Archive for the ‘Books’ Category


Third-Story Walls with Type I Masonry at Una Vida

The final chapter in Crucible of Pueblos offers, in the words of its title, “a synthesis of sorts.” Authored by the noted Chaco specialist John Kantner, it gives a brief chronological overview of the period covered by this book, combining the information from the other chapters to create a picture as complete as possible given current evidence. As Kantner notes several times, current evidence is very sparse for certain regions and periods, and the resulting synthesis is therefore tentative on many issues.

Kantner starts with the period AD 600 to 725, which some but not all of the regional chapters cover. He focuses on the idea that this period was marked by a “Neolithic Demographic Transition” of the sort seen in other parts of the world following the adoption of agriculture. In this case he sees the catalyst for the transition not being the initial introduction of domesticated plants to the northern Southwest, which an increasing body of evidence has shown was actually much earlier, but on the idea that new varieties of maize that were introduced at this time caused a widespread shift to a farming-based lifestyle, whereas earlier cultigens had just been added into a hunting and gathering system as a minor component. This theory has been advanced by several archaeologists in recent years, and it is certainly plausible, but I think the data is still not quite there to establish it firmly. In any case, Kantner sees the immediate result of the shift to intensive agriculture being a sharp increase in population, which led at least in some areas to increases in site size (but only to slightly larger hamlets in most cases), as well as possibly to violence and warfare, as evidenced by an increasing number of stockaded hamlets. Sites were still generally quite small and loosely clustered around a variety of types of public architecture. He claims not to see much evidence of migration between regions during this period, which sounds dubious to me given how much we see later. As he acknowledges, though, the data for this early period is particularly limited, especially for less-researched areas, and it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions.

His next period, AD 725 to 825, definitely does show a lot of migration, and Kantner sees that and increasing settlement aggregation as being the two major processes evidence in the archaeological record. Data gaps are an issue here as well, however, and the details of these processes are much clearer in some regions (especially the Northern San Juan/Mesa Verde area) than others. All this migration and aggregation seems to have led to increasingly ethnically diverse communities, although identifying “ethnicity” in this sort of context is tricky as material culture traits that might be used to identify groups don’t always cluster neatly. Despite this diversity, Kantner sees less evidence in this period for violence than in the previous one, at least until the very end of it when there are some spectacular examples like the apparent massacre at Sacred Ridge, which may have been ethnically motivated. Less spectacularly, the presence of defensive sites in Southeast Utah also seems to increase at the end of this period, again suggesting conflict. Interestingly, though, there seems to be little or no evidence for this sort of conflict further south, although again it’s important to note that southern regions have seen much less research. This period saw possibly the earliest examples of settlements aggregated enough to call “villages,” although Kantner notes that a large portion of the population was still living in dispersed hamlets. The question of why some but not all people chose to begin living in greater proximity is an important one that remains largely unanswered.

The trends of migration and aggregation continue into Kantner’s next period, AD 825 to 880. This is especially apparent in the well-studied Central Mesa Verde region, but it appears to have continued in other areas as well, with a general trend toward settlement in well-watered areas, which may signify another episode of agricultural intensification. This is also suggested by the increased storage capacity of the new villages, some of which might indicate community-level storage of grain. Kantner notes that larger villages might also have been able to mobilize more people for hunting and therefore increased hunting success, a reminder that even a heavily emphasis on agriculture doesn’t necessarily replace all other subsistence pursuits. There also is some evidence for changes in gendered labor at this time, again likely tied to subsistence changes: greater emphasis on stored food, presumably largely in the form of cornmeal/flour, would require more time spent on particular types of processing work. This would potentially include both grinding itself and other tasks required by new ways of preparing food, especially making more pots in which the ground meal would need to be cooked. These are presumed to have been primarily female tasks, so the increased time investment in them may have affected gender roles and relations between the sexes. This is an interesting idea that I think could use more elaboration.


Great Kivas A and Q, Pueblo Bonito

Public architecture continues to be diverse but there are some interesting patterns in what types occur in the new villages, especially between great kivas and what Kantner (among others) calls “oversized pit structures.” He makes some suggestions about correlations between these architectural forms and other factors, such as the idea that great kivas may be associated with periods of social instability and the idea that oversized pit structures were more exclusive than great kivas but the ritual in them may have been more ostentatious, judging by the unusual deposits left behind, such as exotic animal remains and redware pottery. He notes the theory that oversized pit structures and their accompanying U-shaped roomblocks may have been associated with emerging ritual leaders, who may have competed with each other for status and power based on their increased storage capacity, access to game meat, and possibly capacity to control craft activities as well. I think there’s a lot of merit to this idea, although it does still rely quite heavily on data from the well-studied Central Mesa Verde area and new research elsewhere might complicate it.

It’s worth noting again, however, that despite the many very visible and interesting changes resulting from increased aggregation a large portion of the population was still living outside of villages. How these people would have interacted with the villages and how their lives might have differed are under-studied but important questions.

Kantner refers to his next and last period, starting in AD 880, as “the Dawn of Chaco,” which seems reasonable given the emerging picture. The key change at this time is the abandonment of the villages that arose in the previous period and the almost complete abandonment of the Central and Eastern Mesa Verde regions, with their residents apparently moving both west into Utah and south into New Mexico, where some of them very likely contributed to the early development of the regional center at Chaco Canyon. This may have been associated with a period of favorable rainfall in the Chaco area compared to a difficult time in the north, but the climatic details are not yet clear. Kantner notes that recent evidence has suggested that the prior population in the Chaco area was a lot smaller than had once been thought, but he also notes that there definitely was an existing population in and around Chaco, and that some sites like Pueblo Bonito were already established before this migration. This population seems to have had ties to the south and was likely different ethnically from the people moving in from the north. There is some evidence for violence that might have accompanied the initial stages of the migration, but it appears that the groups reached an accommodation of some sort over time that led to the development and florescence of the Chaco Phenomenon over the next three centuries. Kantner suggests that the instability of the early period, and possible inequities between the groups, may have contributed to this process of “social elaboration,” which is another interesting idea meriting further study. There are some clear continuities in architecture between the earlier villages and the communities that developed at Chaco, but the question of what had changed to make Chaco so much more successful and long-lived than the northern villages remains open.

In closing, Kantner reiterates some of the caveats he has mentioned before about interpreting this emerging picture. Why didn’t everyone join villages? This seems like a particularly important question to me, and one that has not received enough attention in the development of aggregation models. It’s a particular problem for models that emphasis “push” factors like the need for defense in an increasingly crowded landscape, though Kantner suggests that this may have been a bigger factor for immigrant groups entering a potentially hostile new area than for the indigenous groups they encountered. He has more discussion of “pull” factors, such as economies of scale for intensified work on activities like farming, hunting, and craft production, but ultimately suggests that a complex combination of pushes and pulls may account for the notable variation in village forms that we see throughout this period. Another important question is why these early villages failed. Kantner suggests changes in the above-mentioned balance of push/pull factors, as well as the possibility that aggregation created its own new problems and stresses on the emerging social systems. Whatever the details, it seems increasingly clear that the lessons from the complicated processes covered by this book formed the basis for the later emergence of Chaco and the immense changes in the Pueblo world that it would entail.


