agricultural village, they saw it as a site of occasional gatherings of more mobile families practicing a “mixed” subsistence strategy of small-scale agriculture along with hunting and gathering.  In their interpretation, a small number of families inhabited Shabik’eschee permanently, while others joined them periodically to take advantage of the site’s proximity to piñon woodlands in years with bountiful piñon-nut harvests.  They based this theory on the presence of two types of storage facilities at the site: household-level storage in the antechambers associated with some but not all of the pithouses (presumably the residences of permanent residents) and community-level storage bins scattered around the site.  The idea is that occasional surpluses of corn or whatever would be stored in the bins, and the people who lived at the site permanently watched over it and protected it.  Whenever there was a plentiful crop of piñon nuts, which happens at irregular intervals in the fall, people who lived the rest of the time in scattered locations throughout the area would congregate at Shabik’eschee to take advantage of this and stay for the winter.  If conditions in the spring were good for planting, people might stay longer and plant their crops in the area, but if not they would move on to more attractive planting locations.  Other pithouse villages, such as 29SJ423, would presumably have served similar purposes, allowing periodic aggregation to take advantage of various localized resources.

This is an interesting theory, but it’s based on exceptionally thin evidence.  Wills and Windes even concede that they are spinning this whole story purely from the nature of the storage facilities at the site, and they note that there are other ways to interpret the communal bins in particular.  Instead of protecting food stores during periods of reduced occupation, they may just have functioned to protect them in general.  The shape of the bins makes it more difficult to access their contents, which Wills and Windes interpret as evidence for a sort of semi-caching, but it would also just provide better protection from the elements, vermin, etc. for the contents.  Basically, there’s just no reason from the available evidence to buy the Wills and Windes theory.

"Pithouse Life" Sign at Mesa Verde

Indeed, the assumptions behind this theory seem problematic to me.  The ethnographic comparisons Wills and Windes use to support it are mostly from hunter-gatherer societies, and indeed their model seems to imply that the residents of Shabik’eschee were basically hunter-gatherers who did some farming on the side.  Such societies exist, and may well have existed at certain times in the ancient Southwest (such as the late Archaic), but recent studies have shown with increasing certainty that heavy dependence on agriculture was widespread already in the Basketmaker II period.  Wills and Windes seem to see the Basketmaker III inhabitants of the Chaco area as just beginning to experiment with adding agriculture to a hunter-gatherer lifeway, but it’s much more likely that they were full-time agriculturalists and had been for centuries.  They did of course still do some hunting and gathering, as their Pueblo descendants have continued to do up to the present day, but while this may in some sense qualify as a “mixed” economy that shouldn’t obscure the important fact that Pueblo societies have been overwhelmingly farming-based societies since well before the occupation of Shabik’eschee.

I think this interpretation, and others like it which were popular in Southwestern archaeology in the 1980s, results in part from the enormous influence of Lewis Binford on the development of processual archaeology.  Binford’s personal research and expertise were largely on hunter-gatherer societies, and the guidelines he set forth for “archaeology as anthropology” that were eagerly followed by young “New Archaeologists” were heavily influenced by that background.  Wills and Windes cite Binford several times in this article.

Excavating the Lift Station Site in the Chaco Maintenance Yard

Be that as it may, this is an important article just in providing an updated take on the facts about Shabik’eschee, which as Wills and Windes note has been very important in the interpretation of ancient societies generally.  It contains relatively little information about 29SJ423, but it does briefly discuss this site as a comparison.  It says even less about the much more numerous isolated Basketmaker III sites in the canyon, but it notes that Chaco Project surveys identified at least 163 pithouse sites from this period.  One that they didn’t find, because it was deeply buried under the ground, was later found by the park in the course of trying to build a lift station for the septic system.  This site, informally known as the Lift Station Site, is a Basketmaker III pithouse that was excavated while I was working at Chaco.  One of the more interesting things it revealed was an apparent location for pottery manufacture.

