Archive for August, 2010

Room 48, Pueblo Bonito

George Pepper’s article on the excavation of Room 33 at Pueblo Bonito is fairly well-known and frequently cited, but he also published a few other articles on specific finds by the Hyde Exploring Expedition that have remained more obscure.  Among these is a chapter in a Festschrift for Franz Boas, similar to the Festschrift for Frederick Ward Putnam in which the Room 33 article appeared, describing the pottery vessels in human form found by the expedition.  These effigy vessels often get mentioned in discussions of Chaco, but are rarely given much close attention these days.  Pepper’s description of them, which I have transcribed and posted below, is fascinating for a number of reasons.  In the text Pepper notes that the vessels are very anatomically correct, which is quite clear from the photographs included with the article, so some discretion about where and when to read this post may be in order.  I may discuss these vessels further some other time, but for now I just want to make Pepper’s description available.

Human Effigy Vases from Chaco Cañon, New Mexico.

By George H. Pepper

The distribution of human effigy vases in the southwestern part of the United States presents an interesting problem. The Pueblo country has furnished but few such objects for comparison; and any new locality in which they are found, especially when situated in the northern boundaries of the culture area, is worthy of consideration.

In the explorations carried on by the Hyde Expedition in the ruined Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Cañon, New Mexico, several portions of human effigy vases were found, and the head of a large effigy vase was taken from a room that contained ceremonial material. This deposit was described in the “American Anthropologist” as Room 38, and by this name it will be known whenever it is mentioned in this article.

The human figure from Room 38 furnished an object worthy of a detailed report, but the finding of a complete figure from the Chaco Cañon strengthened conclusions already formed concerning the specialized form from this restricted area.

The perfect figure is the property of Professor and Mrs. F. W. Putnam. It was in the possession of a trader at Putnam, Chaco Cañon, and was bought by J. W. Hastings, a Harvard student, who gave it to the present owners. The specimen was found in a grave in the Chaco Cañon, but the exact location of the burial is not known.

The jars in question were considered from the standpoint of decoration in an endavor to identify them by means of modern katcinas, or impersonators of gods. According to the evidence that has been gathered among the Zuñi and Hopi, it would seem that clans from the region of the Chaco had migrated to both of these modern towns.

After studying the katcina masks figured by Dr. Fewkes in his work on the katcinas of the modern Hopi, it was found that the face of the He’heā mana was in many respects an exact counterpart of that of the fragment of the effigy vase from Room 38, Bonito.

Mrs. Stevenson’s book on the Zuñi gives a large series of masks and figures, but none of them present markings or physical characteristics in keeping with the figures under consideration, nor any that might have been the prototypes of the effigy-vase faces. Owing to the zigzag markings on the face of the masks, the He’heā Kĭa’nilona and the Hémishikwe goddess were noted for special study, but no particular attention was given to the He’heā until mention of this mask was found in Dr. Fewkes’s monograph on the effigy vase from Arizona. The coincidence was striking, and particularly so in view of the fact that the Hopi mana of this form of katcina had been identified as being the one nearest related to the figure from Pueblo Bonito, before mention of the resemblance of the one found by Dr. Fewkes to the Zuñi form had been noted.

Before entering upon a description of the Chaco Cañon forms, a brief résumé of the monograph by Dr. Fewkes, showing the type of figure found by him and the distribution of such figures, will serve as a guide in making comparisons, and will be conducive to a better understanding of the question in general.

The vase from Arizona was found in a cave in the upper part of the Gila Valley, in a section known as Pueblo Viejo. This valley is in Graham County, between Mount Graham and the Bonita Mountains. The vessell is of red clay, made in the form of a seated figure. It is rough on the exterior, and undecorated save for a few lines under the eyes. It is a female figure, with the arms and face modelled in relief. The body is of a globular form, and there is no suggestion of legs. The eyes and mnose are large and well defined; but the mouth is small, and rectangular in form. Flat, half-circular pieces form the ears, and both are drilled for the suspension of an ornament. The rim of the opening, which is the full diameter of the head, begins at a point half an inch above the eyes. The arms are flattened against the sides of the body, the fore-arm bending forward, and the closed hands resting upon the abdomen. The type is not unique from the Gila-Salado watershed. Dr. Fewkes considers that the origin of this form is traceable to direct Mexican influence, and that the type extended to the head waters of the Gila. At the time that this specimen was described, none had been found north of the White Mountains in Arizona, according to the writer’s knowledge.

The Pueblo Bonito Type.The head of an effigy vase from Room 38, Pueblo Bonito, has a face that is flat and circular (Plate XXVIII, Fig. 2). The facial plane, as viewed in profile, presents a slightly rounded appearance, but there has been no endeavor to conform to the natural configuration of the sides of the head. The eyes, nose, and mouth are modelled, and there is a slight upward tilt at the lower part of the face, which forms a chin. The nose expands slightly at the base, and nostrils have been formed by holes punched with some pointed implement. The nostril-openings are outlined with black circles. The mouth and eye openings average nearly one centimetre in depth. They are of an ovoid form, and the left eye retains a well-modelled eyeball. This is a separate piece of clay, which extends from the surface at the back of the eye-opening to the level of the eyelids. The diameter is uniform throughout its length, and the end which forms the pupil is painted black. The tongue is of the same character, and its end is painted with the same color. The eyelids and the lips are in slight relief, and are outlined with a narrow line of black. The eyebrows are formed by ridges which merge into the base of the nose; they are accentuated by broad lines of black paint. The ears are well formed and carefully placed. Viewed from the front, they are partly concealed by the projecting edge of the face.

The facial decorations, which are suggestive of tattooing, are composed of bands formed by dotted lines beneath the eyes, and a scroll on the chin. Under the rigth eye the design is formed by means of five lines, four of which have six dots, and one five. The space occupied is about equi-distant from the eye-opening and the upper part of the scroll on the chin. The corresponding series under the left eye has the same number of lines; but, owing to the fact that they have been placed closer together, the band is narrower, and four of the five lines have eight dots and one seven. The scroll forming the chin decoration is composed of the same-sized dots as in the other designs. It is a continuous line, forming a triple combination, the central double scroll directly under the mouth joining single scrolls of similar form on either side. The design in its entirety occupies the whole lower portion of the face.

Plate XXVIII, Figure 1

The neck of the jar is ovoid in shape, and has a line of black paint on its edge. This line is open on the posterior edge, which brings up the question of the open and closed “life-lines,” as seen in pottery from the Southwest. About three centimetres below the rim, straight lines, representing the hair, begin. They continue over the founded surface of the occiput. Behind, and at a level with the lower lobes of the ears, coils of hair are represented (Plate XXVIII, Fig. 1). They are not of the circular form now worn by the marriageable girls of the Hopi, but are elongate in form. They are 3.5 cm. long, and over the central portion of each are two strands of clay made to represent cords. These cords are carried from the base-lines across the back of the head. They are raised four millimetres above the surface. The ends of the coils, and the face of the cord projection, are painted black. The lines that form the back hair end at the cross-band. The office of such a band is the retention of the back hair, and in a realistic portrayal the hair-lines should pass under it.

Plate XXVIII, Figure 2

At the base of the neck, which is massive, are the remains of a decoration in the form of interlined triangles similar to those on the torso of the figure from Room 46, Bonito, which is herein described. Similar decorations may be noted on the upper part of the breast, as shown in the illustration in Plate XXVIII, Fig. 2. The height of this effigy head is 13.4 cm. The face is 9.9 cm. wide, and 9.1 cm. high. The nose projects 1.6 cm. above the face-plain; and the neck is almost circular, there being a difference of but one millimetre between the width and the thickness, the latter measurement being 7.4 cm.

Among the modern Hopi katcinas, the He’heā mana has the hair-whorl of the maidens. In comparing the head from Room 38 with the mask of this mana as figured by a Hopi artist, a very strong resemblance may be noticed. The face of the mana is caused to appear circular in form by the arrangement of the hair, which extends to a point near to, or perhaps actually covering, the upper part of the ears.

