Arizona Welcome Sign

If Sherburne F. Cook was the dominant figure in the “Berkeley Era” of the study of Native American historical demography, his equivalent in the next period was undoubtedly Henry F. Dobyns. Dobyns was a complicated, controversial figure and his legacy today is decidedly mixed, but his importance to the intellectual history of this issue is unquestionable. It is no exaggeration to say that he single-handedly launched the topic into the scholarly limelight, and he continued to pursue it for decades even as questions about his own methodology and approach began to spur a backlash. Although the history is complicated, for convenience and in recognition of Dobyns’s importance I’ve defined this period as bracketed by what are probably his two most important publications on the subject: his 1966 paper in Current Anthropology that first drew extensive scholarly interest to the subfield and was enormously influential in defining it, and his 1983 book that, while also very influential in some circles, in others was considered a major overreach that threw his whole approach into question.

In between, numerous scholars from a wide variety of disciplines investigated the question of population history and the impact of epidemic disease with an unprecedented fervor. Most of these studies, certainly the most influential ones, ended up falling on the “high-counter” side of the demographic debate. With its obvious political implications during a period of intense political awareness, activism, and dispute, there was a clear sense that the high-counter position was ascendant and revolutionizing the whole world’s understanding of the tragedies of the past and how they led inexorably to the inequities of the present.

As I’ve noted before, though, this is an oversimplification. A parallel tradition of low counts continued as an undercurrent to the high-count hegemony, mostly focused in certain disciplines and institutions. This current would emerge into higher prominence in the 1980s and afterward as the work of Dobyns and his acolytes started to be questioned by a wide variety of detailed empirical studies of particular regions. Ironically, this turn in the scholarship would come as the earlier high-count research was just beginning to be incorporated into more popularized accounts which made it better known among the general public.

This chapter of the story is in some sense the heart of it. In some ways it’s a story of scholarly hubris (particularly on the part of Dobyns personally) that eventually led to a painful reckoning, but again that is too simple. The high counters of this era made enduring contributions to understanding of this issue even if not all of their specific conclusions have stood the test of time. In a qualitative sense, at least, even their strongest critics would mostly concede that they were closer to capturing the historical reality than most of their predecessors. Their greatest flaw, perhaps unsurprising in the context of the mid-century modernist context in which they worked, may have been an excessive confidence in the potential for academic research to provide specific, detailed answers to complicated historical questions.

Dobyns was born and raised in Arizona, and his early anthropological work focused mainly on the tribes there, including providing support to their land claims cases against the federal government in the 1950s. After getting his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1960, he was hired by Cornell and went to Peru to work on the Vicos Project, an innovative and groundbreaking exercise in applied anthropology. Both in Arizona and Peru, Dobyns also did research in the colonial and mission archives and developed an interest in historical demography. He noticed very severe population declines in the records of both areas, and began to develop a theory for what was behind them that would end up being enormously influential in anthropology and beyond.

Dobyns published some early work on the population dynamics of southern Arizona, but his first widely influential publication was a 1963 article on the history of epidemics in Peru. This article was foundational to the emerging interest in disease history and is still widely cited today. His most important early work, however, was the aforementioned 1966 Current Anthropology article in which he reviewed previous approaches to the issue of precontact population and introduced a new methodology and estimate of his own.

The majority of this article consists of a thorough and detailed analysis of all the methodologies that had been used to estimate pre-contact Native American populations. Dobyns convincingly demonstrates that the various techniques used by the “low-counter” school of Mooney and Kroeber likely underestimated numbers by disregarding the accounts of contemporary observers and relying overly on extrapolations from later ethnography. He is more positive about the innovative estimation and extrapolation methods of Cook and others in his circle at Berkeley. In addition, he forcefully points out the importance of disease in affecting population numbers, a factor largely ignored by the previous researchers he cites, with the partial exception of Cook. In fact, Dobyns discusses in detail Cook’s monograph on the malaria epidemic of the 1830s in Oregon and California, a very important study still widely cited today. Dobyns specifically emphasizes two important but underappreciated aspects of disease in relation to demography:

Cook’s analysis of this California epidemic demonstrated the operation of two very important processes in the human ecology of aboriginal American populations. First, he showed the magnitude of mortality which a single epidemic can cause in a non-resistant population. Second, he called attention to the biological fact that epidemic infection is not limited to tribal populations in immediate face-to-face contact with Europeans. The decimation of native Californians was not limited to missionized Indians, but extended outward as far as disease agent and vector could spread infection from intrusive (white) carriers to aboriginal populations. It is necessary to maintain constant awareness of these two processes or fundamental trends among natives of the New World. Any interpretation of reported native populations during the early years of contact with Europeans which ignores the tremendous mortality caused by epidemics inevitably underestimates the size of the aboriginal populace.

Dobyns would continue to emphasize these factors throughout his career.

Dobyns’s analysis of past work is highly convincing in showing the flaws that led to past underestimation of population numbers, and this accounts in part for the influence this paper has had on subsequent scholarship. He went beyond this, however, and also attempted to devise a new methodology which would avoid those flaws and provide a sounder basis for making estimates. Here he starts to make some assumptions and interpretive leaps that would ultimately lead him into some methodological flaws of his own.

Dobyns starts by defining a “depopulation ratio” comparing the population of a given group at two times in its history. The two times he is particularly concerned with are the group’s precontact population, or as close to it as is possible to get, and the time when it hit its nadir of population and began to grow again (as most Native populations eventually did). He doesn’t really justify his use of these two endpoints or the generalizability of a ratio derived from them. He looks at several well-documented cases, including central Mexico, the Andes, California, the Amazon, and the Piman-speakers of southern Arizona and northern Sonora, and derives to his satisfaction a ratio of 20:1 as a “sound, if perhaps conservative, tool to employ as a hemispheric minimum.” He considers 25:1 an alternative ratio to derive a reasonable range. Using these two ratios and available data on population nadirs, he comes up with an aggregate hemispheric estimate of 90,043,000 to 112,553,750 for the whole Western Hemisphere at contact. Kroeber had estimated 8,400,000.

A hundred million people! This conclusion was striking and contributed to the influence of Dobyns on further research. He notes in the paper that Cook’s Berkeley colleague Woodrow Borah had recently come to a very similar estimate, so he was not totally on his own and in some ways his estimate was a plausible expansion of the increasingly high counts that were coming out of Berkeley in the wake of Cook’s pioneering research. Much of that research was in relatively obscure regional publications, however, and it was Dobyns who brought it to one of the flagship publications of American anthropology and garnered a large audience. As it typically does for its major paper, Current Anthropology sent the paper around to a wide variety of other scholars and published their comments, which were mostly very positive, with occasional reservations on particular points. The combination of bold thinking with seemingly innovative quantitative techniques fit well with certain tendencies within the social sciences at mid-century.

