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Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

As I mentioned in the previous post, one of the ongoing debates in Chacoan architectural studies concerns the function of the round rooms that are very noticeable and numerous at the excavated great houses in the canyon.  The standard interpretation for many years, which is still fairly common among archaeologists and nearly universal among the general public, is that these are “kivas,” a type of structure that is assumed to be primarily ritual or ceremonial in function and analogous to similar structures at modern pueblos.  Some archaeologists, however, led by Steve Lekson, have argued that the small round rooms found at virtually all archaeological sites in the northern Southwest up to about AD 1300 are not in fact cermonial “kivas” but rather residential spaces, integral parts of residential “suites” of rooms used for habitation purposes.  The idea here is that in function these round rooms are not the forerunners of kivas at modern pueblos but the descendants of pithouses from earlier periods.  Lekson has been making this case since the 1980s; it was put forth at some length in his Great Pueblo Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico and reiterated in his recent reworking of one of the chapters in that book for the recently published edited volume The Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.  As I will discuss more fully before, other archaeologists seem to increasingly be coming around to this position.

There are a number of other issues surrounding this debate that rarely enter into it, however.  Many of these stem from the rather tenuous and superficial grasp many archaeologists seem to have of the ethnographic and ethnohistoric record.  Basically, the way I see it much of the debate over whether these “round rooms” are “kivas” and whether they were “ceremonial” in function (which are actually separate questions, although they are usually conflated) is based on a whole host of problematic assumptions.

Typical Kiva at Pueblo Bonito

Lekson has been in favor of getting rid of the term “kiva” entirely for small round rooms in the San Juan region before AD 1300 (the qualifications are important, but let’s set them aside for right now).  Instead he calls them simply “round rooms.”  This is somewhat ungainly, but it has the advantage of being unambiguous, accurate, and straightforward.  It also does not presuppose anything about the function of the rooms, which is helpful to tour guides and others who must explain what these structures are without necessarily taking sides on their functions or significance.  On the other hand, however, the term “kiva” is well-established in the literature, and it may be possible to reinterpret it as merely a formal description for a certain type of structure, which would preserve continuity with past scholarship and lead to less confusion for visitors.  Visitors to Chaco when I was working there would often see the round rooms at Pueblo Bonito as ask “Are those kivas?”  This was a tricky question to answer, because in one sense they certainly are what archaeologists have called “kivas,” and it would be confusing to answer “no,” but on the other hand visitors typically have a certain set idea of what a “kiva” is, and answering “yes” tends to reinforce that even if it isn’t necessarily an accurate or useful way to interpret the structures is also problematic.

Kiva at Puerco Pueblo, Petrified Forest National Park

But what is a “kiva,” anyway?  Where does the word come from, and what does it mean?

The short answer is that the term is Hopi, and that its meaning is obscure.  Ki is the Hopi word for “house,” but va cannot be easily interpreted within Hopi (although there have been various attempts to make sense of it), and the word kiva may be a loanword.  Regardless of its ultimate origin, however, in modern Hopi the word kiva refers to a specific type of structure that is subterranean, square (!), and largely, though not exclusively, ceremonial in function.  All the modern pueblos have structures of equivalent function, but they differ in form.  The biggest difference is that the western pueblos (Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna) have square or rectangular “kivas,” while the eastern pueblos in the Rio Grande Valley have round ones.  Different pueblos have different terms for these chambers, which is unsurprising because they speak different languages.  It’s interesting that the distinction between square and round forms is geographic rather than linguistic; Laguna and Acoma speak Keres, the same language as the eastern pueblos of Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Santa Ana, and Zia, but they have square kivas like those of Hopi and Zuni whereas the eastern Keres pueblos have round ones like their neighbors who speak various languages of the Tanoan family, unrelated to Keres.  Also, whether round or square, these “kivas” are sometimes, but not always, subterranean.  Among the eastern pueblos, only Taos has subterranean kivas.  The kivas at the other eastern pueblos are entered from the roof, which simulates in some sense a subterranean structure, but they are built above grade.  Similarly, Hopi kivas are generally subterranean or semi-subterranean, but kivas at the other western pueblos are above-ground.  All these structures do have certain formal and functional similarities, however; they all have firepits and entrances by a ladder through the smokehole above the fire, and they were used historically as both ceremonial spaces and something like clubhouses for men.   At most pueblos women are not allowed in the kivas at all, although at Hopi the women’s societies are allowed to conduct certain ceremonies in them.  They are not residential spaces at any modern pueblos.

Sign Describing Kiva at Homol'ovi II, near Winslow, Arizona

When the Spanish first settled in the Rio Grande Valley starting in 1598, they noticed the round chambers in which the local pueblos conducted many of their ceremonies and called them estufas (“stoves”), presumably from the heat of the fires in them.  This term persisted as a generic term for centuries, and the early Anglo archaeologists who began exploring the ancient ruins in the area in the late nineteenth century generally called the round, subterranean chambers they found “estufas”; this is the term George Pepper used in his descriptions of the excavations at Pueblo Bonito in the 1890s.  Use of the term “kiva” rather than “estufa” is probably due largely to the influence of Jesse Walter Fewkes, a towering figure in early Southwestern archaeology and ethnography, who did extensive ethnographic fieldwork among the Hopis as well as excavations of prehistoric sites in the Hopi country and at Mesa Verde.  In one important article on the kivas at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde, Fewkes even said:

The special chamber set apart by Pueblo Indians for ceremonial purposes was called by the early Spanish discoverers an estufa, or stove, a name no doubt suggested by the great heat of the room when occupied. An estufa is commonly designated by the Hopi Indians a kiva, which term is rapidly replacing the older name. It is found that prehistoric ruins as well as modern pueblos have kivas and that specialized rooms of this kind likewise exist in cliff-dwellings.

There is a lot of other interesting stuff in this article on kiva form at Mesa Verde, which is useful as a comparison for kivas at Chaco.  In this context, however, the most important thing is just to note that the archaeological assumption that kivas were ceremonial is already here in 1908, as is the belief that the small round rooms of the San Juan region are equivalent in function to modern Hopi kivas despite their different shapes, sizes, and features.  In the course of justifying his argument that the vertical shafts associated with these chambers were for ventilation, Fewkes says:

Modern Hopi kivas, which like those of Spruce-tree House are subterranean, but unlike them in being quadrilateral, have no air  vent except the kiva hatchway. As a rule quadrilateral kivas are much larger and their roofs higher than those of circular kivas, so that the ventilation, which is also facilitated by a more capacious hatchway, is not a matter of great concern.