In the Bonito figure the hair is represented by a series of short lines, which form a dark band on the upper rim of the face, extending a little below the upper lobes of the ears. The eyes of the figures are similar in shape, as is also the mouth. The eyeball of the Bonito figure is represented by a painted ball in the mana, and its tongue is painted in such a way as to reproduce the form of the other most perfectly. Continuing with the analogy, we find that the mana has well-defined eyebrows; these physical characteristics, in as pronounced a state and of the same form, are found on the face of the effigy-vase head. The nose is of an elongated form in both figures.

The He’heā mana has zigzag lines forming decorations on the cheeks, and ear-rings of turquoise pendant from the ears. These embellishments and decorations change the appearance of the face of the mana. In the effigy figure there are no perforations in the ear-lobes from which an ear-ring might be suspended; and the facial decoration is in the form of parallel dotted lines on either cheek, and a peculiar scroll, formed also of dots, on the chin. The mana has decorations similar to those of her brother, and is no doubt associated in some way with the grinding of the corn in special ceremonies. From the arrangement of the dotted lines on the cheeks of the effigy, it would seem that they were intended to represent a corn symbol. There are such conclusive evidences in Pueblo Bonito that this form of decoration was intended to convey the idea of the ear of corn with the individual kernels, that the interpretation of this particular design as one typifying the corn would be but a natural conclusion.

Regarding the scroll on the chin, nothing can be said. Certain ideas are suggested by its form, but none of them are supported by evidence weighty enough to warrant serious consideration.

Torso from Bonito.The torso of a human figure was found in Room 48 of Pueblo Bonito, and is suggestive of the phallic designs which appear upon the He’heā and He’heā mana. It represents a portion of a seated figure; and from the angle of the remaining portion of the leg, it would seem that the legs were drawn up against the body, the feet no doubt resting flat upon the ground, with the knees outward. The texture of the clay, the differentiation in color due to the firing, and the general technique of the work, would seem to place it as the lower part of the torso of the effigy vase found in Room 38, or of a figure similar in size and form. The fact that the pieces were found in different rooms would have no special bearing on the question, as fragments of other vessels and implements have been encountered in widely separated rooms in this pueblo. In studying the torso in detail, we find that the lower part of the abdomen, a portion of the left leg, and the major part of the hips, are the only parts represented in the fragment. As shown in the accompanying illustration (Plate XXVIII, Fig. 3), the figure measures 12.8 cm. in height, and 14 cm. in width. The cross-section of the leg shows a thickness of 3 cm. This leg is solid, as is the case with the fragments of arms that were found with it. There are evidences that human figures were made to quite an extent in the Chaco Cañon region, and from the fragments of legs and arms we know that in Pueblo Bonito they were made both in the hollow form and of solid construction.

Plate XXVIII, Figure 3

In modelling this figure, the anatomy received serious attention, the genital organs being represented faithfully and in their proper relations. The vulva is very pronounced. The mons veneris rises over a centimetre above the abdominal plane, and the labia majora slope from this point to the vaginal orifice. The labia majora are parted, and from the upper section there protrudes a ball of clay, which was evidenctly made to represent the clitoris. It was adjusted in the same manner as was the eyeball in the figure from Room 38. It is 6 mm. in length. The vaginal opening and the anus are represented by openings that were made with some blunt implement while the clay was in a plastic state. The labia majora have been outlined with a broad black line, and the end of the clitoris is painted with the same color. The abdomen is decorated with a double series of triangles, which are filled with lines, forming a hachure effect. Between these are two broad bands which are divided into three parts at their lower ends. Owing to the fact that the upper part of the body is missing, it is impossible to tell what these bands were meant to represent; but from their form it seems quite possible that they were the ends of a scarf of some kind, that hung from the shoulders, or at least from the upper part of the decorated area, the general decorations possibly showing the paintings of a mana, and the scarf a portion of her dress.

The decorative element shown on this specimen is similar to that which has been preserved on the neck part of the figure from Room 38. The decoration, the outlining of the vulva in the same manner as are the eyes and mouth in the other specimen, and the finding with the torso of an arm which has the same scroll ornamentation as that shown on the chin of the other figure from Bonito, present similarities that are self-apparent. The section of the upper arm is shown in Fig. 13, d. This fragment is of solid pottery, 10.7 cm. long, and 2 cm. in diameter on the wider axis. It is somewhat flattened, as is also the companion-piece found in the same room. The second arm-fragment is heavier, and the diameter is greater. Both specimens have a rosette on the shoulder, with a black mark in the centre.

The scroll on the first-mentioned arm is not the same in form, nor is the arrangement of the dots the same, as that on the chin; but in both cases a continuous line is maintained,on the chin with a single line of dots, on the arm with a double line.

Human Effigy Jar from Chaco Cañon.―The effigy jar mentioned as having been found in the Chaco Cañon and now in the possession of Professor Putnam is unusual, in view of its perfect condition as well as from the standpoint of workmanship. It is made of the usual light-colored clay, with a white slip over the entire outer surface. Over this, designs in black have been painted. The figure is that of a seated man. The legs are flexed, and the feet rest flatly upon the ground. From the position of the fragment of the leg in the torso of the figure from Room 38, Bonito, it would seem that the legs of that body had been in the same position as in this figure. The arms of the perfect figure are crossed on the breast, and the elbows rest upon the knees. The neck is slightly ovoid in form; the nose is modelled in relief, is narrow at the top, and broadens considerably at the end; the nostrils are represented by depressions. The eyes and mouth are narrow incisions. One peculiarity presented by these organs is the painting of the inner edges of the depressions with black. This is quite noticeable, compared with the outlining of the eyes and mouth as shown in the other figures. There is but one ear, the other having been broken off: it is a half-circular projection of clay, flat, and with no attempt at modelling. A hole was forced through the central portion, probably for the suspension of an ear-ring, or perhaps a feather. A side view of the figure, as seen in Plate XXIX, Fig. 1, shows the body to be that of a humpback. Deformed figures of this kind are represented in the Hopi katcinas of the present day. Dr. Fewkes, in his description of katcinas, says, in speaking of one of them, “A hump is always found on the back in pictures or dolls of Kokopelli.” The representation of deformed human beings of this nature in pottery and stone is quite widespread. They are not uncommon in Mexico, being found especially in the Huaxteca and Totonac regions of Vera Cruz and in the Valley of Mexico. Pottery figures with this deformity are also known from the Mississippi Valley and from some of the Southern States. The profile which this picture presents enables us to study the facial characteristics to better advantage than the full-face reproduction. The face is shown to be dish-shaped, the forehead low, the cheeks depressed, the nose and lips sharply defined, and the chin pointed, with an upward tilt. In Plate XXIX, Fig. 2, the formation of the chin may be noted; the pointing has caused a seeming elongation of the cheeks, so that they seem to hang on either side of the chin. The head in its entirety shows careful work in the modelling, the occiput being strongly defined and the contour of the cranium well balanced. The profile view shows the thickness of the projection which forms the ear, also the depression that was made in the cheek in punching the hole through it. Considerable care and attention have been given to the modelling of the hip, and even the calf of the leg is accentuated. The backward tilt of the head overcomes what would otherwise be a somewhat overbalanced figure, and from the angle of the neck it seems quite certain that this was intentional.

Plate XXIX, Figure 1

The top of the head, showing the neck of the vessel and the formation of the arms, is best seen in Fig. 3 of this plate. Here the vessel has been tilted forward, in order that the designs on the shoulders might be seen. The neck is similar in shape to that of the head from Room 38, Bonito. The perfect one is round, slightly incurved at its base, and rests on the top of the head; whereas the other is more oval, and the back part slopes gently to the back of the head, there being no perceptible difference in the lines of the two parts. The arms themselves have been carefully worked, and are in keeping with the general high class of technique shown in other parts of the figure; but the hand that rests on the breast is quite crude, and the absence of the hand on the right wrist is surely intentional. Careful examination of the plate will show that the stump of the arm has been rounded and smoothed, and that the end has been painted.

