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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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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.
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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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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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Sleeping Ute Mountain and Surrounding Landscape from Four Corners

If you stand at the Four Corners monument and look in the direction of Colorado you will see Sleeping Ute Mountain dominating the view.  From this direction you are looking at the southwest side of the mountain, and in front of it you see the southern piedmont.  On the right side of the piedmont, though not visible from this distance, is Cowboy Wash.  It’s one of several ephemeral streams running from the mountain itself across the piedmont to the San Juan River.

One thing that might strike you about the view from this perspective is that it looks like an awfully dry, desolate, uninhabitable wasteland.  And you would be correct to think that.  The southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain is an extremely arid and inhospitable environment even by the standards of the Southwest, which is saying something.  It’s only a few miles from Mesa Verde to the east and the Great Sage Plain to the north, both areas that get relatively abundant rainfall and supported large and prosperous prehistoric communities, but it is worlds away from them environmentally.  While those areas get sufficient rainfall to support dry farming, and the Great Sage Plain is commercially farmed even today, the southern piedmont does not, and any type of agriculture there would have to rely on some sort of irrigation.  Today the Ute Mountain Ute tribe has a large irrigation project in the area, using water brought in from McPhee Reservoir, 45 miles to the north, via the Towaoc Canal.  The construction of the reservoir and the canal was part of the Dolores Project, which involved substantial archaeological excavation of the inundated area that significantly improved archaeological understanding of the prehistory of the region.  This work took place from 1978 to 1985 and was known as the Dolores Archaeological Project, the largest salvage archaeology project in US history.

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

The creation of the irrigated fields on the piedmont resulted in further salvage excavations in the 1990s.  Among the sites excavated was 5MT10010, which contained considerable evidence of a gruesome incident of probable cannibalism around AD 1150.  It is not the only site in the area to show evidence of cannibalism during this period; in fact, three other sites in the same community, excavated slightly earlier in connection with the construction of the canal, also showed evidence of having been destroyed in an incident involving extensive processing of human remains in a way suggesting cannibalism, and there are several other sites in the area showing similar assemblages, most from the same period but at least one from a later period.  It is at 5MT10010 that the most solid evidence for actual cannibalism, as opposed to processing of bones in a way that may or may not indicate actual consumption of human flesh, in the form of a coprolite that tested positive for the presence of human muscle tissue.

There are many questions that arise from these findings, but one of the most puzzling is also one of the simplest: what were people doing living at Cowboy Wash in the first place, and how did they manage it?  After all, they weren’t building giant dams and canals of the sort involved in the Dolores Project.  In many parts of the Southwest, especially upland areas like Mesa Verde, dry farming using only rainfall was standard during this period, and water control techniques were generally used only for domestic water if a nearby spring or other reliable source was not available.  There are a few springs on the southern piedmont that probably would have supplied sufficient domestic water for the small number of people living there, but the rainfall would definitely not have been sufficient to farm with.  The only source of water at all sufficient for agriculture would have been the occasional floods, from spring snowmelt and summer thunderstorms, that would flow through Cowboy Wash itself and the other drainages on the piedmont.  None of these flows permanently today, and there is no evidence that they ever did.  As at Chaco Canyon, then, which is similarly dry, farming would have to have been based on some sort of technique for capturing the floodwater.

Flowing Chaco Wash and Cliffs below Peñasco Blanco

There are a variety of ways this might be done, including diverting the rainwater from cliffs, as was done at Chaco, planting along the sides of the drainage where the floods would regularly overflow the banks, and what is known as “ak-chin” farming, as practiced by the O’odham of southern Arizona, which involves planting right in the path of the runoff at places where the velocity of the water is relatively low, as at the mouths of tributaries to main arroyos.  There are no sheer cliffs on the southern piedmont like the ones at Chaco, so probably a mix of overbank and ak-chin farming would have been practiced at Cowboy Wash.