Note that the assumption that the “kivas” at Spruce Tree House are identical in function with those at Hopi even though they are round rather than square, small rather than large, and equipped with ventilation shafts.  This assumption became virtually universal among archaeologists working in the Mesa Verde and San Juan Basin regions over the course of the twentieth century, until Lekson came along to challenge it in the 1980s.

Kiva at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

When Lekson did begin to challenge this conventional wisdom, he did so on several grounds.  For one thing, whereas a modern pueblo typically has between one and six kivas for the entire community, and this ratio holds true for most late prehistoric sites as well, pre-1300 sites in the San Juan region tend to have many more.  Indeed, as early as Fewkes’s day T. Mitchell Prudden was exploring southwestern Colorado and finding numerous small, modular sites with a few rectangular rooms, a kiva, and a trash mound, which he proposed were basic units of architecture in the region.  To this day these small sites are often called “Prudden units,” and it is generally accepted that even larger sites in the region are composed of large numbers of them aggregated together.  And yet, for many decades the assumption was that these small kivas may have been associated with individual households or extended families but that they were still identical in function with modern kivas, which serve whole villages or large subsets of them, and the additional simplifying assumption crept in that those functions were more or less exclusively ceremonial.

Obviously, however, these “kivas” had developed out of the earlier pithouses, which were clearly residential structures.  So the story came to be that in Basketmaker times everyone lived in pithouses, sometimes with adjacent surface storage rooms, then at some point around AD 800 or so came the “pithouse to pueblo transition” when everyone suddenly moved out of the pithouses and into larger versions of the storage rooms, instantaneously converting the pithouses to exclusively ceremonial use.  Then nothing happened for a thousand years, and when Anglo anthropologists showed up in the nineteenth century they encountered a  simple, communal way of life that had been unchanged for centuries.

Basketmaker Pithouse, Mesa Verde

I exaggerate, but only a little.  What Lekson pointed out was basically that this story sounds nice but doesn’t really match either the archaeological or the ethnographic evidence.  There was a huge series of migrations and cultural changes around AD 1300 that involved the abandonment of the Mesa Verde and Chaco regions and a massive influx of people to the Rio Grande Valley as well as to the Hopi and Zuni areas, and the end result was a settlement pattern across the region that had few similarities to that obtaining in the Four Corners area in Chacoan times (ca. 1030 to 1130) or shortly thereafter.  From 1300 on things look very similar to what the Spanish encountered in the 1500s, but rather different from what they looked like earlier.  Suddenly there were only a few kivas in each village, and they were big.  Not as big as the earlier “great kivas,” generally, but certainly bigger than a typical kiva at Pueblo Bonito or Spruce Tree House.  Also, especially in the west, many of them were square or rectangular.  This probably indicates influence from the south, where square “great kivas” had long been present in settlements of the Mogollon culture.

Kiva at Homol'ovi II, near Winslow, Arizona

Extrapolating backward from this change, Lekson argues that the small “kivas” so common at Chacoan and Mesa Verdean sites were not the forerunners of the later kivas in the large, aggregated pueblos the Spanish found but rather the last of the pithouses, which had a long history as habitation structures in the region and were present at earlier sites in similar numbers.  One implication of this is that the number of round rooms at a given site may be an index not of the importance of that site as a “ceremonial center” but of the resident population.  The idea is not that these round rooms were the only space used for residence but that they were part of “suites” of square and round rooms that served as units of household residential space, basically the “Prudden unit” concept but without any assumptions about which rooms were used for which specific household functions.

This argument has been gaining increasing acceptance in recent years, especially now that careful excavations of many sites in the region are coming up with clear indications of residential use of “kivas.”  Some of these excavations have demonstrated that there really wasn’t an instantaneous “pithouse-to-pueblo transition” but rather that pithouses, or structures with features intermediate between Basketmaker pithouses and “pueblo” kivas, continued to be used well into the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  At site 5MT10010 on Cowboy Wash in southwestern Colorado, for instance, notorious for the claims of cannibalism there, the excavators reported that:

[t]he presence of domestic artifacts, storage features, and mealing bins indicate residential use of the pithouses. In contrast, the surface structures contained few interior features; hearths were small, informal constructions; and no mealing bins were identified. Consequently, the surface structures were probably used seasonally for a narrower range of activities than the residential pithouses.

This site dates to around AD 1150, shortly after the decline of Chaco.  The elaborate masonry round rooms at Chaco great houses were certainly fancier than the humble earthen pithouses occupied by the unfortunate inhabitants of 5MT10010, but there is no reason to assume that they had radically different functions.

Kiva J, Pueblo Bonito

I think Lekson’s arguments are very convincing.  I’m less sure about whether it makes more sense to rebrand these rooms as “round rooms” rather than “kivas” (as Lekson does) or to redefine “kiva” as a formal rather than a functional designation (as many other archaeologists who agree with Lekson’s basic argument seem to be doing).  One possible way out might be to use the term for “kiva” from one of the other pueblo languages, perhaps one of the languages spoken in the eastern pueblos that have round kivas more similar to the Chaco and Mesa Verde ones, but it is quite hard to find information on those languages, partly because their speakers are very wary of outsiders studying any aspect of their culture including language.

There’s much more to say about kivas (or whatever we want to call them) at Chaco specifically, but this post is long enough.  The point I want to make here is really just that interpreting these structures and understanding what they are is a much thornier problem than it seems at first glance.
ResearchBlogging.org
Billman, B., Lambert, P., & Leonard, B. (2000). Cannibalism, Warfare, and Drought in the Mesa Verde Region during the Twelfth Century A.D. American Antiquity, 65 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694812

Fewkes, J. (1908). Ventilators in Ceremonial Rooms of Pre Historic Cliff-Dwellings American Anthropologist, 10 (3), 387-398 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1908.10.3.02a00020

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Carson Trading Post

In 1918 my great-grandparents built a trading post in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico, between Chaco Canyon and the town of Farmington, which was then and is now the main town in the area.  They had both grown up in Farmington and married in 1908, after which they spent a few years emulating the farming and small-scale ranching lifestyle of their parents and most other local residents, but they were unsatisfied with this and began to look for other opportunities.  Some other members of their families were beginning to go out into the vast rural areas nearby occupied by the Navajos to establish trading posts, and they were curious enough about this to move out to one of these stores to help out for a while.  They found that they liked it and began looking around for a store of their own to buy.  The story goes that my great-grandfather was heading out to look at a store that was being offered for sale and on his way over happened upon two brothers who were building a store at a very promising location at the confluence of a small side wash with the Gallegos Wash, one of the main drainages in the region.  The Navajo name for the area is Hanáádlį́, which means something like “the place where it flows out again,” which presumably refers to something about the confluence of the two washes.  He offered to buy the store from them, but they were not interested in selling, so he continued on to the store he was headed towards.  He found it much less impressive and decided not to buy it, but on his way back he encountered the brothers again at their much better location.  By then they had had a falling out, and according to local lore were even running around shooting at each other, and they were quite happy to sell.  So my great-grandfather bought the store, moved his wife and two daughters to the site, and finished building it.  Their last name was Carson, so the store came to be known as Carson Trading Post and the community surrounding it is often called Carson.  It is very close to Huerfano Mountain, one of the most sacred mountains to the Navajos and the site of many events recounted in the Navajo origin story.

