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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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Entrance to Pueblo Bonito

Chaco Is Closed

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“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.

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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.

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Central Roomblock at Salmon Ruin

Changes

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Winter Solstice Sunset, Chaco Canyon

Today is the winter solstice, which means it’s the tenth anniversary of this blog.

Ten years is a long time for this sort of thing, and the online landscape has changed a lot in the time I’ve been doing this. When I started, blogging was still a relatively hip new thing, and there were blogs starting up all over the place on all sorts of topics. Social media as we know it today was in its infancy, and while most of the major platforms did exist they didn’t have nearly the reach or the cultural position that they do now.

Over those ten years, blogging has waned as a medium, and a lot of the discursive energy that made it so interesting migrated to various social media platforms. It never totally went away, as it’s a very good medium for the sort of long-form, infrequent content that does not fit easily into social media, and my own blogging has increasingly moved into that mode as well. I get few comments and fewer active discussions in comment threads these days, although that is partly due to the fact that I rarely engage in the comment threads myself anymore. Blogging has just become a different beast than it once was.

I also haven’t had as much time for it in recent years as I used to. My posting frequency has declined over time, and in recent years it’s generally been once a month. I’ve made a point of never missing a calendar month, although it’s been a close call a few times. Some of the posts I’ve done to meet those deadlines have been pretty insubstantial, though, and I’m not very proud of them. I’ve continued to do occasional longer, more in-depth posts, but I just don’t have as much time in my life for blogging as I used to.

I’m not quitting, though. I’ve considered it, and even considered using this anniversary post to announce it, but I still have more to say. Tim Burke had a post recently about the decline of blogging, and a lot of it resonated deeply with me although not all of it is relevant to the type of blogging I do here. Particularly resonant was his conclusion:

And yet, I remain hopeful about blogging. I am not sure why. I am not sure when. This remains open for business, nevertheless.

Likewise, this site remains open for business, but with some changes. I still have plenty to say about the ancient Southwest as well as other topics, but I’ll be restricting my writing here to the former. I may find a new outlet (or more than one) for writing about other topics, including some that I’ve written about here in the past, and if I do I’ll mention it here. But in view of the particular audience for this site and its history, I think it’s best to keep the focus here fairly narrow going forward. I haven’t been as able to keep up on recent research on Chaco Canyon as I used to, but there’s been a lot of it and I’m sure I will return to it at some point. When I do, I’ll discuss it here.

I’m also going to dispense with the artificial monthly schedule and just post whenever I have something to say. The sorts of posts I have in mind, some of which I’ve been thinking about for years, will be long and take a while to write, and I don’t want to either rush them or put them off even longer in an effort to post with a consistent rhythm. Stay tuned.

Finally, to give this post a little bit of substantive content in addition to my blathering on, here’s a nice post, written fifteen years ago by another old-school blogger, Kieran Healy, about the Irish megalithic site of Newgrange and its solstice alignment. Healy’s conclusion about it is thought-provoking and seasonally appropriate, now more than ever:

A society—a civilization, if you like—is a hard thing to hold together. If you live in an agrarian society, and you have only stone, wood, and bone for tools, and you are on the western edge of Europe, few times are harder than the dead of Winter. The days are at their shortest, the sun is far away, and the Malthusian edge is right in front of you. It’s no wonder so many religious festivals take place around the solstice. Here were a people, more than five millennia ago, able not only to pull through the Winter successfully, but able also to build something like a huge timepiece to remind themselves that they were going to make it.

Times change, but we’ll make it too. Happy solstice.

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Chetro Ketl, the Talus Unit, and Pueblo Bonito from the Cliff Top

The New Chaco Museum

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New Museum at Chaco Canyon

Last week I went down to New Mexico for Thanksgiving, and while I was there I stopped by Chaco Canyon to see the new museum there. I had seen the new visitor center last year when I was there last, but the museum was still under construction so I wasn’t able to see it. It’s actually still not totally complete, but it is open to visitation and it is very impressive.