They also fit with an increasing political awareness of the plight of modern Native people, along with the general political tumult of the 1960s. Dobyns himself was a strong advocate for Native rights, going back to his land claim days, and his concept that precontact Native populations were large and (implicitly) successful, only to lose 95% or more of their people to disease introduced by Europeans, fit well with the political mood of the times.

The following year, Dobyns’s conclusions were bolstered by a paper by the historian Alfred Crosby documenting the smallpox epidemic that accompanied the Spanish conquistadors into central Mexico and, per Dobyns’s earlier Andean epidemic research, probably continued to spread ahead of them into the Inca empire, killing the emperor and fatally weakening the empire itself. This was a concrete example of the dynamics of disease that Dobyns had discussed in general terms, with very clear and dramatic consequences for the course of world history. Crosby would later go on to expand his argument in his groundbreaking 1972 book The Columbian Exchange and a 1976 paper outlining the specifics of how “virgin soil epidemics” contributed to depopulation in the Americas.

Dobyns’s and Crosby’s ideas rapidly caught fire in all sorts of disciplines, and led to innumerable studies of specific areas in the coming decades. The historian Wilbur Jacobs, whom we encountered before through his oral history of the Berkeley medical school and its treatment of S. F. Cook, wrote an important overview of the implications for the history of contact. Other studies, too numerous to list, looked at the issue from the vantage points of geography, anthropology and many other disciplines. Throughout the heyday of 1970s the high-count school of Dobyns and Crosby expanded its reach and refined its estimates and arguments.

There were some dissenting voices even at this time, however. The low-counters may have seen their influence eclipsed, but they didn’t disappear, and as I’ve noted before they were particularly concentrated in certain disciplines.

In direct response to Dobyns’s article, the Andeanist C. T. Smith published his own in Current Anthropology in 1970. Following up on some mild criticism by the geographer William Denevan in his comments on Dobyns, Smith notes that the depopulation ratio of 20:1, if truly an average of well-documented cases, probably conceals considerable variation in the underlying data set. With regard to the colonial Andes, one of Dobyns’s most important cases for determining the ratio, Smith points out that the coastal regions Dobyns used in his analysis have markedly higher depopulation ratios than the interior regions in the same data; combining them reduces the depopulation ratio to 4:1. Smith is not necessarily opposed to Dobyns’s ideas, however, and he merely suggests that the dynamics of coastal and interior populations in this region should be considered separately. He also does a detailed analysis of additional colonial census data to further refine the depopulation estimates, and Dobyns’s comments on his paper are largely positive.

One notable discipline that was strikingly absent from the study of this demographic topic is, perhaps surprisingly, demography. The reasons for this were made clear in a 1975 paper, again in Current Anthropology, by the demographer William Petersen. In an astonishing display of saying-the-quiet-part-loud, Petersen took aim at a wide variety of demographic interpretations widespread in the study of prehistory. This mostly takes the form of noting the very slim data available for various methods of estimating prehistoric population parameters. With regard to catastrophic population loss in the wake of contact, he admits that there certainly have been losses, and does seem to agree with Dobyns in giving historical accounts more credence than Kroeber did, though he also notes Smith’s clarification about the differences between coastal and interior populations in the Andes. Overall, he maintains a skeptical position and notes the contemporary political implications of positing much larger precontact populations, which he also analogizes to the nineteenth-century “Mound Builder” legends to explain the mounds of the midwestern US. In his response to what he terms Petersen’s “pontifical perambulation,” Dobyns attempts to refute his accusation that high-counters are political opponents of modern liberal capitalism by noting that he himself invests in the stock market and admires some companies. This is not very convincing in substance, but the polemical tone foreshadows Dobyns’s reactions to subsequent criticisms.

Archaeologists and physical anthropologists also continued to be skeptical about the ideas coming largely from historians and geographers. Many of these holdouts were associated with the Smithsonian Institution and carried on the legacy of Mooney, in some cases quite directly. Douglas Ubelaker, who worked on the editing of the Smithsonian’s updated Handbook of North American Indians, was in part responsible for updates to Mooney’s demographic estimates included in the original version of the Handbook. In an interim report published in 1976, he noted that the estimates for specific tribes and regions submitted by that point were higher than Mooney’s, but well below Dobyns’s. The total estimate approximately double’s Mooney’s total, which implies a hemispheric total of about 16 million. A significant difference indeed!

These quibbles were fairly minor during this period, however. The event that started to bring them out more forcefully was, perhaps ironically, Dobyns’s publication in 1983 of his book Their Number Become Thinned, which focused on the Timucuan people of northern Florida but served also a vehicle for him to promote his revised and expanded methodology for population estimates and the role of disease in depopulation. By this point the high count hegemony had reached its breaking point.

California Welcome Sign

The study of Native American depopulation and the role of epidemic disease in it began in earnest around the beginning of the twentieth century, and from that point until 1966 it remained a relatively obscure niche topic across several different disciplines. Interestingly, the few scholars interested in this topic, regardless of disciplinary background or specific position on the substantive issues, were overwhelmingly concentrated at a single institution: the University of California at Berkeley.

It’s not entirely clear why Berkeley became the focus of study for this topic, but the precipitous decline in numbers of the California Indians during the nineteenth century, which happened right before the eyes of many of the early white settlers, had spurred more interest in the general topic there than elsewhere starting with the very earliest attempts at professional anthropology. A key early attempt to estimate the numbers of inhabitants in aboriginal California was published in 1905 by C. Hart Merriam. Merriam noted that the part of the state under the influence of the Spanish missions, which he estimated to be approximately one-fifth of the non-desert area, had relatively good demographic data provided by the missionaries. He further assessed, based on his personal experience doing fieldwork throughout the state, that the resource base of the entire non-desert area was pretty similar and could presumably support a similar population density (though he acknowledged that there was no evidence that it actually did). He therefore took the demographic data from the mission records, adjusted it to account for unconverted Indians within the missionized zone, whom he estimated on no evidence to form one-quarter of the total population, and multiplied it by five to come up with a total estimate for the non-desert portion of the state.

For 1834, the year for which Merriam considered the mission data most complete and reliable, he estimated 30,000 Indians in the missions, 10,000 unconverted Indians in the mission zone, and a non-desert state total of 200,000. He further estimated the desert population at 10,000 (again with no basis), for a total within the current state boundaries of 210,000 in 1834. He further noted the decrease of population over the course of the mission period and estimated a total population of 260,000 as of first contact in the late eighteenth century.

Merriam further looked at estimates for Indian population made by various officials during the American period, starting in the 1850s and made some adjustments for under-counting of Indians living away from reservations. He concluded that the population decline had been dramatic, resulting in a 1900 estimate of just 15,500 people. He identified two periods of particularly sharp decline, following the secularization of the missions in 1834 and the start of the Gold Rush in 1848. These two periods overlapped, and Merriam attributed them to similar causes, primarily the greed and oppressive behavior of white settlers, but he saw them as involving distinct groups of both Indians and settlers (Spanish-Mexican ranchers along the coast in the first case, Anglo and international gold prospectors further inland in the second). He mentioned disease in passing as one factor leading to the demographic decline, but didn’t emphasize it.