Sign at State of New Mexico Archives Building, Santa Fe, New Mexico

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Phoenix, Arizona

The last two chapters in Crucible of Pueblos try to offer assessments of the rest of the book from very different perspectives. The second-to-last, by Steve Lekson, is the shortest chapter in the book, and much of it is drawn from Lekson’s own recent book giving an overview of Southwestern archaeology (which he is very upfront about admitting, to his credit). Nevertheless, it does manage both to situate the present book in the context of other synthetic works covering specific periods of Southwestern prehistory and to situate the areas covered by the book into their own context given what else was happening in other regions at the time.

First, Lekson notes that this volume is the latest in a series of books bringing together experts on different sub-regions of the northern Southwest to compile and analyze data on the most important sites of a given period. This hasn’t been a formal book series, but more of an ad-hoc process of meetings and resulting publications that have ended up being functionally similar. The most obvious examples of other books like this are two published by the University of Arizona Press and deliberately put in similar formats, covering the Pueblo III and Pueblo IV periods. Lekson claims that he played a major role in organizing the meeting that led to the Pueblo III book, the first to be published, which I didn’t know but have no reason to doubt (he was not a contributor to the published book). I discussed that book a few years back in a series of posts very similar to this one. I’ve also read the Pueblo IV volume but haven’t discussed it in any detail here.

What I found particularly interesting was Lekson’s argument that the Pueblo II period, the time of the florescence of Chaco Canyon, is also covered by a volume in this informal series, in this case a special issue of the journal Kiva that was part of the series of meetings and publications that Lekson organized to synthesize the work of the Chaco Project. I have all of the articles in that issue in electronic format, although I haven’t read them all. This chapter makes me think I should.

Finally, Lekson presents Crucible of Pueblos as the equivalent volume for Pueblo I, which makes a lot of sense for me. As he notes, information on major sites is a lot harder for this period than for subsequent ones, as they are much more subtle on the landscape than in later periods. Nevertheless, he recognizes the amount of information brought together for the first time here and its importance, as do I. I’ve tried to convey the importance of this information in this series of posts and I hope I’ve succeeded.

Moving to his discussion of the Pueblo I period itself, Lekson tries to situate the process of village formation in the northern Southwest in the context of developments elsewhere, particularly in the southern Southwest and to a lesser extent Mesoamerica. This is the part of the chapter that’s drawn largely from his book, so it wasn’t new to me, but it is still an interesting and thought-provoking way to conceptualize Pueblo I. The basic argument he makes is that while village formation was (mostly) new in the northern Southwest in Pueblo I and is in some ways its most interesting development, there had been villages in the deserts of southern Arizona and adjacent areas for centuries at that point, and for even longer further to the south in Mexico, the probable origin of the concept for this part of the world. Specifically, he suggests that the formation of villages in the northern Southwest may have been a reaction to the expansion of the Hohokam out of the Phoenix Basin during the so-called “Colonial Period.” It’s not clear exactly what form this expansion took in terms of migration, diffusion, or other processes, but Lekson argues persuasively that people further north and east on the Colorado Plateau must have been aware of it and that they probably factored it into their own decisions about where and how to live.

In the book, Lekson goes into more detail about all of this, but for this chapter he more or less stops there. As I said before, this is a very short contribution, but an interesting one. And, of course, it is written in Lekson’s inimitable and highly accessible style. Not the most weighty or original part of this book, perhaps, but interesting and worthwhile all the same.

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Chaco Petroglyph Panel Showing Abstract “Blanket” Designs

Chapter 11 of Crucible of Pueblos, by Rich Wilshusen, Scott Ortman, and Ann Phillips, is called “Processions, Leaders, and Gathering Places,” but I think a more concise description of its main concern is ideology. Specifically, this chapter looks at changes in the ideology of leadership, power, and community organization during the Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods, as seen through the archaeology of public architecture, the portrayal of processions in rock art, and the reconstruction of related vocabulary through comparative linguistics. Due to this innovative interdisciplinary approach, I found this one of the most interesting chapters in the book. Some of the argumentation and conclusions strike me as either weak or overly speculative, but overall this is a fascinating example of how approaches from very different disciplines can be skillfully combined to produce a more complete picture of the past.

The overall argument in the chapter is fairly straightforward. The authors argue that there were a series of shifts in Pueblo society from the Basketmaker III to Pueblo I periods:

  • The overall settlement pattern shifted from dispersed hamlets to aggregated villages.
  • The locations for occasional ritual gatherings shifted from symbolically important central locations with public architecture to specific locations within villages that in some cases were likely residences of village leaders who exerted control over rituals they hosted.
  • The social ties that sustained communities shifted from personal relationships between individuals to symbolic relationships between abstract corporate entities to which individuals belonged.

The authors see all of these shifts as being ultimately driven by the rapid increase in population from an intensification of agriculture (the so-called “Neolithic Demographic Transition”). The actual evidence for this transition, and its relationship to agriculture, seems a bit thin to me, but at least on a theoretical level it makes sense, and there’s certainly no question that populations were increasing rapidly in the Mesa Verde region (to which this chapter, like several others, essentially confines itself due to the scarcity of comparable data for other areas) during the period they discuss.

From archaeology, the most important shift the authors discuss is the well-known change from dispersed settlements during Basketmaker III to aggregated villages in Pueblo I. (Again, we’re essentially just looking at the greater Mesa Verde area here, without any discussion of the possible Basketmaker III villages at Chaco Canyon.) One aspect of the Basketmaker III settlement pattern that is particularly important is the presence of “isolated” public architecture of presumed ritual function, which in some cases took the form of “great kivas” and in other cases took the form of “dance circles,” the main distinction being whether the structure appears to have had a roof. These structures are generally thought to have hosted occasional rituals that brought in people from throughout the surrounding area and helped to integrate them as a social “community.” In addition to the actual rituals performed, about which we know little to nothing, these events would have provided opportunities to trade, share information, and find marriage partners, all important activities to ensuring the success of the community and its members.

As people began to gather in aggregated villages during the Pueblo I period, the nature of public architecture begins to change. Great kivas are still being used in some villages, but less and less over time, and some villages don’t have them at all. Instead, it appears that some of the integrative functions of the great kivas are being taken over by U-shaped roomblocks with associated “oversized pit structures” that have features suggesting ritual use but, importantly, not in the same way as great kivas. The U-shaped roomblocks appear to have been at least partly residential in function, and they may have served as the residences of emerging village leaders who used the plazas they partly enclosed, as well as the oversized pit structures, to host community rituals that served many of the same functions previously served by great kivas. Unlike the great kivas, however, which appear to have been communal sites not associated with any particular members of the community, these structures would have been under the direct control of the families or kin-groups that owned them, who would therefore have the opportunity to amass ever more status, power, and wealth. There have been suggestions, repeated here, that these structures were the forerunners of the later “great houses” at Chaco and its outlier communities, which seems increasingly plausible as more is known about them. (It’s worth noting, however, that great kivas reappear at Chaco as well.)