One of the major problems with trying to understand the Basketmaker III period at Chaco is precisely that the site are typically deeply buried, so it’s hard to even know how many of them there are.  It’s clear that this was a period of significant population in the canyon, but it’s hard to tell how many sites were occupied simultaneously.  This problem is exacerbated by the difficulty of dating many of the sites.  Tree-ring dates are often hard to obtain from the scarce wood found at excavated sites, and Shabik’eschee is particularly poorly dated.  The few tree-ring dates available seem to suggest it was occupied at some point after the mid-500s, but there are no cutting dates so any greater precision is impossible.  29SJ423 did produce two cutting dates, at 550 and 557, so it seems the two villages were most likely contemporaneous.  The isolated sites are even harder to date, of course, but the Lift Station Site produced corn that was radiocarbon dated.  I don’t know the dates that resulted, but I did hear that they were earlier than was expected based on the pottery types found.

Whole Pot from the Lift Station Site

The size of the Basketmaker III occupation at Chaco, and particularly the presence of the two large villages, has important implications for understanding the subsequent history of the canyon that I think are just beginning to be realized.  The local population seems to have declined during the subsequent Pueblo I period (ca. AD 750 to 900), when people seem to have begun to move in large numbers to higher elevations where they formed some really large villages.  However, it’s not clear that Chaco was completely abandoned during this period, and recent improvements in dating the early great houses in the canyon have shown that some of them, especially Pueblo Bonito, go back further than was once thought.  Pueblo Bonito is now known to have been begun no later than 860, and the earliest part of it may date much earlier, possibly to 800 or even before.  This means that the gap between the Basketmaker III villages and the earliest great houses suddenly looks a lot smaller, and may disappear entirely.  There are pithouses under the plaza at Pueblo Bonito that may date to very early Pueblo I or even Basketmaker III, and there is a small Pueblo I occupation at Shabik’eschee that dates as late as 750.  This suggests that these two iconic sites in Chacoan archaeology, generally interpreted in very different ways, may actually overlap in occupation.  This would require some serious modifications of the ways the origins of the Chaco system are often interpreted.

Chaco had been an important place for a very long time when it started to become a major regional center around AD 1040.  It’s looking increasingly plausible, though by no means certain, that it had been continuously occupied for 500 years at that point, and even if there was a brief gap between the Basketmaker III villages and the first Pueblo I great houses it is very unlikely that is was long enough for people to have forgotten about Chaco and what had happened there.  Even if many of the people who built and/or occupied the early great houses in the 800s hadn’t been born at Chaco, they probably knew it was there long before they made it their home.
ResearchBlogging.org
Wills, W., & Windes, T. (1989). Evidence for Population Aggregation and Dispersal during the Basketmaker III Period in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico American Antiquity, 54 (2) DOI: 10.2307/281711

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Stone Tools at Chaco Visitor Center Museum

When it comes to stone tools, archaeologists make a basic distinction between “chipped-stone” and “ground-stone” tools.  Chipped-stone tools are generally those that need to be sharp, such as projectile points, knives, scrapers, and drills, and are typically made of hard stone that keeps an edge.  Some ground-stone tools, such as axes, are also sharp, but for the most part ground-stone tools rely on other qualities of stone for purposes like hammering and grinding.  In the Southwest, ground-stone tools are usually made of sandstone, basalt, or other types of stone that are plentiful in the area immediately around a site.  These tools are heavy, and it generally wouldn’t have made any sense to import special types of stone to make them when, as is the case throughout the Southwest, there were plenty of rocks around.  The types of stone used for ground-stone tools are also generally those used for masonry in areas where masonry construction was typical, including at Chaco, where sandstone was the usual material.

Chipped-stone tools are a different story.  They are usually small and highly portable, and the best materials to make them are often scattered and not convenient for every habitation site.  Thus, widespread trade in chipping stone has very early origins.  Hunter-gatherers need very good stone for their projectile points, and also tend to be very mobile, so their chipped-stone tools tend to be very well-made and to be made of high-quality material from a wide variety of sources.  Settled agriculturalists such as the Chacoans don’t rely so heavily on chipped-stone tools for their subsistence needs (ground-stone tools like metates are much more important), and they typically put much less effort into both procuring stone for chipped-stone tools and making the tools themselves.

