The third chapter of Crucible of Pueblos deals with the western part of the Mesa Verde or Northern San Juan region, which basically corresponds to what is now the southeastern corner of Utah. In this context the area is bounded by Cedar Mesa on the west and the Abajo Mountains on the north, as well as by the borders with Colorado and Arizona on the east and south. This is a fairly standard way to define this area archaeologically except that the western boundary is more restrictive than usual, which appears to mainly be a decision based on the near-total lack of sites dated to the Pueblo I period west of the eastern edge of Cedar Mesa. (There are actually Pueblo sites dating to this period much further west in southwestern Utah and southern Nevada, the so-called “Virgin Anasazi,” but they aren’t included in this book at all for some reason.)
The authors divide their study area into a series of physiographic sub-regions based primarily on elevation, which is a useful way to track changes in occupation patterns over the course of the period they discuss. It’s also a different approach to defining sub-regions than most of the other chapters in the book use. These sub-regions are important because the differences in precipitation and growing season length among them seem to have been important factors behind shifting settlement patterns during the period of interest. These shifts seem to have mainly taken place across the region rather than separately in spatial sub-regions such as drainages, as was the case in some other regions.
One way this region differs from others, and especially from the Central and Eastern Mesa Verde regions, is that there has been a relative lack of large-scale salvage excavation projects to provide large amounts of detailed archaeological data. Instead, most data is from surveys and small-scale excavations, and detailed chronological information in particular is missing for most sites that have been recorded. Rough dating of sites to Pecos Classification period at best based on frequencies of a few ceramic types is the norm here, which limits the comparability of data on trends in settlement over time. Nevertheless, the authors of this chapter do their best to come up with a coherent narrative of settlement during the Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods in this area, which seems to have been an important one for understanding the cultural development of early farming populations and the origins of aggregated villages.
The most striking pattern in the population dynamics of this region in the Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods is of apparent cycles of population growth and decline on the scale of decades and of greater magnitude than can be explain by internal demographic processes, implying migration into and out of the region multiple times. Most interestingly, these cycles appear to be largely complementary to similar cycles in other nearby regions, especially the Central Mesa Verde region just to the east. This strongly implies that one of the major factors in population changes in both these regions was movement between them.
To go into greater detail, the story told in this chapter begins in the seventh century AD with the expansion of Basketmaker III populations across the region from the narrow area of Basketmaker II settlement along the San Juan River and its major tributaries. The authors attribute this expansion in part to the introduction of beans and pottery, which freed farming populations from dependence on outcrops of limestone to cook with their corn for nitrogen-fixing purposes. Population spread especially into the upland areas with deep soils well-suited to dry farming. Over the course of the Basketmaker III period scattered hamlets began to consolidate into “proto-villages” with public architecture such as oversized pit structures surrounded by scattered households. The authors note the similarity of this pattern to the later Pueblo II great house communities, which is indeed an interesting parallel.
There appears to have been a regional population decline in the early eighth century, although this may be an artifact of the limited data set and difficulty assigning sites to precise time periods. In any case, there is evidence of a noticeable population increase after AD 750, with several villages of tightly clustered households containing public architecture appearing, along with a considerable number of smaller residential sites and a few sites in highly defensive locations, especially at the western edge of the region near Cedar Mesa. The population increase was accompanied by the introduction of a strikingly different type of pottery, Abajo Red-on-orange, which shows many similarities to pottery from the Mogollon region far to the south and likely reflects long-distance migration of some sort. There were still many continuities in architecture and other aspects of material culture, however, which suggests that these migrants combined with local populations rather than replacing them.
The largest and most famous of the villages that developed during this early Pueblo I period is Alkali Ridge Site 13, excavated by J. O. Brew in the 1940s. This site consisted of a series of long, continuous arcing roomblocks, made up of “room suites” of one “habitation” room backed by two smaller “storage” rooms. This is a pattern that would become standard for Pueblo I villages at a slightly later date, and would endure in various forms for centuries. Site 13 consists of six of these arcs, four of which were excavated by Brew. Three of the arcs excavated by Brew also had oversized pit structures with highly formalized features suggesting possible use as public architecture of some sort.
There were other village-sized sites that were established at this time, although few have been excavated. These are among the earliest sites of this size and level of organization in the northern Southwest, and continuities with later sites in other regions suggest they may have been very influential on later developments.
In addition to the early village sites, defensive sites on high, inaccessible promontories began to appear during the early Pueblo I period. These sites have not been studied in any depth, and little is known about them. Some appear to have evidence of extensive residential populations and/or public architecture, while others don’t. One intriguing pattern is an apparent line of them at the western edge of the region along the eastern margins of Cedar Mesa. This, combined with the lack of Pueblo sites to the west, has suggested to some researchers that there was a buffer area or “no-man’s-land” between the Pueblo population in southeastern Utah and early Fremont populations northwest of the Colorado River during this period. It’s worth noting, however, that there were also a few of these apparent defensive sites well within the Mesa Verdean Pueblo region, including the Fortified Spur site near the Colorado-Utah border, so tensions may have been internal as well as external at this point.
During the middle Pueblo I period from AD 825 to 880 there appears to have been a regional population decline, although again this may be due in part to data gaps. It is noteworthy, however, that this is the period of a major population increase in the Central Mesa Verde region to the east, including the formation of the well-known cluster of aggregated villages in the Dolores River Valley, some of which show some striking similarities to earlier Utah villages such as Site 13. It is reasonable to postulate that a pattern of emigration from southeast Utah into southwest Colorado led to this pattern. Southeast Utah wasn’t completely depopulated, however. In addition to scattered small sites throughout the region, there are a very few larger communities firmly dated to this period, including an intriguing site on Elk Ridge called the Pillars that has extensive evidence for middle Pueblo I residential architecture and some tentative evidence for public architecture as well. There are several other sites in the same general area that have more tentative evidence for occupation during this time, and it seems this may have been one of a handful of population clusters in the region during a time of otherwise low population.
After AD 880 population rapidly increased again, and many large villages were built between this point and AD 950. This was a period of rapid depopulation in the Central Mesa Verde region, again suggesting a complementary pattern of migration between the two regions. Many of these new village sites were in highly defensive locations, including some that were nowhere near the frontiers of the region. There is also an intriguing pattern of continuity in location between these early villages and later Pueblo II great house communities from the eleventh century. This pattern is made even more intriguing by two phenomena:
- Some of these sites, such as Red Knobs and Nancy Patterson Village, have evidence for masonry roomblocks similar to the “proto-great houses” known from many sites in New Mexico in and around Chaco Canyon during this same time.
- There seems to have been another depopulation of southeastern Utah around AD 950, implying that population at these sites was not actually continuous despite these similarities.
It has long seemed to me that southeastern Utah is a crucial area for understanding Chaco. There are several lines of evidence suggesting that at least some people living in Chaco Canyon and involved in its rise to regional dominance had strong ties to Utah, and I suspect those ties were more important in the emergence of the Chaco system than has been generally recognized. This chapter adds some much-needed context on the earlier history of Pueblo populations in Utah, and to me it strongly reinforces those ideas about the importance of Utah to Chaco. The exact nature of these relationships and their importance is still unclear, and the relatively sketchy data available make it harder to figure out, but it still definitely seems like there is something important here.