So far so good, and this is about as far as the archaeology can take us. These ideas are plausible, but they’re not new. Where this chapter goes further than others, however, is in incorporating evidence from rock art as well. The specific focus is on rock art depicting what appear to be ritual processions. The authors analyze two specific panels in detail. One, from Comb Ridge in southern Utah, is thought to date to the Basketmaker III period and to depict the sort of gathering of dispersed communities at a central ritual site that was argued above to have been typical of this period. The other panel is from near Waterflow in northwestern New Mexico, and it is argued to date to later, after the collapse of the Pueblo I villages in the Central Mesa Verde region but before the rise of Chaco to the south. This site is at a key point along what may have been one of the main routes between those two areas, which may be important.

I won’t go into much detail about the analyses of the two panels, interesting though they are. The main points are that the Comb Ridge appears to depict at least two groups approaching a round great kiva or dance circle site from different directions, possibly reflecting the joining of two previously separate communities into one. The focus is on long lines of human figures, some of which have elaborate regalia or carry possible ritual objects, which may indicate that they represent specific individuals. Referring to an earlier study, the authors suggest that the focus on these rituals in Basketmaker III rock art represents a shift in ideology from earlier Basketmaker II art that focused on life-cycle rituals and individualistic shamanism to a more communal type of ritual associated with the central sites.

There is very little rock art associated with the Pueblo I villages, and no known procession scenes at all. The authors don’t discuss this fact in any detail, but it seems significant as evidence for a shift in ideology associated with the new ritual forms they describe as indicated by the architecture. Yet another shift appears to be indicated by the reappearance of procession scenes during the Pueblo I/Pueblo II transition as represented by the Waterflow panel. Here, the procession is primarily of animals rather than people, and they are approaching a square divided into halves and decorated with abstract designs. The whole panel has much more of an abstract feel, and it includes symbols of authority known from later Pueblo religion such as twin mountain lions who appear to be guarding the square. The authors interpret the square as representing the community, with the animals approaching it possibly being symbols of corporate groups like clans that make it up rather than known individuals. Of particular interest, the authors suggest on the basis of other rock art evidence that the symbols on the square actually represent a specific community, as there are apparently other symbols like this with various abstract symbols that may depict community in a sort of “heraldry” comparable to the city glyphs known from Mesoamerica. There are also intriguing petroglyphs of human figures with these squares as heads, possibly indicating village “heads” or chiefs. This system doesn’t appear to continue into later periods, at least in this form, though it may be worth taking another look at distinctive rock art motifs found at later sites to see if there is any continuity in the symbolism. The so-called “blanket” motifs found in rock art at Chaco are similar at least in form.

So the overall picture from the rock art evidence is of a shift from showing communities as consisting of groups of individual people who gather at a central location on certain occasions to more abstract depictions of communities as consisting of social categories, rather than individuals. This may reflect a further step in the development of community ideology after the first, apparently failed, experiments with village living during Pueblo I. The elaborate system that developed subsequently at Chaco may have been yet another step.

Turning to language, this is a particularly interesting part of the chapter for me given my linguistic background. It is based on Ortman’s dissertation, subsequently turned into a book, which considered linguistics along with other lines of evidence to understand the cultural makeup of the Mesa Verde region in the later Pueblo III period. While several languages from different families are spoken by the modern Pueblos, here the discussion is limited to the Kiowa-Tanoan language family, the only family that is both primarily spoken by Puebloan peoples and complex enough in structure to analyze historically in any detail. The analysis is based on what terms for culturally important items and technologies can be reconstructed to different stages of the language, and how the presence or absence of certain terms relates to when they were introduced in the archaeological record. So, for example, the (Puebloan) Tanoan languages share some terms related to agriculture with the (non-Puebloan) Kiowa language, but lack shared terms for such items as pottery, beans, and the bow and arrow. Since these items were introduced to the northern Southwest in the Basketmaker III period, it appears that Kiowa broke off from the other languages no later than Basketmaker II. The subsequent divisions within Tanoan look a lot shakier to me, but if they do hold up they seem to indicate that the Towa language split off during Basketmaker III, which would have left the language ancestral to Tiwa and Tewa as having been spoken during Pueblo I, possibly in some of the early villages of the Mesa Verde region. Tiwa and Tewa are said to have split after Pueblo I, which the authors of this chapter suggest indicates that it was the collapse of those villages that caused the split.

This is an interesting approach to trying to align the linguistic and archaeological records, and I’m glad people are looking at it. It doesn’t seem to add much to the other two lines of evidence in this specific case, however, and there are some potential issues that make it hard to apply in general. For one, it can be hard to tell if the inability to reconstruct a term to a given protolanguage truly indicates that the item it represents was not present during the period when that protolanguage was spoken, especially in a small language like Kiowa-Tanoan. Terms can be lost in daughter languages in many ways, with the ultimate result being the same in the present language as if it had never existed. However, this is a much more productive approach to the problem of correlating linguistics with archaeology than some others that have been tried, like glottochronology, and it’s definitely worth pursuing to see what insights it can provide.

Another problem, however, is that there are several other Pueblo languages not related to Kiowa-Tanoan, and this type of analysis doesn’t, and can’t, say anything about when and where they might have been spoken. A better approach to try to address the diversity of languages among the Pueblos is to look at loanwords, both between different Pueblo languages and between them and non-Pueblo ones, and try to see what can be inferred about when certain items were introduced to speakers of a given language based on that. There have been some studies along these lines that have given some interesting insights and more work would be useful.

Overall, this chapter is a really interesting approach to trying to correlate different types of analyses to complement each other and get a better answer to a specific question about the past than any one type of analysis individually. At the end the authors call for more work like this, and I second that call. The specific conclusions arrived at in this publication may or may not hold up under further study, but the process it demonstrates for getting them will be helpful in moving forward and getting more complete and reliable answers.

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"Pithouse Life" Sign at Mesa Verde

“Pithouse Life” Sign at Mesa Verde

Chapter 10 of Crucible of Pueblos, by Richard Wilshusen and Elizabeth Perry, looks at the position and roles of women in early Pueblo society, with a particular focus on how those roles seem to have changed with the economic and demographic changes of the late Basketmaker III and early Pueblo I periods that recent research is bringing into focus. It’s a thought-provoking chapter but in some ways rather odd, with many of its most intriguing proposals resting on what seems like fairly thin evidence.

The chapter looks at three main topics: food production, human reproduction, and gender relations in social power. Its overall thesis is that in the northern Southwest between AD 650 and 850 interrelated changes in food production systems and human reproductive rates led to major changes in gender roles, particularly regarding the division of labor between men and women, that may have led to settlement aggregation into villages and to changes in social power related to trade and ritual. The resulting social structure, in place by the end of the Pueblo I period in at least some areas, was the earliest form of the “Pueblo” society as known from modern ethnography, with its strict division of labor by gender and extension of this gendered ideology to many other domains of life.

