Chapter 9 of The Prehistoric Pueblo World, by Keith Kintigh, focuses on the Cibola region, defined here as a rather large area of west-central New Mexico extending into Arizona. This region is of particular interest in the study of Puebloan prehistory because, like Hopi, it was one of the few parts of the Colorado Plateau to still be occupied when the Spanish arrived in New Mexico in the sixteenth century. What the Spanish found were several small pueblos collectively known as Zuni. The colonial rumor mill had hyped these villages up into the famed “Seven Cities of Cibola” with their untold riches, so the first Spanish explorers were mightily disappointed to find how poor and isolated they actually were. Later events, particularly the devastating effects of epidemic disease, resulted in the consolidation of the pueblos into one, originally called Halona but now generally known simply as Zuni Pueblo.
That’s what happened after the Spanish arrived, but what happened before? How did Zuni end up in the condition it was in when the Spanish found it, and what happened to the substantial and widespread Pueblo population of the Colorado Plateau that is so apparent in the archaeological record from the time of Chaco?
Kintigh’s answer, ultimately, is that it’s hard to say. He takes a very cautious and careful approach to the methodological issues involved in the study of this region, and is quick to point out several times the problematic nature of the data. This is a very large region, one of the largest covered by any of the chapters in the book, and only a few parts of it have been studied in any sort of depth. As a result, while certain areas (such as Zuni itself) are fairly well-known, there are huge parts of the region that have been surveyed minimally or not at all. This makes conclusions about regional dynamics extremely problematic, and Kintigh shies away from making any firm ones.
Another problem with the data that Kintigh mentions involves chronology. While there are some tree-ring dates from the region, most dating of sites comes from ceramic sequences, not all of which are totally secure and most of which are pretty imprecise. This allows a rough sorting of sites into different periods, but makes detailed examinations of site occupation durations and dynamics nearly impossible in most areas.
Despite these rather large problems with the data available, certain broad trends are apparent in the parts of the region that have been studied. These generally track the changes seen over time in the rest of the Plateau, with the Chacoan era marked by great houses and loosely clustered communities of small houses and the later periods marked by increasing aggregation into large pueblos, culminating in the apparently total abandonment of all areas except Zuni by 1400.
There are, however, some aspects of this process in the Cibola region that stand in contrast to what was happening elsewhere. For one thing, while the region does show some sort of involvement in the Chaco system and there are both Chacoan great houses and dispersed small-house communities, the great houses and communities don’t seem to be associated with each other. This is in stark contrast to other parts of the Chacoan world, where great houses were either built in the midst of already established communities or founded in unoccupied areas accompanied by newly established communities. This suggests, perhaps, that the nature of the relationship between the Cibola outliers and Chaco was different from that seen elsewhere, but beyond that it’s hard to say what was going on here.
In the post-Chacoan era after AD 1150, the existing communities seem to have become denser, but there is quite a bit of variation in both size and density of roomblocks. Some of the more clearly defined communities from this period have great houses, but not all do. In notable contrast to the Chacoan era, there are no isolated great houses during this period. This is more typical of the pattern seen elsewhere during Chaco’s heyday, and it is again unclear why it only developed after the decline of Chaco in this region. It may have something to do with the apparent persistence of certain Chacoan ideas in the Cibola area into the post-Chaco era, a characteristic also seen in the Mesa Verde region.
After 1250, the Cibola region witnessed a clear shift of the population into aggregated pueblos, and the small sites seem to disappear entirely by 1300. This is quite similar to what was happening elsewhere on the Plateau at the same time, particularly in the Mesa Verde region. Also similar is the apparently short occupation spans of most of these sites, although the crudeness of the chronology makes detailed study of this difficult. Also obscured by chronological problems is the nature of the aggregation process in the first place. These sites, again like those to the north, are mostly at higher elevations in areas suited for runoff-based agriculture.
Some of these aggregated sites persisted longer than those in many other parts of the Plateau, but they too were empty by 1400, when there seems to have been a complete abandonment of most of the region and a move of the remaining population to lower-elevation sites along the Zuni River and its tributaries. The nature of the change suggests a shift to a system of agriculture based on riverine irrigation. This process resulted in the establishment of the villages that the Spanish would encounter later.
These trends are apparent enough even given the problematic data, and the parallels with other regions are intriguing, but the reasons for the patterns seen in the archaeological record remain difficult to discern. Kintigh considers various issues possibly involved in the processes of aggregation and abandonment, including environmental change and warfare (for which, unlike Steven LeBlanc, he sees little clear evidence), but in the end declines to make any definitive pronouncements. This is understandable given the nature of the data, but the importance of this region for understanding the dynamics of change on a larger scale makes it very desirable to see an increase in both the quantity and quality of data available. As one of the very few surviving communities from the Colorado Plateau’s long and turbulent past, Zuni surely has lessons to teach about that past. Unfortunately, at this point they remain obscure.