Flake of Narbona Pass Chert at Pueblo Alto

When it comes to Chaco specifically, chipped-stone shows a much more muted form of the pattern of massive imports of other goods such as pottery, wood, turquoise, and even foodCathy Cameron summarizes the patterns revealed by the chipped-stone assemblages from Chaco Project excavations in the 1970s in an article from 2001.  The basic pattern is that most chipped stone was from local sources throughout the occupation of Chaco, although “local” really refers to a wider area here than the canyon itself.  Good chipping stone is not plentiful in the canyon itself, but abundant sources of good chert and petrified wood occur a few miles to the north and would have been easily accessible to canyon residents in the course of their daily lives (i.e., special trips to gather stone would probably not have been necessary).  These local sources always dominate assemblages from Chaco.  Imported stone types do increase during the Chaco era from AD 1030 to 1130, especially at great houses such as Pueblo Alto.  The most abundant import at this time is Narbona Pass chert, a distinctive pinkish type of stone that comes from a very restricted area in the Chuska Mountains to the west.  The Chuskas are also the source of many other imports to Chaco, including huge amounts of pottery and wood, but the relative proportions of Narbona Pass chert in the overall chipped-stone assemblages are much more modest.  It comprises 21.1% of the total Chaco Project sample for AD 1020 to 1120 and 18.9% of the sample for AD 1120 to 1220.  This is much higher than any other type of imported stone ever reaches, and even higher than any single type of local stone for these periods (though much lower than the total proportion of local stone).

Other imported materials found in notable numbers include Brushy Basin chert from the Four Corners area, a type of yellow-brown spotted chert and a special type of petrified wood, both from the Zuni area, and obsidian.  Brushy Basin chert (along with other materials from the same formation) and Zuni petrified wood reach relatively high proportions of the overall assemblage at the same time that Narbona Pass chert does, and Zuni chert does too but at a much lower level.  The pattern of obsidian is different, and hard to understand.  It’s the most common exotic type of stone before AD 920, rising to as high as 7.6% of the assemblage in the seventh century.  Sourcing studies seem to show that most of the obsidian coming it at this point came from the area around Grants, New Mexico, near Mount Taylor, during this period.  Once the Chaco system really gets going, though, the proportion of obsidian plummets to less than 1%.  From 1120 on, however, it rises again, comprising 7.3% from 1120 to 1220 and 2% after 1220, still less than Narbona Pass chert but respectable.  This obsidian seems to come mostly or entirely from sources in the Jemez Mountains to the east of Chaco.

Log of Petrified Wood at Chaco

So what were the Chacoans doing with this imported stone?  Not much, as it turns out.  One of the oddest things about the amount of Narbona Pass chert, particularly, is that it doesn’t appear to have been used for anything special.  Like all other types of stone, both local and imported, it was used primarily for expedient, informal tools.  The Chaco Project found 2,991 pieces of Narbona Pass chert, and only 18 of these were formal tools.  This pattern is typical for most material types, though obsidian seems to have been more often used for formal tools, many of which were probably imported as finished tools rather than made in the canyon.  Of the formal tools the Chaco Project did find, of all materials, about half were projectile points, and the rest were various types of knives, scrapers, and drills.

So what’s going on here?  Hard to say.  Cameron evaluates the chipped-stone data in the context of the models for the organization of production proposed by other participants in the conference from which this paper originated, and she decides that Colin Renfrew’s pilgrimage model fits best, with some adjustments.  This conclusion is driven largely by the fact that so much of the Narbona Pass chert came from the Pueblo Alto trash mound and the idea that this indicates that it was deposited there as part of communal rituals.  I find claims like this dubious, and I think it’s more likely that people in Chaco were just importing this type of stone either because it is so visually striking or because of their strong social connections to Chuskan communities (or both).

