Given the diversity of languages spoken by the modern Pueblos, and the diverse archaeological “cultures” of Pueblo prehistory (as described in the previous post), one obvious line of inquiry in making connections between past and present focuses on language. Specifically, the fact that some Pueblo languages are part of larger families and others are not seems to open the possibility of some Pueblo groups being relative newcomers to the Pueblo lifestyle, which leaves others as more likely to be the direct descendants of the prehistoric groups who inhabited sites like Chaco and Mesa Verde.
There have been several attempts to reconstruct Pueblo culture history along these lines, but I’m not going to discuss them in detail because I think the whole approach is unlikely to work. A closer look at the specifics of the relationships involved shows why.
There are two Pueblo language groups whose languages are part of larger families: Hopi and Tanoan. The Hopi language belongs to the very large Uto-Aztecan family, stretching from the Great Basin south into Mexico and beyond. The Tanoan family is part of the Kiowa-Tanoan family, along with the single language Kiowa, spoken on the Great Plains. The other two Pueblo languages, Keres and Zuni, are isolates not known to be related to any other language (including each other).
Starting with Hopi, at first glance this seems like a good candidate for a language spoken by a mobile hunter-gatherer group, like the modern Numic speakers of the Great Basin, who only settled down to a sedentary agricultural lifestyle relatively recently. However, it’s important to note that Hopi forms its own branch of the Uto-Aztecan family (or possibly of the Northern Uto-Aztecan subfamily, the existence of which is a matter of dispute). It is no more closely related to Numic than it is to, say, the Piman languages spoken by the O’odham agriculturalists of southern Arizona. Depending on how the overall Uto-Aztecan family is reconstructed, it may even be equally close to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It’s not possible to assign specific dates to divisions of language families, but on a qualitative level, Hopi is sufficiently divergent from the rest of its family that it is very unlikely that its speakers entered the Pueblo culture area in the past few centuries. Archaeologically, there is abundant evidence that modern Hopi society emerged from the amalgamation of many different groups from different parts of the Southwest who migrated to the Hopi mesas in the post-Chacoan period, and the same impression is given by Hopi oral history. Which of these groups spoke the language ancestral to modern Hopi is impossible to determine from archaeological evidence, of course, but it’s reasonable to think at least one of them did, and had been speaking it while practicing a basically Pueblo lifestyle for many centuries before that.
Turning to Tanoan, the archaeology is a lot murkier but the general point still stands. The relationship to Kiowa suggests the possibility that the Tanoan-speakers only entered the Southwest fairly recently, presumably from the Plains. In a small language like this is it is even harder to quantify divergence than it is in large language like Uto-Aztecan, but again, the Tanoan languages are quite different from Kiowa. They are so different, in fact, that it wasn’t until the 1950s that the relationship between the two was established to the general satisfaction of historical linguists. The oral history of these groups is also murky, but what is known of Tanoan traditions doesn’t seem to point to origins outside the Southwest, and Kiowa traditions also don’t seem to record any knowledge of a relationship to any of the Pueblos. Who moved where when is hard to determine in this case, but nothing about the linguistic evidence points to a particularly recent adoption of Pueblo culture by Tanoan speakers. The eastern Pueblos, including the Tanoans, do show a lot of evidence of Plains cultural traits, but this is most likely a result of close contact with the Plains during the late prehistoric and early historic period, for which there is plenty of evidence.
That leaves Keres and Zuni, about which nothing can be said about external relationships. It is likely that both groups have been culturally Pueblo for a very long time, but there is no way to tell based on the linguistic evidence whether they have been so for longer than their neighbors to the east (Tanoan) and west (Hopi).
So basically, I think linguistic relationship is a dead end in determining historical connections between ancient sites and modern Pueblos. That’s not to say that linguistics is entirely useless, however. There are other, more subtle aspects of the linguistic relationships among Pueblo groups that may well have historical value. That’s a topic for another post, however.