West Plaza of Pueblo Bonito from Room 28
It’s been a few months now since the announcement of the discovery of chocolate residue on sherds from cylinder jars found at Chaco Canyon. While there will certainly be a considerable amount of research into the implications of this discovery over the course of the next few years, and much of it is likely going on already, given the glacial pace of archaeological publishing it’s probably going to be quite some time before any such research reaches a publicly accessible form. This is probably a good time, then, to take a preliminary look at what this discovery may mean in the context of previous theories about and interpretations of the Chaco Phenomenon.
Picture of Cylinder Jars on Plaque at Fajada Butte View
The first thing to note is that this discovery contains a lot of information. In addition to being remarkably clear-cut and unambiguous in its determination that the cylinder jar sherds contain chocolate residue, it also implies some surprisingly straightforward conclusions about the nature of the process that resulted in the chocolate arriving at Chaco. Since the core area of Mesoamerican cacao production, then and now, is in southern Mexico along the Gulf and Pacific coasts in Tabasco, Chiapas, and further south along the Pacific coast into Guatemala and El Salvador, it’s likely that the chocolate coming to Chaco originated somewhere in that area (although this is certainly something that people are likely to be studying in detail). That means it would have to travel over a distance of roughly 2000 miles.
Display Case at Visitor Center Showing Cylinder Jar and Canteens
That’s a long way. Since the chocolate in Chaco would have to arrive in usable form, it would presumably have been transported in the most durable form possible, which would probably be the dried cacao beans. Interestingly, these were used as currency in some parts of Mesoamerica during at least some portions of the prehispanic era. However, since the residue on the Chaco sherds had soaked into the sherd and was not even visible on the surface, it seems the chocolate in the cylinder jars was in liquid form. This is not really surprising, since the Mesoamericans generally consumed chocolate as a liquid, but it suggests that along with the dry cacao beans was coming the knowledge of how to prepare them by grinding them into a powder to be mixed with various additives to produce a beverage. It’s not at all obvious from just looking at the cacao beans how to do this, or even that it would be a reasonable thing to do, so it’s pretty clear that whoever was bringing the beans up knew what to do with them and how. That is, they weren’t just being passed from group to group as curiosities or being borne on the wind.
Cylinder Jar at Visitor Center Museum from Above
In addition, the fact that the residue was found on sherds that seem to have come from cylinder jars and (importantly) not on sherds from other types of vessels suggests that knowledge of a different sort was coming up with the beans as well. This would be knowledge of the role of chocolate in society: how it was to be consumed, by whom, and when and where. This is suggested by the fact that the form of the cylinder jar, which was often used by Mesoamerican groups for chocolate consumption, was apparently being transmitted along with the cacao beans and the knowledge of how to prepare them. It’s crucial to note that the jars themselves don’t seem to have been brought up physically; the Mayan examples, the best known, look very different from the Chacoan ones in decoration, although they are strikingly similar in size and shape, and no examples of anything resembling a Mesoamerican cylinder jar have ever been found in the southwest to my knowledge. Rather, the idea of using a cylindrical vessel, an exotic and very rare form in the southwest, to drink this exotic beverage seems to have been transmitted by whoever was bringing the beans from which the beverage was to be made.
Sealed Doorway, Room 28, Pueblo Bonito
This suggests that more information and knowledge from cultures to the south may have been transmitted to Chaco as well. Much of this, however, may have been of an abstract nature that has not survived in the physical archaeological record. The chocolate knowledge, note, very nearly didn’t survive either, and it’s only because we now have the ability to analyze the pottery chemically that we know about it. What else may have been coming up from Mexico that left even less of a trace? It’s hard to know, but this is an area of study that may deserve renewed attention and that could, conceivably, result in some answers to the enduring mysteries of Chaco.