The Carsons ended up having four daughters, all of whom grew up, married, and went on to own trading posts of their own.  These stores were scattered across the Navajo Reservation and the surrounding off-reservation areas inhabited primarily by Navajos in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.  One daughter, my grandmother, stayed at Carson’s, and there she and her husband raised their only child, my father, who was born in 1947.  When my he was old enough for school they bought a house in Farmington and he and my grandmother stayed there during the week and went back out to the store on weekends.  Meanwhile my great-grandparents, having turned Carson’s over to my grandparents and attempted to retire to Farmington, found that retirement was not for them and ended up buying another trading post, this one way out in the western part of the reservation in Arizona at a place called Inscription House, named after a local Anasazi cliff dwelling that is part of Navajo National Monument but that has now been closed to the public for many years.  A little later, my grandfather and his brother-in-law, who owned Two Grey Hills Trading Post and a few other stores in that area, teamed up to buy another store near Inscription House at a place called Shonto.  They were both busy with running their other stores, of course, so Shonto was run by managers for the rest of their lives.

Shonto Trading Post, Shonto, Arizona

One of those managers was my father, whom his parents sent out to Shonto around 1972 after he had graduated from college and moved back to Carson’s, where he apparently just sort of hung out for a couple of years.  When they sent him out to manage Shonto they let him hire an assistant manager, and he hired a friend of his from college named Les.  Les’s girlfriend at the time came out to join him.  I don’t know many of the details about what happened over the next few years, but the eventual result was that Les and his girlfriend broke up, he married one of the Navajo clerks who had worked in the store, and she married my father and in time became my mother.  I was born in 1984 and my sister was born in 1986.  My grandmother and grandfather died in 1985 and 1987 respectively, and two of my grandmother’s three sisters died around that same period.  At the same time the trading business was falling on hard times as social and technological changes were making the Navajos less isolated and more integrated into the mainstream American economy, which eliminated the economic and sociocultural niche the trading posts and traders occupied as cultural intermediaries.  By 1991, my parents had come to believe that there was no real future in the trading business, and they decided to just sell the store, move to Albuquerque, and try to make a new life.  My dad applied to a PhD program in history at the University of New Mexico, and my mom, who had gotten a teaching certification from Northern Arizona University, got a job as a kindergarten teacher in a small, semi-rural school district south of Albuquerque.

This kind of wholesale lifestyle change was one way trading families during this period dealt with the changes that were wreaking havoc with their way of life.  Another option was to try to upgrade and modernize the store to try to actually compete with the businesses in the reservation border towns that were becoming the traders’ competition.  This was a very risky approach, because it was not at all certain that even massive investments could make a store competitive, but some traders felt they had no other real options.  One of them was a second cousin of my dad’s named Al, who had ended up owning Inscription House at this point.  He didn’t have the sort of educational background my parents had that enabled them to go into other careers in town, so he decided to build a laundromat and big modern grocery store as adjuncts to the old one-room trading post, which he turned into a hardware store.

Sign for Inscription House Trading Post

What Al did at Inscription House was mostly just separate the goods carried by a typical trading post into separate buildings.  Trading posts functioned much like old-fashioned general stores, and they carried any and all goods that the community might need, including foodstuffs, dry goods, hardware, and weapons for hunting or for shooting coyotes or stray dogs that got into people’s sheep.  In the early days the stores functioned economically on the basis of a credit system whereby the local Navajos would run up bills of credit for the goods they purchased and pay them off with wool when they sheared their sheep or lambs when they had them.  The trader would then sell the wool and lambs and use the money to buy more goods.  People would also often sell arts and crafts to the stores, and this provided a supplemental income stream for most traders.  A few stores in certain areas where arts and crafts were particularly well developed, in some cases as a result of influence by early traders, bought and sold large amounts of arts and crafts, but for most of my family’s stores this was a minor sideline and the core business was in wool and lambs until the penetration of cash into the Navajo economy reached a point where most stores stopped extending credit to most customers and became effectively cash-only operations.  In most areas this took place sometime in the 1970s or early 1980s.

Some observers consider this the point at which the traditional trading post ceased to exist, but I think that’s an overly narrow way to define the institution.  From the Navajo community’s perspective, certainly, the trading posts still existed after they stopped extending credit, because they still provided the same variety of goods.  The term “trading post” I think leads a lot of Anglo observers to think of them primarily in terms of the system of exchange that supported them admittedly for most of their existence, but in Navajo the word for “trading post” is naalyéhé bá hooghan, which literally means “house for merchandise.”  The word for “trader” is naalyéhé yá sidáhí, literally “the one who sits for the sake of the merchandise.”  This certainly implies, to my mind, that the key element of a trading post from a Navajo perspective was the goods it provided to the community rather than what it took in exchange.

Store Room at Inscription House Trading Post

Be that as it may, by the late 1980s there were few trading posts left by any definition.  Many had closed entirely, and some, especially those that happened to be located on major highways, had converted to simply gas stations and convenience stores, no longer offering the wide range of goods that they had before.  People could now go into town on paved roads to buy those goods at Safeway or Walmart for much less than the traders charged, and there was no way most old stores could compete.

The handful of stores that specialized in high-quality arts and crafts had an option not available to most stores to focus more on that as their business, and some did just that, opening shops in Farmington, Gallup, or even Santa Fe to sell the rugs and jewelry they would buy from their customers.  Two Grey Hills, which by this point was run by my parents’ old friend Les, was able to eke out a living without changing much about its business model just because the rugs it got, widely acknowledged to be the finest Navajo rugs anywhere, brought in enough money on the infrequent occasions when someone stopped by to buy one to keep the business afloat.

Old Store at Inscription House Trading Post from Navajo Highway 16

Al’s gamble at Inscription House paid off because the area was sufficiently isolated that competition from the nearest town, in this case Page, Arizona, was not as intense as in the case of many other stores, and because most of the other stores in the area were no longer vibrant enough to be much competition, if they were open at all.  After we sold Shonto the new owner struggled to find decent managers and eventually lost the lease, which resulted in the property reverting to the ownership of the Navajo Nation, which closed it for a while.  It’s now open again under a new manager working for the tribe, but it’s a shadow of its former self.  It’s not much competition for Inscription House, which is still going relatively strong, although the last time we visited there Al had closed the hardware store and focused all operations on the new store.