Chuska Mountains from Tsin Kletzin

The thing I find most puzzling is the obsidian.  Obsidian was hugely important in Mesoamerica, and in view of the appropriation and importation of many aspects of Mesoamerican culture by the Chacoans, most recently dramatized with evidence for chocolate consumption, it seems very odd that the rise of the Chacoan system would coincide with a steep decline in the amount of obsidian imported.  This is particularly odd since the Grants area was very much a part of the Chaco world, and there were numerous outlying great houses and communities near Mt. Taylor.  If the Chacoans had wanted obsidian, they could easily have gotten it.  And yet, it seems they didn’t.

Or did they?  Keep in mind that this data is based mostly on Chaco Project excavations, although Cameron does incorporate some insights from a study of formal chipped-stone tools done by Steve Lekson that incorporated other data as well.  Lekson’s study noted that Pueblo Bonito in particular had an astonishing number of projectile points relative to most other sites, and I can’t help but wonder if part of the lack of obsidian at other sites was a result of more of it flowing to Bonito.  The excavations at Bonito were done a long time ago without the careful techniques of the Chaco Project, so the data isn’t totally comparable, but I’m going to look at the artifact records from Bonito (conveniently made available at the Chaco Archive) to see how common obsidian was there.

Arrowheads at Chaco Visitor Center Museum

Speaking of projectile points, another thing Cameron mentions is that many of them seem to have been imported to Chaco, some of them apparently embedded in meat.  Others were particularly finely made and left in burials and caches, suggesting that they may have been specially made for votive purposes.  That’s probably the case for many of the points Lekson identified as being particularly numerous at Bonito, but what I want to know is why arrowheads were such common grave goods and offerings there.  Was there a particular association between Chaco and hunting?  The great house residents do seem to have eaten a lot more meat than other people in the canyon and elsewhere.

On the other hand, arrows weren’t only used for hunting.  Cameron notes that one projectile point found by Neil Judd at Pueblo Bonito was embedded in a human vertebra, and the Chaco Project also found a woman at the small site 29SJ1360 near Fajada Butte who had two points inside her.  We often talk about how peaceful Chaco was and how little evidence there is for warfare during the Chacoan era, but I’m starting to wonder about that.  It’s certainly true that Chaco itself and most other sites occupied during its florescence show less obvious evidence for violence than sites afterward do, but there are still some signs that things may not have been totally peaceful throughout the Southwest in Chacoan times.  Arrowheads in vertebrae don’t get there on their own, after all.  Who shot those arrows?
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Cameron, C. (2001). Pink Chert, Projectile Points, and the Chacoan Regional System American Antiquity, 66 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694319

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Metate Incorporated into Wall Capping, Pueblo Bonito

I’ve written a bit about the recent research, spearheaded by Larry Benson of the USGS, into the sources of the corn found at Chaco.  These studies continue to refine the techniques used to identify source areas, but so far they have shown that corn was almost certainly being imported to Chaco both during and after the florescence of the Chaco system between AD 1030 and 1130.  As they begin to test more potential field areas, of course, the number of matches for the strontium isotope ratios in the corn at Chaco has increased.  While early studies indicated that much of it likely came from the Chuska Valley, it now looks much more likely that it instead came from the area along the Chaco River between there and the canyon.  This is an area with numerous outlying great houses, and it was probably the main route for the many commodities from the Chuska area that were brought to the canyon, and it’s also generally a better area for agriculture than the canyon itself, so this all makes sense.  There has also been some evidence that at least some corn was also coming from the Totah area to the north, again a more productive agricultural area with many Chacoan outliers.