The decorations of this jar, the facial paintings, and the figures on the body, are unusual. The hair is represented by a broad black band above the eyes. In Fig. 1, the continuation of this hair area may be followed. It covers the back part of the head, passing over the temples and behind the ears. It is then contracted to a broad band which passes over the neck, thence down the back, covering the point of the hump, and ends just below it, the end and sides forming right angles. Whether the band in its entirety was intended to show a particular form of hair-dressing, or whether the band from the neck downward was made to represent some ceremonial paraphernalia that was attached to the hair, cannot be determined, as the band shows no break or differentiation in form where it would join the hair at the base of the head. On the right cheek there are six straight lines, extending from a point on a level, and connected with the outer corner of the eye, to the lower point of the cheek-line. These decorations are connected at the top by means of a curved line. On the left cheek there is a similar series of lines. There are seven in this group, and they are connected at the top with a straight line. They pass over a protuberance on the left cheek, its appearance indicating that it was intentional, and it may have been made to represent some deformity. It is 5 mm. high and 1 cm. in diameter. There are no cracks on the surface, and it is too large and regular in form to have been the result of a blister in the clay as the result of firing. Between the nose and the mouth are two zigzag lines resting on a straight line which follows the upper part of the mouth. Two wavy lines depend from either corner of the mouth, and there are four lines of a similar form on either side of the neck.

Plate XXIX, Figure 2

It has been impossible to associate this figure with any of the modern katcinas. There are several that have the zigzag markings on the face, and some have one or two lines on the cheeks, but none have been found that approximated the decoration shown in this effigy vase. The decoration on the arms consists of bands composed of three and four lines, which span the outer half of the arm circumference. There are five of these bands on the right arm, and three on the left. The right leg has a series of three broad bands extending from a point just below the knee to the feet,one in front, and one on either side. The left leg has four bands of similar form. In both cases they are connected by a line just below the knee. A broad belt with breech-cloth appendage is shown in the two front views on Plate XXIX (Figs. 2, 3). It broadens on the back of the figure, and completely encircles it. In Fig. 1 the continuation of the belt-like band is seen. The idea of the artist was no doubt a faithful portrayal of the figure as it would appear in life. If so, realism was not attained in the painting of the band where it passes from the side to the front of the figure. Here the band is carried over the leg, instead of ending at the point where the leg joins the body. If, on the other hand, the painting as shown was intentional, it would show that the legs of the figure had been bound against the body with this band, and, instead of being a belt, it would be a binding cord. The latter supposition is hardly tenable, in view of the fact that the breech-cloth form is represented as being a part of the band. On the sides of the jar the band has a series of pointed figures. These are attached to the upper edge. Just back of them, and in the spaces between the shoulders and the hair-band, there are zigzag designs composed of four lines. They start from the belt-line, and extend upward over the shoulders, ending on either side of the neck.

Plate XXIX, Figure 3

On the right breast there is the figure of a bird. The body is an irregular square, which is filled with dots representing feathers. The head, tail, and one foot are also shown. On the left shoulder there is a diamond-shaped figure, with one end flattened. The space within the lines is filled with dots. It was no doubt meant to represent a butterfly. On the right shoulder is a circular figure which encloses a second circle and a dot. On the chest are four heavy zigzag lines, which start from the breech-cloth band, and end just below the crossed arms. All of these designs are in black. Certain physical features worthy of mention are the crudely modelled feet and hand, the existence of a raised section on the left side, forming a breast, and the genital organs. The penis is in relief, and the scrotum has been painted black. The figure is 19 cm. high and 10.4 cm. wide; from the breast to point of hump, 10.6 cm. The face is 7.1 cm. wide; from chin to forehead, 5.1 cm. The neck is 3.5 cm. wide.

Figure 13a

Fragments of Effigy-Jar Faces from Pueblo Bonito.A number of effigy-jar faces in a fragmentary condition were found in Pueblo Bonito, two of the most complete of which are shown in Fig. 13, b and c. They are of the flat, shield-like form. The former specimen, which was found in Room 105, shows the upper part of the face. The hair is represented by a band of black extending across the forehead and down the left side of the face. The eyes have been formed by slight indentations, which are accentuated with black lines. The nose is long and narrow, and raised 7 mm. above the surface. The ornamentation is in the form of three painted lines in black, which begin at the lower sides of the nose, and evidently extended on either side to the hair-line on the side of the face. The face itself is curved, the angle being similar to that of the figure from Room 38. The top of the head is similar to the perfect figure described, the line from the forehead to the base of the neck-projection being almost a right angle. This fragment was no doubt the top of a jar similar to the other two figured in this article. It is of the usual white ware, the ornamentation being in black.

Figure 13b

The specimen shown in Fig. 13, c, represents a portion of another figure of the flat, shield-like form. The clay and paint are the same as in the last specimen described. It was found in Room 170 of Pueblo Bonito, and presents an entirely different style of decoration from that of the other pieces that have been noted. The facial plane is slightly curved, but it is more nearly flat than any of the others. The eye, as shown in the remaining portion of the upper part of the face, is a shallow depression, as is also the mouth. Both are painted,the eye, within the opening only; the mouth, outlined with a heavy black band. The nose is in relief, and carefully modelled. The ear is almost a duplication of that shown in the illustration of the perfect figure. A hole has been drilled through it for the reception of an ornament. The decoration consists of a heavy band on either side of the face; two lines between the nose and mouth, which enclose a line of dots; and a third line drawn below the mouth, causing this organ to occupy the centre of a rectangle. Passing downward from this line on either side of the chin, are four straight lines, which begin at the third line mentioned, and extend to the edge of the chin. This specimen was in two pieces, which were found in different parts of the room.

Figure 13c

Face fragment from Pueblo Peñasca Blanca.The jar fragment shown in Fig. 13, a, was found by Professor Putnam in the ruins of Pueblo Peñasca Blanca, Chaco Cañon. It shows an entirely different treatment from those that have been described. The general effect is the same; and the face, no doubt, was of the shield form; but the eye has been more carefully modelled than those of the other specimens that have come from the Chaco. The brow is represented in relief, and beneath it a well-formed eyeball is shown. It protrudes 4 mm. above the eye-cavity. The lids are formed by two heavy black lines, and the pupil is indicated by a dot. The only other decoration shown is the band over the forehead, representing the hair, and six narrow lines on the left temple and the remains of one on the right temple. These lines emanate from the black band, and are carried backward over the head. They evidently represent a loose arrangement of the hair. The neck is similar to that in the perfect figure; it is more flaring, however, and the rim is painted black. The clay of which this figure was made is somewhat lighter in color than that shown in the other specimens, but the composition is the same.

Figure 13d

Conclusions.The human effigy jars from the Chaco Cañon have extended the area limit of this form of ceramics several degrees northward in the Pueblo region. Vessels of this nature were in use in Mexico in very early times; and the influence of the Mexican tribes upon the Pueblo people, both in ceramics and in other æsthetic productions, is well known. How great this influence has been on the Pueblo of the North, however, is a question. The arts had reached a high state of development in the Chaco region before the abandonment of the great towns took place; and in Pueblo Bonito, which is the only ruin that has been explored, specialized forms of pottery are found; for instance, cylindrical jars of a certain form, which are, so far as known, restricted to this pueblo. The great variety of forms in most of the wares known to the Southwest indicates either an extensive interchange of specimens or the utilization of ideas as applied to fictile work in the other towns of the region.