While all this was going on, however, during the 1990s, we were in Albuquerque, and my childhood there was pretty typical of the suburban Sunbelt.  We would continue to go out to the reservation frequently to visit family and deal with various hassles in the process of selling Shonto, which took several years, so I remained aware of what it was like out there.  I knew that I hadn’t really experienced the trading lifestyle for myself, however, since I had been six years old when we’d moved and only had vague memories of actually living at the store.  During two summers when I was in high school, therefore, I decided to spend some time out at the remaining trading posts operated by family and friends of the family: Inscription House and Two Grey Hills.

New Store at Inscription House Trading Post

The first summer I spent two weeks at Two Grey Hills, then two weeks at Inscription House.  I don’t remember why the periods were so short; I guess maybe I was trying to ease myself into what was a somewhat unfamiliar experience.  There was very little for me to do at Two Grey Hills, which didn’t get much business, so I spent most of my time taking care of the extensive gardens and cleaning the place up for an annual festival the store had begun putting on in 1997 for its hundredth anniversary and had continued in subsequent years.  I think Les was mostly taking me on as a favor to my parents.  Al, on the other hand, was very enthusiastic about having me come out there, I think in part because he had been somewhat isolated from the family for various reasons for several years and wanted to cultivate closer ties.  There was plenty of work for me to do at Inscription House, which was very busy.  I mostly worked in the new store, ringing up grocery purchases and loading hay into people’s trucks.  That summer was an important experience for me, but I have a hard time explaining exactly how.  The next summer, I went out again, but only to Inscription House and for a longer period of time; I forget exactly how long, but it was a few weeks.  I also spent some time that summer working for some other relatives in Kayenta, but that’s another story.

Later, when I was in college, I went back out to Inscription House for part of one winter break.  This time, Al had me working in the old store, with the hardware.  This was more of a challenge, since I was often the only one working there, and the customers who came into the old store were often older men who didn’t speak any English.  I had taken a little Navajo at UNM when I was a senior in high school, but my knowledge was very rudimentary, and on multiple occasions I would try to use it and realize that I was soon in way over my head.  One time, a guy walked in and I asked him what he wanted (that was one thing I could say), so he told me (uh oh).  The only part I recognized was dibé, which means “sheep.”  We sold lots of stuff that had something to do with sheep, though, since they’re the mainstay of the traditional Navajo economy.  Eventually, after failing to get me to understand with words or gestures, he went out and got a younger guy, probably his son or nephew, to explain that what he wanted was a package of rubber bands used to castrate sheep by wrapping around their testicles.  There were other incidents like this, but this one was typical and I remember it particularly clearly.

Old Store at Inscription House Trading Post

One other incident also shows something of what it was like at Inscription House in a more unusual way.  Trading posts had traditionally sold guns and ammunition, which were necessary tools for life early on.  One of the most infamous events involving the sale of a gun at a trading post was of course the murder of Richard Wetherill in 1910.  By the time I was at Inscription House, however, relatively few stores did much business in guns, although they often sold ammunition and I sold quite a bit.  Al, being a rabid rightwinger, however, made a point of putting guns on display in a prominent location behind the counter but easily visible to customers walking in.  Most of these were standard hunting rifles, which is what the few people who might want to buy a gun at Inscription House were likely to need, but as a pointed jab at the liberal establishment or whatever Al had an AK-47 in the gun rack next to them.  I’m sure he didn’t expect anyone to buy it, but I think he just wanted to flaunt his constitutional right to sell it or something.

Anyway, one day an old guy came in and asked in Navajo for “the little gun.”  I pointed to one of the smaller rifles, but no, he made it clear that it was the AK-47 he wanted to see.  So I took it out of the rack and handed it to him.  He looked it over and asked how much it was; it was $475, surely well beyond his means, and in any case there’s no way this old guy who didn’t speak any English would have any idea what to do with a weapon like that.  After examining it for a while he handed it back to me and went on his way.

Icicles on New Store at Inscription House Trading Post

I mention this experience not because it was typical of life at Inscription House or in the Southwest but because it wasn’t.  This was an exceptional event.  People would often come in to buy bullets, but no one ever bought a gun while I was there.  Similarly, they often bought chainsaw parts but never a whole chainsaw, which we often sold.  We did some chainsaw repairs too (which I didn’t do personally).  There was a lot of demand for those because it was winter and a lot of people in that area, which gets very cold, heat their hogans with wood.  Nevertheless, the AK-47 story sticks with me.  So does the whole experience, however brief, of working at two of the few remaining trading posts on the Navajo Reservation.

It’s hard to express what this background and these experiences mean to me.  Thinking about them often casts my current lifestyle, here in New Jersey, in bold relief.  It’s not so much that I don’t enjoy it here or that I feel homesick; I do enjoy being a grad student, and I like New Jersey, and what I feel is not so much homesickness as maybe nostalgia or something similar.  It’s not that I want to go back to the trading lifestyle, because I can’t, really.  The lifestyle no longer exists, and what I experienced of it was but a pale shadow of what my great-grandparents and grandparents spent almost their whole lives doing, and even what my parents spent large portions of theirs doing.  I don’t speak nearly as much Navajo as my dad did or my grandfather did, and I probably never will, because they learned Navajo because they had to, at a time when few Navajos spoke English.  Now most Navajos speak English, and learning Navajo is not something anyone really needs to do.  It’s really hard, too, so it’s not something most people want to do either, and while I do want to do it I doubt I’ll ever really find the time or the motivation.

Gas Pumps at Inscription House Trading Post

I rarely tell people I meet about this trading stuff.  I feel like it belongs to my background and it’s very important to me, but precisely because of that I don’t feel like I can really explain it to people.  I don’t feel like I can make people understand the way I feel about it.  Even if I were to bring them out to the Navajo country and try to at least show it to them, they wouldn’t see what I see.  It’s not about what you see in a landscape, after all, but what you know about it and how you feel about it that gives it significance.

This applies equally well to the urban and suburban settings in which I find myself now, of course, and to the people who come from these backgrounds, whether in the Northeast, the Southwest, or elsewhere.  We can connect on a certain level, of course, since growing up in most parts of the US is pretty much the same these days, and my experiences in Albuquerque are fairly comparable in a lot of ways to the experiences of people in New York or New Jersey or wherever.  But there is always something more, something you experience personally about the places you have lived and been and had important, life-changing experiences, that you can never really explain to anyone else.  For me the most significant of those places are the trading posts, the places where for a few brief moments I, like my ancestors before me, sat for the sake of the merchandise.