Merriam’s methodology was fairly crude by modern standards, but it was pretty sophisticated for its time. It’s interesting to note that Merriam combined aspects of what would eventually come to be the two main methodological approaches to estimating pre-contact populations: working backward from ethnohistorical documentation and estimating carrying capacity of particular types of land based on subsistence resources available.

Soon after Merriam’s work was published, James Mooney at the Smithsonian Institution began work on a more ambitious project to estimate contact population for all of North America. A brief summary of this work appeared in the Bureau of American Ethnology’s first Handbook of North American Indians, but Mooney never published his intended full monograph due to his untimely death in 1921. An abbreviated version based on his notes was published posthumously by the Smithsonian in 1928. Mooney primarily made his estimates based on the earliest surviving population counts of reasonable reliability for each tribe, with adjustments to get from there to an estimate of population at whatever date constituted “contact” for the area in question (ranging from 1600 to 1780). Mooney took historically recorded epidemics into consideration in making these adjustments, along with warfare and other factors. For California, however, unlike every other region, Mooney did not make his own estimates but adopted Merriam’s.

Merriam wasn’t based in California, but his pioneering fieldwork there was influential on the development of a local tradition of anthropology at Berkeley, which was developed largely by Alfred Kroeber, a towering figure in American anthropology generally. Kroeber studied a wide variety of topics, and Native American demography was one of them. Around the same time Mooney was working on his estimates for the “Population” chapter of the Handbook of North American Indians, Kroeber began work on his own using a similar methodology for the California chapter of the same publication. Working backward from the earliest solid counts in the ethnographic record, Kroeber came up with a count of approximately 150,000 at the time of contact. This is a much lower number than Merriam’s, and over the years Kroeber became even more conservative in his estimates. By the time he published his own Handbook of the Indians of California in 1925 his overall estimate had declined to 133,000, approximately half of Merriam’s number.

In 1934 Kroeber published an article discussing Native American contact-era population for all of North America, in which he adopted Mooney’s estimates for most areas but substituted his own estimate for California in place of Merriam’s. This reduced the overall continental estimate a bit, and Kroeber stated in the article that he was using Mooney’s estimates but that he thought they were likely a bit high and would come down as more research was done. John R. Swanton, the Smithsonian anthropologist who edited Mooney’s work for the 1928 publication, had a similar opinion, which he expressed in the footnotes at various points.

All this makes Mooney, Swanton, and Kroeber the main founders of the “low counter” school of thought on these issues. Due to Kroeber’s towering reputation within the discipline of anthropology and his prominent post leading the anthropology department at Berkeley, the low count position would come to be popular in many circles among anthropologists for decades to come. This was particularly true among archaeologists and physical anthropologists, who also had other reasons based on their own research and (sub-)disciplinary perspectives to incline toward low counts. Similarly, Mooney and Swanton’s legacy led to a longstanding tendency toward low counts among Smithsonian Institution anthropologists, again especially among physical anthropologists and archaeologists.

At the same time all this was going on in the 1920s and 1930s, however, a very different perspective on population counts and demographic decline was developing among a different set of researchers, again with Berkeley as a major base and California, along with Mexico, as a major field of investigation. This perspective, which would develop into the “high counter” school with a focus on environmental carrying capacity, was largely led by geographers, with the most prominent figure being Carl O. Sauer at Berkeley’s geography department.

Sauer’s role in the development of geography was parallel in many ways to Kroeber’s in anthropology, and his personal research interests were equally broad as well. He had a particular interest in Mexico, and it was his research in the 1930s with Donald Brand (also known for his research on Chaco Canyon around the same time) on the historical demography of northwestern Mexico that set the tone for the school of thought that would follow him on this topic. After reviewing the available historical and archaeological data available at the time, Sauer and Brand concluded that northwestern Mexico had been home to approximately as many people in pre-contact times as in their own time. Given the historical evidence for much lower populations in the initial centuries after Spanish contact, this implied an immense decline in population after contact that contrasted strongly with the interpretations of Kroeber et al. that posited low pre-contact populations and substantial continuity in demographic trends across the boundary of contact. Sauer’s students in geography at Berkeley, and their own students there and at other institutions, would go on to develop his ideas over the next few decades, with the result that geography would become a bastion of “high-counter” thought just as archaeology and physical anthropology would become centers for “low-counter” thought.

The most prominent high counters to emerge in Sauer’s immediate wake, however, were not geographers at all, though they were still associated with Berkeley. They included the Latin Americanist historians Leslie Byrd Simpson and Woodrow Wilson Borah, but the most prominent figure was a physiologist at Berkeley’s medical school named Sherburne Friend Cook.

Cook is a complex figure with an immense but ambiguous impact on the field of Native American historical demography. His eclectic interests and long career at Berkeley echo those of Kroeber and Sauer, but unlike them he was a marginal figure in his own discipline. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1925 with a dissertation on the toxic effects of heavy metals, and after being hired at Berkeley a few years later he continued to study that topic. He was something of a pioneer in studying the physiological effects of environmental contaminants and his early career looked bright.

As Cook continued his studies on heavy metal toxicity in the early 1930s, however, he veered into political ground equally toxic to his career. He documented the presence of heavy metals in chicken feed and began to trace them up the food chain to the chickens and then to the people who ate them. The public health implications of this line of research were considerable, but so were the economic implications to chicken feed manufacturers. It appears (based on later oral history research among Berkeley academics by the historian Wilbur Jacobs) that those manufacturers influenced a dean at the medical school to try to prevent Cook from publishing his results and to go on to use administrative chicanery to sabotage his career for many years.

Discouraged, Cook began to divert his attention away from physiology and explore other fields of interest. He somehow stumbled upon a transcript in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library of an eighteenth-century description of the diseases of the Indians of Baja California written by a Jesuit missionary, which he translated and published in 1935 in a local medical journal. He went on to publish various other odds and ends of medical history and related topics over the course of the next few years. He developed an interest in Indian demography and population history, and was in friendly contact with both Kroeber and Sauer as they did their studies on this topic in the 1930s.

Cook was an astonishingly productive and creative researcher, and he conducted numerous studies of Indian population history, along with many other topics, over the remaining forty years of his life. He developed numerous ingenious methodological approaches to try to wring population estimates out of the most unlikely sources, including Aztec tribute lists and various environmental productivity estimates in California. His methodology was constantly being adjusted, so his specific population estimates for given areas varied from publication to publication, but in general he was coming up with high numbers more in line with Sauer’s results than Kroeber’s. He also did extensive studies of disease history, including a very important 1955 publication on the “fever and ague” that swept California and Oregon in the early 1930s in which he argued, contra earlier researchers, that it was most likely malaria and its extreme death rate among Indians was due to it being their first exposure to the pathogen. (An early glimpse of the “virgin soil” concept that would become so influential later.)

