Research on Chaco Canyon has covered an astonishing variety of topics and involved a remarkable number of academic disciplines, including archaeology, anthropology (both physical and sociocultural), dendrochronology, geology, botany, ecology, zoology, chemistry, forestry, geodesy, climatology, geography, architecture, and engineering. The result of all this research has been an extensive scholarly literature addressing Chaco from a variety of perspectives. Despite this diversity in backgrounds and approaches of researchers, however, there remains a surprising amount of disagreement about many quite basic aspects of Chaco and the system of which it seems to have been the center. The factual and interpretive disagreements involve a range of empirical and theoretical questions as diverse as the people arguing over them, but a considerable number of them ultimately reduce to a single question, one that has haunted Chacoan studies for decades, ever since archaeologists first began to realize that certain aspects of Chaco set it apart from other parts of Pueblo cultural history. The terms in which this question is expressed have varied over the years, as have the names for the positions taken by the disputants, but the fundamental issue has remained the same. Here I call it the “Big Question.”
The Big Question, as phrased by Lynne Sebastian in her concluding chapter of the Chaco Project synthesis volume is this: “Was Chacoan society marked by institutionalized differences in social, economic and political power?” Sebastian adds a followup question as well: “If so, what were the basis and structure of those inequalities?” I will term this “Sebastian’s Question” and add another followup question (“My Question”) to cover the other possible answer: “If not, what societal characteristics account for the remarkable differences between the visible remains of Chacoan society and those of other manifestations of the same cultural tradition?”
As Sebastian points out, this basic dispute has been expressed over the decades through a series of dichotomies: complex/not complex, hierarchical/nonhierarchical, competitive/communal, inegalitarian/egalitarian, political/ritual. These largely reflect shifts in theoretical emphasis within archaeology as a discipline. The basic question remains the same, as does the lineup of people arguing each side of it.
The reason for this, as Sebastian also notes, has a lot to do with the related question of where to look to explain Chaco. The most obvious way to build models of poorly understood ancient societies is to look at better-understood societies, either ancient or modern, and find characteristics that can be analogized to the archaeological record of the society in question. This is called “ethnographic analogy” in archaeology, and it is one of the main tools used by scholars to come up with theories to explain Chaco. The most obvious place to look, and the place where the earliest researchers focused almost exclusively, is in modern Pueblo societies, which are populated by the descendants of the Chacoans. Modern Pueblos are famous in ethnography for their egalitarian nature, and while there have recently been some arguments by anthropologists that there is a considerable amount of hierarchy lurking beneath the egalitarian surface, the fact that so much effort clearly goes into maintaining the appearance of equality shows where the values and priorities of the Pueblos lie.
Thus, the obvious conclusion to draw from looking at modern Pueblos is that ancient Pueblo societies such as Chaco were egalitarian as well, and this was indeed the conclusion drawn (or, more frequently, assumed) by the early researchers. In other words, this perspective concludes that the answer to the Big Question is “no”: Chaco may have differed from modern Pueblos in some respects, but its basic organization was fundamentally similar to that of the modern Pueblos in being egalitarian. This means that the modern Pueblos are, in some sense, continuations of Chaco, and I will therefore call scholars holding this position “Continuationists.”
Over time and with increasing amounts of research it has become apparent that, despite the surprisingly meager amount of clear empirical data available, there are indeed some quite striking differences between what we can see of Chaco and what we see today among the modern Pueblos. The lavish burials found in Pueblo Bonito, compared to the more modest ones in the small houses across the canyon, are the most obvious example, but there are other indications as well that there was something odd going on in the Chacoan World during the Chacoan Era that distinguishes it from other manifestations of Pueblo society.