House behind Old Store at Inscription House Trading Post

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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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Sleeping Ute Mountain from Mule Canyon, Utah

In their critique of the article reporting evidence for alleged cannibalism at site 5MT10100 near Cowboy Wash on the southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain, Kurt Dongoske, Debra Martin, and T. J. Ferguson challenged many of the conclusions and lines of evidence presented in the article.  Among these was the evidence of consumption of human flesh from a coprolite found in a hearth at the site, which could potentially serve as the “smoking gun” offering physical proof of cannibalism, if the analysis is correct.  The authors of the critique found the presentation of this evidence in the initial article unconvincing, however, describing the data as “sketchy” and implying a lack of scientific rigor in the analysis.  They concluded this section of the critique by saying:

We are not microbiologists, and therefore before accepting the claim that the coprolite contains human myoglobin, we await peer review and publication of the fecal study by Science or another scientific journal specializing in biomolecular research.  As presented in the Cowboy Wash study, the fecal evidence is suggestive but not convincing. More work pursuing this line of evidence is warranted in future studies.

In their response to the critique, the authors of the original paper added more detailed information on the coprolite analysis, but they also did as the critique authors recommended and published a short article in Nature (Science‘s main competitor) giving more specific details on the analytical techniques used to detect human myoglobin both in the coprolite and on some potsherds from a cooking vessel found in the same pitstructure.  There isn’t actually much in this paper that wasn’t in the response to the critique, aside from the laboratory procedures, which I am not in a position to evaluate.  It’s not actually clear to me if this article was peer-reviewed; it doesn’t explicitly mention any reviewers or any details of the review process, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t reviewed.  It’s also not clear to me if the authors submitted it in response to the critique or if they had already intended to.  Both the original article and the critique were published in January 2000, and this article was received by Nature on March 7,  accepted on June 6 (which does seem to imply some sort of review process), and published on September 7.  Meanwhile, the response to the critique was published in April.  In any case, whether or not the authors of the initial paper were spurred by the critique to submit additional publications (and this is not the only one to appear after the critique was published), they certainly can’t be accused of shrinking from the challenges it set for them.

Mentioning this paper also allows me to go into a bit more detail about the myoglobin analysis, which I didn’t in the previous post.  Basically, to determine if the coprolite resulted from the consumption of human flesh the researchers needed to find something to test for that would be present in parts of a human body likely to be consumed but not in parts of the consumers body likely to end up in the coprolite during the digestion process  (e.g., blood or intestinal lining).  They decided on myoglobin, which is a protein molecule in the skeletal and cardiac muscles that transports oxygen from the outer membrane of muscle cells to the interior parts of the cells where it is used to generate energy.  Importantly, this protein is not found in the smooth muscles of the digestive system or in the blood, so it is unlikely to end up in fecal matter as part of the digestive process.  The researchers used a variety of controls to establish this, including coprolites from Salmon Ruin and modern fecal samples from “normal individuals,” people with blood in their stool, and people who had recently eaten beef.  None of these ancient or modern samples tested positive for human myoglobin, but the beef ones did test positive for bovine myoglobin, establishing that myoglobin can indeed be found and identified to species in fecal material.  These controls were mentioned in the original article, and when I read it I had wondered where they had gotten the modern samples.  The Nature article explains that they came from leftover material from clinical samples that was turned over for research use, which makes sense.  For the sherd testing, the controls were other sherds from the same site, sherds from another site in Southwestern Colorado dating from the same period but without evidence of cannibalism, and sherds from a Plains site near Denver also dating to roughly the same period.  None of these control sherds tested positive for human myoglobin either, although some tested positive for deer or rabbit myoglobin.  Thus, since the coprolite from Cowboy Wash and the sherds found near it were the only samples to test positive for human myoglobin, the hypothesis that they were associated with ingestion of human flesh was not disproven, and it remains the most plausible explanation of the Cowboy Wash assemblage.

It’s certainly possible that problems may be found with this analysis that cast doubt on the result, but I haven’t seen any, and until I do I’ll provisionally accept it as indicating very strongly that broken and burned bone assemblages like the one at Cowboy Wash most likely result from cannibalism.  What that might mean culturally and historically, of course, is a different and more difficult question.
ResearchBlogging.org
Marlar RA, Leonard BL, Billman BR, Lambert PM, & Marlar JE (2000). Biochemical evidence of cannibalism at a prehistoric Puebloan site in southwestern Colorado. Nature, 407 (6800), 74-8 PMID: 10993075

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Peñasco Blanco

Near the very end of his report on the excavations at Pueblo Bonito by the Hyde Expedition in the 1890s, George Pepper wrote the following:

The finding of cracked and calcined bones in some of the rooms brings up the question of the eating of human flesh by the people of this pueblo.  There was no evidence of human bodies having been buried in rooms above the first floor and only portions of skeletons were in evidence in Rooms 61 and 80 which contained broken and charred bones.  During the period of our work in Pueblo Bonito some of our Navajo workmen cleaned out a number of rooms in Penasco Blanco and in one of these a great many human bones were found.  Some of these including portions of the skull, were charred, and the majority of the long bones had been cracked open and presented the same appearance as do the animal bones that have been treated in a similar way for the extraction of the marrow.  It would therefore seem that these Pueblo Indians, either through stress of hunger or for religious reasons, had occasionally resorted to the eating of human flesh.

The report was published in 1920, and ever since then the question of cannibalism has hung over Chaco Canyon like a giant question mark.  In the 1920s Frank Roberts found some additional bones at another site at Chaco that were in a similar condition, but these and the ones mentioned by Pepper constitute the entire sample of bones from Chaco itself that have been proposed as evidence for cannibalism.  On its own, this is pretty weak stuff, especially since it comes only from sites that were excavated early in the history of archaeological research at Chaco and information on the context of these bones is very limited.  Most archaeologists have therefore generally been content to conclude that whatever these bones represent, they don’t have much relevance to explaining Chaco as a whole.

Over the decades since Pepper wrote his report, however, a growing number of other sites throughout the northern Southwest have revealed human bones that are broken, burned, and otherwise suspiciously unlike typical burials.  As archaeological techniques have improved, the amount of information about the context of these finds has increased, and as physical anthropologists have gained experienced and added new techniques more information can be gained from both these new finds and the early ones now in museums.  One physical anthropologist in particular, Christy Turner of Arizona State, has put an enormous amount of effort into analyzing evidence for cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest.  His overall interpretation of the evidence has led him most recently to propose, particularly in the 1999 book Man Corn, coauthored with his wife, that cannibalism was a core part of the Chaco system, which he sees as a militaristic state led by some sort of sociopathic Toltec leader who came up from Mexico and attempted to institute a Mesoamerican state based on tribute and human sacrifice, or something (I haven’t read the book).