A paper by Gary Huckleberry and Brian Billman addresses the nature of farming at Cowboy Wash, and also addresses a related issue, which is whether periodic entrenchment of arroyos due to drought played a role in the patterns of abandonment and migration that characterize Southwestern prehistory.  It is pretty clear by now that the paleoclimatological record shows periods of drought corresponding to periods of abandonment of certain parts of the Southwest, and one proposed mechanism for how this would have worked is that drought would have led to increased erosion and/or hydrological changes in the water table that led to the entrenchment of arroyos, which would have been disastrous for populations dependent on certain types of floodwater farming (especially overbank), as the broad floodplains of the local drainages would have been replaced by deep channels that took the water away quickly instead of letting it overflow to water the crops.  Ak-chin farmers would not necessarily have been affected to the same degree, but if the side drainages they used became entrenched as well they would not have been able to use their techniques either.  Thus, drought would lead to arroyo-cutting, which would lead people to leave formerly productive areas for others that were less affected.  This theory has been proposed as an explanation for certain events at Chaco, with the idea being that some of the social changes late in the Chacoan occupation were due to degradation of the Chaco Wash and the need to change agricultural strategies.  The phenomenon of arroyo-cutting in general is richly illustrated in historic times at Chaco.  The early reports of the Chaco Wash from the nineteenth century indicate that it was a shallow, meandering drainage, much like the current condition of the Escavada Wash to the north and the “Chaco River” that is formed by the confluence of the two at the western end of the canyon and flows north to the San Juan.  By the early twentieth century, and accelerating since then, however, the Chaco Wash through the canyon has cut down significantly and there is a very deep arroyo channel apparent today.

Entrenched Arroyo at Chaco

The drought-downcutting-abandonment theory makes sense as far as it goes, but as Huckleberry and Billman point out there are some problems.  For one thing, the extent to which arroyo-cutting is actually linked to drought, rather than other factors including the specific geology of the area, is hotly debated and there is no consensus.  The idea that while drought may be one factor causing arroyo-cutting there are other factors involved as well is supported by the fact that in different drainages in the Southwest that have been studied in depth the periods of arroyo-cutting do not necessarily correspond to region-wide droughts or other climatic changes.  In some areas they do, but in other areas they don’t.  At Cowboy Wash specifically, the available evidence indicates that the wash began to entrench sometime before AD 950, and that it began to refill with sediment sometime between AD 1265 and 1400.  If abandonment does in fact correspond to arroyo-cutting, then presumably the Cowboy Wash area should have been abandoned between 950 and 1265, and possibly occupied before and after this.  If downcutting results from drought, there should also be evidence of drought during the 950 to 1265 period.

The basic upshot of the Huckleberry and Billman paper is that neither of these expectations is met.  The evidence for drought conditions at Cowboy Wash generally matches that for the rest of the region, with the major droughts in the mid-twelfth century and late thirteenth century AD and several smaller droughts at irregular intervals before then.  This doesn’t show any particular relationship to the stratigraphic evidence for arroyo-cutting, which seems to have been going on to some degree throughout the period from AD 950 to at least AD 1265.  Furthermore, the evidence for settlement doesn’t line up either.  The marginal nature of the Cowboy Wash area implies that it would probably not have been occupied for most of prehistory, and this was indeed the case.  There were a few ultimately unsuccessful attempts to colonize the southern piedmont, however, and they don’t show any particular relationship to the periods of arroyo-cutting (although they do perhaps relate to periods of drought).  The first agricultural occupation of the area came during the Basketmaker III period, when a few pithouses were apparently used seasonally as summer fieldhouses, presumably associated with nearby fields, from about AD 600 to 725.  After these were abandoned, at a time which may correspond to a drought, the area does not seem to have been occupied again for more than three hundred years.  Then, around AD 1050, a few permanent, year-round sites were built.  These seem to have been occupied for only a few years, however, as there was no significant buildup of trash associated with them.  After they were abandoned, three larger villages, including one at Cowboy Wash, were established around AD 1075.  These had extensive trash deposits and seem to have been occupied for one or two generations.  These communities were apparently abandoned, however, when the next occupation began in the 1120s by a population with apparent links to the Chuska Mountain area to the south.  This occupation at Cowboy Wash is the community that was apparently destroyed around AD 1150 (again coincident with a major drought) when its inhabitants were mutilated and cannibalized.  After this event, the area was once again abandoned until about AD 1225, when two new communities were founded, including one again at Cowboy Wash.  Within a few decades the population at Cowboy Wash appears to have aggregated at Cowboy Wash Pueblo, following a typical pattern for the region.  Also typical of the region, the whole southern piedmont seems to have been abandoned by AD 1280, at the time of the “Great Drought” that coincides with major changes throughout the Southwest.