The figure described by Dr. Fewkes is closely allied to those found in the Casas Grandes region of Chihuahua, and a similar type has been found in the Socorro region of New Mexico. The general treatment of the face and mouth of the vessels from these parts differs radically from that of the Chaco forms. The modelling of the arms and legs in the round is peculiar to the Chaco, and the specialization of the neck is another marked difference. The head from Room 38, Bonito, is as large as many whole figures from the other regions, and the vase in its entirety must have been at least 30 cm. in height. Stone figures of this size were made, and many of them have been found in the Southwest that were much larger than this figure, but the making of such forms in pottery is known only in the Chaco area.

The Chaco culture is evidently an old one; and the ruins, at least Pueblo Bonito, show no evidences of contact with the Spaniards. It probably lay in ruins at the time of the Conquest. In view of this fact, we may safely affirm that this specialization in pottery forms was developed prior to historic times, and, if copied from the southern forms, it was modified to meet local ceremonial or æsthetic conditions. No records have been found of human forms in pottery from the cave or cliff dwellings of Colorado, Utah, or northern Arizona. This causes the Chaco specimens to hold the most northern point known in the pueblo area, and therefore the farthest removed from the culture from which they may have been derived.

There are many interesting phases of the problem, aside from those of influence and technique. The association of ideas may enable students to trace the origin of certain clans to this region. The fact that the He’heā and the He’heā mana of the Hopi have phallic symbols on their arms, legs, and bodies, and the association of these figures with the meal-grinding ceremonies, present points of analogy that are worthy of study; and, from the evidence obtainable, these Hopi katcinas are very ancient. It is to be hoped that students of cult survivals and those that have been developed in historic times in the pueblo country may be able to use the evidence presented by these specimens in strengthening and extending the knowledge of clan attributes and clan migrations.
Fewkes, J. (1898). An Ancient Human Effigy Vase from Arizona American Anthropologist, 11 (6), 165-170 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1898.11.6.02a00000

Pepper, G. (1905). Ceremonial Objects and Ornaments from Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 7 (2), 183-197 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1905.7.2.02a00010


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Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

Well, I said I would probably continue to do posts here while I was guest-blogging for Keith Kloor, and obviously that didn’t happen.  I did write some posts over there that would probably be of interest to my readers here, especially on the concept of “collapse” as applied to Chaco and Mesa Verde.  I’ll have some more posts here soon, but that’s what I’ve got for now.

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Fajada Butte from Road into Chaco

I’m going to be doing some guest-blogging this week for Keith Kloor at his blog, Collide-a-scape.  Longtime readers here may remember him as the author of an article on Navajo connections to Chaco that I discussed a while back.  While he does talk about archaeology from time to time on his blog, his general focus is a bit different, and his audience is definitely different from what I’m used to here, so it should be an interesting experiment.  I’ve already put up an introductory post explaining a bit about who I am and what I’m intending to do, and I’ll have some more posts soon.  I’ll also probably continue to do posts here, so feel free to check both places.

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Old Bonito from Above

In discussing a recent paper using stable-isotope techniques to evaluate subsistence in the Southwest during the Basketmaker period, I mentioned that one of the control samples used for contextual comparisons of the Basketmaker results came from Chaco Canyon great house burials.  I don’t know how on earth the Utah-based researchers managed to get permission to test these burials, as this is a highly sensitive political issue in Southwestern archaeology in general, but somehow it seems they did, and the information they got is enormously useful in understanding some aspects of the Chaco system.  It appears to only be reported in this Basketmaker paper so far, and only as comparative data, although there is a reference to a manuscript in preparation by the same authors focused on the Chaco data specifically.  This doesn’t appear to have been published anywhere in the three years since the Basketmaker paper was published, as far as I can tell.

This type of analysis of Chaco burials is remarkable enough, but even more remarkable is that these aren’t just any Chaco burials.  Two of them are the two most remarkable burials found anywhere at Chaco and arguably in the whole Southwest: Skeletons 13 and 14 from Room 33, which had the largest and most elaborate grave assemblages known in the region.  Also included were two burials from the adjacent Room 56 and one from Kin Bineola, a nearby outlying great house which is generally described as “unexcavated” but which did see some largely undocumented digging by the Hyde Expedition in the 1890s resulting in a few specimens now in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History.

Kin Bineola from Plaza

These remains were all tested for carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios, like the Basketmaker specimens and some other comparative samples from Pueblo period sites in the Kayenta area and Canyon de Chelly.  All the samples showed carbon isotope ratios in the same general range, indicating a heavily maize-based diet.  The nitrogen ratios, however, which are used to determine the amount of meat in the diet, varied considerably, with the non-Chacoan Pueblo remains patterning with the Basketmaker examples in showing a diet with little meat but the Chacoan ones showing evidence of much more consumption of meat.  This supports what had already been suspected based on the generally healthier appearance of great house burials compared to those found in other Pueblo sites, even small-houses within Chaco Canyon, namely that the people, whoever they were, who were being buried in the great houses were not only given much more elaborate and numerous grave goods in death but were also considerably healthier in life.  This in turn provides strong support for interpretations of Chacoan society that see it as having had a strong hierarchical component, with the great house burials coming from the higher ranks of society.

That’s all well and good, and it provides important information bearing on some major questions in Chacoan archaeology, but what I find more impressive about this data is that most of the Chacoan burials (all except one of the two from Room 56) were also radiocarbon dated.  The advent of the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) technique, which requires much smaller amounts of organic material than traditional radiocarbon dating, has made it feasible to do direct dating both on small amounts of material (e.g., pollen) and on important specimens like human remains that are too valuable both politically and scientifically to sacrifice large quantities of bone for dating.  Like similar dates that have been taken on corn cobs, these direct dates provide important chronological anchors in understanding the development of Chaco and its system.

Wall Niche, Pueblo Bonito

Unfortunately, while the paper does report calibrated 95% date ranges in addition to raw dates, it reports midpoints of those ranges (which are not very meaningful) rather than intercepts, so it isn’t really possible to get a sense of probable dates more precise than the 95% ranges.  (Also, the reported midpoints don’t appear to actually be the midpoints of the reported 2σ ranges; maybe they’re from the unreported 1σ ranges?)  Still, that’s something, and there are some interesting implications.

The one specimen from Room 56 that was dated had a range of AD 1023 to 1208, which probably puts it sometime during the height of the Chacoan era (AD 1030 to 1130) or perhaps a little later.  This is significantly later than the initial construction of this room, which took place during the earliest period of construction in the ninth and early tenth centuries, but from the ceramic types associated with the burials in this cluster of rooms it seems it was used for burials throughout the period of major occupation, so this is a very plausible date.  These bones apparently came from Room 56, and are listed in a specimen list as coming from the debris in that room, but the description of them in that list reads “Human Bones with #53 the dark ones,” and the undated specimen from the same room on that list has a note reading “Some were found in R. 53, thrown from R. 56.”  The first description is cryptic and I can’t make any sense of it, but the second seems to imply that these bones all originally came from Room 56 but some were thrown into Room 53, probably by Warren K. Moorehead during his rather crude excavations in this part of the site.  Regardless of the specifics, it seems there is little contextual information for these remains, so not much more can be said about them.

Lintels Sampled for Tree-Ring Dating, Kin Bineola

The Kin Bineola specimen has a date range that overlaps considerably with the Room 56 one but has a generally earlier range: AD 891 to 1147.  Much of the construction of Kin Bineola apparently dates to the tenth century, judging from both masonry style and the few tree-ring samples, and some seems to date to the early twelfth century, so either end of this range is quite plausible, although the bulk of evidence suggesting the importance of this site in the tenth century, a period of relative quiet for construction at Chaco itself, makes me inclined to think an earlier date is more likely.