Cook’s research was extraordinarily wide-ranging, and some of it would be controversial on a variety of grounds especially after his death. Many of his ingenious methodologies for estimating populations relied on assumptions that didn’t hold up well to closer investigation, and his conclusions about the oppressive conditions in the California missions were vigorously contested by pro-mission scholars, especially those affiliated with the Catholic Church. He stands as a towering figure in the field of historical demography of Native Americans, however, and set the tone for the emergence of that field as a focal point of scholarship.

Cook’s final estimate for the contact-era population of California was 310,000. This was somewhat higher than Merriam’s estimate of 260,000, and much higher than Kroeber’s 133,000, putting Cook firmly on the “high-counter” side. The influence of Cook and his collaborators, while fairly limited in what was still an obscure field of study in the 1940s and 1950s, would expand dramatically in the 1960s as a new generation of researchers moved the topic out of the back halls of Berkeley and dramatically into the academic and political spotlight.

Hello Again!

Winter Solstice Sunset

Well, I didn’t expect it to be a whole year since my last post, but that’s just how it has worked out. It’s been quite a year for me in my personal life, but I have been keeping up with researching my Virgin Soil, Widowed Land series of posts, and in fact that project is ballooning into something much bigger than a series of blog posts. One thing that’s becoming clear through that process, though, is that it is about time to wrap up this blog and move on to other platforms. WordPress has made various changes that make my current setup pretty obsolete and hard to use, and I don’t really have any interest in changing this blog to fit in better with current standards.

I am going to finish the series, which will consist of three or four more posts over the course of the next few months. Over that same period, I’ll be setting up a new website with a different format to organize and present all the fascinating information I’ve been learning about the history of epidemics, medicine, demography, etc. in the course of research for this series. I have a lot of ideas for what’s going to go on the new site and I think it’ll be pretty interesting for anyone interested in this blog. I’ll post the link here when it’s ready to go. The name and a lot of other details are still undetermined but will be worked out soon.

Later on, I think a book project is likely to be the ultimate result of all this research and thinking. There’s a lot there but it’s pretty buried in academic and other specialist, technical literature, and I think there’s a need for a popularized treatment of a lot of this history. Obviously epidemic disease is a hot topic these days, so there’s that, but really the importance of this story is much larger and as always, popular accounts lag behind the cutting-edge research.

It’s a bit of a melancholy experience to be winding down this blog, which has been such a big part of my life for so long, even though I think it does make sense. Today marks thirteen years that I’ve been at this, which is a pretty good run as these things go. Happy solstice.

Wijiji Trail, Heading Back toward Campground

Today is the winter solstice, which makes it the 12th anniversary of this blog. I usually do an archaeoastronomy post on this occasion, but since I’m now in the midst of my series on the role of disease in the depopulation of Native America I’m instead going to do a post giving a broad overview of the research on this topic as I see it. Subsequent posts will go into more detail about the different periods of research and the major developments and trends within them. I said in my last post that the series would continue with posts about individual diseases and possibly geographic regions, but I’m now thinking that material might be better for a freestanding spinoff site than a series of blog posts. I’m still not totally decided on that question, though. (WordPress has made some recent changes that are driving me crazy, so that’s a consideration. It may just be time to move on.)

The issue of the role of introduced epidemic diseases in the collapse of Native American populations after contact with Europeans has been a fraught one in the scholarship for approximately the last hundred years. (There was little interest before that for reasons that are unclear.) The story is often told within the framework of Kuhnian scientific paradigm shifts, as a matter of an early period (ca. 1900 to 1966) dominated by “Low Counters” followed by a period (ca. 1966 to 1983) when they were replaced by “High Counters.” (The dates are based on landmark publications by the cultural anthropologist Henry Dobyns, who played a huge role in this discourse throughout his long career.) Popularized versions, such as found in books like Charles Mann’s 1491, often only go that far, and view the High Counters as having won out with better evidence than the Low Counters could muster.

The story is more complicated than that, however, even within the paradigm framework, and it’s reasonable to see the period since 1983 as one of backlash to the High Counters, especially Dobyns, with Low Counters newly ascendant but not as dominant as they were in the beginning. To this day, the field is marked by a notable lack of consensus on any aspect of the problem, and many different approaches coexist uneasily in the context of a generally acknowledged lack of solid evidence supporting any firm conclusions.

This “paradigm shift” model seems reasonable enough, especially from the perspective of the people involved, but a closer look at the timing of publications and the development of ideas tells a different story that I think is more realistic. In this view, there never was quite the level of consensus on either Low or High Counting that the paradigm shift model implies, and the current muddle of different approaches actually goes back all the way for the whole century of research. In this view, the key factor in distinguishing different approaches to the problem is not time period but discipline.

Different scholarly disciplines have developed different approaches, methodologies, and research traditions on the question of aboriginal demography and the impact of disease. Some disciplines, perhaps inspired or constrained by the type of evidence they work from, have very consistent approaches tending toward either a High or Low Count: for example, historians have tended to be High Counters, while archaeologists and physical anthropologists have tended to be Low Counters. Other disciplines lack a consistent approach and have been divided between High and Low Counters; cultural anthropology is a good example. Still other disciplines, including some of obvious relevance like demography and epidemiology, have been largely absent from the debate entirely, or have started to join it only recently.

It may seem rather odd that a seemingly straightforward question, such as “How many people lived in the New World in 1492?” could spawn such a wide and chaotic range not only of answers but of ways of approaching the process of answering. The underlying problem, as I see it, is a lack of solid data of any kind. Every discipline that has attacked the problem has used its own methods and models to try to come up with answers, but they all rely on inputs of data from the empirical record, and that data is fundamentally neither extensive nor reliable. In other words, no matter what ingenious research machine is used to try to answer the question (and there have been some that are very ingenious indeed), it ends up getting bogged down with a version of the “garbage in, garbage out” problem. This is most obvious with the more quantitative approaches rooted in social science, of course, but it affects the more qualitative, humanistic approaches as well to at least the same degree.

So is this a counsel of despair? Will we never know how many people there were and how many died due to disease and other factors? I think the answers are probably yes to the latter question, but no to the former. The actual numbers probably are unknowable with any degree of certainty except for certain small areas, but the numbers themselves are not actually as important as some earlier generations of scholars thought. The reason the debate has been so intense, of course, is that it’s not really about the numbers themselves but about what they represent.

For a lot of people the real issue is how we understand and interpret the way the history of exploration and colonization of the Americas has proceeded over the past 500 years. For some research traditions, the number of inhabitants at the beginning of that process and the rapidity with which it fell are important ways to guide those interpretations and the moral judgments they often involve. From this perspective, a large population that collapsed rapidly after contact could indicate that contact and colonization was either a tragic mistake or a world-historical crime, whereas a small population that declined slowly could indicate that there was plenty of room for newcomers and nothing to criticize about their behavior. These are caricatures of the most extreme points on what is actually a complex, multidimensional spectrum of positions actually held by various researchers over the years, but they get at the emotional element that often underlies the heated disputes that have developed over what might seem like a dry matter of counting people.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. I think the moral and interpretive questions actually don’t depend on the quantitative ones, and the probably insolubility of the latter don’t determine the answers to the former. Colonialism can still be immoral even if it doesn’t involve the death of 95% of a preexisting population, or if it does so through the inadvertent action of introduced diseases rather than through deliberate extermination. They’re just different kinds of questions.

