Pueblo Bonito is the best-known and most-studied site at Chaco, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about it. Because it was excavated early in the history of Southwestern archaeology, provenience information for the vast numbers of artifacts found at Bonito is not nearly as precise as would be expected today. We do generally have information about what was in each excavated room, and often where in the room specific artifacts were, but the careful stratigraphic approaches used today were either totally unknown or in their infancy during the excavation of various parts of Bonito, so interpreting the field notes and site reports can be a challenge. Partly for this reason, a lot of recent interpretations of Chaco have been based mainly on the more recent and better-documented excavations by the Chaco Project in the 1970s. This makes Pueblo Alto in particular, the only great house extensively excavated by the Chaco Project, enormously influential in recent interpretations, not always in beneficial ways. The Pueblo Bonito data has been incorporated into most theories to varying extents, but this often just takes the form of vague gesturing at the elaborate burials and huge quantities of high-value artifacts found there, and sometimes it basically amounts to discounting the importance of Bonito because it is so unlike the other sites.
Still, Bonito is important! The problematic nature of the documentation notwithstanding, there’s still a ton of data available, and the Chaco Archive has been doing excellent work lately in making it more widely accessible. Their cool interactive map of the site even allows you to click on a room and see a list of all the features, artifacts, tree-ring dates, and pictures associated with that room. I’ve been playing around with it a lot lately, and there’s really a ton of interesting stuff in many of the rooms that we don’t hear so much about.
Building on what I was saying earlier about a badger burial at a small site excavated by Earl Morris near Aztec, I decided to look for unusual animal burials or remains that might suggest some patterns in ritual practices or group identities at Bonito. Many modern Pueblo clans are named after specific animals, and it seems reasonable that some Chacoan social groups (which may or may not be equivalent or ancestral to the modern clans) might have had similar identities that would lead them to leave animal remains in certain contexts that could indicate connections through time between different rooms or sites. The Chaco Archive database allows you to search for specific types of artifacts, and it even has a special option for non-human burials. The database doesn’t have all the sites included yet, but it does have all of Bonito, and it’s a powerful tool for finding information about the sites that are included.
Starting with the non-human burials, the ones at Bonito seem to all be of macaws and parrots. The close connection between Bonito and macaws has long been noted, and Room 38 is particularly known for its large numbers of them, but one thing I hadn’t realized is that, like so much else at Bonito, the distribution of macaws is highly concentrated, not just in a few rooms, but specifically in a few rooms on the east side of the site. The macaw burials, in addition to the two in Room 38, are in Rooms 71, 78, and 306, all of which are in the eastern part of Old Bonito. Not all of these are actually formal burials, but they are all complete skeletons. Extending the search to individual bones adds Rooms 249, 251, 309, and 312, as well as Kiva J and the east mound in front of the site. Again, these are all on the east side of Bonito, although not just in Old Bonito this time. Rooms 309 and 312 aren’t technically in Old Bonito, but they are among the rooms added right in front of it, and are very close to Rooms 306, 71, and 78, which also had macaws. Rooms 249 and 251 are in the block of rooms added onto the southeast part of the site over an earlier extension that apparently built over part of the eastern end of Old Bonito (this part of the site is very complicated and its construction sequence is poorly understood). Kiva J is one of the six blocked-in kivas between this block and the plaza. And, of course, the east mound is the easternmost of the two mounds.
What does all this mean? Many have suggested that the number of macaws at Bonito indicates the possible presence of a macaw clan like the one known today at Zuni. If this is indeed the explanation for all the macaws, and it seems plausible given the restricted distribution of them to just a few sites at this time and the contexts in which they are found, it seems that this clan probably lived in or had claims on the eastern part of Pueblo Bonito, and that this association held not just in the earliest stages of the site but even after it was expanded. Perhaps members of this clan were the initial residents of the eastern suites in Old Bonito, then when those rooms were converted to other uses as the site was expanded they moved into the new southeast wing.
One question that might be raised at this point is whether this distribution is actually specific to macaws. Maybe all exotic birds and animals are concentrated in this part of the site, which would suggest that there might be something special about the eastern half of the site but not necessarily anything tied to a specific clan. Some research into the layout of the rooms has shown that the southeast corner is unusual in not being divided into obvious room suites, whereas the southwest corner seems to be. Maybe instead of the macaw clan living in the eastern half, everyone lived in the western half and they used the eastern half for macaw-related (and other) ritual.
One way to test this would be to look at other unusual animals. Finding animals of ritual importance beyond obvious exotics like macaws is tricky, because many animals were certainly used for mundane purposes and their remains are therefore all over. Dogs and turkeys were kept domestically, so their remains probably wouldn’t indicate anything special about social groupings, and game animals such as rabbits and deer might have interesting implications for access to different kinds of meat but, again, not necessarily specific symbolic implications. That basically leaves animals that don’t serve a clear subsistence or other utilitarian purpose but are nevertheless found in sufficient numbers to suggest something more than mere chance is behind their presence. The best example I’ve found: bears.
You basically never hear about bears in discussions of Chaco. They are not present in the area now and probably weren’t in antiquity either, and their remains are certainly rare at Chaco but not entirely absent. At Pueblo Bonito, bear remains are mostly concentrated on the west side of the site, in stark contrast to the macaw remains on the east side. There are some artifacts made of bear bone, including two apparent gaming pieces, one each from Rooms 267 and 290 (both on the east side), but there are also unworked bear bones, especially jaws and feet, particularly concentrated in Rooms 92, 102, and 109, which are part of the same suite of rooms in the west wing of Old Bonito. Room 92 also had a bear hide and mass of hair that is probably also from a bear. Another room in this part of the site, Room 330, had a grizzly bear jaw. Another bear jaw was in Room 66 and a claw was in Room 10; both these rooms are on the east side of the site. So not as clear-cut as the macaw evidence, but still a strong suggestion that people with some sort of connection to bears lived in the western part of the site. The “bear-paw” motif is well-known in rock art, and George Pepper, who excavated these rooms, reported that Room 97 (the room under Room 92) had similar “bear paws” drawn on the smoke-blackened plaster. Finally, Kiva Q, the great kiva in the west plaza, contained a (dedicatory?) cache of objects that included bear paws. This is all very suggestive, though of course not totally dispositive.
There may be other examples of these sorts of patterns that could give us a better sense of who exactly was living at Pueblo Bonito and what other people at which other sites they had particularly close ties to. Despite the fact that this information has been available for a long time, it’s only now that it’s starting to become widely available in a useful form. New analytical techniques are revolutionizing our understanding of Chaco in all sorts of ways, but one of the most important contributions technology can make is just to make existing information available so it can be assembled, analyzed, and compared to information from elsewhere.