Some of the most important work on the origins of the kachina cult is that done by E. Charles Adams of the Arizona State Museum, particularly his 1991 book focusing specifically on the subject. In this book he summarizes the available evidence for the origin and early development of the kachina cult, and based on the distribution of the archaeological manifestations of the cult that he identifies he concludes that it originated in the Upper Little Colorado River area of east-central Arizona in the period between AD 1275 and 1325.
Adams’s reasoning for this conclusion is based on his comparison of the distribution of four types of evidence that he presents as reflecting the presence of the cult: rock art, pottery, plaza-oriented village layout, and rectangular kivas. His summaries of the distribution of all these features in space and time are very useful, but his conclusions about the origins of the kachina cult go well beyond the evidence he presents and are not very convincing. His method for determining the origin of the cult is to look at the distribution of the four features he identifies and find where they first overlap. This seems reasonable enough.
Unfortunately, there does not turn out to be any place where the features all overlap sufficiently early to be associated with the initial development of the cult, so Adams has to resort to finding a place where three of the elements overlap. The three elements he uses are pottery style, plaza-facing village layout, and rectangular kivas, which he finds present together earliest in the Upper Little Colorado River area in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. He therefore concludes that this is when and where the cult originated and proceeds to describe its rapid spread to the north and east over the course of the fourteenth century. Unlike many other researchers, including Polly Schaafsma, he considers the cult to be fundamentally indigenous rather than Mesoamerican in origin, although he concedes that some elements of it were probably subject to influence from groups to the south such as the Hohokam and Salado.
Adams theorizes that after its initial spread the cult was greatly elaborated at Hopi, where it acquired its strong association with rainmaking and began to be reflected in elaborate kiva murals, and that it subsequently spread in modified form from Hopi to areas that had already adopted the initial cult directly from the Upper Little Colorado, such as Zuni and the Albuquerque area of the Rio Grande valley. It is only at that point, after AD 1400, that Adams sees any influence from the Jornada Mogollon coming up the Rio Grande, and he sees this influence, reflected in the Jornada rock art style and a similar style in some kiva murals, as secondary to the Upper Little Colorado and Hopi kachina cult influence already present in the Rio Grande valley. He even speculates that the Jornada influence may not have affected the kachina cult itself at all, and that it may have had more to do with other societies present among the Eastern Pueblos having more to do with war.
This theory is problematic for a number of reasons. For one thing, Adams relies very heavily on the distribution of pottery styles as evidence for the spread of the kachina cult, but he never establishes the association between the cult and the styles he mentions. He focuses on the so-called “Fourmile style” (named after Fourmile Ruin in the Upper Little Colorado area), a style of polychrome decoration that affected pottery types throughout the Southwest in the fourteenth century. Among the features of Fourmile style that Adams emphasizes are its use of asymmetrical decoration on the interiors of bowls, its extensive use of bird and feather imagery, and its occasional use of obvious kachina cult symbolism, particularly masks or whole anthropomorphic masked figures. It is the last aspect of the style that is clearly most associated with the kachina cult, and the presence of this sort of imagery on ceramics is certainly as clear a sign of the presence of the cult in a given area as the presence of similar motifs in rock art, but Adams goes beyond this observation to associate any use of the Fourmile style with the spread of the cult. This is not something that can just be assumed, however. It is important to note that the Fourmile style was very widespread, including in areas without any other evidence of kachina cult imagery, and it is quite possible that the distribution of the style is completely independent of the distribution of the cult. That is, the Fourmile style may just have been the style of decoration that was popular at the time that the kachina cult happened to be spreading throughout the northern Southwest, so that groups that adopted the cult may have used its imagery on their Fourmile-style ceramics without there being any particular association between the style in general and the cult. Thus, while Fourmile ceramics with kachina imagery would clearly be evidence of the distribution and spread of the cult, Fourmile ceramics without it would not necessarily be, and Adams’s extensive use of them undermines his conclusions significantly.
Another major problem with Adams’s approach is the way he largely disregards the rock art evidence. When he realizes that there is no place where all four of his lines of evidence come together at the proper time, it is the rock art evidence that he ignores. This is why he is able to conclude that the cult originated in the Upper Little Colorado area, where rock art evidence for the presence of the cult is very slim (probably due largely to the limited study of rock art in this area). Rock art, however, is the most straightforward and obvious evidence there is for the presence of the cult. Unlike Fourmile style ceramics, Rio Grande style rock art is full of kachina imagery, and it is very different from earlier rock art styles in the area where it appears. Schaafsma’s theory linking the cult to the Jornada Mogollon depended largely on the rock art evidence. Recall that her argument for transmission of the cult up the Rio Grande via the Jornada depended largely on the lack of rock art evidence for the presence of the cult in the Mogollon Rim and Upper Little Colorado area. Adams, although he argues for the transmission (and, indeed, the origin) of the cult in this area merely assumes that the Rio Grande style originated in the Upper Little Colorado area along with the cult and that it is unrelated to the Jornada style, which he sees as a late introduction to the Eastern Pueblos after the Rio Grande style was firmly established.