Of the three main topics, the authors devote the most attention to the first, and it’s here that their arguments are strongest and most clearly supported by the archaeological evidence. The key change in food production during the period in question is the intensification (not introduction) of maize agriculture as the primary subsistence activity, supplemented by the growing of other crops like beans and squash, by the raising of domesticated turkeys, and by hunting and gathering of wild foods. Recent research has clarified the sequence and extent of this change, although a lot of questions still remain.

As the authors note, one of the most puzzling results of research on early agriculture in the northern Southwest is that maize is now clearly established as having been introduced as early as 2000 BC in several widely spaced parts of the Colorado Plateau (including Chaco Canyon), but for hundreds of years it appears to have remained a minor part of the diet of the groups that used it. It was only in the Basketmaker II period, between 300 BC and AD 300, that maize use became widespread, and even then, according to Wilshusen and Perry, local groups varied widely in the contribution of maize to their diets. There may have been a distinction between immigrant groups from the south that had a heavily agricultural subsistence base and local hunter-gatherers who were gradually incorporating some farming into their lifestyles.

This slow and incomplete adoption of agriculture is in contrast to the situation in other parts of the world where agriculture, once introduced, spread rapidly and quickly replaced hunting and gathering. It’s still not clear why, although Wilshusen and Perry note that as a tropical plant originating in Mexico, maize would have been poorly suited for the harsher climate of more northern latitudes, and that it would have taken some time for people to breed hardier varieties. It is also apparent that the variety of maize initially introduced was small and not as obviously superior to local wild plant foods as later varieties, and that it was initially introduced without an accompanying “package” of other domesticated foods, as was the case with agricultural spreads in other areas. Domesticated squash seems to have been introduced not long after maize, but separately, and domesticated turkeys appear to have been introduced from a different direction altogether, although the timing and details of their domestication remain very murky.

Be that as it may, the main point Wilshusen and Perry make in regard to this slow adoption of maize is that it is likely that women, who based on cross-cultural studies of hunter-gatherers tend to be responsible for gathering of plant foods, were involved in the initial use of maize in the northern Southwest. However, this small-scale introduction of a new food, even one associated with a new type of food production, probably wouldn’t have had a major impact on existing gender roles or division of labor. That would come later.

The full “Neolithic package” appears to have arrived in the northern Southwest between AD 300 and 600, with components including a larger, more productive variety of maize known as Harinosa de Ocho; beans, newly introduced from the south; greater use of turkeys for both meat and feathers; and greater investment in facilities for food storage and processing. The greater productivity enabled by these innovations led to rapid population growth and the spread of agricultural groups over the landscape, in striking contrast to the lack of such growth with the initial introduction of maize much earlier. Wilshusen and Perry associate these developments with the transition from Basketmaker II to Basketmaker III, as well as with the major changes in the roles of women that they document.

Additional support for these changes in food production come from complementary changes in storage facilities and grinding tools. As documented in the well-studied Dolores area, the importance of storage seems to have risen over the course of the late Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods from AD 650 to 875. Storage facilities changed from small pit rooms isolated from the main dwellings to more secure and more solidly built storage rooms directly attached to living rooms and only accessible from them. These typically consisted of two storage rooms at the back of each living room, the beginning of the “suite” layout that would continue to be a key architectural feature into Chacoan times. It is possible that at least initially these paired rooms were used to store two years’ harvests, one in each room, so as to provide a subsistence buffer against drought and other unexpected problems.

There was also a shift over this period in grinding implements from basin metates with one-handed manos to much more efficient trough metates with two-handed manos. Beyond this shift, a greater variety of grinding tools became common over time. Together with the storage data, this indicates an increased importance of grinding as a component of food preparation. In the modern Pueblos grinding is a female-associated activity, part of an overall suite of food-preparation tasks accomplished by women that also includes shucking, shelling, drying, and storing corn. Of these tasks, however, grinding is considered particularly important to the female role, and it is an important part of female puberty ceremonies (of which the Navajo Kinaaldá, of clear Pueblo origin, is probably the best known). Men, on the other hand, are responsible for planting and harvesting the corn, as well as protecting the fields. This seems to be a change from the presumed hunter-gatherer system in which women were generally responsible for gathering plant foods as well as processing them, and Wilshusen and Perry suggest that it may have arisen in early Pueblo times as fields at greater distances from residence locations in villages became increasingly vulnerable to attack by enemies, prompting men’s role as warriors to encompass guarding fields and, in time, tending them as well.

Another important female task in modern Pueblos is making pottery, and this too seems to have become increasingly important with the expansion of agriculture in early Pueblo times. With more use of crops and additional cultigens such as beans, pots would have become more important for food preparation, and with the number of vessels needed and their short use-lives of 1 to 6 years women would have had to be constantly making new ones. (This is of course assuming that most pots for domestic use were made by the family unit itself, which may well be true for this early period but was not necessarily later on.) Based on detailed study of an isolated Pueblo I hamlet in the Central Mesa Verde area, Wilshusen and Perry estimate the following assortment of vessels for a typical household at any given time:

  • 2 to 7 small cooking jars
  • 1 to 4 medium cooking jars
  • 0 to 2 large cooking jars
  • 1 bowl
  • 0 to 3 ollas for water
  • 2 to 3 other vessels
  • 10 to 20 sherds from broken pots used as containers or tools

Keeping a household supplied with all these pots would have been a major part of a woman’s domestic labor, in addition to the food processing tasks mentioned above, along with other major responsibilities such as caring for children.

And speaking of children, Wilshusen and Perry go on to discuss human reproduction and the apparent changes in it associated with the other changes they identify. The two main changes they note are shifts in the use of cradleboards and an apparent increase in the societal fertility rate. This part is somewhat less thorough than the food production part of the paper, but it does still identify some intriguing evidence for change.

First, cradleboards. The authors note that study of these items, in which infants were bundled while they were very young,  has been surprisingly limited, despite their relevance to an important event that has long been recognized: the beginning of evidence for “cranial deformation,” or the reshaping of skulls as a result of prolonged contact with certain kinds of cradleboards in infancy. The shift from “undeformed” to “deformed” (the terminology is very problematic, as there is no evidence of health problems from the practice) crania is traditionally associated with the transition from Basketmaker III to Pueblo I, and early in the history of Southwestern archaeology the change in head shape was even taken as evidence for a population replacement. (That was in the early twentieth century when anthropologists put much more emphasis on skull shapes in defining populations than they do now.) It is now generally thought that the distinction is actually due to the use of soft versus hard cradleboards, but recent research that Wilshusen and Perry discuss suggests that both types of cradleboards were present in both Basketmaker and Pueblo times. Thus, the shift in cranial shape is actual due not to a change in the type of cradleboard but in how it was used. The main changes that actually seem to have occurred in the Pueblo I period are:

  • Foot rests on cradleboards disappear.
  • Hoods become more common.
  • Construction is more expedient.

According to Wilshusen and Perry, these changes together indicate that women had less need to move while carrying children in cradleboards, but that they needed more cradleboards overall, possibly indicating that they had more children. This part of the paper does not go into much detail about where these conclusions come from, but the overall conclusions is that this is further evidence that women were more tied to the domestic sphere in Pueblo I, and possibly that they had more children.