The most interesting dates are from the Room 33 specimens.  Since these are such important burials for understanding Chaco, knowing when they were interred is very desirable.  They were the two lowest burials in the rooms and the only ones that were completely intact when excavated; the twelve burials above them were substantially jumbled, although they still had plenty of grave goods associated with them.  This implies that they were the earliest people to be buried in the room, and the pottery associated with them was relatively early but can’t be dated very precisely beyond that.  It is not clear from any of this how early they were buried, expecially whether it was before or after the major expansion of Pueblo Bonito beginning in the 1040s that may have involved substantial changes in the function of the building, perhaps including a change in the function of some rooms in the older part of the building into burial chambers.

Northwest Part of Pueblo Bonito Showing Expansion of Outer Wall

The date ranges reported here are AD 690 to 944 for Burial 13 and AD 690 to 940 for Burial 14.  Statistically these are virtually identical, and they strongly imply that the two were buried at the same time, which makes sense given their relative position and similar grave assemblages.  This is also really early, with the early part of the range extending long before the earliest known construction dates for Pueblo Bonito.  Since these clearly seem to be primary rather than secondary burials, this probably just means that the true age doesn’t lie at the early end of the 95% range.  That puts the most likely time of burial at between AD 850 and 940 or so, or between the earliest construction dates and the end of the date range.  This is still well before the expansion of the building, and it doesn’t extend much after the latest dates for the initial construction stage.

The upshot of all this is that these two burials appear to be significantly earlier than has generally been assumed.  They seem to date to a very early period in the history of Pueblo Bonito, and it’s even possible that Room 33 was initially constructed as a burial chamber for them.  George Pepper, who excavated it, thought the room had not originally been intended as a burial chamber, but he didn’t explain what led him to that conclusion.  Whatever the original function of Room 33, it seems clear from this evidence that it became a burial room very early on, and that these two enormously elaborate burials were part of Pueblo Bonito for at least the vast majority of its period of occupation.  I think this may have some important implications for understanding the construction sequence of the building and possible changes in its use over time, and perhaps even in understanding the rise and nature of the Chaco system as a whole.  Piecing together what exactly those implications are, however, will require considerably more thought and study.
Coltrain, J., Janetski, J., & Carlyle, S. (2007). The Stable- and Radio-Isotope Chemistry of Western Basketmaker Burials: Implications for Early Puebloan Diets and Origins American Antiquity, 72 (2) DOI: 10.2307/40035815

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Novitski Hall, University of New Mexico School of Dentistry, Albuquerque, New Mexico

I’ve recently been discussing stable isotope analysis as a way to directly determine dietary practices from skeletal evidence, and that is certainly a powerful tool in learning about past societies, but there are some drawbacks to it.  Like all complicated laboratory procedures, it’s expensive, and it has the additional problem of being destructive.  If it’s done right, it only requires a small amount of bone, but it does involve destroying that bone in the course of analysis, which puts it in tension with recent political trends away from invasive and destructive types of research.  It is therefore good to have additional ways of evaluating dietary practices, despite the enormous potential of isotope studies.

One such line of evidence is much more low-tech, and quite simple, as well as being non-destructive.  It starts from the widespread recognition that different types of diets have different and readily detectable effects on teeth.  Specifically, diets high in carbohydrates tend to result in significantly more dental caries (cavities) than diets higher in proteins and fats.  A variety of factors are involved in determining the rate of caries in a given individual, including the form of the teeth and the presence of caries-resistant minerals such as fluoride in the environment, but diet is one important factor and the one that can most easily account for differences between populations and societies in the rate of caries.  The way this works is that diets rich in carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates such as ground meal or flour which stick to the teeth more easily, result in buildup of plaque that certain bacteria in the mouth feed on.  Those bacteria then release waste products including lactic acid, which eats away at tooth enamel can causes caries.  Fats and proteins also cause plaque buildup, but the bacteria don’t feed on this plaque, and it tends to be less acidic and therefore less conducive to caries formation.

The implication, then, is that societies that are dependent on agriculture, in which people eat large amounts of carbohydrates, will show much higher rates of caries than hunting and gathering societies in which people eat more fats and proteins.  This has indeed been confirmed by observation of caries rates in numerous contemporary and prehistoric populations.  There are some cases in which hunting and gathering populations can have relatively high rates of caries, such as a heavy dependence on gathered resources that are high in carbohydrates, such as acorns and pine nuts, but in general the difference between foragers and farmers is quite clear and can be used to determine to what extent a given prehistoric population depended on agriculture just by looking at their teeth.

Durango Herald Offices, Durango, Colorado

One relatively recent study looking at this issue in the context of the Southwest is by Karen Gust Schollmeyer and Christy Turner.  Turner is best known in the Southwest for his controversial ideas about cannibalism, but he has also had a longstanding interest in dental studies which I’ve discussed before.  This paper looks specifically at the dispute over the timing of agricultural dependence in the Southwest and whether it arose at the same time as the “Pithouse to Pueblo Transition” between the Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods, generally dated to around 750 AD.  The hypothesis Schollmeyer and Turner tested is that the Basketmakers had a mixed farming and foraging economy with relatively little dependence on agriculture but that later Pueblo populations were heavily dependent on farming.  This predicts that Pueblo populations should have substantially more caries than Basketmakers.  The sample they used to test this was a large collection of human remains from various sites in southwestern Colorado, mostly in the Durango area and the La Plata Valley, in the collections of the Harvard Peabody Museum and the American Museum of Natural History.  Since these were mostly excavated before 1930 and information on their exact origin and time period is often vague, Schollmeyer and Turner grouped them into just two groups, Basketmaker and Post-Basketmaker, and ran a series of statistical tests on the number and placement of caries in each group.

They found that there was basically no difference.  Both groups had very high rates of caries, whether measured as total number of carious teeth, total number of carious teeth and teeth that fell out during life (which often results from caries), or total number of individuals with carious teeth.  Statistically most of these were indistinguishable from each other, although it’s important to note that this can’t be considered a truly random sample and statistics drawn from it shouldn’t be taken too literally.  Comparisons of caries on specific types of teeth and on different parts of teeth also showed high rates in both groups.  There were no significant differences regarding types of teeth.  There was a significant but weak difference in parts of teeth, with the later individuals having more caries on the parts of the teeth facing other teeth rather than facing outward.  There was also a similarly significant but weak difference in the number of individuals with caries, which was lower in the later group, implying more caries per person with caries than in the Basketmaker period, since the overall number of carious teeth was not different.  I don’t think too much should be made of either of these differences, given the nonrandom nature of the sample, and Schollmeyer and Turner are properly cautious in interpreting them.  They do make the interesting suggestion, however, that if there is anything to these differences they may imply differences in processing of maize over time, with later groups processing it more efficiently and intensively, using more effective tools, perhaps in response to increased populations.  They further suggest that this may be behind some of the dispute in the literature over the timing of dependence on agriculture, since some of the evidence put forth as showing a late date, coincident with the Pithouse to Pueblo Transition, is based on the use of larger and more efficient grinding tools.  This is all pretty speculative, and I don’t think it’s really any more likely than the alternative explanation that the significant differences are just statistical noise, but it’s an interesting thought.

Railroad Bridge, Durango, Colorado

Overall, this evidence supports the other recent studies showing that Southwestern populations seem to have been dependent on agriculture by at least as early as the Basketmaker II period.  It’s therefore not exactly groundbreaking, but it is useful to have as many lines of evidence as possible brought to bear on important questions like this, especially when most of them seem to point in the same direction.
Schollmeyer, K., & II, C. (2004). Dental Caries, Prehistoric Diet, and the Pithouse-to-Pueblo Transition in Southwestern Colorado American Antiquity, 69 (3) DOI: 10.2307/4128407

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Escalante Pueblo

As if on cue, given that I’ve been talking about turkey husbandry and stable isotope testing of human remains, a paper in the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science combines the two, using similar stable isotope techniques on turkey remains from sites in southwestern Colorado to determine what the turkeys were eating.  The idea here is to test two possible hypotheses that have been proposed before:

  1. Turkeys were allowed to roam free in agricultural fields, eating whatever they found, especially insect pests that threatened the crops
  2. Turkeys were instead kept in pens or otherwise confined in domestic contexts and fed table scraps or other leftover/surplus portions of human food.