Puchteca Indian Art, Flagstaff, Arizona
This idea of Mesoamerican influence on Chaco is hardly new, of course. While the similarity between the Chacoan cylinder jars and the Mayan ones has been noted ever since the Chacoan ones were discovered in the 1890s, it’s generally been considered coincidental or at least not strong evidence for contact or influence, given the extreme distance in both space and time between Chaco and the Classic Maya. Other aspects of the Chaco Phenomenon, however, have been taken by some as evidence of substantial influence from civilizations to the south. This tendency was particularly marked among the so-called “Mexicanists” of the 1960s and 1970s, who proposed that Chaco was more or less entirely a creation of Mesoamerican influence, perhaps by Toltec merchants organized along the lines of the later Aztec class of elite long-distance merchants known as pochteca (or puchteca). The motivation usually cited for this interference was the acquisition of turquoise, which became a highly valued commodity in Postclassic Mesoamerica, where it was used in all sorts of ceremonial contexts. The very large quantities of turquoise found at Chaco intrigued these scholars, who were generally specialists in Mesoamerica rather than the southwest. They proposed that Chaco was either a turquoise acquisition center founded and controlled by Mesoamerican merchants or an indigenous center with a monopoly over the supply of turquoise that was exploited and supported by those same merchants. As evidence of this influence they cited the Mexican trade goods such as copper bells from western Mexico, scarlet macaws (which seem to have been kept alive, presumably for their feathers, at Chaco), and shells from the Gulf of California, along with architectural influences such as the Colonnade at Chetro Ketl and t-shaped doorways at many of the Chacoan sites, often in significant locations such as in plaza-facing rooms.
T-Shaped Doorway with Step at Pueblo Bonito
Most southwestern archaeologists, especially Chaco specialists, didn’t take these theories very seriously. An “Indigenist” school of Chacoan interpretation developed which proposed that, while there may have been some minor contact with Mesoamerica, Chaco was fundamentally a local development best understood in an indigenous context. They noted that the Mexican trade goods were very scarce and not necessarily associated with Chaco specifically more than other southwestern sites, and as for the architectural influences, they were awfully subtle and not necessarily evidence of influence rather than coincidental parallel development. In general, the signs of possible Mexican influence at Chaco pale in comparison to the many ways in which Chacoan developments clearly echo local precedents. The great houses are large and impressive in scale, certainly, but they clearly belong to the same tradition as the much more rudimentary small houses around them.
Macaw Feathers on Display at Visitor Center Museum
But what about the turquoise? Certainly there’s an enormous amount of it at Chaco, and many theories, both Mexicanist and Indigenist, have given it a prominent role in explaining Chaco’s dominance. There are some problems with seeing Chaco as all about turquoise, however.
Turquoise Display at Visitor Center Museum
The biggest problem, which really only affects “strong” Mexicanist accounts that see Chaco as completely a Mesoamerican creation, is that there are no turquoise sources at all close to Chaco. This is not an example, then, of a group with fortuitous access to a rare, desired commodity leveraging their control over that commodity into economic and political power on a regional scale. The closest known source of turquoise to Chaco is in the Cerrillos Hills south of Santa Fe. This source is known to have been worked prehistorically, and while most of the archaeological evidence for prehistoric use indicates a later date there is a bit of evidence of use during Chacoan times, perhaps involving ties to the Mt. Taylor area. The turquoise-centric theories have therefore often argued that the Chacoans somehow had control over the Cerrillos mines, and used that control and the resulting monopoly on processed turquoise to gain regional power, whether by exporting the turquoise to Mexico or by distributing it throughout the southwest.
Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico
This is reasonable enough in theory, and only problematic for the strongest of the Mexicanist explanations (if the Toltec merchants were establishing a turquoise-procurement center, why would they put it at Chaco rather than at, say, Cerrillos?), but it becomes rather dubious in the context of what is known about the extent of Chacoan influence and the proposed limits of the Chacoan system. The system seems to extend quite far to the south, west, and north, with new great houses being suggested ever further in each of these directions. There seems to be a general shift over time from south to west to north in the emphasis of the system and the locations of material sources for the canyon, but certainly all three of these directions included many communities that were closely integrated into the Chaco Phenomenon.