On that note, demographic data appear to indicate that the population increases seen in at least some part of the Pueblo world during Pueblo I were due largely to natural increase after initial immigration into new areas. The best data come from the Central Mesa Verde and Eastern Mesa Verde areas, both of which seem to show this pattern. Prehistoric demographics are notoriously hard to reconstruct, but based on the large recent data sets from major excavation projects Wilshusen and Perry propose that a Neolithic Demographic Transition (a major increase in fertility associated with the beginning of intensive agriculture) began in the northern Southwest around AD 300, with major consequences over time for women in particular, given their gender-defined economic roles. This is comparable to evidence seen in other parts of the world with the beginning of agriculture. The key point here for the role of women is that with increasing rates of both childbirth and survival of children beyond infancy, families would have become larger, increasing the amount of domestic labor required of women to maintain their households given the gendered division of labor presumed to have developed. This would be one explanation for the increased importance of food processing mentioned above.

Finally, Wilshusen and Perry talk about exchange and social power. The discussion here is very abbreviated, and relies heavily on references to the next chapter in the book (which is a little odd), but the basic idea is that rock art evidence shows a shift in social power to male leadership of ritual in late Basketmaker III, continuing into Pueblo I. Female economic roles expressed in matrilocal residence may have driven men to make external trade alliances, which over time developed into new ritual systems focused on important lineages within villages rather than large public rituals at central places not necessarily associated with a specific lineage or community. Matrilineal lineages were still important, and the focus of key rituals, but changing gender roles may have involved an increased role for the men of the lineage in certain types of rituals. Burial evidence from Ridges Basin may support some of these ideas, with striking differences in male and female burials, particularly in the types of exotic goods included. Both women and men were buried with exotic items occasionally, but the specific types of items varied, suggesting gendered access to different trade systems. There are also geographic differences within the basin suggesting different community connections and ideological systems. This section is intriguing but very sketchy, even compared to the rest of the paper. More detailed discussion of some of these ideas will have to wait for the next chapter.

Overall, the conclusion of this chapter is that over the course of the early Pueblo period gender roles shifted in a way that evolved into the system(s) that are well known from the modern Pueblos. This may have been a response, in part to the demographic shift resulting from the development of intensive agriculture, with its resulting higher birthrates and changes to the roles of women. Women’s labor was key to this transition, but it’s not clear that it was actually good for women as a class on net. There has been some discussion of the idea of “parallel status hierarchies,” in which men and women had different tasks but both allowed meaningful status through high achievement. However, later evidence from Pueblo sites shows that women were often excluded from access to high-value resources such as meat, and that their graves were generally less elaborate than men’s (a contrast to the Pueblo I situation in at least some areas). It doesn’t appear that many strictly comparable studies of these issues have been done of the Pueblo I period itself, so it’s hard to say how these changes felt for the women who were living through them. The authors of this paper seem to lean toward thinking the changes were not actually beneficial for those women, but the evidence is thin enough that it’s not clear.

Above I have summarized the arguments of this chapter as best I could, but it’s worth noting that the argumentation of the chapter itself is highly abbreviated, and summarizing it has required a lot of assumptions and interpretive leaps. It kind of reads like this paper is an abbreviated version of a longer argument, with some important parts left out. Nevertheless, it raises a lot of interesting questions that have rarely been addressed in Southwestern archaeology, especially regarding the early Pueblo period, and for that alone it is valuable.

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Plaited Sandals at Chaco Museum

Chapter nine of Crucible of Pueblos looks at perishable artifacts (i.e., those made of materials that are often not preserved in the archaeological record, such as yucca fiber, animal hair, and cotton) during the Pueblo I period. Written by Laurie Webster, one of the most prominent experts on prehistoric Southwestern perishables, this chapter functions partly as an inventory and description of all known perishables from Pueblo I sites, and as such it is highly technical in nature and not very accessible for a casual reader. For this summary, therefore, I will focus on the high-level conclusions that can be made about Pueblo I cultural dynamics and relationships from the perishable evidence, rather than the evidence itself.

Those conclusions are quite interesting, as it turns out, especially when it comes to the patterning of different types of artifacts. Webster covers several different types of artifact, but I will focus on two with the most interesting cultural implications: sandals and textiles.

First, however, a note about the data. As Webster notes, the Pueblo I period has historically been poorly represented in the perishable data compared to earlier and later period that are known for extraordinary preservation from caves and rock shelters, especially the Basketmaker II and Pueblo III periods. People made much less use of caves and rock shelters during Pueblo I, and as a result many more of their perishable artifacts have, well, perished, and those that do survive are mostly in poor condition. Indeed, most of the best-preserved Pueblo I perishables are from areas like Tsegi Canyon and Canyon del Muerto in northeastern Arizona where caves did continue to be used in Pueblo I, although the Pueblo I occupation in these areas is poorly understood and it is not always clear that artifacts assigned to Pueblo I by early excavators really do date to this period. Luckily, however, the nature of perishable artifacts means that they can be directly radiocarbon-dated, and Webster mentions several examples that have been and many more that could be.

With that caveat out of the way, sandals. These were generally made out of yucca fiber and appear to have been a key way people at the time signaled their cultural identity, based on the geographic patterning of different types, and they likely had symbolic importance as well at least for some groups, based on the elaboration of some examples, implying an immense amount of labor, as well as the depiction of sandals in rock art and the creation of clay effigies (often called “sandal lasts” although that doesn’t appear to have been their actual function). In particular, highly elaborate twined sandals were common in western areas during Pueblo I, a continuation of a tradition from Basketmaker times. Pueblo I examples are known from northeastern Arizona, the eastern slope of the Chuska Mountains in New Mexico, the Dolores area in Colorado, and Chaco Canyon. In contrast, only one example is known from the Animas River Valley, and none from further east, despite the large recent excavations in this area in conjunction with large development projects.


Animas River, Durango, Colorado

A different type of sandal dominates in these eastern areas, a twill-plaited design that appears to date back to the Basketmaker II sites near Durango, Colorado. This type dominates in the Ridges Basin and Blue Mesa area of the Eastern Mesa Verde region and is also found in the Navajo Reservoir area further south, as well as at Grass Mesa Village in the Dolores area. The last is particularly interesting given that there is other evidence that Grass Mesa was settled by people from areas further east. It is also interesting that McPhee Village, also in the Dolores area, shows mainly twined sandals, again supporting other evidence suggesting western connections for this site. Similarly, the one site in the Animas Valley showing evidence for twined sandals also has other evidence of western connections.

A third type of sandal, plain weave with a rounded or pointed toe, appears to also have a western distribution extending from southern Nevada to northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah but not into Colorado or New Mexico. Less is known about this type than the other two and its cultural significance is not clear.