Based on the proveniences of the corncobs from Pueblo Bonito that were tested early on, one tentative suggestion emerging from this research was that the main sources of imported corn changed over time.  The cobs that came from the lower Chaco River were from Rooms 3 and 92 in the northern part of Old Bonito, one of the earliest parts of the building to be built, while the one cob of possible Totah origin came instead from Room 170, in the southeast corner, one of the newest parts of the site.  Since there does seem on other grounds to have been a shift in the emphasis of the Chaco system from south to west to north over time, it would make sense that the early rooms contained early cobs from the west while a later room contained a later cob from the north.

Talus Unit with Snow

A paper published in 2008 by a group of big names in Chacoan studies sought to look at this directly by radiocarbon dating the cobs.  This is an interesting paper which goes beyond that narrow topic to also look at the characteristics of the corn found at the various great houses and other sites.  One of the co-authors is Mollie Toll, a specialist in archaeobotany who has done a lot of research on Chacoan corn.  As part of that research, she had long noted that the corn at Pueblo Bonito generally had bigger ears with more rows of kernels than most other corn known from the prehistoric Southwest.    It was bigger than earlier and later corn, for one thing, but it was also bigger than most other corn from the same period.  Corn from the Chacoan occupation of Salmon Ruin was also unusually large, as was corn from the Talus Unit behind Chetro Ketl, but corn from Pueblo Alto and Pueblo del Arroyo, other contemporary great houses at Chaco, was smaller and more in line with that from earlier and later sites.

Toll came up with three possible explanations for the difference.  Pueblo Bonito corn could be a different variety or “landrace” from the others, which is plausible but not directly testable with current technology.  It could also have been grown outside of the canyon where conditions were better for agriculture, while the corn from other great houses was grown in the canyon where conditions were poorer.  Finally, and problematically, the corn at Bonito might not have been Chacoan at all!  Since modern corn is generally bigger than ancient corn, Toll (when she was first looking at this in the 1980s) couldn’t exclude the possibility that the corn found at Pueblo Bonito had actually been put there by Navajos in the nineteenth century.  Much of it was from George Pepper‘s excavations in the 1890s, so it couldn’t be newer than that, but there was no way for Toll to tell how much older it was.

Room 3a/92/97, Pueblo Bonito

We still can’t tell different ancient landraces apart (although the recent sequencing of the maize genome may make this more feasible in the future), but the strontium isotope testing is giving us a sense of where the corn was grown, and accelerator mass spectrometry now makes directly dating the corn relatively easy.  Seven cobs from Pueblo Bonito that had been used in the strontium studies were dated for this paper.  One was the cob from Room 170 that possibly came from the Totah, one was from Room 92, and the rest were from Room 3.

The results were illuminating, but also challenging.  All the cobs clearly dated to ancient times, so the possibility that the size of Pueblo Bonito’s corncobs represents recent deposition is effectively quashed.  Three of the Room 3 cobs had closely clustered dates with intercepts around AD 1000, which offered some partial support for the idea that the corn in the early rooms was relatively early, but the other two were widely spaced, one at 870 and at 1170.  This is problematic for the idea that the date of corn in a room can be predicted from the date of that room’s construction, but it makes sense that the deposits in a room may date to well after its construction.  Since Room 3 dates very early, probably to the 900s, it’s likely that the deposits there resulted from much later trash dumping once it was no longer used for its original purpose.  Room 3 has a firepit, so it was probably originally a residential room, and it is likely one of those “big square rooms” that I have argued began to take the place of kivas in Chacoan room suites of the tenth century.  Room 92 is part of the maze of confusing rooms next to Room 3.  It had a well-preserved floor with corn and bean bushes on it (it’s not clear from Pepper’s description if this was the second or third floor), which suggests that it was used as a storeroom at the end of the period of occupation in this part of the building.  The cob from this room had the latest date of any in the study, with an intercept of AD 1220, which is consistent with the idea that this room was in use as a storeroom at the end of occupation.