Entrenched Chaco Wash from Cliff Top near Pueblo Bonito

So basically, all of the attempts at year-round occupation of the southern piedmont seem to have occurred during the period that Cowboy Wash was being downcut.  While these were all ultimately unsuccessful, some lasted for a few decades, so clearly they were able to grow some food at some times.  This strongly implies that at least in this case, arroyo-cutting was not particularly linked to abandoned, although drought probably was.  Huckleberry address the issue of how farming could have been done during periods of downcutting by looking at Cowboy Wash and its tributaries today.  They find that while some portions of the main wash, especially, are indeed heavily downcut, other portions are not, and they label this type of drainage a “discontinuous ephemeral stream,” which is to say, a normally dry wash with some portions that are severely downcut and others that are not.  On the uncut portions, which include much of the length of the tributaries, overbank or ak-chin farming could easily be done today, and this was presumably the case in antiquity as well.  The hydrology of the area is such that the areas of downcutting would not have been stable, and would have tended to migrate upstream, but the complexity of the system is also such that this would not have made the entire system unusable; while some parts were being newly cut, others would be filling in, and prehistoric farmers would merely have to move their fields around a bit rather than abandoning the area entirely.

All that being said, however, the question of why people were trying to settle this quite harsh and difficult area in the first place.  It is interesting to note that the attempts at settlement generally came during periods of relatively favorable environmental conditions, which would have made this area a bit less forbidding than usual, as well as during times of increased regional population, when all the good land may well have been taken and some people were forced to seek out the more marginal areas.  The violence that appears to have accompanied the drought of the twelfth century, especially, suggests that when the good times came to an end social relations got very bad very fast.  Huckleberry and Billman suggest that the reason people did end up abandoning Cowboy Wash, the times when they were not attacked, was merely drought itself, which they were unable to cope with as well as other populations, even those who also used floodwater farming techniques, because the size of the watershed was relatively small and the amount of rainfall feeding the washes was also small, so the total amount of water they had to work with was much smaller even in good times than at place like Chaco with large watersheds.  In that context, even a small decrease in annual precipitation could be devastating, leading to failed harvests and the need to move away.

Non-Entrenched Escavada Wash from New Mexico Highway 57

Indeed, there is evidence that the time of the massacre at Cowboy Wash was very difficult for the people there.  Archaeobotanical studies of pollen and other plant remains showed that there was apparently little or no maize in or around 5MT10010 at the time of abandonment, which is quite surprising for a Pueblo site.  The plant remains that were there were mostly from wild plants such as chenopod, amaranth, and tansy mustard, all of which would have been available in the spring and likely would have been intensively collected if there were no stored corn available due to a failed harvest the previous fall.  In addition to pinpointing the season in which the incident occurred, this implies that times were very tough for the inhabitants of 5MT10010, and perhaps for their attackers too.  The coprolite showed no sign of having plant material in it, which suggests that whoever left it had not just eaten some corn at home before setting out to attack 5MT10010.

Another paper associated with the project, by Patricia Lambert, suggests another problem the Cowboy Wash inhabitants apparently had: disease.  In this paper Lambert reports on analyses of ribs of individuals at 5MT10010 and other sites in the Cowboy Wash area dating to various periods of occupation that had lesions on them suggestive of those seen in modern collections of individuals known to have died of tuberculosis and (to a lesser extent) other respiratory diseases.  These lesions were found in 11 of 32 individuals from Cowboy Wash that had enough of their ribs left to examine.  One of the individuals with lesions was from 5MT10010.  This was an adult woman who was not one of the victims of the attack at site abandonment but who had instead died earlier and been formally buried.  Lambert also examined comparative collections of remains from Pueblo Bonito at Chaco and Elden Pueblo near Flagstaff Arizona.  Only 3 of the 45 individuals from Pueblo Bonito and 2 of the 20 from Eldon Pueblo had similar lesions, suggesting that this disease was much more prevalent at Cowboy Wash than at these other sites, even though it was not absent at them.  Lambert notes that tuberculosis is an opportunistic disease that tends to strike people whose systems are compromised by other problems such as hunger and stress.  The evidence for physical violence in the Cowboy Wash sample, even setting aside the cannibalism assemblages, was much greater than in the other two samples as well.  Combined with the harsh environment, this suggests strongly that Cowboy Wash was a difficult place to live for several reasons.  Farming was possible but risky, and when conditions turned bad both hunger and violence from other hungry people were constant threats.