So that’s my big-picture view of the history and current status of these questions. It may be unsatisfying to those who want more solid answers, but sometimes those answers just aren’t accessible and we have to be content to live with some ambiguity. In subsequent posts, in addition to going through the intellectual history in more detail, I’ll also spell out more extensively the role of epidemic disease, which has definitely been a bit of an auxiliary question to the more central demographic one. Given where we are in the world today, obviously the disease question is of particular interest.

Clinic, Pilot Point, Alaska

Well, it’s certainly been a while since I introduced this series! The coronavirus hasn’t gone anywhere, though, and neither have I. I’ve been reading lots of fascinating stuff on New World (de)population and disease history, and I have a pretty good idea of the way the series is going to look overall. I’m still not sure how long it’s going to take (at least several months) or how many posts it will ultimately include. I have enough of a sense now, though, to give a tentative outline of the topics I intend to cover, and that’s what I’ll do in this post. I’ve also decided to make a couple changes to the scope of the series, which I’ll also discuss here.

To take the latter issue first, I initially said I would limit the scope of the history I’m looking at to exclude the Black Death of the fourteenth century and the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic, with the idea that the epidemics of interest for Native American population mostly occurred between the two, each of which has been the subject of such an immense scholarly literature that it would be easy to get bogged down. After digging a bit further into the overall topic, though, I realized there were good reasons to look at both these pandemics, and indeed others both earlier and later. The issue of getting bogged down is a real one, which I’ve managed to mostly avoid with the Spanish Flu but less so with the Black Death. Still, so much of the scholarly literature on disease history and the general impacts of epidemics involves or relies on study of these most prominent examples that it doesn’t really make sense to arbitrarily exclude them.

Furthermore, looking both earlier and later than the core period between these two pandemics turns out to be pretty important. Earlier, there were some important epidemics worthy of study for many reasons, including the light they may shed on the history and evolution of certain diseases (especially now that ancient DNA analysis techniques have reached the point that specific pathogens can be unambiguously identified in ancient remains). Later, there were some specific epidemics postdating 1918 that turn out to be very important for the scholarly history of “virgin soil” epidemics and depopulation, in part because they were directly witnessed by doctors trained in modern scientific medicine. Of these, the most important are a series of epidemics in the Yukon Territory associated with the building of the Alaska Highway in the 1940s and another series in the Amazon in the 1960s. So I’ve essentially abandoned any hard temporal bounds on the scope of the series, although the main focus will of course be on the period from roughly 1500 to 1900.

Okay, on to the outline. To anticipate the overall conclusions a bit, despite a long history of research on the topic of Native American depopulation and the role of epidemic disease, I’ve found that there’s never really been a solid consensus about anything related to these topics and such a consensus is, if anything, further away now than it’s ever been. There have been general trends in the popularity of certain interpretations and methodological approaches, which can be (and have been) conveniently categorized into periods of one approach or another being dominant, but a closer look shows that there has always been a diversity of views that really cluster most clearly by academic discipline. I’ll get into this in more detail later, but the general idea is that rather than “high counters” and “low counters” exchanging periods of hegemony, there have always been both, concentrated in their own disciplinary zones, though their influence as measured by the spread of their ideas into other disciplines does show a certain back-and-forth pattern over time.

With that overall idea in mind, and despite my skepticism about a general chronological patter being most important, I do intend to structure the first part of the series chronologically. I’ll have posts for each major “era” in the modern study of these topics, which will hopefully give a sense of the major players and their ideas through time. After that overview, I’ll do multiple subseries of posts looking at the question from our current perspective, taking account of the various contributions from different disciplines.

These subseries will include one organized nosologically, or by the modern categorization of diseases and the pathogens that we now know to cause them. Another subseries will be geographic, looking at the different regions of the New World and what we know (and don’t know) about their population and disease histories. I may also do a third subseries looking chronologically at the big picture of population and disease throughout the different periods of contact and colonization in the Western Hemisphere, but I’m not as sure about that one yet.

So that’s the general idea. As I mentioned above, the series will definitely take a minimum of several months (it’s already taken more than three months to get to this second post!), but I don’t know how long it will ultimately take or how many posts it will involve. It’s a big but fascinating and important topic.


Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center, Fairbanks, Alaska

Today is the summer solstice, which is an event I usually mark with a blog post about archaeoastronomy. Today I’m going to do something a little different, though. Since the coronavirus pandemic has been dominating and reshaping life around the world for months now, with no end in sight, I’ve been reading up on past epidemics and their impacts on the populations and societies of the Western Hemisphere, and today I’m launching a series of blog posts discussing these issues. I don’t have a clear sense yet of how long this series will go on or what the frequency of posting will be, but it will likely be pretty extensive. The literature on this subject is huge and fascinating, and I’m still working my way through it.

To keep some control over the scope of this series, I’m setting some basic guidelines in advance for what it will include. The main focus will be on the Western Hemisphere and the impacts of diseases introduced by Europeans on Native American societies, although this may branch out a bit into other geographical areas (e.g., Oceania and Africa) that offer interesting parallels and/or counterpoints to the American experience, and I will also look to some extent at the impact of epidemics on European settler societies as well, and in some cases also at possible epidemic diseases that were transmitted in the opposite direction, the most famous example of which is syphilis. The temporal scope will start with 1492, though with some attention to the epidemiological and demographic landscapes before that that shaped the progress of events afterward, and end before the worldwide flu pandemic of 1918. The literature on the 1918 flu is vast and interesting in its own right, but it’s just too much to incorporate into what is already a very ambitious project.

One of the major issues in this field, which has shaped a lot of the scholarly discussion especially over the past 50 or 60 years, is the question of the total Native American population of the Western Hemisphere before European contact in 1492. Estimates of population have varied immensely over time, with enormous implications for how scholars have understood the nature of Native societies, European colonization, and many other important issues. I’ll go into much more detail about the various estimates and the controversy over them in subsequent posts.


Norton Sound Regional Hospital, Nome, Alaska

I’m calling this series “Virgin Soil, Widowed Land.” Both of those phrases have come up in the scholarly debate over epidemics and demography, and I find it interesting that they both use the same (rather distasteful, to be honest) metaphor in very different ways. “Virgin soil” epidemics are those that impact populations with little or no preexisting immunity to the disease in question, so they cause intensive impacts well beyond those on populations with more immunity. The current COVID-19 epidemic is of this type, since the coronavirus in question is new and no one in the world had immunity to it when it emerged. Similarly, New World populations lacked immunity to most Old World diseases, which therefore had catastrophic impacts on them. (Just how catastrophic and what the exact impacts were is very controversial, of course.)

