There are a lot of oddities about the burials found at Chaco. For one thing, there are remarkably few of them. This seemed particularly strange to archaeologists in the early twentieth century who thought that the great houses all held large resident populations and that the canyon population must have been very high, and they embarked on many fruitless attempts to find cemeteries outside of the habitation sites. Recent theories have reinterpreted the great houses as having much smaller populations, which takes care of some, though not all, of the mystery about the “missing” burials. Nancy Akins, who has studied the human remains from Chaco more intensively than anyone else, has argued that the remainder can likely to accounted for by poor preservation, early looting of trash mounds (which often contain burials) and other sites, and a variety of other factors. In any case, relatively few of the many sites in the canyon have been excavated, and even fewer have been excavated thoroughly with adequate documentation, so it’s probably best not to try to draw too many conclusions from the limited data available.
There are some other puzzling things about the burials, however, particularly the ones at Pueblo Bonito. Since Bonito has been almost completely excavated, and these excavations, although they took place relatively early with relatively crude techniques, are fairly well-documented, quite a few conclusions can be drawn about its burials. For one thing, there really are very few of them, so few that even if recent low population estimates are correct it still must be the case that not everyone who ever lived at Bonito was buried there. The burials are also clustered primarily in two small blocks of rooms, both in the oldest part of the site. And, of course, there are the fabulously extravagant burials in one of these clusters that have been the occasion of much speculation on the nature of Chacoan society.
One other thing about the Bonito burials, however, is that they are not gender-balanced. There are more women than men among the burials, and the women are particularly clustered in the western burial group, whereas men predominate in the northern one, where the high-status burials are. While it can be risky to try to draw conclusions from the small numbers of burials that are typically excavated from sites, in this case the relative completeness of both the excavation and the documentation means that these are very likely to be almost all the people ever buried at Bonito, which means that the skewed gender ratio is not the result of sampling error but represents something real about Chaco. Few, however, have looked into what, exactly, this might be.
There is one recent article by Tim Kohler and Kathryn Turner (available in pdf here) that does exactly that, however. Based on Turner’s MA thesis, the article looks at the issue of gender imbalance in burials at Southwestern archaeological sites and tries to see what, if any, conclusions can be drawn from the data. Since, apart from a few exceptional sites like Pueblo Bonito, the data is rather sketchy, they are quite up-front about the many problems with sampling, preservation, and other factors that might bias the data, and they are appropriately humble and tentative about their conclusions. What they find is fascinating, however, and worthy of continued attention.
Since this is potentially a huge topic, Kohler and Turner focus geographically on northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, where data on burials is generally pretty good. It’s still not perfect, however, and they point out that of all the burials noted in the published literature less than half could be sexed. This forms the total corpus of data they examine, and overall it is basically gender-balanced. They divide it up into smaller sets by both time period and geographical sub-area, however, and this is where things start to get interesting.
For most areas in most periods, the gender ratio isn’t very far from 50-50. There are a few notable exceptions, however, and, tellingly, they include some of the places that were most important regionally during the time periods in question. These include the Chaco area in the eleventh century and the Totah area in the thirteenth, both of which have considerably more women than men. In both cases the samples are dominated by a single well-documented site: Pueblo Bonito at Chaco and Aztec West in the Totah. Given all the other similarities and connections between Chaco and Aztec, this is a finding of considerable interest. The other area that has an unusual gender ratio is Mesa Verde in the thirteenth century, where there are more men than women. Again, this is a well-documented area that was also of considerable importance within the region during this time period.
So what does this mean? Kohler and Turner interpret their findings primarily in the context of the considerable evidence for warfare in the prehistoric Southwest. They conclude, quite reasonably I think, that the striking symmetry between the excess women at Aztec and the excess men at Mesa Verde in the thirteenth century, a time known from other data to have seen considerable violence throughout the region, resulted from warfare between the two areas in which the people of Aztec successfully captured women from Mesa Verde. Given that there is also considerable evidence from the La Plata valley during this same period that some women formed a poorly treated, possibly enslaved, underclass, they also suggest that the captured women at Aztec may have been slaves, although confirmation of this hypothesis would require more detailed study of the specific remains.
The eleventh-century Chaco evidence is harder to interpret. Given the general lack of evidence for widespread warfare during this period, and the further lack of any area with a shortage of women corresponding to the excess of women at Chaco, it is quite possible that this imbalance is fundamentally different from the later one at Aztec and that it arose from some other factor than warfare. Kohler and Turner definitely seem to want to interpret it as warfare-related, and while there is basically no evidence of fighting at Chaco itself it is certainly plausible that the Chacoans could have been involved in warfare elsewhere. They acknowledge, however, that despite the intriguing parallel with the Aztec situation it is equally plausible that something else is going on at Chaco, perhaps some form of diplomatic marriage-partner exchange (presumably polygamous) or the enticement of women skilled at particular crafts (perhaps jewelry-making?) to come to the canyon. As for where these women would have come from, Kohler and Turner acknowledge that in only looking at New Mexico and Colorado they are excluding extensive areas in Arizona and Utah showing varying degrees of Chacoan contact and influence. It is also possible that the imbalance at Chaco reflects not an excess of women but a shortage of men, perhaps from young men being sent out to found outliers or otherwise expand the system, perhaps even by fighting on the frontiers. Or maybe Pueblo Bonito isn’t typical, and the imbalance there is made up for by male-dominated burial groups at unexcavated sites in the canyon.
Despite the inherent difficulty of coming to firm conclusions about issues like this, Kohler and Turner do a good job of presenting the evidence that is out there and discussing how it might be interpreted. Certainly more work will be necessary to clarify the patterns they identify and see if they actually represent anything meaningful, and they specifically mention the potential for strontium-isotope analysis and other techniques from physical anthropology that would be helpful in this respect. The line of research they pioneer in this paper may or may not lead anywhere, but it will be fascinating to follow it in the coming years to see where it goes.
Kohler, T., & Turner, K. (2006). Raiding for Women in the Pre‐Hispanic Northern Pueblo Southwest? A Pilot Examination Current Anthropology, 47 (6), 1035-1045 DOI: 10.1086/508697