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Old Museum of Chaco Culture

The old Chaco museum was put together in the 1980s and by the time I was working at Chaco it was very outdated. It only had artifacts from the park’s own collection, which is fairly limited and doesn’t include the extraordinary finds excavated by early archaeologists, which are now in various museums elsewhere in the country. The interpretations weren’t necessarily inaccurate, but they were old and didn’t incorporate recent findings. It was also just a generally dark and dingy space, and not very pleasant as an experience.

The new museum is a vast improvement on all these counts. When it is complete it will have artifacts borrowed from those other museums, so the enormously impressive artifacts for which the canyon is famous will finally be available for viewing at the park itself after decades away. I say “when it is complete” because the artifacts are not actually there yet. Due to the lending museums’ strict standards, the park needs to develop and demonstrate very high-quality protective environmental conditions, which takes time and specialized expertise, and that process is not yet complete though park staff told me it is expected to be in the next few months. For now, there are a lot of empty cases with notes explaining the situation.

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Note Explaining Lack of Artifacts at New Chaco Museum

Even so, however, the types of artifacts intended to be shown and the explanatory material already in place shows that the new museum will incorporate current understandings and recent research to an impressive degree. Several interesting concepts that have come up in research discussed on this blog will be highlighted, including the discovery of chocolate residue in cylinder vessels and the idea that the “hachure” designs on black-on-white pottery represent the color blue-green. There is also a much more extensive discussion of modern Native communities and their connections to Chaco.

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Discussion of Modern Native Connections at New Chaco Museum

Aesthetically, too, the new space is much lighter and feels more open. It actually has the same footprint as the old one and isn’t any bigger, but it feels more spacious and comfortable. It’s a very pleasant visiting experience.

I’m looking forward to returning once the artifacts are in place, of course, but even without them it was a very worthwhile visit. This well-planned museum bodes well for the future of the park.

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“Chaco in Color” Display at New Chaco Museum

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Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Fajada Butte is one of the most prominent and noticeable landforms in Chaco Canyon. Standing as it does in the middle of one of the larger gaps in the canyon, it never fails to impress new visitors and longtime ones alike. These days it is most famous for the “Sun Dagger” spiral petroglyph near its summit that marks the summer solstice through an ingenious use of naturally occurring rockfall, but there is much more to Fajada than this one site and it seems to have played an important role in human understanding of the canyon for centuries, down to the present day.

We have only the limited information that can be gleaned from archaeology to use to try to understand what Fajada may have meant to the ancient Chacoans, but we are on firmer ground in understanding its meaning to the modern Navajo residents of the canyon and surrounding area. (Whether there is any connection between the two sets of meanings is an interesting question that is even harder to answer.) Navajo traditions about the butte center on a widespread and very interesting story, which serves in part to explain how it rises as an isolated promontory in the middle of one of the larger gaps in the mesas that define the canyon. This is the story of the “Witch Woman” or “Woman Who Dries You Up” who is said to live atop the mesa.

There are many versions of the story told by Navajos from various places, not just in the vicinity of Chaco itself, but the core of it is that the Witch Woman disguises herself as a young woman to seduce a man and bring him back to her house, which is at ground level. When he wakes up in the morning, she has transformed into an old crone and the butte has magically risen up beneath her house. Since there is no source of water atop the butte, the men entrapped this way generally die of thirst, hence the name “Woman Who Dries You Up.” There is an isolated boulder on top of the butte that is locally called the “Witch Woman’s House” from this story.

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Fajada Butte from Road into Chaco

The simple version of the story given above is pretty straightforward and could be viewed as merely an attempt to account for the origin of the notably isolated landform, and that may well be the origin of it. There are some versions that are more complex, however, possibly weaving in parts of other stories that may not have been originally related but that are certainly evocative.

One such version was reported in a brief article by W. W. and Dorothy Hill published in 1943 based on fieldwork by one of them (it’s not clear which) a few years earlier. It was told by a man from Crown Point, New Mexico, which is one of the closer communities to Chaco but definitely well outside the canyon itself. As reported in the article it is somewhat disjointed, and it’s clear that there must be more detail in the full version, though whether it was abridged by the Hills or by the original teller is unclear.