Given this context, the occurrence of extreme events such as cannibalism incidents at Cowboy Wash starts to make some sense.  Cowboy Wash is a place of extremes.
ResearchBlogging.org
Huckleberry, G., & Billman, B. (1998). Floodwater Farming, Discontinuous Ephemeral Streams, and Puebloan Abandonment in Southwestern Colorado American Antiquity, 63 (4) DOI: 10.2307/2694110

Lambert, P. (2002). Rib lesions in a prehistoric Puebloan sample from southwestern Colorado American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 117 (4), 281-292 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.10036

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Sleeping Ute Mountain from Cortez, Colorado

In comments to the previous post, Graham King raises an important question: assuming that the assemblages of broken, burned, and otherwise unusually treated bones at sites like 5MT10010 at Cowboy Wash represent incidents of cannibalism, what does this mean culturally and historically?  After all, cannibalism has occurred in various contexts in many societies, including our own, and it can arise from a variety of causes.  One of the most obvious is starvation, seen most often in situations like the plane crash in the Andes made famous in the movie Alive and incidents during the settlement of the American West such as the Donner Party and the Alferd Packer case, all of which involved small groups being trapped in mountains under harsh conditions and resorting to cannibalism to survive.

So were the events at Cowboy Wash around AD 1150 the result of survival cannibalism, perhaps of members of the community who had died due to disease or starvation by other members of the community?  The excavators of 5MT10010 argued that they were not, but the evidence they gave for this conclusion is not particularly convincing.  They basically had two arguments against survival cannibalism:

  • If the individuals at Cowboy Wash had died natural deaths, the demographics of the dead should reflect the differing susceptibility to harsh conditions of different age groups, which generally means a higher death rate among infants and a lower one among older children and adolescents.  Since the 5MT10010 assemblage contained no infants but a higher than expected number of older children, it is unlikely to have resulted from natural death.
  • Unlike in the historically documented cases, the people at Cowboy Wash were not physically trapped.  There was nothing preventing them from moving away from the area if there were insufficient resources.  The southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain is pretty flat and open, rather than mountainous, and the abandonment of the sites there apparently took place in the spring, when snow would not have been an issue.

Neither of these arguments is very convincing.  The assemblage of cannibalized individuals at 5MT10010 looks demographically unusual, sure, but then again it apparently consists of only seven people.  That’s a minimum number, of course, but since the whole site was excavated and it wasn’t a large site to begin with it seems likely that the recovered bones represent most or all of the people involved.  If the assemblage represents the inhabitants of the site, which the excavators claim and I see no reason to doubt, they likely represent a family or other social unit, and it’s quite possible that they just didn’t happen to have any infants in the group at the time of the event.  In any case, with a population this small there is no reason to expect any sort of “normal” demographic profile.

The second argument is better, but still somewhat unconvincing.  It’s definitely true that the inhabitants of Cowboy Wash wouldn’t have been snowed in at the time of the abandonment event, which apparently took place in the spring, but it’s not necessarily true that they would have had somewhere else to go.  This was a time of drought and resource shortages throughout the northern Southwest, and there is considerable evidence for violence (even leaving aside the alleged cannibalism incidents) throughout the region, including at other sites in the Ute Mountain area, at the time.  Indeed, Cowboy Wash is a very marginal area for agriculture to start with, so the fact that they were there in the first place, and that they had not already left when the harvest failed, implies strongly that they had nowhere else to go.  Under those circumstances, it is certainly conceivable that some community residents might have begun to succumb to hunger or disease and others in the community may have resorted to eating them.  That’s not to say that it’s likely or the best explanation, of course.  One piece of evidence arguing against this interpretation, which the excavators mention but don’t go into much detail on, is that all the processing seems to have taken place at the same time, rather than drawn out over a period of weeks or months as might be expected if people were gradually dying and being eaten.