Sleeping Ute Mountain from Anasazi Heritage Center

Obviously this theory depends heavily on attempts to equate the evidence for cannibalism across the Southwest with the rise of Chaco, and here it immediately runs into problems.  While there is the evidence from Chaco reported by Pepper and Roberts, most of the evidence for cannibalism in the Southwest comes from contexts that are rather distant from Chaco both spatially and temporally.  Some are earlier, particularly in the AD 800s and 900s, when the Chaco system may have been gearing up but was certainly not yet in the culturally dominant role it attained by the late 1000s.  More are later, mostly in the AD 1100s, after Chaco’s influence declined.  Spatially, most of the well-documented examples from recent examples are from southern Colorado, which was certainly under Chacoan influence at one point but probably was not at the times the events apparently occurred.  Indeed, most of these well-documented examples are from a strikingly specific time and place: around AD 1150 in the area around Sleeping Ute Mountain, west of the modern town of Cortez, Colorado.  There are other examples known from New Mexico and Arizona, but like the Chaco examples they mostly come from poorly documented early excavations and can’t be placed very well temporally.

According to one count, there are 32 sites in the Southwest that have yielded bones that may indicate cannibalism.  Of these, 18 are in the greater Mesa Verde region in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah and can be dated with some certainty.  Fully half of these sites, 9 out of 18, date to between AD 1125 and 1175.  This striking spatial and temporal patterning has led some to suggest that these may reflect a single event of some sort that occurred in the context of the multidecadal drought of that period and the social disruption caused by the decline of the Chaco system at the same time.  This idea was proposed in a talk I attended at the 2009 Pecos ConferenceSeveral names were on the talk, including Turner’s (although he didn’t seem to actually be there), but much of the actual talking was done by David Breternitz, an archaeologist with long experience with the region.  In addition to proposing that these assemblages indicating cannibalism or at least “folks treated inconsiderately” represented a single event that may have taken place over the course of mere weeks, days, or even hours, Breternitz noted the problematic connotations of using the word “cannibalism,” which has made the study of these sites a lightning rod for controversy as well as an irresistible temptation for sensationalistic treatments in the popular press.  He referred to it as the “C word” and analogized it to the “N word,” which is not appropriate to use in talking to the NAACP (or, I would add, most other audiences).

Sign at Border of Ute Mountain Indian Reservation

Both the puzzling and the controversial aspects of the cannibalism issue are present in the case of one of the best-documented of these assemblages in the Cortez area.  This is that found at site 5MT10010 near Cowboy Wash on the southern piedmont of Ute Mountain, which was excavated as part of a salvage operation in connection with an irrigation project of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, on whose reservation the site is located.  This site, which was described in an article in American Antiquity in 2000, was located in an area that was slated to be completely covered by a new irrigated field and was therefore completely excavated.  It consisted of three pitstructures, like kivas but of clearly residential function, with associated surface masonry rooms, which do not seem to have been used residentially, outdoor activity areas, and trash middens.  Two of these pitstructures contained assemblages of human bones that were heavily damaged and broken into hundreds of small pieces, some of which showed burning, cut marks, and other evidence of cannibalism similar to that found at other sites.  These apparently represented the remains of seven individuals: two adult males, one adult female, one adult of uncertain sex but probably male, and three youths of uncertain gender aged approximately 14, 11, and 7.  Their bones were strewn all over the two pitstructures and showed no grave goods or evidence of formal burial, in striking contrast to five individuals who had been formally buried in the trash mounds (which is a typical burial location for this area and period).

From the way the bones were broken and burned the authors concluded that all of the individuals in the pitstructures had been killed in a sudden attack at the same time, after which they were cooked and eaten and the site was totally abandoned and not reoccupied.  In addition to the cut marks and burning on the bones themselves, two stone tools found in one of the pitstructures tested positive for human blood, implying that they had been used to chop up the bodies.  Evidence for the sudden nature of the attack and the resulting abandonment consisted largely of the large number of artifacts left in place in all three pitstructures; normally when a site would be abandoned the people would take most of the usable artifacts with them, but in this case they were left in place.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the third pitstructure, which didn’t contain any bones except two which were heavily weathered and appeared to have been deposited naturally from the surface at some point after abandonment, did contain something even more interesting: a coprolite, unburned, in the hearth.  Analysis revealed that the coprolite was human, apparently resulted from a meal consisting entirely of meat, and tested positive for the presence of a human muscle protein.  This is about as close to smoking gun as it is possible to get in trying to establish if cannibalism took place in a given instance.  Cut marks on bones can be and have been explained in various other ways, which are not generally very convincing but hard to disprove.  This coprolite, however, seems to establish clearly that at least in this one instance, cannibalism did take place.

Sleeping Ute Mountain from Hovenweep National Monument

The authors, having established to their satisfaction that this assemblage does in fact represent an episode of cannibalism, went on to situate it in the context of both the local community and the larger region.  The regional analysis basically pointed out the rash of likely cannibalism episodes around AD 1150, which may have been associated with the drought of that period, although it also noted the earlier episodes and the likelihood that this behavior constituted a longstanding pattern that for some reason became briefly intense and then subsided.  They note that there is no evidence for cannibalism in the Mesa Verde area after AD 1200 (though this may not actually be true; more on that later) and very little evidence anywhere else in the Southwest after that date either.  Whatever this event represents, it was clearly pretty temporary.

The community analysis was particularly interesting.  This community on Cowboy Wash, which was established around AD 1125 and consisted of 10 sites, four of which have been excavated.  Strikingly, all four of the excavated sites showed the same sort of evidence of cannibalism, strongly implying that they were all attacked and destroyed at the same time around AD 1150.  This is in contrast to the earlier community at Cowboy Wash, which existed from about AD 1075 to sometime in the 1120s and was abandoned before the new one was established, probably by new people.  Another striking characteristic of the newer Cowboy Wash community was the prevalence of ceramics made in the Chuska Mountain area to the south along the Arizona-New Mexico border.  Chuska pottery was common at Chaco during its prime and has been found in various other areas as well, but it is extremely rare in the Mesa Verde region and the prevalence of it at Cowboy Wash strongly suggests that the inhabitants were either immigrants from the Chuskas themselves (pretty plausible in the light of the disruptions likely associated with the fall of the Chaco system, with which the Chuska communities were strongly associated) or maintained strong trading ties to Chuska communities rather than other local communities.  Either way, the inhabitants of this community would likely have been easily identified as “outsiders” in the area, which may explain why they were targeted by others during this time of scarce resources, extended drought, and increased violence.  The Cowboy Wash community was not in a defensive location and does not appear to have had any defensive features such as walls.  Its fate may explain why such locations and features became so common not long afterward.