Rio Puerco of the East, Cuba, New Mexico
Not so to the east. This is the direction in which we see by far the least Chacoan influence and interaction. There are really only two outliers at any significant distance to the east of the canyon (i.e., past Pueblo Pintado): Guadalupe and Chimney Rock. Guadalupe, near the Rio Puerco of the East, seems to have been among the earliest great houses anywhere, and it was apparently an important part of the Chacoan system from its early beginnings. Chimney Rock, on the other hand, was a much later foundation, and its odd location and astronomical alignments suggest that there were specific, idosyncratic local reasons for it to become part of the system. Both of these are very isolated, however, with the nearest other outliers lying rather far. They are unusual places, and worthy of study, but aside from them there’s really just nothing suggestive of any Chacoan influence at all. No wood came from the Jemez Mountains for construction in Chaco, and while some obsidian does seem to have come to Chaco from the Jemez, the period when the Chaco system was at its height was also the time when there was the least Jemez obsidian coming in. A lot of this probably has to do with the fact that the Jemez area was occupied at the time by the Gallina people, who don’t seem to have been receptive to Chacoan influence or friendly to outsiders in general. They would have formed a formidable obstacle to basing a major distribution system on regular supplies of turquoise from Cerrillos. This probably explains why direct evidence for such a system is scanty at best.
Shell Display at Visitor Center Museum
One thing that I think often gets overlooked in these discussions is that Cerrillos is not the only turquoise source in the southwest, and while it’s the closest one to Chaco there are others that aren’t much further. There’s one source in southern Colorado that never seems to get mentioned, possibly because there’s no evidence of prehistoric mining there, but there are also somewhat more distant sources in southern New Mexico, Arizona, and California (not to mention the many sources in Nevada) that could also have provided turquoise for Chaco. It’s true that the further away these sources are the less likely it is that Chaco could have controlled them, but Chaco didn’t need to control a place to get things from it. There’s an awful lot of shell from the Pacific coast at Chaco, for instance, and no one proposes that the Chacoans controlled southern California, although Cibola series pottery from Chacoan times has actually been found in Los Angeles County. Surely if that much shell could come across the Mojave Desert at least some turquoise could as well. In addition, Tom Windes has proposed that there may have even been a turquoise source in the Zuni area, which is an interesting idea in light of the long association of that area with turquoise working, up to the present day. While no such source has been identified, Zuni traditions hold that turquoise was mined prehistorically in the Zuni Mountains, and there are known copper deposits, which are often associated with turquoise deposits, in that area. If there were a Zuni turquoise source, it would be by far the closest to Chaco, much closer than Cerrillos, and it would make turquoise-based models for Chaco a lot more plausible. As Windes notes, however, it would also mean that the role of the numerous local communities in that area in managing turquoise supply and distribution would be important to consider. In any case, I think turquoise discussions tend to be a bit Cerrillos-centric, and there are plenty of other places the turquoise could have come from.
Anthill at a Small House near Casa Rinconada with Piece of Turquoise
Speaking of Tom Windes, in that same paper on Chacoan turquoise he discusses evidence of widespread turquoise manufacturing in small sites during the tenth and early eleventh centuries both in Chaco Canyon itself and at other communities in the San Juan Basin. From looking at the pieces of turquoise collected by harvester ants and added to their anthills, he determined that small sites had plenty of debitage from bead manufacture but very few finished beads, while at great house sites it’s well known that there were large amounts of finished turquoise. This suggests that turquoise was indeed important in Chaco during the early part of the Chacoan era, and while for some reason evidence is meager for the late eleventh century, by the early twelfth turquoise is vanishingly rare at both great houses and small sites. Crucially, however, this data applies not just to Chaco itself but to the San Juan Basin in general, which goes along with Windes’s argument elsewhere in the same volume that great house construction was not originally limited to Chaco but was quite widespread from the beginning. Given this information, then, it appears that Chaco did not have a monopoly on turquoise processing, at least in the local context, and that the rise of Chaco in the region is unlikely to have had much to do with control of turquoise, whether or not there was a vast demand for the stuff in Mexico.