Room 170, Pueblo Bonito

The biggest surprise, however, was the cob from Room 170, which dated to AD 1010.  This is particularly odd, since Room 170 was probably built around 1080 or even later.  Looking at the probability curve for this date, there is some chance that the actual date was around 1100, but the curve as a whole has a much more prominent peak around the intercept at 1010 than any of the other reported dates, which suggests that the probability is quite high that the intercept does in fact represent the true date or close to it.  The authors give various possibilities for why the cob might have been placed in this room long after it was grown, including the idea that it was put there as some sort of ritual offering of continuity with the occupation of earlier parts of the building.  I prefer another explanation they also suggest, which is that it was part of an earlier trash deposit that was redeposited in Room 170 for some reason.  There is very little information on what the deposits in this room were actually like, but many of the rooms in this part of the building were full of trash when excavated, and I think it’s most likely that this one was too.  The trash could have been put there for any number of reasons; if it was redeposited from somewhere else, it may have served as structural fill to support an upper story.  In any case, this puts a damper on the idea that the overall sources of corn changed over time.  Indeed, the sources seem to have been pretty constant through time for cobs left in different areas of the site, which suggests that the real story is much more complicated.

One nice thing about this paper is that the authors do a very good job of properly reporting their radiocarbon dates, particularly in giving point estimates as intercepts, which are meaningful, rather than midpoints, which are not.  Many papers make this mistake, including some of Benson’s reporting these and other dates on corn.  This paper also shows the probability curves for the dates, which give even more information.  This seems to be pretty common these days among Mesoamerican archaeologists, but it’s still quite rare in the Southwest, where radiocarbon dating has only recently become a major focus.  The availability of tree-ring dates, which are much more precise, has generally led Southwestern archaeologists to neglect radiocarbon, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious from studies like this one that the ability to date things other than trees is very useful in interpreting sites.

Obviously this paper just reports a handful of dates, and the authors take pains to point out the tentative nature of any conclusions they draw, but it’s an important contribution to the issue of where the Chaco system, whatever its nature, was getting its means of support.  As is often the case with new avenues of research, at this point papers like this pose more questions than they answer, but there are plenty of corncobs out there to date and analyze in other ways, just as there are plenty of potsherds to test for theobromine.  Once we get a bigger database of dates and strontium (and other) ratios, we’ll start to get a clearer picture of the behavior behind these remains.

Metate Fragment at Pueblo Alto

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Totah Theater, Farmington, New Mexico

In comments to my post on Salmon Ruins, John Barton asks for more discussion of this area, which is surprisingly poorly understood given its obvious importance to Southwestern prehistory as a whole and the Chaco system in particular.  Wolky Toll has a chapter in the Salmon synthetic volume discussing the Totah region (named from the Navajo name for the Farmington area), and particularly the La Plata subregion, which is becoming somewhat better understood due to a major salvage archaeology project along New Mexico Highway 170, which parallels the La Plata River from the Colorado border south to its confluence with the San Juan just west of Farmington.  Toll has played a major role in this project, and his chapter has interesting things to say about the Totah in general and the La Plata valley in particular.  I don’t really buy all of his interpretations of Chaco; he’s one of the major proponents of a view of Chaco as a regional ceremonial center drawing pilgrims from throughout the San Juan Basin, including the Totah, but with a minimal population permanently resident in the canyon.  He’s particularly associated with the view that even the small-house residents at Chaco only lived there for part of the year, having other residences in other communities, especially along the Chuska Slope to the west.  I’m more inclined to see Chaco as some sort of hierarchical system with at least a relatively large permanent population, mostly in the small houses, though I’m not sure which version of this idea (and there are many out there) I find the most convincing.

Still, Toll knows a lot about the Totah.  He even introduced the term to archaeological use in an important chapter in a previous edited volume that he coauthored with Peter McKenna.  One of the important points he makes in the newer chapter is that while this region has historically been treated as part of either the Mesa Verde region to the north or the Chaco region to the south, it really has an independent identity and cultural trajectory that has been obscured by seeing it entirely in terms of migration or influence from north or south.  This is not to say that the Totah was isolated from developments to the north and south; far from it.  It’s really more accurate to see the whole San Juan basin as a single cultural region, with remarkable uniformity in many cultural expressions and changes over time.  The specific manifestations of those cultural processes were not necessarily identical, of course, but there’s more similarity than archaeologists are often inclined to say.