While in general Webster concludes that Pueblo I perishables mostly continue Basketmaker III patterns without major innovations, she does note one major innovation by late Pueblo I: the increasing use of cotton. While many of the cotton textiles from northeastern Arizona attributed to Pueblo I have questions about their dating and associations, there is one example of a sash from Obelisk Cave in the Prayer Rock District (extreme northeastern Arizona) that has been directly dated to the AD 700s (early Pueblo I). One particularly interesting thing about this sash is that it actually consists of a mixture of cotton and dog hair, clearly showing the transition from animal hair and cotton for textiles. While the form of this item and the use of mixed materials strongly implies that it was made locally, it is not clear if the cotton was in fact grown locally or imported from the Hohokam in southern Arizona, who had a well-established tradition of cotton agriculture by this time.

By late Pueblo I, however, there is strong evidence that at least some Pueblo groups were growing their own cotton. At Antelope House in Pueblo del Muerto, cotton cloth in contexts dating to the AD 900s was found along with cotton seeds and bolls, clearly implying that cotton was being grown in this area by then, as it continued to be throughout the Pueblo period. Interestingly, there is no evidence for Pueblo I use of cotton textiles further east, again implying some sort of major cultural boundary. This is in contrast to later periods, when cotton grown in northeastern Arizona was traded to various other parts of the Pueblo world.

So anyway, those are the major points of interest about Pueblo I perishables. I find the most interesting point from the perspective of Chaco to be the fact that it patterns with the western rather than the eastern style of sandal, which reinforces other evidence for western connections for at least some of the people who came to Chaco in late Pueblo I and contributed to its rise into a dominant regional center in the northern Southwest.


Chuska Mountains from Peñasco Blanco

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McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

The first of the shorter, more analytical chapters in Crucible of Pueblos that follow the regional summaries is one by James Potter looking at faunal remains, which in this context basically means animal bones. (I guess this is sort of appropriate for a Halloween post, although animal bones aren’t really as spooky as human ones.) This chapter is basically a series of statistical comparisons of faunal assemblages from different Pueblo I sites, focusing particularly on the large, well-document collections from the Dolores and Animas-La Plata Projects, but also including a few others. Given the focus on these collections, the geographical range of these comparisons is limited to the Central and Eastern Mesa Verde regions. Nevertheless, Potter finds some striking differences between different sites that have interesting implications for understanding their inhabitants’ lives.

The first comparisons are of different villages within the Dolores area. Potter uses two widely used calculations, known as the artiodactyl index and lagomorph index, to compare McPhee Village on the west side of the Dolores River to Grass Mesa Village on the east side. The artiodactyl index is a measure of how common large game animals, such as deer and elk, are within the overall assemblage, and is calculated by taking the number of artiodactyl specimens in the assemblage and dividing it by the number of artiodactyl specimens plus lagomorph (rabbit and hare) specimens. The lagomorph index compares the number of specimens of the two most common lagomorph species, cottontail rabbits and jackrabbits, and is calculated as the number of cottontail specimens divided by the combined number of cottontail and jackrabbit specimens. This is an important measure because cottontails and jackrabbits favor different habitats and have different behavior which can shed light on human land use and hunting practices: jackrabbits prefer open spaces such as those created by clearing land for agriculture, and as a result can often be caught within gardens, while cottontails prefer more sheltered brushy environments. Jackrabbits also run to escape predation while cottontails hide, which makes the former more vulnerable to the kind of communal hunting known to have been practiced by Pueblo peoples in more recent times.

In the case of McPhee and Grass Mesa Villages both indices show little to no difference between the two; indeed they are nearly identical. This suggests that there weren’t major differences between the two communities in land clearing, communal hunting of lagomorphs, or hunting of artiodactyls. This is maybe not surprising, as the two villages are only a few miles apart and in similar ecological settings.

Where they do differ, however, is in another comparison, in this case of the prevalence and diversity of bird remains. McPhee Village has many more bird remains, representing more than twice as many species, than Grass Mesa, despite the overall sample sizes being similar. Furthermore, the avian bones are concentrated within McPhee Village at one particular residential site, known as McPhee Pueblo. This is one of the largest residences in the community and has features that have been interpret as reflecting ritual activity at a level higher than the individual residential group inhabiting the site. This site is considered likely to be a prototype of the “great houses” associated with the later cultural phenomenon centered on Chaco Canyon, where many of the inhabitants of the Dolores area are thought to have gone after the demise of the Pueblo I villages there in the late ninth century AD. The greater number of bird species, and the large number of specimens, at McPhee Pueblo reinforces other indications of the special role this site played in the community. Birds have often been associated with ritual among the Pueblos, with the macaws at Chaco being only one of the most spectacular examples. The fact that there is no similar site at Grass Mesa, and that bird remains are much rarer there overall, suggests significant differences in ritual organization at the two villages despite their proximity, which fits with other evidence suggesting they were settled by people from different cultural backgrounds.

The second major set of comparisons Potter makes addresses change over time, again within the Dolores area. He compares the artiodactyl and lagomorph indices of McPhee Village and the nearby but earlier community of dispersed hamlets known as Sagehen Flats. In this case, the Sagehen Flats sites had much lower artiodactyl indices, which suggests to Potter that this community had more difficultly organizing hunting parties to capture these large animals than the later, larger, and more aggregated community at McPhee. Indeed, it has been suggested that one reason for the formation of the large Pueblo I villages was the opportunity that larger communities provided for more effective hunting of large animals, especially in high-elevation areas close to large populations of artiodactyls.

Sagehen Flats also had a higher lagomorph index value, indicating more cottontails relative to jackrabbits, and suggesting that aggregation at McPhee also included more clearing of land for agriculture, creating the open spaces preferred by jackrabbits. It is also likely that larger communities were more effective at communal hunting, which as noted above would have been easier with jackrabbits. It’s not really surprising that larger communities would have cleared more land for agriculture and conducting larger communal hunts, but this evidence does provide another reason to think that.

Bird remains, on the other hand, were present in very similar proportions at both Sagehen Flats and McPhee, with both much higher than Grass Mesa. This likely results in part from the location of Sagehen Flats near marshes with lots of good habitat for waterfowl, but it’s also noteworthy that the bird remains there, as at McPhee, were heavily concentrated in one habitation site. This site, unlike McPhee Pueblo, doesn’t show other signs of having been exceptionally important compared to others, but it is highly intriguing that there were so many birds there, and it suggests that the pattern of unequal ritual influence seen at McPhee, and later at Chaco, goes back even further, at least in this area.

Durango, Colorado

Durango, Colorado

Next, Potter does a broad comparison of several different site areas, this time treating the Dolores sites as a whole and comparing them to the nearby hamlet of Duckfoot as well as the site clusters of Ridges Basin and Blue Mesa to the east near the modern city of Durango, as well as sites in the Fruitland area to the south near the modern Navajo Reservoir. Starting with the artiodactyl and lagomorph indices, Potter finds high artiodactyl index values at Dolores and Ridges Basin, with much lower ones at Duckfoot and Fruitland. The factors mentioned earlier leading to more effective artiodactyl hunting in larger villages are probably one factor here, with another being elevation, with the higher sites having more artiodactyls than lower ones.

