One of the most exciting recent developments in the study of Chaco Canyon is the increasing use of scientific analysis of artifacts and other material remains to test and challenge previous theories based more narrowly on traditional archaeology. This includes the use of radiocarbon dating, which is widely used as a basis for developing chronologies in most other parts of the world but has been underused in the Southwest due to the availability of tree-ring dating for chronology building. Particularly with the development of accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating, which requires vastly less material than earlier methods, however, it is now possible to gain direct dates on a very wide variety of materials, including many artifact types as well as plants and human and animal bones. This allows an independent check on dating of material by association with tree-ring dated architecture and pottery, which has been the traditional approach. The increasing use of AMS on the museum collections excavated decades ago from Pueblo Bonito, in particular, is starting to lead to some unexpected and surprising conclusions. This work is largely being done by archaeologists associated with the University of Virginia led by Steve Plog, in collaboration with colleagues at many other institutions.
One recent paper, about a year old now, reported some surprising results from the dating of the bones of one of the most distinctive species found at Chaco: scarlet macaws. These birds are not native to anywhere near the Southwest, and they must have been brought up from very far south in Mexico. They are disproportionately found at only a few sites in the Southwest, one of which is Pueblo Bonito. Traditionally it has been thought that the importation of macaws was associated with the “florescence” of Chaco, the roughly 100-year period starting around AD 1040 when most of the monumental great houses in the canyon were built and Chacoan influence is seen over a very large part of the northern Southwest. For this study, the researchers dated 14 macaws from Pueblo Bonito: 11 from Room 38, which had the highest concentration of macaw remains at the site, two from Room 78, and one from Room 71. Both of these latter rooms are in fairly close proximity to Room 38 within the site. They also dated four macaws from Mimbres sites in southwestern New Mexico, another area with a relatively high concentration of these birds that lies between Chaco and Mexico and thus could played a role in their procurement, and two from Grand Gulch in Utah, which is on the far fringes of the ancient Pueblo world and yet has produced a few macaw specimens.
The results were surprising, and they challenge the traditional association of macaws with the Chacoan florescence. Six of the Chaco birds dated to between AD 885 and 990 (all dates given here are at 95% probability), well before the florescence and a time when Chaco would have been much less impressive architecturally. This is, however, a time when population in the canyon was increasing rapidly through immigration from various areas that were affected by the big changes at the end of the Pueblo I period, as we have seen in my recent series of posts on Pueblo I. The authors of this paper don’t mention this population movement specifically, but they do suggest that this indicates that the later period of monumental construction and other signs of sociopolitical complexity was the result of a long period of developing complexity, which fits the demographic evidence pretty well.
Six other birds date between AD 970 and 1035, which would put them shortly before or possibly at the very beginning of the florescence and building boom. This suggests that trade relations with the far south continued beyond the initial period when macaws were introduced to the canyon. The final two date between AD 1015 and 1155, which suggests they probably were procured sometime during (or even shortly after) the period of florescence. Overall the dates suggest that macaws were procured throughout most of the period of Chaco’s rise from the period when Chaco was first rising to regional preeminence in the ninth and tenth centuries until its loss of preeminence (I think “collapse” is too strong a term for this still poorly understood phenomenon) in the twelfth.
One thing you may have noticed about those date ranges, however, is that they all overlap. Given the statistical uncertainty of radiocarbon dates, this means that it’s possible that these dates indicate a continuous process of importation of macaws from Mesoamerica. (There is no evidence for breeding of macaws at Chaco, unlike at the later site of Casas Grandes in northern Chihuahua.) The clustering of sets of dates, however, suggests on the contrary that importation was sporadic, with possibly just three individual procurements of multiple birds at a time. And additional complication is that the shape of the radiocarbon calibration curve differs at different times through this sequence, which can lead to certain time periods being over- or under-represented in series of dates. To test these hypotheses, the authors did some simulation of random dates throughout the period in question and compared the resulting distributions with the actual distribution of macaw dates. The results were that the early cluster of dates did conform to what might be expected from the effects of the shape of the curve, the middle cluster had more dates than would be expected and the late cluster fewer. This suggests that while it is possible that procurement of macaws was a continuous process, it does appear that a larger number of birds were imported in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries than earlier or later. Of course, this is a small sample, and these apparent patterns may change with more data.
As for the non-Chaco macaws, one of the Mimbres ones dated to AD 895 to 1020, straddling the first two clusters of dates at Chaco, while the other three all dated from around AD 1015 to 1155, as did the two Grand Gulch specimens. This suggests that macaws were present earlier at Chaco than in areas to either the north or south, which further suggests that at least initial importation of macaws to Chaco didn’t necessarily depend on Mimbres middlemen. Macaws have also been found at Hohokam sites in southern Arizona that appear to be in earlier contexts than the ones at Chaco, but none of these have yet been directly dated.
While it may appear initially surprising, the early dates for macaws at Chaco do actually fit with increasing evidence from other sources suggesting that the rise of Chaco and its social and economic power significantly predated its “florescence” as seen in monumental architecture. This includes a study from a few years ago, from the same group of Virginia researchers, that dated human remains from Room 33 in Pueblo Bonito, including the two burials that were associated with enormous numbers of valuable grave goods, and found those two burials long predated the Chacoan florescence and may in fact have been contemporary with the earliest construction at the great house in the mid-ninth century or even earlier. (That paper really deserves a post of its own, which I keep meaning to write, but this brief summary will have to do for now.)
Taken in conjunction with the evidence for regional population movement in late Pueblo I, this study provides more support for the idea that the influx of populations into the canyon in the late ninth century, some bringing ideas developed in the earlier short-lived villages to the north in Colorado, set the stage for the development of new ideas about social organization and hierarchy which may have led to new ideologies and the importation of both goods and ideas from areas far away. The fact that macaws would have to have come from the south, where the archaeology of areas immediately adjacent to the Chacoan region is much more poorly known than that of comparable areas to the north, points to the importance of developing a better understanding of those areas. We still know very little about the exact routes of trade connections to the south, even as the importance of those connections becomes increasingly apparent.
Watson, A., Plog, S., Culleton, B., Gilman, P., LeBlanc, S., Whiteley, P., Claramunt, S., & Kennett, D. (2015). Early procurement of scarlet macaws and the emergence of social complexity in Chaco Canyon, NM Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (27), 8238-8243 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1509825112