The Continuationists are therefore faced with My Question: if Chaco was fundamentally egalitarian in nature, what’s going on with all these apparent inequalities? Answers vary, and frequently involve the use of analogies to other known societies, but they tend to be based primarily on comparisons to various aspects of the modern Pueblos. The historical and ethnographic record of the modern Pueblos is very rich and modern Pueblo societies are very diverse, so there’s a lot of material to work with here. Continuationist theories of Chaco, therefore, can differ from each other quite a bit, though there are generally a lot of broad similarities, and the answers to My Question resulting from these theories vary as well.
Another conclusion to draw from the differences between Chaco and the modern Pueblos is that the answer to the Big Question is “yes”: Chacoan society, unlike modern Pueblo societies, was inegalitarian in some sense. This makes it something of an aberration from more typical Pueblo societies throughout their long temporal and extensive spatial extent, and I therefore call scholars holding this position “Aberrationists.”
On the face of it, the Aberrationists have a pretty strong case. There does seem to have been something different going on in Chaco. Explaining what, exactly, was going on there, however, quickly becomes problematic. The key issue becomes Sebastian’s Question: if Chaco was inegalitarian, and therefore different from the egalitarian modern Pueblos, what was the basis of that inequality and how did it work? The empirical evidence is insufficient to answer this question on its own, so Aberrationists are forced to come up with theories and models to explain their postulated inegalitarian Chaco. One of the main methods available to them in this is ethnographic analogy.
Use of ethnographic analogy to build theories, however, requires deciding which societies to look at in search of parallels, and this is where the Aberrationists run into trouble. As I mentioned above, the most obvious place to look for analogies to Chaco is in the modern Pueblos, the descendent societies (at least in some sense) of Chaco and other ancient Pueblo societies, and this is the main ethnographic analogy used by Continuationists in building their models. But wait! That’s not going to work for the Aberrationists! Their whole point, remember, is that Chaco is different from the modern Pueblos. So, while some comparisons to the modern Pueblos are necessary to flesh out certain aspects of Chacoan society, explaining the inegalitarian aspects of Chaco, which the Aberrationists hold to be among the most important, requires looking elsewhere for analogies.
The place to look for analogies to explain an inegalitarian society is naturally in other inegalitarian societies. But wait! There are a lot of inegalitarian societies! And they differ a lot from each other! Which ones are the best sources of analogies to use in constructing models of Chaco? The empirical evidence from Chaco offers few useful answers, so Aberrationists are forced to make some choices and decide on which criteria to use to make them. They end up making different choices, so Aberrationist models of Chaco differ enormously, as do the resulting answers to Sebastian’s Question.
Thus, the Big Question, and the two followup questions resulting from it, results in an enormous variety of theories and models to explain Chaco. As I sometimes put it to visitors when the topic comes up on tours, models of Chacoan society range from egalitarian to totalitarian. This is about as wide a spectrum of models as it is possible to get for a single society, and the resulting lack of consensus among Chaco specialists is the main source of the heated debates that, as Sebastian points out, have characterized the field for decades.
The rather paltry nature of the Chacoan empirical record, despite decades of intensive research, makes ethnographic analogy virtually a necessity for both Continuationist and Aberrationist models of Chaco. The differences among the models stem largely (though by no means entirely) from the different societies chosen for comparison. While Continuationists tend to look to documented examples of communal, egalitarian societies that nonetheless manage to construct impressive monuments and engage in other sophisticated large-scale activity, Aberrationists look instead to societies with varying levels of hierarchy along various dimensions and try to determine what aspects of their organizational systems are most directly responsible for whatever impressive achievements they have. Neolithic Europe, with its huge arrangements of megalithic monuments despite a clear lack of economic (and presumably political) inequality, is a common choice for the Continuationists, while various “chiefdoms” and (to a lesser extent) “states” around the world are more are more popular among Aberrationists; Sebastian, for example, in the book chapter in which she poses the Big Question, goes on to discuss possible analogies to Chaco in sub-Saharan Africa.
Given these varied and diverse proposals for analogies to Chaco among better-known societies, one way to rephrase the Big Question in a more concrete and less jargony fashion is: Was Chaco the American Stonehenge? Or the American Rome?