The assumptions behind the tests were that if Theory 1 is correct, the turkeys would have isotope ratios significantly different from those of humans, reflecting a diet based on local plants and insects or other small animals, whereas if Theory 2 is correct, the turkeys would have isotope ratios similar to those of humans, since they would be eating the same types of food, mostly maize.  The main sample of turkey bones tested came from Shields Pueblo near Cortez, Colorado, which was occupied primarily during the Pueblo II and Pueblo III periods (ca. 1020 to 1280 AD) and has been extensively excavated by Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.  This site is particularly well suited to this kind of study because it has one of the largest and best documented samples of faunal remains known in the area.  Bone samples from jackrabbits and cottontails found at Shields were also tested to provide a control sample of animals that would certainly have been mainly eating local plants rather than maize.  The ratios were compared to those from earlier tests on human remains from the region, as well as a set of turkey bones from a wide variety of other sites in southwestern Colorado dating over a long period of time, including the outlying Chacoan great house known as Escalante Pueblo.

Blocked-In Kiva at Escalante Pueblo

The results were quite straightforward, and they clearly supported Theory 2.  The isotope ratios were very similar to those from human samples, showing extensive reliance on maize and little to no meat consumption, and quite different from the rabbit samples, which showed more reliance on native plants.  This was the case not only for the Shields Pueblo samples but also for those from other sites, and there was no clear evidence of change over time.  All of the turkey remains gave results in the same narrow range, regardless of site or time period.  The obvious conclusion is that turkeys were being kept in pens or other confined spaces in domestic contexts, and were fed table scraps or surplus cornmeal.  The authors also suggest another possible conclusion:

There is another behavioral explanation (besides feeding of surplus maize/table scraps) for the similarity in stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes between turkeys and humans. It is possible that turkeys were fed human fecal waste. The practice of feeding waste to livestock is not unheard of in prehistory.

. . .

While there are no records of turkey being fed human waste, it is common for turkeys to eat their own waste as well as the waste of other fowl. Given that maize does not completely digest in the human gut, it is certainly possible that some food was obtained in this way.

The only evidence they cite for this interpretation, however, comes from Korean pig raising, and as they note there is no evidence at all that anything similar was ever done with turkeys, in the Southwest or elsewhere.  Given that lack of evidence, I find this idea implausible.  Table scraps from human meals and/or surplus or specially prepared cornmeal seem like much more reasonable ways turkeys would have been fed.
Rawlings, T., & Driver, J. (2010). Paleodiet of domestic turkey, Shields Pueblo (5MT3807), Colorado: isotopic analysis and its implications for care of a household domesticate Journal of Archaeological Science, 37 (10), 2433-2441 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2010.05.004

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"Pithouses and Pueblos" Sign, Mesa Verde

One of the important questions in understanding the spread of agriculture into the Southwest from Mexico is when Southwestern peoples became dependent on it for their subsistence.  It is generally accepted that this dependence was in place by the Pueblo I period, which is defined as starting around AD 750 in most areas, but there has traditionally been a sharp divergence of opinion on when this came about.

One school has it that it was only in the Pueblo I period, and in some areas perhaps even later, that agriculture finally shifted to becoming the main food source after having been a minor, auxiliary supplement to a hunting and gathering system for hundreds or even thousands of years.  This view is generally, though not universally, associated with the idea that maize and squash were introduced quite early to the Southwest, as early as the Late Archaic period, and were cultivated on a small scale by local hunting and gathering peoples for a long time before the final shift to an agricultural economy, often associated with the “Pithouse to Pueblo Transition” thought to have taken place between the Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods, when people are thought to have moved out of Basketmaker pithouses and into aboveground Pueblos, retaining the pithouse as a ceremonial structure ancestral to the later kiva.  This view, in other words, emphasizes continuity of the Basketmaker period with Archaic traditions and sees a long, gradual process of adoption of cultigens, with total dependence on agriculture only coming very late.  The key transition period in this view is between Basketmaker III and Pueblo I.

Pitroom Sign, Mesa Verde

The other camp sees things very differently.  They propose that agriculture was already the mainstay of Southwestern economic systems in the Basketmaker III period and possibly as early as Basketmaker II, and see the most important transition as being not between Basketmaker III and Pueblo I but between the Late Archaic and Basketmaker II (there is no Basketmaker I period).   Furthermore, they see the introduction of agriculture as having been abrupt and caused by a migration of established farming populations into the Southwest from somewhere to the south.  Jane Hill, one proponent of this view, sees this migration as associated with the spread of the Uto-Aztecan languages and proposes that the people in question originated in central Mexico, but not everyone who favors a migrational account agrees with her specific theory.  The important thing is not so much exactly where the Basketmakers came from or what language they spoke but that they came from somewhere else, and brought agriculture with them.  In this view, then, there is a profound discontinuity between Archaic hunter-gatherers and Basketmaker/Pueblo farmers, and most of the elements of the later Pueblo lifestyle were present already in some form in the Basketmaker period.  The Pithouse to Pueblo Transition is therefore not as important in this account.  It clearly marks some changes in society, but in this view the adoption or intensification of agricultural production was not one of them, since the Basketmakers were already as dependent on agriculture as they would ever get.

Broken Metate at Pithouse, Mesa Verde

One way to test these hypotheses is to look at whether Basketmakers were in fact more similar in their diets to earlier Archaic populations (supporting the gradualist theory) or later Pueblo populations (supporting the migrationist theory).  As I mentioned earlier, one early attempt to look at Basketmaker II subsistence in the Cedar Mesa area of southern Utah used multiple lines of evidence to argue that these Basketmakers, at least, were already very dependent on maize agriculture.  These lines of evidence were:

  • Settlement patterns, which were found to be quite similar to later Pueblo II and Pueblo III patterns in emphasizing locations with good agricultural potential.
  • Material from the trash midden at Turkey Pen Cave, which showed abundant maize and squash remains.
  • Analysis of coprolites from the Turkey Pen Cave midden, a very direct source of dietary information, which also showed abundant evidence of maize.
  • Stable carbon isotope analysis of human skeletal material, which showed heavy use of maize in both Basketmaker and Pueblo remains, especially compared to a single Archaic burial.

This last will require some explanation.  Basically, carbon has three naturally occurring isotopes: Carbon-12, the most common; Carbon-13, another, less common stable isotope; and Carbon-14, a radioactive isotope that decays over time at a known rate and becomes Carbon-12.  The ratio of Carbon-12 to Carbon-14 is used in radiocarbon dating, but for the type of analysis we are talking about here the more important ratio is that between Carbon-13 and Carbon-12.  This ratio is affected by the metabolic processes used by plants in carbon fixation during photosynthesis.  There are three processes plants use to fix carbon, known as C3, C4, and CAM.  The details are complicated, but the upshot of this distinction is that most plants, especially those in temperate climates, use the C3 pathway, but some plants, particularly grasses from hot, arid environments, use the C4 pathway instead.  (The CAM pathway is also used by some plants in arid environments, but it is not very important for stable carbon isotope analysis.)  Due to the differing nature of the chemical processes involved in the C3 and C4 pathways, they result in different ratios of Carbon-13 to Carbon-12, with C4 plants having noticeably higher ratios.

The importance of all this for studies of prehistoric diet is that maize is a C4 plant, while most plants native to the Southwest, like most plants in general, are C3.  There are a few Southwestern C4 plants, such as some amaranths and chenopods, but it can generally be assumed that isotopic evidence for heavy reliance on C4 plants indicates a maize-based diet.  The research on human remains from Cedar Mesa showed very high reliance on C4 plants among the Basketmaker and Pueblo individuals.  The Archaic burial also showed some reliance on C4 plants, probably from chenopods and dropseed, both C4 plants that are known from Archaic period coprolites in the area, but much less than the later burials.