Sleeping Ute Mountain from Lowry Pueblo

Instead of survival cannibalism, the Cowboy Wash excavators prefer a scenario of intercommunity violence to explain the 5MT10010 assemblage.  This implies that the people who ate the residents of 5MT10010 also killed them.  This sort of explanation does fit well with the other evidence for violence short of cannibalism in the region during this period, but it is tricky to show any correlation between violent death and cannibalism because the processing of the bodies would likely eliminate any skeletal evidence of violent death.  That does seem to be the case in this assemblage, as in most other alleged cases of cannibalism.  There’s plenty of evidence of skeletal trauma, of course, but most of it seems to be directly related to the processing of the bodies shortly after death, and much of the rest seems to represent injuries incurred during life that had healed before death.  In this case, then, there is no direct evidence linking alleged cannibalism to violent death.

One piece of evidence supporting the “raid by other group” theory is that three other sites in the Cowboy Wash community, contemporary with 5MT10010, have also been excavated and all three show similar signs of cannibalism.  Since there are only ten sites in the whole community, the fact that four of them seem to have been rapidly abandoned at the same time that many people in them were eaten seems to imply that the abandonment was the result of a single event.  As the authors of the 5MT10010 paper point out there and in more detail in another article, however, there are some differences among the four assemblages and even between the assemblages in the two pitstructures at 5 MT10010 containing large numbers of bones.  Although all four sites show evidence of processing for consumption, the specific body parts that are most prevalent and the way they were processed suggest that the processing was done separately at each site and not in accordance with a common technique.  For example, at 5MT10010 the bodies found in one pitstructure appeared to have been cut into small pieces and cooked in a pot on the surface, with the bones thrown down the ventilator shaft after consumption.  At the other pitstructure, however, the bodies seem to have been cut into fewer pieces and roasted directly on a fire in the hearth inside the structure.  All this suggests that if in fact the Cowboy Wash community was destroyed by a raid, the raiders who attacked each part of it seem to have acted fairly autonomously in deciding how to deal with the inhabitants, even though they all apparently had the common goal of eating them.

This is actually rather odd, and does seem to undermine the idea that warfare was behind the cannibalism at Cowboy Wash.  It is possible, however, that raiding and survival cannibalism aren’t mutually exclusive, and that the raiders of Cowboy Wash may have attacked it specifically in order to eat the people there because they themselves were starving.  The excavators do mention that the meat from a cannibalistic attack may have been a valued “spoil of war” during harsh environmental times like this, but they generally downplay this aspect and focus more on the idea that cannibalism would have served as a terroristic tactic to strike fear in the hearts of enemies and perhaps scare them away from the area.  (The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, of course.)  The fact that the people in the different parts of the Cowboy Wash community were apparently prepared differently does seem more compatible with the idea that the attackers were focused on eating them because they were hungry than with the idea that they were concerned with striking fear into any survivors or other nearby villages.  The terroristic theory seems to imply a ritualistic approach to the cannibalism, which is not particularly apparent in this or any other Southwestern cannibalism assemblage.  Any type of ritual cannibalism would likely have been more standardized in execution, as in Mesoamerica where ritual cannibalism was widespread.  In the Southwest, by contrast, the execution seems rather haphazard.

