One of the most noticeable things about Chaco Canyon, which visitors frequently mention, is that it’s a very harsh environment. It’s difficult to imagine how the Chacoans could have accomplished all that they did in such an environment, and the fact that they did is one of the most impressive and inspiring things about the place.
Another very noticeable thing about Chaco Canyon, however, is that the Chacoans don’t live there anymore. Despite the obvious evidence all over the canyon of the grandeur and majesty of the Chacoan experiment, it’s very difficult to escape the impression from that same evidence that it was ultimately a failed experiment. While the nature of the Chacoan system remains surprisingly murky, the fact that it was at least in some ways very different from the Pueblo societies that succeeded it has become increasingly clear, and the obvious implication is that there was something about the Chaco Phenomenon that was ultimately incompatible with the difficult environment in which it briefly flourished. This leads to the further implication that the fact that the modern Pueblos succeeded while Chaco did not has something to do with the many significant changes that occurred in the southwest between the Chacoan era and Spanish contact.
There are two main categories of factors that seem at first glance most likely to play a role in this undoubtedly complicated chain of events: environmental and social. The environmental factors include such things as rainfall patterns and hydrological conditions, which can shift over the course of various time frames with important consequences for human adaptations. An admittedly imperfect picture of ancient climatic conditions can be assembled form several sources of evidence, such as tree-rings and sedimentation patterns. The social factors, which can be considerably more difficult to interpret and understand, include such things as the organization of a society, its receptiveness to outsiders, and its flexibility in the face of major change.
These factors are by no means independent, of course, and they can affect each other in all sorts of ways. Any reasonable explanation of a complex societal change must involve both. In a case like that of the prehistoric southwest, however, involving a series of interactions among agricultural societies in an environment marginal at best for agricultural production, the question of which type of factor was most important in the eventual outcome becomes at least somewhat interesting.
One interpretation, focusing on environmental factors with social factors playing a reactive (though still important) role, is that after the fall of Chaco the Pueblo people moved to areas that were more reliable for subsistence and developed societal structures that used efficient strategies of resource usage to create enduring, sustainable communities. This is more or less the argument that David Stuart makes in Anasazi America. And, indeed, the massive shift of population into the Rio Grande valley during the Pueblo IV period suggests that the relative abundance of the riverine ecosystem there, compared to the increasingly harsh and erratic environment on the Colorado Plateau, led to that area becoming such an important population and cultural center for the region. The importance of the Rio Grande, which had previously been a sparsely populated fringe area, definitely implies that environmental factors were key to these shifts, with the societal factors involved correspondingly less important.
Not everyone went to the Rio Grande, however. Some people stayed on the Colorado Plateau, despite its worsening ecological conditions, implying that we shouldn’t be too quick to give environmental factors a leading role in cultural changes during this time. Many parts of the Plateau were apparently completely abandoned, but others witnessed considerable influxes of people, presumably from the areas being abandoned. Not all of these clusters of communities that developed in the post-Chaco era managed to survive to the historic period, but on the Colorado Plateau three did, and the remnants of them are there to this day: Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi.
The Acoma and Zuni areas were both fairly substantially occupied during the Chacoan era and seem to have participated in the Chaco system to some extent, and some Zuni-area communities even carried on some of its motifs long after the demise of the system itself. While these aren’t the most fertile areas in the region, they’re habitable enough, and their long histories of continuous occupation bear witness to their attractions. I’ll have more on them in future posts, but here I’m going to focus on the third cluster, Hopi, which has a very different history.
As E. Charles Adams notes in the fourth chapter of The Prehistoric Pueblo World, the environment in the Hopi area is and always has been rather marginal for agriculture even by southwestern standards. For most of the span of prehistory its population density was correspondingly low, with the small population present during and immediately after the Chacoan era living in dispersed communities of pithouses and small pueblos, apparently integrated by great kivas in typical fashion for this time. There is no clear evidence of Hopi participation in the Chaco system, and there are no really plausible candidates for Hopi great houses, though there were some great houses in the nearby Low Mountain area and there presumably would have been some interaction with at least regional varieties of Chacoan society. Adams suggests that the lack of strong connections between Chaco and Hopi was probably due to the Hopi area’s small population and marginal agricultural productivity, even during this time of favorable climate throughout most of the southwest.
Even the collapse of the Chacoan system around AD 1150 doesn’t seem to have had any perceptible effects at Hopi. Around 1250, however, as the deterioration of environmental conditions began to reach crisis levels, there was a sudden and massive influx of people from all directions to Hopi, changing the character and future of the area forever. The main visible sign of these changes was a shift from the previous dispersed pattern of settlement to settlement aggregation on a major scale, involving large but compact pueblos oriented around plazas, with great kivas totally disappearing.
Adams sees these plazas as the key to understanding the changes of this period. He notes that immigrants seem to have come from all directions: Kayenta and possibly Mesa Verde to the north, the Mogollon culture area to the south, the Sinagua to the west, and possibly the Chinle Valley and Wide Ruins area to the east. This influx of people around the time that things started to get really bad environmentally suggests that some of the adaptations to the chaninging times tried by groups in other areas had failed, and the people sought refuge at Hopi, which had found a better way to cope.
But what was that better way? It surely wasn’t migrating to an area with better or more reliable environmental conditions; Hopi was, if anything, worse than most surrounding areas in this respect. In these circumstances, it seems obvious that social rather than environmental factors must have been primary.
Adams agrees, and he sees the main social factor operative being the adoption of the plaza-oriented community layout and the accompanying kachina cult, which used the plazas for public rituals to integrate the increasingly diverse communities. The key thing about the kachina cult is that it was based on membership in secret societies based on the possession and use of ritual knowledge, rather than being based, as community organizations apparently had been before, on kinship connections. The adoption of the cult and its accompanying plazas, which appear to have originated among the Mogollon of the Upper Little Colorado River area, helped to keep communities together by reducing the importance of kinship to community institutions and instituting forms of ritual and social organization that could potentially include everyone who chose to immigrate to the area.
This “pro-immigrant” ideology and the resulting influx of immigrants was politically advantageous to the large and growing communities that resulted. In this era of strife and warfare, fueled by competition over increasingly scarce resources, there was a huge advantage in maintaining a large population relative to other groups. Despite the declining resource base, then, the most successful political leaders tried to get people to join their communities, and the kachina cult offered them a useful means for bringing them into the existing community when they arrived.
This is not to say that environmental factors were irrelevant, of course, and Adams points out that part of the success of Hopi can be attributed to a concerted effort to make the most of the resources available, through agricultural intensification and the use of locally abundant coal to fire pottery. Overall, however, it’s clear that the main advantage Hopi had was its innovative social organization and the large population that resulted from it.
This, then, may be the lesson of Hopi, which was a very successful response to a very difficult situation. The contrast to Chaco, which also seems to have been socially innovative but in ways that are unclear to us today, is striking and important. The Chacoans were building huge, finely constructed great houses and extending their influence throughout the region while the Hopis were living in small pithouses and generally staying out of the way. The Chacoan great houses are empty and crumbling now, awe-inspiring even in their ruined state but very much places of the past, while the Hopi mesas are home to several vibrant, living communities and are clearly places of the present and the future. If we are to be looking for models to emulate in our own time of troubles, which should we choose?