The “virgin soil” concept refers to the populations that an epidemic impacts, but it intersects with a separate use of the virginity metaphor with a longer history in the study of European colonialism: the “virgin land.” In this concept, the Native people of the Americas were few in number and made limited, superficial use of the land, so the land was essentially unused and available for the taking by European colonists. There is a lot of implicit racism and white-supremacist thinking in this concept, but that’s a lot of the historiography of European colonialism for you. Once some scholars started looking more closely at some of the evidence for pre-Columbian population and the impacts of epidemic disease in the wake of initial contact, the virgin land concept came to seem less and less plausible even descriptively, and in some circles it began to be replaced with the idea of a “widowed land,” in which the land may have been largely empty in many places when European colonists arrived, but this was in large part due to the earlier impacts of virgin soil epidemics spurred by initial European contact.

This makes European colonization look a lot worse in some ways, though it arguably still lets the colonists off the hook too much. One objection to the emphasis on epidemic disease as a factor in Native depopulation is that it seems to imply that depopulation was both inevitable after contact and in some sense not really the colonists’ fault since they didn’t know they were carrying deadly disease with them. As I’ll discuss in future posts, there may be something to this but many researchers have pointed to other more direct impacts from deliberate actions of the Europeans, who definitely attacked, enslaved, and violently displaced Native groups from many areas in ways that probably caused substantial mortality on their own in addition to amplifying the effects of disease.

Anyway, there’s much more to say about these issues both in general, big-picture terms and at the level of individual microhistorical case studies. This may seem a little far afield from my focus on Chaco Canyon, which long predates European contact and the impact of these epidemics, but I see it as all part of the same big story, and it certainly is topical and potentially of interest in our current pandemic-dominated world. I can’t necessarily say there are specific lessons we can take for the COVID-19 pandemic from studying previous ones, but I think it’s always better to understand the past better to inform decisionmaking in the present.


San Juan Regional Medical Center, Farmington, New Mexico

An Annual Update

The Library Bar & Grill, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Today is the winter solstice, which makes it the eleventh anniversary of this blog. Last year on this date I announced that I was scaling back to a more occasional posting schedule, and I’ve certainly stuck to that. I haven’t been doing a whole lot of reading specifically on Chaco Canyon recently, but I have actually been doing a fair amount of reading in general, so I thought today I would do a quick update on what I’ve been reading over the past year and how it relates to my (still rather vague) longer-term plans. I ordinarily write about archaeoastronomy on the solstices, but I don’t have much to say about it right now so this will be a more general post.

My reading over the past year falls into a few clear categories. I’ve actually generally been reading books and articles from different categories simultaneously (in parallel, as it were), rather than sequentially, but for purposes of summarizing here I think it makes more sense to discuss each category individually instead of trying to reconstruct a chronological sequence. The main categories have been:

  1. Medieval history
  2. Nineteenth-century US history
  3. Ethnographic and historical background on specific places I’ve visited this year
  4. Miscellaneous history/ethnography/archaeology of other places or peoples
  5. The Bible and related scholarship

Obviously these categories have a lot in common, and in general my reading falls within a pretty narrow range of nonfiction genres. Still, there’s a lot of diversity even within that narrow range, and many of the books I’ve read this year have significantly influenced my thinking on a range of issues. I’ll give brief overviews of the categories, the specific works I’ve read within each, and my general impression of them below. These overviews are much less detailed than a true review would be, and I may get around to doing longer reviews of some of them (probably not all) at some point. Anyway, here we go.

Medieval History

As I’ve mentioned before, for as long as I’ve been doing this blog I’ve been reading whatever I can find on developments throughout the world that were roughly simultaneous with the florescence of Chaco Canyon (roughly AD 800–1250, with the main peak around AD 1050–1150). In some cases this was to gain more information on societies that interacted directly with the Chacoans, but in most cases it was just to get a broader sense of the global context of Chacoan times. It was a very dynamic, fascinating era, in a lot of ways. I learned a lot through reading articles, but over time I came to realize that to get a real good sense of many of these developments I would really need to read books. Several of the books I read this year covered this period, and were very interesting in shaping my thinking about it.

These books included William Jordan’s Europe in the High Middle Ages, Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine, David Howarth’s 1066: The Year of the Conquest, and Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony. Of these, Abu-Lughod’s was probably the most influential on my thinking, as she tries to more or less explicitly extend the “World Systems Theory” approach to modern capitalist society back into the middle ages, particularly the period AD 1250–1350. She posits that a comparable but different world system operated at this time, in which Europeans were active but marginal participants, and the main focal points were the Middle East, southern India, and China. It’s a convincing case, though it was written in 1989 and some of the argumentation feels a bit dated today (opposing a Eurocentric approach to economic history was much more controversial then than it is now!). Reading this book led me to Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People without History, which I’ve only recently started but clearly has some ideological overlap, though it focuses on a slightly later period.

Of the other books, the Jordan is a pretty workmanlike introduction to the period (part of the same series as Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome, about the preceding period, but not groundbreaking in the same way). Howarth’s is a popularized account that’s a fun read though I don’t know how seriously it’s taken by academic historians. He devotes particular attention to the nautical aspects of the Norman Conquest, which were quite significant in his telling. Gimpel’s book is fascinating in showing how much automation and “industrial” production were a factor in the medieval economy, which really cuts against the stereotypical image of the middle ages.

Nineteenth-Century US History

My interest in this period grew out of my interest in indigenous history and how the current Native American societies got from their precontact state to where they are today. This is a newer area of intensive reading for me in some ways, and was a particular focus this year. One book I read was Kenneth Porter’s The Black Seminoles, which was really fascinating in its portrait of a distinctive group of mixed ancestry and complicated historical position.

More influential theoretically for me, though, was Elliot West’s The Contested Plains, about the Colorado gold rush in the 1850s and its effect on the Native groups of the Great Plains. West situates his account within what I suppose would be considered environmental history, but the focus is not so much on how people affected the land as how the land affected people. He also focuses equally on the Plains tribes and the white settlers, and shows how both were pursuing new visions of how to develop societies based on the resources of a spectacular but harsh country. He makes the crucial point that it all comes down to energy, and how it is extracted from the environment, but he (correctly) interprets “energy” much more broadly than people often do, for example giving much attention to how the horse allowed Plains people to unlock the energy of the grass all around them. It’s ultimately a tragic story of how the country couldn’t provide enough for both peoples to pursue their dreams simultaneously.

Next, I have recently started reading Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, about the period between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. I don’t have a lot to say about it so far but I’m really liking it.

Background on Places I’ve Visited

I did quite a bit of traveling this year, mostly to see family or for other obligations. As I like to do, though, I did some reading about the history and especially indigenous populations of many of the places I visited.