So, tentatively, I think the best explanation at least for Cowboy Wash specifically, and perhaps for other cases as well, is that certain communities in the Mesa Verde area during the extended drought of the mid-twelfth century AD hit upon the idea of compensating for their poor harvests by attacking other communities, not to take their stored food (since they likely didn’t have any either) but to eat their residents.  Which communities these might have been and where they got the idea remain open questions.  This idea led to a rash of cannibalism incidents around AD 1150 which subsided soon thereafter, perhaps as climatic conditions improved (or, alternatively, as other communities got better at defending themselves).  When the next major drought came, in the late thirteenth century, the idea of cannibalistic raiding does not seem to have been taken up again.  The authors of the Cowboy Wash articles take pains to note that there is no evidence of cannibalism in the Mesa Verde area after AD 1200.  Although there is plenty of evidence of violence during the late 1200s preceding the total depopulation of the region by 1300, none of this involved cannibalism.

Or did it?  There is actually some evidence from at least one site suggesting that the idea of cannibalism did not totally disappear from the Mesa Verde area after 1200.  But that’s a matter for another post.
ResearchBlogging.org
Lambert, P., Billman, B., & Leonard, B. (2000). Explaining variability in mutilated human bone assemblages from the American Southwest: a case study from the southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain, Colorado International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 10 (1), 49-64 DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-1212(200001/02)10:13.0.CO;2-B

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Sunset Crater Volcano

The effect of the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano on the prehistoric population of northern Arizona has long been a topic of interest to archaeologists.  As I’ve mentioned recently, in the 1930s and 1940s Harold Colton of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff came up with a theory to explain the settlement dynamics of the Wupatki area northeast of Sunset Crater.  In Colton’s view, the eruption resulted in a level of volcanic ash falling on Wupatki that acted as a mulch to retain water and make that very arid area suitable for farming for the first time, resulting in a “land rush” in which people from all over the region converged on Wupatki to farm the newly available land.  Over time, however, the ash began to blow away and the land became less productive, so people aggregated into the large pueblos for which Wupatki is best known, then left entirely when the area could no longer support its population.  Dendrochronological evidence from timbers at Wupatki Pueblo later provided a basis for dating the eruption to around AD 1064, which would put the “land rush” shortly after that.  Other evidence has shown that the abandonment of the area probably occurred some time in the thirteenth century, a time when many parts of the Southwest were being abandoned as well.

As I’ve mentioned, recent archaeological survey at Wupatki has cast doubt on some aspects of this model.  The main influx of population seems to have come after AD 1130, a few decades after the eruption, and the scale of that influx was probably quite a bit lower than Colton estimated, since many of the sites he counted to compute his population estimates were probably season field houses or other temporary structures rather than permanent habitations.  This implies that there wasn’t really a “land rush” the way Colton described it, but rather a substantial increase in population at some point after the eruption, perhaps in response to drought or other problematic conditions in other parts of the Southwest.

A few parts of Colton’s model do seem to hold up, however.  Experiments have shown that the levels of ash found at Wupatki do indeed work well as a mulch.  Without this mulch, dry farming in the area with any reasonable measure of reliability is basically impossible, since there just isn’t enough rain, and irrigation or floodwater farming isn’t possible on any substantial scale either due to the geological conditions and the lack of permanent surface water sources.  Furthermore, the Wupatki survey showed that this lack of agricultural suitability made the area essentially uninhabited before the eruption.  Of nearly a thousand datable sites recorded by the survey, only two dated to before the eruption.  The biggest influx of population came after about 1130, but there was already a fairly significant movement of people into the area in the immediate post-eruptive period.  Perhaps these people first experimented with agriculture using the ash as a mulch, and were so successful that when conditions deteriorated elsewhere others joined them.  The ash was liable to blow away in the strong winds, however, and over time the advantages it offered as a mulch would have diminished as a result of this and other factors, so it’s quite possible that it was declining agricultural productivity, perhaps exacerbated by warfare to defend land claims, that led the area to be abandoned in the thirteenth century.

Volcanic Rock in Masonry at the Citadel, Wupatki National Monument

That’s all well and good, but where did the people who moved to Wupatki after the eruption come from?  Colton saw them as coming from all over, but at least in the immediate post-eruptive period a more specific answer is tempting: perhaps they came from the area right around the volcano, which would have been rendered uninhabitable (and certainly unfarmable) by lava flows and massive ash fall.  A relatively recent paper takes a close look at the circumstances of the Sunset Crater eruption and its likely effects on local people, and basically comes to this conclusion.