Anyway, the story centers on a “Holy Man” who has various adventures. He runs a race against Old Man Frog and has to give up his legs, which Frog gives to his wife who then grinds corn for four nights without stopping. Some men put pollen on her and she falls asleep, which allows the Holy Man’s brother to retrieve the legs and return them to him. The Holy Man then heads home and lightning misses him four times, which “initiates” him into something (presumably giving him some sort of supernatural power).

When he gets home he asks his relatives to have a ceremony for him, perhaps to cure him of some sort of bad influence from his adventures so far. At one point in the ceremony he is sent outside the hogan, where he meets the Witch Woman in her seductive young woman form. She brings him to her house, described as “a piece of hard rock where he found all kinds of jewelry, shells, and hides.” He spends the night, during which the rock grows and becomes the butte.

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Fajada Butte with Ramp (Lower Right)

So he wakes up and the young woman has become a crone, and he’s up on top of the butte with no way down. He walks around for a while until a jay and a dove, who are explained to be young girls in disguise, come to him. They make fun of him but also give him water, foiling the Witch Woman’s usual modus operandi.

The birds feed and water him for four days, then they tell him that Big Snake will come up to the east side of the butte and take him down, which does indeed happen. The snake tells him to run when he gets to the ground, which is good because the Witch Woman somehow got down too and is in hot pursuit.

He runs to the east and meets a series of lizards and frogs who can’t help him, until eventually he gets back to his old adversary Old Man Frog. After the Holy Man begs him four times for help, Frog does help him by hiding him in a hole. The Witch Woman comes up and asks about him, but Frog says he hasn’t seen him. Frog and the Witch Woman then race around Mt. Taylor (which is visible from many parts of Chaco including Fajada Gap) with the understanding that if Frog wins she has to let the Holy Man go. It’s a close race through various types of wind and rain, but Frog narrowly wins and the Witch Woman lets the Holy Man go free. Frog then advises him never to let anything like that happen again.

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Mt. Taylor from Chaco

So that’s the story. There are a lot of fascinating elements to it, along with a lot of traditional folktale elements common to Navajo stories as well as Pueblo ones, especially the prominence of the number four. It seems likely to me that some of these elements are from other stories that have been combined with the Fajada Witch Woman story, but some of them have echoes in other Navajo stories, likely of Pueblo origin, that relate to Chaco, such as the Gambler story. The Big Snake part is also fascinating due to the importance of the horned/feathered serpent concept in Pueblo tradition, and the role in plays is interesting in light of the artificial ramp leading up to the summit that appears to have been built in Chacoan times.

I don’t really have a theory tying this all together, and coming up with one would require a more detailed survey of the different versions of this story than I’ve done. Still, it is really interesting. Happy Halloween!

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Fajada Butte at Sunset

Local Action

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Quinhagak, Alaska

I’ve mentioned before that the prehistory of Alaska is much less well-understood than that of many other parts of North America, but there have been some interesting recent efforts to expand the amount of data available and the interpretations it can support. One of the most interesting is the excavation of the Nunalleq site in the small, remote community of Quinhagak. This project is distinctive in that it has been driven primarily by the local community, which saw that the site was in danger of being lost from accelerated erosion (driven in part by climate change). In partnership with archaeologist Rick Knecht from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, local people led by the village corporation, Qanirtuuq Incorporated, worked to excavate this extremely well-preserved late pre-Contact site, which dates to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries AD. The number of elaborate, well-preserved artifacts is astounding, and it is by far the richest site of the ancestral Yup’ik people of southwestern Alaska known to date.

Even more interesting, the artifacts are being displayed in a newly opened museum right in Quinhagak, rather than being stored in a distant location where they are not accessible to the descendant community. This not only gives the local people an opportunity to understand and access their heritage, but it also provides a tourist destination that can bring in much-needed economic activity to this very poor part of the state. This isn’t a model that can be replicated everywhere, but it’s a fascinating success story of archaeological research and heritage presentation driven by a local indigenous community in cooperation with outside academic experts. Definitely worth noting.

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Qanirtuuq Incorporated Building, Quinhagak, Alaska