Two of the most important places for me this year were San Diego and Las Vegas, where my girlfriend spent significant amounts of time for work and I would visit her. I therefore read quite a bit about the Kumeyaay of the San Diego area, especially Lowell John Bean’s Mukat’s People and Richard Carrico’s Strangers in a Stolen Land, as well as Michael Connolly Miskwish’s Maay Uuyow: Kumeyaay Cosmology (so a bit of ethnoastronomy after all). I don’t have a whole lot to say about these, but they were interesting context for understanding that area. On Las Vegas, most of what I read was in the form of articles rather than books, and mostly about the so-called “Virgin Anasazi,” Puebloan people contemporaneous with Chaco and similar in some intriguing ways. This is a line of reading I intend to pursue further, and will likely write about here in more depth.

I also went to Hawai’i for the first time this year, specifically to Maui for my girlfriend’s dad’s wedding. My mom had recently gone to Hawai’i herself not too long ago, and she lent me Phil Barnes’s A Concise History of the Hawaiian Islands for background reading. It was interesting, but again not something I have a lot of well-formed thoughts about at this point.

Miscellaneous History/Ethnography/Archaeology

This is mostly basic introductory reading about various areas and societies that piqued my interest this year for various reasons (aside from personal visits). Books in this category include Kenneth Ames and Herbert Maschner’s Peoples of the Northwest Coast: Their Archaeology and History, Robert McGhee’s Ancient People of the Arctic, and Irving Rouse’s The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. I don’t have a whole lot to say about these, but the McGhee book in particular is exceptionally well-written as popularized archaeology goes and describes a really fascinating and mysterious society. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in that kind of thing.

The Bible

Finally, one project I set myself this year, largely separate from my other reading, was to read through the whole Bible. I’ve been interested in it for a long time, and so I had been vaguely thinking of doing this for a while and this year was just when I decided to go for it. I read the Old and New Testaments in the King James Version, which took me just about six months (in parallel with my other reading). It’s really fascinating in a lot of ways to see what this enormously influential book actually says, even for a generally non-religious person like me. I’m currently reading the Apocrypha, also in the KJV, which is also interesting, and when I finish that I’ll move on to other related literature, possibly Josephus or some of the Pseudepigrapha. Eventually I’d like to read the Qur’an as well.

As context for this reading, I’ve also been reading various modern scholarship on the Bible and related topics. This is more “casual” reading than I generally have done for other topics, so I haven’t been tracking it closely or recording it on my reading list. It’s a really fascinating world of scholarship, though, with a lot of parallels to the other reading I do but with an immense depth of time and commitment that is essentially unrivaled in the Western scholarly tradition. I’ve been thinking about writing up some of my thoughts about it at some point, possibly on a new blog of some sort.

So anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to. This blog has been relatively quiet, it’s true, but not because I haven’t been busy. I actually feel like I’m doing more and more productive reading than I have for a long time, even if the results from it may take a while to gestate. Chaco may not be my main focus on the moment, but it too is in the background and I’ll come back to it at some point. Happy Solstice.

Captain Cook Statue at Noon on the Winter Solstice, Anchorage, Alaska


Opening at Casa Rinconada That Channels Sunbeam at Sunrise on Summer Solstice

Today is the summer solstice, so I thought I’d pop back in to do a post about archaeoastronomy, as is my wont. This time it isn’t about the archaeoastronomy of Chaco Canyon per se, but the larger context in which it would have developed, namely that of the civilizations of Mesoamerica to the south.

I’ve mentioned before that I have a tentative theory that part of the impetus for the rise of Chaco as a regional center may have been that its leaders were the first in the Southwest, or at least the northern Southwest, to develop a ritual system based on astronomical observation and alignments, which would have enhanced their ritual authority and consequently their economic and political authority as well. It can be very difficult to date archaeoastronomical phenomena, but it does appear based on my research so far that Chaco does indeed have the earliest datable evidence for astronomical alignments in the northern Southwest, and possibly in the Southwest as a whole. (There is some possible evidence for earlier alignments among the Hohokam of southern Arizona, but it’s somewhat questionable.) This provides some tentative support for the theory.

I don’t think it’s likely that the Chacoan leaders developed their astronomy on their own, though. There is plenty of evidence for contact and communication between them and Mesoamerica, though it isn’t always clear how direct this may have been (as opposed to indirect and mediated through groups in between such as the Hohokam). The much more complex societies of Mesoamerica also had much more elaborate astronomical and calendrical systems than anyone in the Southwest, so they are an obvious source for this as well.

They also presumably developed their knowledge earlier, so as I was thinking about my Chaco theory it occurred to me that it would be good to look into when exactly astronomical alignments and other evidence of this knowledge appear in Mesoamerica and how they spread and changed over time. Basically, the question is whether what is known about the origin and spread of astronomical knowledge in Mesoamerica is consistent with what appears to be true of the origin and spread of similar knowledge further north. Also, it would be helpful to know just how similar the alignments and other phenomena known from Mesoamerica are to those in the Southwest, again to judge the plausibility of a connection.

Luckily for me, an article published last year addressed this exact issue. Written by the Slovenian scholar Ivan Šprajc, it was published in the Journal of Archaeological Research and discusses the temporal and spatial distribution of different building alignments in Mesoamerica. It’s actually a bit odd that this article was published in this journal, which mostly publishes review articles giving a broad overview of recent research on a certain topic in archaeology. Šprajc’s article is in the form of such a review, more or less, but it actually primarily discusses a specific research project done by him and several collaborators, in which they collected very precise and complete data on the alignments of major buildings at many archaeological sites throughout most of the Mesoamerican culture area and analyzed them statistically to come up with general patterns of alignment and see what patterns emerged.

The results were very interesting, especially from an outside perspective. You might expect alignments to the summer and winter solstice sunrises and sunsets to be common, and they were to some extent, but they were by no means the most common. (Alignments to cardinal directions were also present but were even less common.) Much more common, especially in the Maya region, were alignments to certain points on the horizon that do appear to reflect particular sunrises and sunsets, but on different days than the solstices. The specific days cluster in February and October for sunrises and April and August for sunsets. Based on comparisons to ethnohistoric and modern ethnographic accounts of agricultural cycles, Šprajc proposes that these dates marked significant points in the cycle of planting and harvesting cycle, especially for maize, and that marking them would have been part of a very practical system of timekeeping that would also presumably have had ritual importance.

Furthermore, the numbers of days separating many of these dates that pattern together at particular sites tend to reflect multiples of 13 and 20, which are key numbers in the Mesoamerican calendar system, particularly in the 260-day ritual calendar. (Note that 260 is 13 times 20.) Based on the practices of some modern Maya communities that still measure their agricultural cycles this way, it appears that the alignments to mark the key dates would have allowed people to count from those points to figure out the rest of the cycle using these intervals. Since the same dates recur at these intervals in the ritual calendar, which is not calibrated to the solar year, people could have easily used them to keep track of the times for specific activities without worrying about a general calibration.