From a detailed analysis of the details of the eruption, the authors of this paper found that the area of the heaviest ash fall and the largest lava flows was probably densely populated and heavily farmed before the eruption.  They cast some doubt on the tree-ring evidence pointing to an AD 1064 date for the eruption itself, but they argue on other grounds that the eruption likely took place between AD 1050 and 1100 and that it was relatively quick, lasting from a few weeks to a few years at the most.  Because the high-elevation area where the eruption took place gets more precipitation than lower-elevation Wupatki, it would have been the most favorable area for farming at the time, and a large number of homes and farms were likely buried by the lava and ash.  The amounts of ash falling right around the volcano would have been much too thick to serve as a mulch.  The ash itself is sterile, so it could only function effectively as a mulch if plants could reach their roots down through it to the soil underneath.  The few inches of ash cover at Wupatki would have allowed this, but the uplands immediately around the volcano got over a foot of ash, which would have effectively killed any agricultural potential.

Lava at Sunset Crater

Thus, the effects of Sunset Crater on local agriculturalists were two-fold: they were forced to leave a rather large and previously quite productive agricultural area around the volcano, but they were able to go to a previously unproductive area nearby that was made newly fertile by the ash.  Cinder-cone eruptions like the one that created Sunset Crater rarely cause much direct loss of life, and that would have been particularly the case in this context, since the pre-eruption populations lived in dispersed farmsteads and were probably not organized sociopolitically at any level above the household or extended family.  This would have allowed rapid reactions to the eruption, which would primarily have taken the form of migration away from the immediate area.  Since the population was so dispersed, people fleeing the ash-fall zone would likely have had relatives or friends in less affected areas to whom they could go for shelter and assistance in the immediate aftermath of the eruption.  The population movements spurred by the eruption, however, could well have resulted in groups infringing on territory claimed by others and resulting violence and loss of life.  Within this context, the relatively empty Wupatki area may have seemed particularly attractive even before its enhanced potential for farming was discovered.

Another reaction of people in the local area to the eruption, which was documented in an earlier paper by some of the same authors, was the apparent practice of placing corncobs in the path of lava and carrying the resulting “corn rocks,” with visible imprints of the cobs (which were vaporized by the heat) to rather distant settlements.  Given the amount of effort this would have required, it probably had some ritual significance, perhaps to appease the spirits of the volcano or something similar.

Mt. Trumbull from Pipe Spring National Monument

In addition to the Sunset Crater eruption, the authors of this paper also discussed a smaller and less studied eruption that likely took place about the same time at Little Springs, next to Mount Trumbull on the Arizona Strip just north of the Grand Canyon.  Here there was relatively little ash fall, so the loss of productive land and enhanced productivity of other land seen in the Sunset Crater case did not occur.  Instead, the main effect was a lava flow, with the land immediately surrounding it continuing to be largely ash-free and fertile.  The people who had lived and farmed in the immediate area covered by the lava flow would have had to leave, but people clearly continued to live and farm right around the lava, and they also built sites on top of the flow itself.  These sites have few artifacts and likely served defensive purposes, a theory that is supported by the presence of an elaborate system of trails on the lava flow that would have made it an effective refuge in times of war.  The use of defensive refuges or strongholds separate from ordinary living quarters is well-attested in the prehistoric and historic record of the Southwest.  Similar to the corn rocks at Sunset Crater, in this area there were some rocks with potsherds embedded in them, a sign of similar ritual behaviors with respect to the volcano.

These two eruptions and the different reactions to them by local populations show the effects that sudden, catastrophic events can have on human societies.  The eruption of the much larger White River Volcano a bit earlier and its effect on local Athapaskan populations in Alaska and the Yukon is another example.  Unlike many other catastrophes, volcanic eruptions are generally pretty visible in the archaeological record, which makes them a useful source of information on how societies adapt to sudden shocks.
ResearchBlogging.org
ORT, M., ELSON, M., ANDERSON, K., DUFFIELD, W., & SAMPLES, T. (2008). Variable effects of cinder-cone eruptions on prehistoric agrarian human populations in the American southwest Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 176 (3), 363-376 DOI: 10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2008.01.031

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