This is the proposal I submitted for a term paper I am writing for a seminar on land use. While much more obviously relevant to what I talk about on this blog than the other paper I mentioned, it’s a bit far afield for the subject matter of the course. The professor liked it, though, and he suggested I try to link it to the “collapse” literature (Jared Diamond, etc.) as an example of a sort of “post-collapse” series of events and processes. I like that idea, and I’m going to try to see how to tie the specific evidence I’ll be looking at into that broader context. It should be an interesting project, and I’m pretty excited about it.
In the late prehistoric period, ca. AD 1200 to 1540, the indigenous societies of the American Southwest underwent a series of drastic changes that ultimately transformed them into the Pueblo societies encountered by the first Spanish entradas in the sixteenth century. While the existence of these changes is well-established, the causes and mechanisms involved remain obscure, and heated debates within Southwestern archaeology over these matters have been going on for decades. While the general outline of events is a matter of near consensus, the specific details are by no means settled.
Among the most important of the changes in the late prehistoric period was the aggregation of the regional population into a small number of large, compact, and extremely dense nucleated settlements typically consisting of one or two massive roomblocks containing up to a thousand rooms, replacing the previous community pattern of loosely clustered but detached dwellings of a few rooms each associated with community-level integrative public architecture. This transition occurred in all parts of the Southwest, though at different times and rates in different areas, and by AD 1350 virtually the entire regional population was living in aggregated villages. These villages took various forms, but one of the most common was the so-called “plaza pueblo” with connected roomblocks facing on and enclosing one or more internal plazas (these are also sometimes called “inward-facing pueblos”). This type of settlement has been proposed by some researchers as associated with another major change sweeping the Southwest at this time: the rise of the kachina cult.
The kachina cult is a religious tradition involving a variety of deities called kachinas that are worshipped through ritual dances in which masked dancers impersonate the various kachinas. It is best known today in its manifestation among the Hopi villages in Arizona, which have historically been more open to outside observation than the New Mexico pueblos, but it is thought to have been present in all the pueblos at the time of Spanish contact, and most of the modern pueblos, both eastern and western, still retain it in some form (although a few have apparently abandoned it under Spanish missionary pressure).
Many of the kachina dances at Hopi take place in the public plazas of the pueblos and in square subterranean ritual chambers known as “kivas,” and some researchers have proposed that the widespread adoption of the plaza-centered pueblo form with square kivas accompanied the spread of the kachina religion, which is generally thought to have originated somewhere in the southern Southwest under the influence of Mesoamerican religious ideas. Unlike some other forms of social organization found in the modern pueblos, such as matrilineal clans, the societies that organize kachina rituals are not kin-based, and they potentially offered a useful way to easily integrate an influx of people from previously separate communities into rapidly aggregating nucleated villages. Thus, the theory goes, during a period of confusion and change in Southwestern society the kachina religion offered an attractive means of organizing the new communities that were being hastily thrown together under new social conditions (possibly including deteriorating environmental conditions and increased warfare). The benefits of the kachina societies were such that most or all communities ended up giving them a prominent or even predominant place in community organization, and in many cases orienting the physical layout of the new communities around the needs of the kachina rituals, resulting in the widespread (though not universal) use of the plaza-oriented or inward-facing layout.
In this paper, I propose to test these theories by examining the spatial layouts of communities in the Southwest before, during, and after the spread of the kachina religion. Using data on both excavated and unexcavated aggregated villages, I will compare the presence or absence of plaza-oriented layouts and square kivas to various other attributes, including date, location, and other evidence of kachina symbolism. If the theory of plaza-oriented layouts with square kivas being associated with kachina ritual is accurate, this type of layout should correlate strongly with the spread of other types of evidence associated with the cult, such as rock art, beginning in the southern Southwest and spreading north over time. If this correlation does not hold, however, the importance of the kachina religion to other major changes in the region may be less significant than is often claimed, and other factors may have been more important in determining community layouts. I will examine alternative explanations and compare their explanatory power to that of the kachina theory given the evidence available.