Sign Describing Pithouse Construction, Mesa Verde

Objections could be raised to any one of these lines of evidence, but taken together they are quite strong.  It’s important to note, however, that this type of evidence cannot directly confirm or refute the gradualist or migrationist hypotheses for the introduction of agriculture to the Southwest.  After all, knowing that people were already dependent on agriculture in the Basketmaker II period does seem to contradict the idea that they only became dependent on agriculture much later, but it still doesn’t establish when and how agriculture was first introduced to the area.  It could have been by a migration from the south at the beginning of the Basketmaker II period, but it could also have been by diffusion during the Late Archaic, practiced on a small scale for a few hundred years and gradually integrated more and more into the subsistence system until it began to dominate it by Basketmaker II.  That is, the gradualists could still be right about the process even if they had the timing wrong.  What the migrationists need is direct evidence for a migration, but that is fiendishly difficult to find in the archaeological record in general.  Recent discoveries of Archaic maize and squash in more and more parts of the Southwest, including Chaco Canyon, pose a problem for the migrationists and seem to most easily support a gradualist account, but again, maybe the migration just took place much earlier.

It’s also possible that both sides are right.  Maize and squash may have diffused northward, possibly from multiple sources in Mesoamerica, during the Late Archaic, and been adopted casually into local hunting and gathering economies over a long period of time, with a migration of agriculturalists coming later and causing major changes in those local adaptations that ended up resulting in widespread agricultural dependence throughout the region.  The wide variety of types of maize found in Archaic contexts, and the differences between them and the more standardized types used during the Basketmaker and Pueblo periods, argues in favor of something like this.

"Alcove Dwellers" Sign at Square Tower House Overlook, Mesa Verde

Much recent research on issues like this using stable-isotope techniques has come out of the Archaeological Center Research Facility at the University of Utah Department of Anthropology.  One important paper looked at Western Basketmaker II burials, mostly from the Kayenta area and excavated by the pioneering expeditions of Alfred Kidder and Samuel Guernsey in the early twentieth century, analyzing both carbon isotope ratios (to test for dependence on maize) and the ratio of Nitrogen-15 to Nitrogen-14 (a measure of the amount of meat in the diet).  They also radiocarbon dated all the remains.  The results were perhaps not unexpected, but still interesting.  The researchers found plenty of evidence of maize dependence in all the individuals sampled, comparable to other samples from later Pueblo sites in the same region as well as Chaco great house burials (more on that later), suggesting, like Matson and Chisholm before them, that people in the Southwest were already as dependent on maize during Basketmaker II as their descendants would be later.  They also found evidence for relatively low levels of meat consumption among most individuals.  Although they are clearly part of the migrationist camp, they are quite aware that their data here, while interesting, are not dispositive when it comes to the gradualist/migrationist question:

Our data strongly suggest that in the study area the presence of Basketmaker material culture signifies heavy reliance on maize. However, these data do not indicate that the appearance of maize was synonymous with the appearance of Basketmaker groups or resolve questions regarding possible farming activities among Late Archaic foragers and their relationship to the Basketmaker complex.

There are still a lot of open questions about the introduction of agriculture to the Southwest, but I find research like that presented in these two papers pretty convincing in showing that however it arrived, it was there and very important at least as early as the Basketmaker II period.
Coltrain, J., Janetski, J., & Carlyle, S. (2007). The Stable- and Radio-Isotope Chemistry of Western Basketmaker Burials: Implications for Early Puebloan Diets and Origins American Antiquity, 72 (2) DOI: 10.2307/40035815

Matson, R., & Chisholm, B. (1991). Basketmaker II Subsistence: Carbon Isotopes and Other Dietary Indicators from Cedar Mesa, Utah American Antiquity, 56 (3) DOI: 10.2307/280894

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Rooms in Northwest Part of Salmon Ruin

In looking into recent research on Southwestern turkeys, I found an interesting paper from 2007 by E. Bradley Beacham and Stephen R. Durand about turkey eggshell.  Specifically, they came up with a new technique for analyzing archaeological eggshell to determine whether or not the egg had hatched.  The idea behind it, confirmed by an experiment they did with modern wild turkey eggs, is that bird embryos take the material to develop their skeletons from the interior portion of their eggshells, so the longer an embryo has been developing in the egg the more reduced the inside of the shell will be.  This is clearly apparent in microscopic examination of modern eggshells.  The usefulness of this technique is that it can theoretically determine if turkeys were being bred, as opposed to simply being kept captive, if large numbers of eggs had hatched.  Beacham and Durand connect this to a longstanding dispute in Southwestern archaeology over how to interpret the evidence of archaeological turkeys, with one side arguing that turkeys were introduced from Mexico as already domesticated animals, with the wild turkeys currently known in the Southwest possibly descending from escaped domesticated turkeys that went feral, and the other side arguing that turkeys were domesticated in the Southwest from local wild turkeys, possibly quite late after many years of having been captured in small numbers for their feathers but not bred.  We now know from genetic evidence that both of these theories are wrong, although the former is apparently closer to being true, and it now seems that turkeys were introduced as domesticated animals, probably from the east rather than the south, and that this happened quite early, at least by Basketmaker II and possibly during the Late Archaic.

The archaeological eggshells Beacham and Durand analyzed using this technique were from two rooms at Salmon Ruin, a major Chacoan outlier on the San Juan River near present-day Bloomfield, New Mexico.  These rooms were excavated in the 1970s, and they were selected for this analysis because they contained significant quantities of well-preserved turkey eggshell.  Eggshell is very fragile and needs very good preservation conditions to survive, so the excellent preservation conditions at Chacoan great houses like Salmon are important in doing this kind of research.  The sampled shell fragments came from strata clearly identified with the three originally designated periods of occupation at Salmon: Primary or Chacoan (ca. 1088 to 1125 AD), Intermediate (ca. 1125 to 1190), and Secondary or Mesa Verdean (ca. 1190 to 1280).  These turned out to have quite different results.  The Primary shells overwhelmingly showed no evidence of having hatched, and little evidence of having held embryos long enough for material to be taken from them at all.  The Intermediate shells, on the other hand, mostly did show evidence of having held embryos for significant periods, and about half of them seem to have hatched.  The Secondary shells, most of which came from a different room from the other two samples, were more like the Primary ones in that they showed little evidence of embryo development and almost none of hatching.

Salmon Ruins Sign

This is odd, and hard to interpret in terms of domestication or intensity of use.  The sheer amount of Secondary eggshell throughout the site, compared to the much smaller amount from earlier periods, suggests increased use of turkeys during the thirteenth century, which is consistent with evidence from throughout the Southwest showing increased turkey use, especially for meat, during this period.  The shell evidence, however, while it does show that breeding seems to have taken place during the Intermediate period, doesn’t really fit with this increased overall use.  It’s possible that this is simply due to a sampling issue, and that further study of a larger sample of Secondary eggshell would show more evidence for breeding.  It is also possible, as Beacham and Durand note, that this increased use of turkeys involved the consumption of eggs as well as meat, and that the Secondary sample analyzed is associated with this use of eggs rather than with breeding.  Something similar may also be going on with the Primary sample, although Beacham and Durand, who clearly seem to favor a late onset of breeding and domestication, prefer to see it more as evidence that turkeys were not yet fully domesticated at that time.  As noted above, however, the genetic evidence argues strongly against this interpretation.

Given the genetic evidence, it is not clear how to interpret the eggshell evidence in this paper, but it offers an interesting new way to look at turkey eggshell in well-preserved contexts, and give the frequency of these contexts in the Southwest further use of the technique may further refine our understanding of the issues surrounding turkey use in the prehistoric Southwest.
BEACHAM, E., & DURAND, S. (2007). Eggshell and the archaeological record: new insights into turkey husbandry in the American Southwest Journal of Archaeological Science, 34 (10), 1610-1621 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2006.11.015

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Northeast Part of Pueblo Bonito

I often end my tour of Pueblo Bonito by describing it as “a place of majesty and a place of mystery.”  I’ve recently been thinking about what exactly that means, and what makes Pueblo Bonito, and Chaco Canyon more generally, so mysterious.  It’s not really difficult to figure out, but I think the implications are more important than I had realized before.