Chuska Mountains from Peñasco Blanco

Of course, with something like this there will always be objections, and a critique of the claim of cannibalism by two archaeologists who have been closely identified with the interests of the modern Pueblos, Kurt Dongoske and T. J. Ferguson, along with physical anthropologist Debra Martin, accompanied this article when it was first published.  The three of them basically criticized everything they could about the presentation of data and argumentation in the article on the Cowboy Wash site.  Some of the criticisms were reasonable, including a caution about being too quick to talk about cannibalism and to keep in mind the likely effect of this in the popular press and on modern Native Americans.  Others basically amounted to nitpicking about the presentation of data, often appearing to demand a level of information more appropriate for a full site report than a journal article.  In a response, the authors gave more information on the analysis and tried to counter accusations that the blood residue and coprolite analyses in particular may have been contaminated or otherwise problematic.  They also conceded some of the points raised in the critique, especially about the importance of thinking about the effect of this kind of research and the way it is presented in public discourse.  This response seemed pretty convincing to me.  I’ve heard that the coprolite evidence in particular has been challenged, but I’m not sure if any more substantial objections than the easily defused ones in the initial critique have been raised.

Another interesting thing about the critique and response, to me, is the way the critique basically accuses the authors of the initial article of being insufficiently “scientific” in not rigorously testing alternative hypotheses.  This is interesting largely because it clearly falls on the “anthropology is and should be a science” side of the “is anthropology a science?” debate, even though these particular anthropologists are coming from a perspective that is usually associated with the other side in their close association with the modern Pueblos and appreciation of their viewpoints.  In this context they seem to be mostly raising the science issue as a club with which to (rather ineffectively) attack the initial article, but the use of this approach is still noteworthy.  The response basically runs with this assumption and argues that, no, the analysis really was very scientific and they didn’t include all the data and hypotheses because of the space constraints of the journal article, but it’s all in the full report.  Both seem to think of “science” mostly as a methodology, particularly associated with hypothesis testing, rather than a body of knowledge, which is also interesting.

Another thing the critique mentions is the desirability of more comprehensive approaches to the issues of violence, migration, warfare, and so on.  The critique authors say this in the context of criticizing the initial report for focusing too narrowly on cannibalism specifically, which sits oddly with their criticisms of it for not being specific enough in describing the physical evidence, but this is one of their better points.  They specifically mention the possible role of ethnicity in structuring some of these dynamics, and cite the paper on ethnicity at Wupatki by Glenn Davis Stone and Christian Downum that I recently discussed.  I know of at least one recent paper that has done just that; I’ll have more on it later.

Sleeping Ute Mountain from Four Corners

So what does all of this imply for Chaco? Not much, really.  The authors of the initial Cowboy Wash paper note that to the extent that the Cortez-area spate of cannibalism episodes around AD 1150 has anything to do with Chaco, it is most likely in representing one aspect of the social chaos that may have followed the decline of the Chaco system after AD 1130 or so.  They also note that Cowboy Wash is about as far from a Chacoan outlier as it was possible to get in the region during this period.  The closest proposed outlier is Yucca House, on the other side of Sleeping Ute Mountain toward Cortez, the outlier status of which is rather questionable since it is unexcavated and also has a large later occupation that makes it difficult to identify any Chacoan parts.  And speaking of the location of Cowboy Wash, it is important to note that the southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain is remarkably desolate even by Southwestern standards and would have been very marginal for agriculture.  It doesn’t get enough rain for dry farming, so any farming the people at 5MT10100 would have done would have to have been floodwater farming using the wash itself, which would be very vulnerable to fluctuations in rainfall and other climatic conditions.  This probably explains why the area was colonized and abandoned several times during prehistory.  The time of the attack appears to have particularly bad for the inhabitants, as there was minimal evidence of domestic plants and most of the plant remains found at the site were of wild plants that would have been gathered in the spring to compensate for a poor harvest in the fall.

And what about the bones mentioned by Pepper at Chaco itself?  Hard to say.  Turner has reexamined some of them and concluded that they do in fact represent evidence of cannibalism, but then again he would conclude that.  The fact that we don’t really have any more detailed information about their contexts within the site than the minimal information given by Pepper makes it very difficult to place them within the context of Chacoan prehistory as we know it today.  Judging from the better information we now have from Colorado, I think one possibility is that the Chaco bones represent something similar that happened around the same time.  The canyon was not totally abandoned after it declined in regional importance around 1130, and it might have participated in some way in the cannibalistic warfare that apparently took place after that, though whether as victim or perpetrator is hard to say.  Whether or not this is the actual explanation, it is important to remember that the fact at a big, complex site like Pueblo Bonito not everything found somewhere in the is necessarily closely connected to the original purposes for which the site was built.  Things change, after all.  Furthermore, Pueblo Bonito has hundreds of rooms, almost all of which have been thoroughly excavated, and possible evidence of cannibalism has been found in two.  That’s a pretty thin reed on which to hang a theory postulating that Chaco was all about cannibalism.  Some cannibalism may well have taken place at Chaco, but there is really no reason to think that it was a major part, or indeed any part, of the reason Chaco was built or became so influential.  At least, that’s the way I see it.  Merry Christmas.
ResearchBlogging.org
Billman, B., Lambert, P., & Leonard, B. (2000). Cannibalism, Warfare, and Drought in the Mesa Verde Region during the Twelfth Century A.D. American Antiquity, 65 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694812

Dongoske, K., Martin, D., & Ferguson, T. (2000). Critique of the Claim of Cannibalism at Cowboy Wash American Antiquity, 65 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694813

Lambert, P., Leonard, B., Billman, B., Marlar, R., Newman, M., & Reinhard, K. (2000). Response to Critique of the Claim of Cannibalism at Cowboy Wash American Antiquity, 65 (2) DOI: 10.2307/2694066

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Northeast Part of Pueblo Bonito

I often end my tour of Pueblo Bonito by describing it as “a place of majesty and a place of mystery.”  I’ve recently been thinking about what exactly that means, and what makes Pueblo Bonito, and Chaco Canyon more generally, so mysterious.  It’s not really difficult to figure out, but I think the implications are more important than I had realized before.