Anthill at Pueblo Bonito with Piece of Turquoise
Overall, for these reasons and more, Indigenism basically won out, and most recent theories about Chaco, although they conflict with each other quite a bit, are Indigenist in nature. Which is not to say that no one has incorporated Mesoamerican influence into the theories at all; Steve Lekson certainly has, and, going a bit further into the fringes, Christy Turner’s cannibalism theory relies heavily on the prevalence of cannibalism in Mexico. Still, most of the theories treat Mexican contact as an afterthought, and devote more energy to explaining away the evidence for such contact than to incorporating it into their interpretations.
Colonnade at Chetro Ketl
Because of this tendency, it’s easy to get a skewed idea of what Mexicanism is all about from reading recent summaries of Chacoan research. Phil Weigand, one of the most prominent of the handful of remaining Mexicanists, has an elegant essay in the same volume as Windes’s turquoise paper in which he makes the case for considering Chaco in a larger context. Focusing again on turquoise, he talks about how the presence of valuable, scarce resources in areas with large imbalances of societal complexity leads to various processes of influence and contact. As a Mesoamericanist, he has insight into the demand for turquoise in Mesoamerica during Chacoan times, and he emphasizes how important it was and how a “trade structure” to acquire it was nearly inevitable given the circumstances. While he doesn’t go into detail about how Chaco would fit into the larger trade structure, he clearly sees Chaco as having had a monopoly on turquoise and as having therefore been the obvious trade partner for the Mexicans. Once Chaco was gone, for whatever reason, the trade continued, just with different partners and, perhaps, different sources. While not everything Weigand says here will necessarily stand up to careful scrutiny, I think he’s definitely right that Chaco must be interpreted in a larger context including Mesoamerica and its demand for turquoise, even if that doesn’t explain everything (or even anything) about Chaco.
T-Shaped Doorway at Pueblo del Arroyo
The final paper in that same volume is also interesting in this context. It’s by Gary Feinman, a Mesoamericanist but not a “Mexicanist” in the sense of having a theory about Chaco based on Mesoamerican contact. Indeed, he has no theory about Chaco at all, but is writing here as a discussant of the other papers, giving an outside view. He makes some very good points that deserve to be noted. For one thing, he finds it odd how many recent theories about Chaco have adapted theories about Mesoamerican societies (such as the “empty ceremonial center” theory of Classic Maya cities) that have been thoroughly debunked within Mesoamerican archaeology. He also notes that demography is an important issue that has not been discussed with regard to Chaco in ways that seem worthwhile from an outside perspective. Much discussion of Chacoan population estimates has revolved around agricultural productivity, but as Feinman notes, this is remarkably circular, and when looking at major population centers elsewhere it is quite common to see them being supported by quite large hinterlands. The population of a large center is not necessarily related at all to the productivity of its immediate surroundings. And he sees Chaco as definitely a large center; he finds it hard to believe the very low population estimates given in certain theories, given the sheer amount of construction effort in the canyon. Whether or not it was a “city” is a matter of debate. Weigand, for instance, definitely considers it equivalent to Mesoamerican cities, not all of which were nucleated or “urban” in a modern sense. Feinman avoids making such definite pronouncements, but the context of what he says clearly indicates that he is thinking of Chaco as something comparable to a Mesoamerican city.
Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl
Another more recent effort to interpret contact between Chaco and Mesoamerica without explicitly endorsing Mexicanism comes in the Chaco Project synthesis volume. Here Ben Nelson, a Mesoamericanist and specialist in northern Mexico, looks at the evidence for the contacts and argues that the best way to think of it is as a local elite at Chaco selectively incorporating aspects of Mesoamerican culture that suited their (presumably local) purposes. Nelson has looked at Chaco before, particularly as part of a comparison with a northern Mexican regional center called La Quemada. In that paper he argued that Chaco was less hierarchical than La Quemada, but much bigger in scale. Here he notes the various things about Chaco that have been adduced as evidence of Mexican influence: colonnades, copper bells, cylinder jars. He also adds some others, which southwestern archaeologists, who are not generally very familiar with Mesoamerica, have overlooked: shell bracelets, thong-foot pots, and roads. In looking at these in the context of the rise and fall of several regional centers in northern Mexico in the Postclassic period, he finds evidence for the sort of selective appropriation of Mesoamerican items and motifs that implies a largely local origin for Chaco. He is quite forceful in concluding that Chaco was not founded by Mesoamericans. He notes, however, that developments at Chaco were clearly related to synchronous developments in Mexico in a complex way. Although most of the markers of contact point to western Mexico as the most likely source, there is no apparent link to any particular center as the origin of the influence.
Ballcourt at Wupatki National Monument
One very important thing that Nelson points out about Chaco and Mesoamerica is that it’s just as important to look at what wasn’t adopted. There are a whole host of important Mesoamerican objects and ideas that we don’t find at Chaco: ballcourts, pyramids, plaques, mirrors, etc. Interestingly, some of these (particularly ballcourts) were adopted by the Hohokam, whose position between Chaco and western Mexico makes them natural candidates for intermediaries in the process of contact and influence. It seems, then, that both the Chacoans and the Hohokam were selectively appropriating Mesoamerican ideas for their own purposes, but they appropriated different ideas and thus seem to have had different purposes. What those purposes were is difficult, perhaps impossible, to say at this point, but there are some tantalizing clues.
T-Shaped Doorways at Escalante Pueblo, a Great House in Colorado
One of which, of course, is the chocolate. This could imply all sorts of things about the motives of the Chacoans, but one thing it definitely shows is that they had access to a great deal of knowledge about Mesoamerican society. This wasn’t a matter of some vague ideas gradually floating up along the coast, through the Hohokam, and further north. There must have been a quite direct pipeline between Chaco and somewhere in Mexico for this chocolate idea to come up in such a detailed form. I think this discovery definitely vindicates Nelson’s approach to Chaco and Mesoamerica. If the Chacoans could get chocolate, they certainly could have decided to build pyramids and ballcourts or adopt other major aspects of Mesoamerican society, but they clearly didn’t. Their society remained southwestern in most respects, with just a few key features from Mexico incorporated into it. But why?
Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl
Well, perhaps to justify some changes in Chacoan society. There’s quite a bit of evidence that the Chacoan system was much more hierarchical than other southwestern societies, and many theories have posited an emerging elite in the canyon that probably capitalized on some sort of ceremonial knowledge (perhaps astronomical) to gain a greater share of political and economic power. If the prehistoric Pueblo people were as egalitarian as is generally assumed, which is not really a trivial assumption, this may have caused some friction among other people in society, and the rising elites may have wanted to associate themselves with the spectacular societies to the south, with their huge cities, exotic goods, and strongly hierarchical political structures. Things like chocolate, and perhaps copper bells, macaws, and roads too, would be tangible symbols of the connection to that far-off land of mystery that would give these upstarts a way to solidify their position. It’s even possible that the ritual knowledge they are generally thought to have wielded was of Mexican origin too, although they themselves presumably were not.
Plaque at Fajada Butte View Describing the "Sun Dagger" Petroglyph
This is all pretty speculative, of course. Many aspects of it will necessarily remain so, but others are amenable to testing and will presumably be tested as people recover from the shock of the chocolate discovery and set out to explore its implications. In any event, it’s an exciting time to be at Chaco. There’s a lot to think about, and a lot of shifting ideas and possibilities in the air.
Room 28 at Pueblo Bonito
Read Full Post »