It is not hard to see why Adams puts so much emphasis on pottery and so little on rock art. He is trying to determine the time as well as the place of origin of the kachina cult, and to do that he needs evidence that can be securely dated. In the Southwest pottery styles are very well dated by association with tree-ring-dated contexts where they appear, and they therefore give quite precise dates even for sites that have note been excavated or dated in any other way. Rock art, on the other hand, is notoriously difficult to date. Pictographs, which are painted onto the rock surface often using some sort of organic paint, can sometimes be carbon-dated by samples of the paint or other associated organic artifacts, but this technique has rarely been used in the Southwest, and the much more common petroglyphs, which are pecked or incised into the rock surface, cannot be directly dated at all and can only be assigned very general dates based on their style and/or proximity to dated sites. Thus, associating the spread of the kachina cult with the spread of the Fourmile style, which does seem to have occurred around the same time, gives Adams much more chronological control than Schaafsma has with her rock art styles, and it even allows him to argue, in direct opposition to Schaafsma’s interpretation, that the Jornada style in the Rio Grande valley is later than the Rio Grande style rather than ancestral to it. His justification for doing so is very shaky, being based on similarities between the Jornada style and the style of kiva mural found at sites such as Kuaua, north of Albuquerque, but it is not possible to prove that he is wrong. Nor, for that matter, is it possible to prove that he is wrong to associate the Fourmile ceramic style with the cult, although he does so on similarly shaky grounds.
Nevertheless, despite all these problems with Adams’s theory for the origin and spread of the cult, his model for why the cult was adopted so quickly and easily throughout the Pueblo world is quite convincing and useful. The explanation is basically the same as Schaafsma’s: the kachina cult, being a non-kin-based system with the potential to integrate whole communities easily, was very attractive to the rapidly aggregating villages developing throughout the Southwest at this time, and it was therefore adopted as a way of dealing with and resolving the many conflicts that inevitably develop within diverse and rapidly growing communities. He defines the model more rigorously and in more detail than Schaafsma, however, and presents a four-stage process for adoption of the cult, with corresponding correlates that should be identifiable in the archaeological record:
- Immigration: Starting around AD 1275, when major environmental changes occurred throughout the Southwest, locations that either maintained their attractiveness for settlement or became newly attractive as a result of the changes saw massive influxes of population from the many areas being abandoned at this time.
- Aggregation: In the locations seeing large-scale immigration, the new immigrants coalesced into large, aggregated villages, either joining previously existing populations or, in sparsely populated or previously unattractive locations, developing their own aggregated villages. These villages are often but not always plaza-oriented.
- Appearance of kachina cult imagery: Shortly after initial aggregation, the plaza-oriented villages begin to show signs of kachina cult imagery, either in nearby rock art or on locally produced pottery. This demonstrates the adoption of the cult by the village, perhaps in part to deal with the problems caused by rapid aggregation.
- Continued aggregation: As a result of the usefulness of the kachina cult in integrating the new communities, new immigrants continue to join them and are able to be successfully integrated. This part is important; previous attempts at forming large, aggregated communities in the Southwest had not lasted for long, probably because existing religious and social systems were not able to successfully integrate populations on that scale.
Adams applies this model to the cluster of sites at Homol’ovi Ruins State Park near Winslow, Arizona, where he has conducted extensive research as part of a long-term project by the Arizona State Museum. He finds that the model fits the history of the sites there quite well. Adams’s model can also be used to evaluate the impact of the kachina cult and the development of plaza-oriented village layouts on aggregation in other parts of the Southwest during this time period, and perhaps during others. Adams sets the beginning for his model at AD 1275 to correspond to the environmental changes in the northern Southwest associated with the so-called “Great Drought” of AD 1276 to 1299, and this does correspond to the onset of major aggregation in many areas, but in other areas aggregation began either earlier or later than this, and the adoption (or, perhaps, development) of the kachina cult may have played a role in these contexts as well.
Adams’s model may be an effective way to address the relationship between aggregation and the spread of the kachina cult, but it still leaves open the question of why people were aggregating in the first place. This has been a matter of much dispute and argument over nearly the whole history of southwestern archaeology, and many theories have been proposed. Many of the recent theories revolve around changing environmental conditions and the need for changes in subsistence systems, and they address this idea from varying perspectives, often focusing on the need for more centralized decision-making and/or more efficient land use as the result of less reliable or more difficult conditions for agriculture. In his discussion of this issue, particularly in relation to the case study of Homol’ovi, Adams seems to endorse some version of this idea, with a particular focus on the decisions of community leaders. Unlike many archaeologists who study the ancient Southwest, Adams does not present prehistoric Pueblo society as egalitarian, and he assumes throughout his discussion the presence of a two-tiered society with a small priestly class making decisions at a community level and deriving their authority from their control of ritual knowledge. Importantly, however, he notes that this elite never managed to amass the sort of surplus wealth necessary to transform Pueblo society into a truly stratified society with significant economic inequality. Adams attributes this mainly to the marginal nature of the Southwest for agriculture, but it is likely that another major factor is the communal ideology of the Pueblos, which strongly discourages individual gain and encourages leaders to put the needs of the community above their own desires.