In a nutshell, Chaco is interesting largely because it’s mysterious, and it’s mysterious because it’s in such a harsh environment.  It’s clearly a major center of some kind, although it remains unclear exactly what it was the center of, in a place where you would never expect to find anything on so grand a scale.  Indeed, the startling contrast between the grandeur of the sites in Chaco and the barrenness of their setting has led some archaeologists, and many visitors, to assume that the climate must have been different when the sites were built.  A considerable amount of research has therefore been put into reconstructing the paleoclimate of Chaco, with the surprising result that it hasn’t changed much in the past few thousand years.  There have been small variations on the scale of decades in the amount of rainfall, and in such a marginal environment for agriculture even small variations like that could easily make or break a societal system, but they’re really just on the order of the changes seen in recorded history (i.e., over the past hundred years or so), and the place has definitely been more or less like it is today for a long time.

West Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

And yet, the great houses are there, as are all the other aspects of the Chaco system that inspire so much wonder and awe today, including the road system, the astronomical alignments, and everything else.  In some ways I think the current (somewhat artificial) isolation of the park maintained by the lack of a paved road to it is appropriate in giving a sense of just how much effort it would take to make this an accessible location, let alone a major cultural center.  There’s a tradeoff, of course, in that making it easier to get to would probably make it more obvious just how central it was once the required infrastructure was put in.  Still, though, there’s no denying that this is a hard place to live, and it’s by no means an obvious location for the scale of construction necessary to create such a center.  That’s one of the abiding mysteries of Chaco, perhaps the most fundamental one.  Visitors ask about it all the time; “why here?” is one of the most frequent questions we get.  I always just say that it remains a mystery.

It’s not the mere presence of a major cultural center in the prehistoric Southwest that comprises the mystery, however.  There have been others that have not elicited nearly the interest accorded to Chaco.  Aztec, for example, which seems likely to have succeeded Chaco as the center of a somewhat reduced regional system in the twelfth century, is a major center on the same scale, but there’s nothing all that mysterious about it.  It’s located right on a major river in a fertile valley well-suited for agriculture, which is exactly where you would expect to find a major population center capable of serving as the center of a widespread system.  Other Southwestern archaeological sites are even less mysterious.  Mesa Verde is a very good agricultural area by regional standards, as is Bandelier, and it is no surprise that they attracted large prehistoric populations.  Canyon de Chelly is a bit of an oasis in a generally harsh area.  The Hohokam sites in southern Arizona are along major rivers well-suited for irrigation agriculture.  There are also sites in marginal areas, of course, but they tend to be small and unimpressive, which is unsurprising given their surroundings.  All of these sorts of sites can be easily explained by reference to fairly simple ecological determinist models of human settlement patterns.

Collapsed Wall in Western Part of Old Bonito Framing Pueblo del Arroyo

Not so with Chaco, however.  While many archaeologists have made valiant attempts to fit the rise of Chaco into models based on local and/or regional environmental conditions, they have been generally unsuccessful in finding a model that convincingly explains the astonishing florescence of the Chaco system in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries.  This has inspired some other archaeologists more recently to try a different tack involving less environmental determinism and more historical contingency.  This seems promising, but finding sufficient evidence for this sort of approach is difficult when it comes to prehistoric societies like Chaco.  The various camps of archaeologists will likely continue to argue about the nature of Chaco for a long time, I think.  Meanwhile, the mystery remains.

I doubt this mystery will ever be totally solved.  There’s just too much information that is no longer available for various reasons.  That’s not necessarily a problem, though.  At this point the mysteries of Chaco are among its most noteworthy characteristics.  Sometimes not knowing everything, and accepting that lack of knowledge, is useful in coming to terms with something as impressive, even overwhelming, as Chaco.  One way to deal with it all is to stop trying to figure out every detail and to just observe.  The experience that results from this approach may have nothing to do with the original intent of the builders of the great houses of Chaco, but then again it may have everything to do with that intent.  There’s no way to be sure, and there likely never will be.  But that’s okay.  Sometimes mysteries are better left unsolved.

Kiva A and Southeast Corner, Pueblo Bonito

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Yurt and Modular Office Unit in Chaco Visitor Center Parking Lot

When I left Chaco last summer, plans were underway to do a major renovation of the visitor center.  The idea was to leave the exterior alone, apparently because it was considered of historical value as part of the Mission 66 program, but almost totally redo the inside, rearranging the office space and most of the visitor center functions to use the space more efficiently.  Only the museum was going to be left as it was.  I thought this was basically a good idea, since the way the building was laid out at the time was noticeably suboptimal.

Chaco Yurt

The project was supposed to take a few months, and while it was underway the offices were to be moved to a series of trailers and the visitor services were to be put in a yurt to be constructed in the visitor center parking lot.  Work began this March, and the movement into the trailers and the yurt was apparently smooth, but about three weeks in it became apparent that the building was structurally unsound and that just redoing the inside was not going to be a feasible option.  Apparently when the building was originally constructed in the 1950s nobody really checked to make sure the ground underneath it was stable, and it turned out it wasn’t and had been eroding away over time.  There had been indications of something like this over the years, and some cosmetic alterations had been done to continue using the building, but by now it was clear that the only realistic option was to tear the building down entirely.

Modular Unit for Chaco Interpretation Division Offices

Since the park still wants to move forward with the renovation plan, under which any new work must be within the footprint of the original building, the next step after demolition will be construction of a new building on the same spot, with engineered soil brought in first to ensure that the ground is stable this time.  Right now the decision has apparently been made that the old building will be demolished, but plans for what to replace it with are still being formulated by the architects.  So it looks like we’ll be in the yurt and the trailers for quite a while now; people have been saying at least a year, but I’m thinking it’ll probably be more like two.  That’s okay with me, actually, since the yurt is quite nice and I don’t mind working in it.  I’m only here for the summer, of course, and it remains to be seen how comfortable the yurt will be when winter comes.

Chaco Visitor Center, Closed for Renovation

Lots of visitors, seeing the boarded-up and fenced-off visitor center, have been asking what’s going on.  When I tell them, they often respond with a knowing chuckle.  People seem to understand that these things happen.  Some are a bit disappointed that we no longer have a museum to show any artifacts or an auditorium to show the park video, but even they are pretty understanding of the situation.  I’ve heard considerably more positive comments about the yurt than negative comments about the closed visitor center, in fact.  This is a marked contrast to the amount of outrage people showed when the campground was closed.  Luckily it’s now open, so at least that nightmare is over.  Just goes to show what the priorities of visitors to Chaco are, I guess.

Sign at Closed Chaco Visitor Center

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