The lagomorph index is highest at Duckfoot and Blue Mesa and lower at Dolores and Ridges Basin, again echoing the pattern seen before where larger villages show evidence for more land clearing and communal hunting compared to smaller, more dispersed sites.

Turning to birds, Potter finds the highest numbers in Ridges Basin, with significantly smaller numbers at Dolores and Duckfoot. (Keep in mind that all of the Dolores sites are lumped together here.) This is likely due in part to the marshy environment of parts of Ridges Basin, but it is also due to much more extensive use of turkeys in Ridges Basin than elsewhere.

Following these rather simple comparisons, Potter does a correspondence analysis of all of the areas comparing categories of animal remains: birds, wild carnivorous mammals, domesticated dogs, lagomorphs, and artiodactyls. This analysis shows that the areas have very distinct associations with particular types of animals. Blue Mesa, Fruitland, and Duckfoot are associated with lagomorphs, Dolores with artiodactyls, and Ridges Basin with both birds and dogs. Potter notes that while Dolores and Ridges Basin have very similar artiodactyl indices, as this analysis suggests, they have very different overall percentages of artiodactyls. The index is thrown off because it uses lagomorph numbers to standardize the artiodactyl numbers, which is problematic in cases like this because the number of lagomorphs also differs a lot between the two areas, with a lot fewer of them at Ridges Basin than at Dolores.

Next, Potter does a detailed analysis of the Ridges Basin community, comparing categories of remains among different site clusters within the basin. He uses a more detailed set of a categories here than in the previous analysis: mammalian carnivores, birds of prey, waterfowl, dogs, turkeys, game birds, artiodactyls, and lagomorphs. The different site clusters show interesting differences in the proportions of these, with the marshy eastern cluster having higher numbers of waterfowl and turkeys. As mentioned above, turkeys are more common throughout Ridges Basin than in other Pueblo I communities, but there are differences in both numbers and context within the basin. The turkeys in the eastern sites are mostly burials, part of a widespread Pueblo practice of burying domestic animals that likely has ritual significance. In some site clusters, however, there is evidence for processing of turkey remains suggested they were used as food. In the north-central cluster there is one pit structure that seems to have been used as a processing area for turkeys and rabbits, and the same site also had turkey eggshells, suggesting strongly that these were domesticated rather than wild turkeys.

Dogs, wild birds, and carnivorous mammals are found mostly as burials throughout Ridges Basin, with some accompanying human burials. This is in contrast to McPhee Pueblo, which as mentioned above had high numbers of wild birds, where remains of ritually important animals like these were found in association with ritual structures. There is no such association anywhere in Ridges Basin, suggesting that while these animals were likely ritually important in both areas, the exact nature of the associated ritual differed.

As for artiodactyls, here as elsewhere they were found in greater numbers at the only aggregated site cluster that can be considered a village: Sacred Ridge. Since this site also has higher numbers of projectile points and processing tools, Potter suggests that the artiodactyls were the result of more effective hunting parties drawn from the larger village population, rather than evidence for special status of the residents of Sacred Ridge or special feasting being conducted there. There are a lot of unusual features to this site, however, so it’s hard to know how to interpret it.

That concludes Potter’s analyses. He ends the chapter with some conclusions that they suggest. First, as seen in multiple analyses, large sites tend to have more artiodactyls than small ones, probably because larger, more aggregated settlements allowed for the building of cooperative hunting parties that were more effective at taking down large game. This was a definite material advantage to community aggregation and the formation of villages, a key characteristic of the Pueblo I period that has led to a lot of questions about why and how it happened. It’s noteworthy, however (although Potter doesn’t note it) that the Pueblo I villages were as a rule short-lived and many seem to have been abandoned under duress, so the greater cohesiveness that allowed for these more effective hunting parties seems to have had definite limits under the circumstances.

Another pattern that emerges is the association of some sites with marshes and the extensive use of waterfowl, and presumably other marsh resources, at these sites. Potter connects this with the general importance of marshes, lakes, and other water places in Pueblo religion and ritual, as well as with the later artificial reservoirs built in the Mesa Verde region. It’s possible that an initial tendency to settle near wetlands because of their practical advantages in terms of resources led over time to a more metaphysical attitude toward watery places, although this remains highly speculative.

There is also a tendency over time for a shift in the contexts in which remains of animals of presumed ritual significance, like wild birds and carnivorous mammals, with early sites such as those in Ridges Basin having them largely associated with burials and the ceremonial “closing” of residential sites, whereas at later sites such as those in the Dolores area they are more associated with communal ritual structures. This suggests a shift in use of these religious symbols from the private to the public sphere, which Potter notes has also been proposed over the same period for the use of red ware pottery, which also likely had ritual significance. This shift may have continued into the rise of the Chacoan system, with its increased focus on monumental architecture presumably associated with public ritual.

Finally, Potter notes the early importance of turkeys in Ridges Basin, which could be due to general environmental differences across the region but may also reflect earlier depletion of large game in this area compared to others. There is a general pattern through Pueblo prehistory of increasing use of turkeys for meat as artiodactyl use declines, presumably in response to overhunting of local populations. On the other hand, one intriguing thing about the greater use of domesticated turkeys at the eastern edge of the Mesa Verde region during Pueblo I is the genetic evidence showing that domestic turkeys in the Southwest are likely more closely related to wild subspecies found to the east than to those found locally. Could the use of turkeys in Ridges Basin reflect early contacts with peoples further east? Potter doesn’t mention this possibility, and I don’t know if there is any other evidence of such contacts, but again, intriguing.

So, yeah, this chapter is a lot more focused than those coming before it, but the results of its analyses are intriguing. As more evidence becomes available from other regions with Pueblo I populations it may be possible to extend these sorts of comparisons further.

Bone Tools at Chaco Museum

Bone Tools at Chaco Museum

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Chaco Wash and Escavada Wash Near Their Confluence

I’ve never read any of Jared Diamond‘s books, so I’ve been reluctant to say much about him and his ideas.  Chaco is one of his main case studies in Collapse, however, so I really should read it at some point and try to figure out what I think of it.  I’ve heard conflicting things about how accurately it presents and interprets the evidence he gathers from archaeologists.  A lot of people seem to really like it, but most archaeologists seem to hate it and think that it’s riddled with errors.  I browsed through it a little once in the Chaco bookstore (which, yes, carries it, or at least did at the time), and I didn’t see any obvious errors of fact in the parts of the Chaco chapter I looked at, but the caption for one of the pictures, an overview of the canyon as it appears now, seemed to imply that the current desolate look of the area was the result of the overexploitation of the local environment by the Chacoans, which presumably led to their collapse.  My understanding of Diamond’s message, based mainly on the subtitle of the book (“How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”), is that the main driver of collapse he sees is environmental degradation, and the book’s popularity in environmentalist circles certainly makes sense in this light.