In a nutshell, Chaco is interesting largely because it’s mysterious, and it’s mysterious because it’s in such a harsh environment.  It’s clearly a major center of some kind, although it remains unclear exactly what it was the center of, in a place where you would never expect to find anything on so grand a scale.  Indeed, the startling contrast between the grandeur of the sites in Chaco and the barrenness of their setting has led some archaeologists, and many visitors, to assume that the climate must have been different when the sites were built.  A considerable amount of research has therefore been put into reconstructing the paleoclimate of Chaco, with the surprising result that it hasn’t changed much in the past few thousand years.  There have been small variations on the scale of decades in the amount of rainfall, and in such a marginal environment for agriculture even small variations like that could easily make or break a societal system, but they’re really just on the order of the changes seen in recorded history (i.e., over the past hundred years or so), and the place has definitely been more or less like it is today for a long time.

West Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

And yet, the great houses are there, as are all the other aspects of the Chaco system that inspire so much wonder and awe today, including the road system, the astronomical alignments, and everything else.  In some ways I think the current (somewhat artificial) isolation of the park maintained by the lack of a paved road to it is appropriate in giving a sense of just how much effort it would take to make this an accessible location, let alone a major cultural center.  There’s a tradeoff, of course, in that making it easier to get to would probably make it more obvious just how central it was once the required infrastructure was put in.  Still, though, there’s no denying that this is a hard place to live, and it’s by no means an obvious location for the scale of construction necessary to create such a center.  That’s one of the abiding mysteries of Chaco, perhaps the most fundamental one.  Visitors ask about it all the time; “why here?” is one of the most frequent questions we get.  I always just say that it remains a mystery.

It’s not the mere presence of a major cultural center in the prehistoric Southwest that comprises the mystery, however.  There have been others that have not elicited nearly the interest accorded to Chaco.  Aztec, for example, which seems likely to have succeeded Chaco as the center of a somewhat reduced regional system in the twelfth century, is a major center on the same scale, but there’s nothing all that mysterious about it.  It’s located right on a major river in a fertile valley well-suited for agriculture, which is exactly where you would expect to find a major population center capable of serving as the center of a widespread system.  Other Southwestern archaeological sites are even less mysterious.  Mesa Verde is a very good agricultural area by regional standards, as is Bandelier, and it is no surprise that they attracted large prehistoric populations.  Canyon de Chelly is a bit of an oasis in a generally harsh area.  The Hohokam sites in southern Arizona are along major rivers well-suited for irrigation agriculture.  There are also sites in marginal areas, of course, but they tend to be small and unimpressive, which is unsurprising given their surroundings.  All of these sorts of sites can be easily explained by reference to fairly simple ecological determinist models of human settlement patterns.

Collapsed Wall in Western Part of Old Bonito Framing Pueblo del Arroyo

Not so with Chaco, however.  While many archaeologists have made valiant attempts to fit the rise of Chaco into models based on local and/or regional environmental conditions, they have been generally unsuccessful in finding a model that convincingly explains the astonishing florescence of the Chaco system in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries.  This has inspired some other archaeologists more recently to try a different tack involving less environmental determinism and more historical contingency.  This seems promising, but finding sufficient evidence for this sort of approach is difficult when it comes to prehistoric societies like Chaco.  The various camps of archaeologists will likely continue to argue about the nature of Chaco for a long time, I think.  Meanwhile, the mystery remains.

I doubt this mystery will ever be totally solved.  There’s just too much information that is no longer available for various reasons.  That’s not necessarily a problem, though.  At this point the mysteries of Chaco are among its most noteworthy characteristics.  Sometimes not knowing everything, and accepting that lack of knowledge, is useful in coming to terms with something as impressive, even overwhelming, as Chaco.  One way to deal with it all is to stop trying to figure out every detail and to just observe.  The experience that results from this approach may have nothing to do with the original intent of the builders of the great houses of Chaco, but then again it may have everything to do with that intent.  There’s no way to be sure, and there likely never will be.  But that’s okay.  Sometimes mysteries are better left unsolved.

Kiva A and Southeast Corner, Pueblo Bonito

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Wild Turkey

In a comment to the previous post, Alan Reed Bishop brings up an issue closely related to the recent evidence for early maize cultivation in Chaco Canyon: the introduction of domesticated turkeys to the Southwest.  A recent study of archaeological turkey remains found that the majority of the turkeys found in Southwestern archaeological sites are genetically distinct from both the local subspecies of wild turkey and the subspecies found in Mexico that was domesticated there and is ancestral to the modern domestic turkey.  Instead, the Southwestern domestic turkeys were closest genetically to two subspecies of wild turkey found to the east and southeast, in the southern Plains and the eastern US.  This strongly implies that turkeys were domesticated somewhere to the east and then introduced to the Southwest as domestic animals, presumably through long-distance trade contacts.

The earliest remains used in that study were coprolites from Turkey Pen Cave in Grand Gulch, Utah, and date to the Basketmaker II period.  Some of these coprolites were also directly dated by AMS; the earliest had a 95% confidence interval of AD 20 to 200.  Like the bones from other sites analyzed in the same study, the Turkey Pen Cave coprolites indicated that most of the turkeys kept there belonged to the domesticated lineage, apparently non-local, that showed strong similarities to wild subspecies further east.  In addition, an earlier study of Basketmaker II subsistence in the Cedar Mesa/Grand Gulch area, using a variety of lines of evidence including coprolites, found that corn agriculture was already as central to the Basketmaker II subsistence system as it would be in later Pueblo times.  The presence of domesticated turkeys as well as corn agriculture as well-established aspects of Basketmaker II society seems to imply that both were introduced earlier, perhaps in the Archaic period, and the accumulating evidence for Archaic maize throughout the Southwest supports this supposition.  Less study has been done of turkeys, however, and while the DNA study refers to alleged Archaic turkey remains from the Southwest, the references are to obscure sources that I have not been able to track down.

Regardless of when domesticated turkeys were first introduced to the Southwest, they presumably were not introduced along with maize.  Turkeys seem to have been introduced from the east, while maize definitely came from the south.  It is possible that both came from northeastern Mexico, where one of the wild turkey subspecies similar to the Southwestern type is found, but there is basically no evidence for direct contact between that area and the Southwest, and the earliest evidence for maize there apparently dates to approximately the same period as the earliest Southwestern maize, suggesting that agriculture was not introduced to this area early enough to make it the vector for transmission to the Southwest.  It is much more likely that maize was introduced through western and/or northern Mexico, areas with extensive evidence for contact with the Southwest throughout prehistory.  So it seems quite clear that the introduction of turkeys and corn were separate events, but it seems equally clear that both were in fact introduced from elsewhere, probably during the Late Archaic, and it is striking that they seem to be present together from quite early on, at least on the Colorado Plateau.  (Turkeys are conspicuously absent from early agricultural sites in southern Arizona, which is another piece of evidence suggesting that they were not introduced from the south.)  I’m not really sure what the upshot of all this is, but it’s certainly interesting stuff.
Matson, R., & Chisholm, B. (1991). Basketmaker II Subsistence: Carbon Isotopes and Other Dietary Indicators from Cedar Mesa, Utah American Antiquity, 56 (3) DOI: 10.2307/280894

Speller, C., Kemp, B., Wyatt, S., Monroe, C., Lipe, W., Arndt, U., & Yang, D. (2010). Ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis reveals complexity of indigenous North American turkey domestication Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (7), 2807-2812 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0909724107

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