As a simplified example, if the alignment of a building in a community marked the beginning of the planting season based on the position of the sun, and the community knew that the harvest would come 260 days later, they could take note of the ritual calendar date (number and day-sign) of the beginning day marked by the alignment, the correspondence of which to the solar calendar would vary from year to year, and know that when that date came up again it would be time for harvest. This seems to me like a clever way to deal with the eternal problem of calibrating a solar calendar to seasonal cycles.

Be that as it may, it seems reasonably clear that nothing nearly this elaborate in either calendrical development or architectural alignment was present in the ancient Southwest (though it would be interesting to check some building alignments to see if any of these particular ones show up, which as far as I know no one has done). More interesting to me from my Southwestern perspective is Šprajc’s regional and temporal analysis, which does seem to tentatively provide some support for my Chaco theory.

Šprajc finds, perhaps unsurprisingly, that solstice alignments are the earliest, and that they are particularly characteristic of Preclassic sites in several regions, including Central Mexico, the Olmec region on the Gulf Coast, and the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. What he calls “quarter-day” orientations, which are not strictly to the equinoxes but to the calculated points in between the solstice alignments, are also common in early sites and often associated with solstice alignments. (He is dubious that actual equinox alignments really existed because they are difficult to observe.) In contrast, these alignments are fairly rare in early Maya sites.

The more complex calendrical alignments also appear fairly early, especially in Oaxaca but also in some Olmec sites as well as some in Central Mexico. It appears to be at Teotihuacan in the Early Classic period where two of the widespread calendrical alignments appear together for the first time, accounting for this major city’s well-known layout featuring two slightly different street grids. The subsequent spread of these alignments may be due in part to influence from Teotihuacan throughout Mesoamerica during the Classic period.

Among the areas of apparent Teotihuacan influence in alignment were northern and western Mesoamerica, which are the areas through which influence would presumably have flowed on its way to the Southwest. Šprajc notes, however, that the pattern of alignments shows a lot more diversity in these areas than elsewhere, with solstice and even cardinal alignments retaining substantial influence, and the northern site of Alta Vista may even have a true equinox alignment. From following the references to the more detailed report, it appears that the northern and western sites in the sample are all relatively late, with none earlier than the Early Classic. This is consistent with a spread of at least solstice alignment concepts, and possibly some other ideas, spreading gradually in this direction from the Mesoamerican heartland, eventually reaching Chaco by its rise in the Early Postclassic.

Finally, a word on the moon. Lunar standstill alignments have been identified at some Chacoan sites, especially Chimney Rock, but are controversial due to their general rarity worldwide. I found it intriguing, therefore, that Šprajc does identify some of these in Mesoamerica, but clustered primarily into specific subregions, especially the northeast coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and the Usumacinta drainage at the western edge of the Maya Lowlands. These alignments seem to be to the major lunar standstill and are associated with solstice alignments, implying that perhaps it was the full moons near the solstices that were primarily observed. They also seem to be associated with worship of a particular moon goddess, which helps to distinguish them from alignments to Venus, which are similar and were present in other subareas. This is way on the other end of Mesoamerica from the part most likely to have influenced the Southwest, so direct influence seems unlikely, but it’s interesting to note.

Overall, this article provides very interesting context for understanding Chaco and the role astronomy may have played in its florescence. Happy solstice!


Chaco Is Open!


Welcome Sign at North Entrance

Just a quick follow-up to the previous post: With the shutdown over and the government open again, at least for a little while, Chaco Canyon is open to visitors again. Per a post on the park’s Facebook page, normal operations resumed yesterday, January 27. The current deal only lasts three weeks, though, so if you want to definitely get a trip in do it fast.


Entrance to Pueblo Bonito

Chaco Is Closed


“Area Closed” Sign at Fajada Butte View

This is just a quick post to share some information likely to be of interest to my readers. There has been a lot of confusion about exactly how the National Park Service is responding to the government shutdown, which park units are accessible and not, and so forth. I’ve been pretty confused myself, and unfortunately this led me to give incorrect advice to a reader who asked if Chaco Canyon is accessible during the shutdown. I said my understanding, based on media reports, was that the parks are open but no visitor services are being provided. Since Chaco is mostly a self-guided experience, I took that to mean that the park would be accessible but the visitor center would be closed and no tours would be provided.

Well, the reader took my advice and headed out to Chaco, only to find that the gate was closed and the park was definitely neither open nor accessible. He let me know, and was nice about it, but I felt bad about leading him astray so I figured I would pass that information on here. Chaco is closed for the shutdown. Anyone planning to visit in the next few weeks should keep that in mind and monitor the news for information on when the government and the park will reopen.

If you do end up having to redirect a trip to Chaco as a result of the shutdown, Salmon Ruins in Bloomfield, New Mexico is one of the largest and most accessible Chacoan outlier sites, and since it’s managed by San Juan County rather than the federal government it is unaffected by the shutdown. Another option a little further afield is Edge of the Cedars in Blanding, Utah, which is a Utah state park and similarly unaffected. Most other Chacoan outlier sites that are open to the public are managed by federal agencies and will likely be inaccessible.


Edge of the Cedars Great House, Utah

In previous shutdowns parks have been closed entirely, which is the simplest and, from a resource-protection standpoint, most reasonable approach. This time it seems the NPS is taking a different and more complicated approach for reasons that are unclear. To try to get a better understanding of what exactly the NPS is doing with parks in this shutdown, particularly as it relates to Chaco, I took a look at the official NPS contingency plan. Two sections seem to explain what’s going on there:

As a general rule, if a facility or area is locked or secured during non-business hours (buildings, gated parking lots, etc.) it should be locked or secured for the duration of the shutdown.

This seems to explain what’s going on on the ground at Chaco, as reported by my reader who went there. The park loop road is ordinarily gated at night, so it appears that they’ve closed the gate for the duration of the shutdown. There are a few things to see on the way in to the park before the gate, but the vast majority of the sites and trails are beyond it.

At the superintendent’s discretion, parks may close grounds/areas with sensitive natural, cultural, historic, or archaeological resources vulnerable to destruction, looting, or other damage that cannot be adequately protected by the excepted law enforcement staff that remain on duty to conduct essential activities.

It’s possible that this section is also relevant, though it’s less clear. Certainly it would be best for resource protection to close all the major sites and trails; it’s hard enough for the law enforcement rangers to monitor visitor activity when the park is operating under normal circumstances. The test for this would be whether the attractions on the way into the park, particularly the Gallo Cliff Dwelling and the trail to Wijiji, are closed, which is not clear to me from the information I have. The park website currently says it’s closed entirely but without explanation of what that entails, so it may well be the case that this section has been invoked.

Hopefully the shutdown will be resolved soon and things will go back to normal, but for now it’s best to steer clear of Chaco. If I hear of any changes or get more information I’ll do another post.


Central Roomblock at Salmon Ruin