In any case, I’m skeptical about the whole idea that Chaco “collapsed” in the way that Diamond seems to think.  I’ve put forth my case in detail elsewhere and won’t repeat it now, but the basic idea is that what happened at Chaco is more complicated than a simple catchword like “collapse” (however it’s defined) implies.  On the narrow point of whether whatever happened at Chaco was the result of “choices” the Chacoans made about whether to “succeed or fail,” I guess it depends on what choices you mean by that.  David Stuart argues that the rigid, hierarchical social structure that allowed Chaco to become so impressive in the first place made the system too brittle to withstand severe climatic fluctuations, with the result that it was replaced by the more egalitarian and resilient social structures of the modern Pueblos.  He sees some clear lessons for our own society from this, primarily about the problems with economic inequality (a timely topic these days).  That’s one way of looking at “collapse.”

Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

I’m not sure if it’s what Diamond is talking about, though.  I’ve seen him described as an “environmentalist” in the old sense, i.e., an environmental determinist who sees major aspects of human societies as inevitable results of their environmental situations, with the twist that he obviously doesn’t have a completely deterministic view of human reactions to the environment but rather, more in line with the modern meaning of “environmentalism,” he recognizes that the interaction between humans and their environments goes both ways.  Under this view, presumably the most enlightening examples of past “collapses” to look at for insights into how we should address our own environmental problems are those where collapse was the result of ecological “overshoot,” or human use of natural resources outstripping the ability of the environment to provide them.  Joseph Tainter, who knows a lot about “collapse” from an archaeological perspective, has vigorously criticized Diamond’s (and others’) use of this approach, and I think choosing Chaco as an example of this type of collapse is particularly questionable.

It’s not that the Chacoans didn’t have major effects on their local environment.  The permanent resident population of the canyon may not have been very large, but it’s not an area that’s exactly abounding in resources, and the fact that the Chacoans imported all kinds of stuff from outside the canyon strongly implies that there wasn’t enough of all sorts of things locally to support the community.  I believe Diamond makes a big deal specifically out of the evidence for importing wood from the distant mountains, which I presume he sees as evidence that the Chacoans had deforested their local area more or less completely, with the attendant implications for overshoot and collapse.  Hence the caption on the picture I noticed when leafing through the book: the implied sequence of events is rise of Chaco leading to deforestation leading to collapse leading to a treeless desert wasteland even 1000 years later.

Intact Roof at Pueblo Bonito

But of course the evidence for importing timber from 50 miles away also implies that the Chacoans had the ability to organize some seriously impressive procurement for those resources they were lacking locally (whether because they had outstripped them or because they were never there to start with).  It’s not that they didn’t deforest their local area; they totally did, and fast!  But if that had been enough to make the system collapse, it never could have gotten going in the first place.  The abiding mystery of Chaco, after all, is not that a major center of its scale arose in the Southwest but that it arose where it did, in one of the least inviting environments in the whole region.  Somehow, the people at Chaco were able to marshal the resources of a much bigger area with many more resources, until suddenly they couldn’t.  The thing that needs to be explained by any “collapse” narrative is why that social power stopped so abruptly, which presumably also requires an answer to the question of how it developed in the first place.  We don’t know the answers to any of these questions, which is why Chaco remains such a fascinating and mysterious place even after over a century of intensive study.

“Overshoot” is not a very helpful explanation in this context.  Stripping the canyon of all its productive potential clearly didn’t lead to the collapse of Chaco, as the Chacoans were able to draw on the much greater potential of the whole region, at least for a while.  Overshoot doesn’t really explain why that control ended, either, since the overall resources of the region that the Chacoans apparently had access to were much too abundant for them to deplete.  They easily deforested the mesas above the canyon, but they never came close to deforesting the Chuskas or Mt. Taylor.  Those are big mountains, covered in trees!  And the same goes for all the other imported goods.  You could perhaps make a case for overshoot in some particular area perhaps contributing to the collapse of Chacoan power in some roundabout way, but it would definitely not be as simple as a straightforward story of overshoot leading to collapse implies.  That picture doesn’t show the enduring effects of Chacoan deforestation on the canyon; it shows what the canyon probably looked like when the Chacoans first encountered it.  Indeed, the canyon ecosystem we see today is the result of over fifty years of protection from grazing, and over a hundred years of protection from most other impacts.

Juniper Trees on the South Mesa Trail

So those are my thoughts on Diamond, and I really should read the book at some point to get a better sense of what he actually argues and whether this is a fair interpretation.  What I find interesting, though, is that noted archaeological iconoclast Steve Lekson has recently written an impassioned post in support of Diamond.  He points out that most archaeologists seem to hate Diamond’s books and spend a lot of time pointing out the flaws in them, but he argues that doing this is missing the more important point:

I’m sure there are errors – real errors.  Any work of this scope will have errors.  But much of the carping seems to concern not facts, but interpretations.  Diamond necessarily works from other archaeologists’ interpretations and I suspect the authors upon whom he relies would have something to say about all this.  The interpretations he accepts are not necessarily wrong; they are simply inconsistent with those of his critics.

I’m not saying that Diamond gets it “right.”  It’s hard to get things completely “right,” especially in science when many very reasonable hypotheses are probably wrong.  But the vehemence of academic reaction to Diamond is, I think, far disproportionate to his sins – sins of omission, commission or (worst of all) failure to cite the critic.  It is my opinion that much of the heat comes from Diamond’s success as a popular writer.  It’s not jealousy — well, maybe a little: after all, the guy won the Pulitzer with our data.  We don’t want anyone else to tell our story, even though we almost never tell it ourselves – accessibly.  And, it must be said, there is antipathy, even hostility from academics towards popular writers, even when that popular writer is an academic.     We all should re-read Article 4 of the SAA’s Principles of Archaeological Ethics, especially the bit about “Archaeologists who are unable to undertake public education and outreach directly should encourage and support the efforts of others in these activities.”

Fair enough.  I do obviously agree with the value of outreach and it’s true that Diamond has been a wildly successful popularizer of archaeology.  Lekson goes on to give a very interesting account of what he sees as the important “collapses” in Southwestern prehistory.  I note that Chaco, specifically, doesn’t appear on the list, although the depopulation of the Four Corners around AD 1300 does.  I have my doubts about that one too, but it really depends a lot on how you define “collapse.”  It’s not clear if Lekson has actually read Diamond’s book(s) (although obviously I’m hardly one to judge on that score), and he doesn’t directly address any of Diamond’s claims or interpretations about Chaco specifically, even though he is of course much more of an expert on Chaco than either Diamond or me.  Still, his general points about the reaction to Diamond are fair.  It would probably be more helpful for archaeologists who object to interpretations of their data put forth in popular accounts like Diamond’s to explain their objections in similarly popular fora, rather than just whining amongst themselves.  Diamond’s work may have a lot of problems, but at least he’s trying to draw conclusions from archaeological data and apply them to modern issues in accessible way, which is much more than you can say for most archaeologists, with a few notable exceptions like Stuart and, to a lesser extent, Lekson himself.  In any case, I think it’s clear that this conversation is really just getting started, so anyone who is really upset by the direction it’s taken so far has plenty of opportunity to jump in and contribute a different perspective.

View from Doorway at Pueblo del Arroyo

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