Mesa Verde Museum

Part of the problem here is just the way archaeology developed in the Southwest.  As Toll notes, the activities of the Wetherill family had a huge influence on which areas came to be considered most important to the interpretation of regional prehistory.  They were not the only influential figures, of course, but they definitely did a lot to put Mesa Verde and Chaco specifically on the radar of the archaeological profession as well as the general public.  In any case, the way things developed was that Mesa Verde and Chaco became well-studied, with major excavation projects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries producing huge numbers of artifacts and a general understanding of the chronological sequence of pottery types and other artifacts.  Once tree-ring dating provided an absolute chronology for the whole region, the general outline became clear: Chaco flourished in the eleventh century then declined in the twelfth, while Mesa Verde hit its peak later, in the thirteenth century, shortly before the whole region was abandoned around 1300.

This was a bit of a shift from the more evolutionary approach to culture history encapsulated in the original Pecos Classification, developed at the first Pecos Conference in 1927 and described by Alfred Vincent Kidder in a short article in Science at that time.  This system saw both Chaco and Mesa Verde, with their big, impressive masonry “pueblos,” as belonging to the Pueblo III or “Great Pueblo” period.  The tree-ring dates, however, showed that Chaco’s peak actually occurred earlier, coincident with the widespread small sites that marked the Pueblo II period.

Aztec West Great House, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Turning back to the Totah, the main excavation project there in the early twentieth century was conducted by Earl Morris at Aztec Ruins.  This was the largest site complex in the area, and it clearly indicated some level of social and cultural importance.  What Morris found there, however, instead of a unique and clearly indigenous material culture, was a mix of what seemed to be Chaco and Mesa Verde material culture.  The early deposits showed clear similarities to Chaco, as did the architecture of the site, which Morris interpreted as evidence for a close cultural connection to Chaco.  After this period, however, Morris saw evidence for an extended hiatus with little evidence of any sort of occupation or use.  After that there was another, quite different suite of material culture that looked much more like Mesa Verde.  Morris interpreted this sequence as an initial Chaco-affiliated occupation followed by abandonment and reoccupation by immigrants from the Mesa Verde region to the north.  In an important chapter in the Salmon synthesis volume, Gary Brown, Peter McKenna, and Tom Windes argue persuasively that Morris was actually wrong about this, and that while the construction and early occupation of Aztec does indeed show substantial connections to Chaco, there was probably not any abandonment or hiatus, just a period of somewhat reduced construction activity at a time of widespread drought and environmental hardship in the mid-twelfth century.  This lull was followed by extensive occupation and construction in the thirteenth century, especially at the east ruin (which Morris didn’t excavate).  The occupants at this time did have pottery similar to that used at Mesa Verde, but that doesn’t mean they were immigrants from there, and it’s much more likely that they were primarily local people who had been living at Aztec all along.  Everyone in the region at this point was making the type of pottery now known as “Mesa Verde Black-on-white,” and there’s no particular reason to think that any groups in the Totah had links to Mesa Verde, which itself seems to have been remarkably isolated during this period, with few trade goods found at the many excavated sites in the region despite its large population.  A similar story seems to obtain for Salmon, with an early Chaco-affiliated occupation followed by a period of continued occupation but little major activity, then an increase in population and activity before the final depopulation of the entire region.

So why did Morris get this wrong?  One reason, which Toll emphasizes, is that the mere fact that Chaco and Mesa Verde have been much more extensively studied than the Totah means that ceramic types (and other types of material culture, but pottery is the most important for cultural classification) have become associated with one or another of these areas, so that when they are found elsewhere in the region they are taken to indicate influence or migration from Chaco or Mesa Verde rather than a regionwide stylistic trend uniting all of these areas.  The latter is more likely, however, especially for the Totah, which was a major population and cultural center throughout the Pueblo II and III periods.  In her chapter in the Salmon synthesis volume, Lori Stephens Reed describes the discovery that the ceramic types found at Salmon and Aztec that have traditionally been classified as “Cibola” (Chaco) or “Northern San Juan” (Mesa Verde) types based on temper and design were mostly made within the Totah, judging from the type of clay used for the paste and slip of the vessels.  Rather than define new types, she just adds the qualifier “Animas Variety” to the existing type designations to indicate this local origin.  This makes sense from an Ockham’s Razor perspective, but as Toll notes in his chapter it’s really the type names themselves that have led to the downplaying of the local factor in the prehistory of the Totah.

Mesa Verde Escarpment from 2009 Pecos Conference at McPhee Campground

The best example of this is the very widespread thirteenth-century pottery type known as “Mesa Verde Black-on-white,” which is found all over the place but has tended to be interpreted as indicating some sort of influence or migration from Mesa Verde.  This is highly improbable, however, since Mesa Verde was gaining rather than losing people for most of this period (until the very end), and the people there don’t seem to have been very actively engaged in regional trade.  This strongly suggests that Mesa Verde Black-on-white is probably of local origin wherever it is found, despite the name.  Toll even muses more than once about how interpretations of Southwestern prehistory might be different if it were called “Aztec Black-on-white” instead.  It’s quite clear that Aztec was a very important site during this period, perhaps not as important as Chaco had been earlier but certainly more important than any single site in the Mesa Verde area.  And yet, because Mesa Verde has been more intensively studied, until quite recently it has been accorded an enormously important role in regional dynamics during this period that closer examination is revealing to be mostly undeserved.  Chaco has received a similarly privileged position for its period of florescence for similar reasons, but it seems to have actually been roughly as influential as this assumption implied.  (Something of an archaeological Gettier case.)

But why didn’t the Totah get the early attention that would have gained it the pride of place in Southwestern archaeology occupied by Chaco and Mesa Verde?  Ironically, a big part of the answer seems to be tied precisely to the geographic factors that made it such an important area in the first place.  One of the main reasons Mesa Verde and Chaco attracted early attention from archaeologists and pothunters was that their isolated locations left them unbelievably well-preserved.  The sites were very obvious on the landscape, many had stood relatively well due to either their massive construction (at Chaco) or their sheltered locations (at Mesa Verde), and they were sufficiently hard to get to that subsequent inhabitants and explorers hadn’t done them much harm.

Animas River, Farmington, New Mexico

The Totah, however, is an enormously attractive and productive agricultural area.  This is presumably what attracted people to Salmon, Aztec, and other communities in prehistory, and it definitely attracted huge numbers of Anglo settlers in the late nineteenth century who proceeded to plow over, loot, and otherwise damage the numerous archaeological sites they found before archaeologists had even heard of them.  The really big sites, like Salmon and Aztec themselves, managed to remain in relatively good condition until they could be professionally excavated, but innumerable smaller sites have likely been completely destroyed.

The local environment has also led to decreased visibility for these sites directly, by covering them with alluvial silt that makes them difficult or impossible to see from the surface.  As a result, we have little sense of how many sites are out there today, let alone how many were there initially before the farmers and the pothunters got to them.  Again, this is in contrast to the harsh environments of Chaco especially, and Mesa Verde to a lesser extent, where there are no permanent rivers to bury sites so deeply.  Furthermore, modern development in the Totah has been extensive, and there’s very little information about what lies underneath the rapidly growing modern towns of Farmington, Aztec, and Bloomfield.  For all of these reasons, the Totah remains surprisingly understudied, despite its obvious importance for understanding Southwestern prehistory.  Luckily this is starting to change a bit, at least on the conceptual level, with publications like Toll’s and Reed’s that point out the distinctiveness of this area and its independent identity.  The Totah has stood in the shadow of Chaco and Mesa Verde for a very long time, but it now seems to be finally coming into the light.

Chaco Street in Aztec, 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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