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Looking East from Peñasco Blanco

Looking East from Peñasco Blanco

Today is the winter solstice, which means it’s also the sixth anniversary of this  blog. On these anniversaries I like to write about archaeoastronomy, which is a very interesting topic and an important one for understanding Chaco and Southwestern prehistory in general. Last year I wrote about some research indicating that in the Rio Grande valley, an area generally thought to be outside the Chaco system but that was certainly occupied at the same time as Chaco, there was a long and very consistent tradition of orienting pit structures to the east-southeast, which is the direction of winter solstice sunrise. The winter solstice is very important in the cosmology and rituals of the modern Pueblos, so it makes a lot of sense that at least some Pueblo groups would orient their dwellings based on it.

As I noted at the time, this orientation is very different from that in the San Juan region to the west, including Chaco and Mesa Verde. In this area there is an equally long tradition of orienting pit structures to either due south or south-southeast. I’ve long wondered why this might be, and an article I read recently discusses the issue and proposes some interesting potential answers.

The article is by Kim Malville and Andrew Munro and was published in the journal Archaeoastronomy in 2010 as part of a special issue on archaeoastronomy in the Southwest. Malville is an astronomer who has done a lot of research on archaeoastronomy in the Southwest and identified many potential astronomical alignments, but this article is actually largely about debunking many of the alleged alignments claimed by others, particularly Anna Sofaer and her Solstice Project. Sofaer, an artist who turned her attention to archaeoastronomy after discovering the “Sun Dagger” effect involving a spiral petroglyph on Fajada Butte that on the summer solstice appears (or appeared) to be bisected by a “dagger” of light coming through a slit between large boulders in front of it. Sofaer went on to organize surveys of the major great house sites in Chaco Canyon to identify any celestial alignments in the orientation of their walls, and her team found that virtually all of them did show alignments to the positions of the sun or moon on solstices, equinoxes, or lunar standstills.

Light Snowfall on Fajada Butte

Light Snowfall on Fajada Butte

Sofaer and her collaborators went on to publish these findings widely, and to make a well-known documentary that has often been shown on television and inspired a lot of interest in Chaco. As Malville and Munro show in this paper, however, the evidence for these alignments is very thin. There is little to no justification in Pueblo ethnography for the idea of celestial building alignments, and the alignments themselves are identified with a substantial margin for error that makes spurious positive identifications likely, especially when so many potential alignments are tested for. Particularly concerning is how many of the alignments are to the minor lunar standstill, which is not a very impressive or noticeable event. (The major lunar standstill is a different story, and there is strong evidence at Chimney Rock in Colorado that the Chacoans were familiar with it and considered it important.) Malville and Munro also argue that the fact that most of the alignments are based on the rear walls of sites is also questionable, since there is no evidence that rear wall alignments were or are important culturally to Puebloans.

Instead, they argue that the alignments of rear walls are epiphenomenal, and that they mostly result from the more solidly established concern with the orientation of the front of a site. The bulk of the article is devoting to tracing these frontal orientations across time and space, with a primary focus on Chaco itself and on the earlier Pueblo I villages in the area of Dolores, Colorado that are often seen as being partly ancestral to the Chaco system.

As I noted above, there are two main orientations that persist through time in the San Juan region. One is to due south, and the other is to the south-southeast (SSE). With pit structures these axes are typically defined by a straight line of sipapu (if present), hearth, deflector, and vent shaft. There is often also a measure of bilateral symmetry between features on either side of this line, such as support posts. When there are surface rooms behind a pit structure, they often (but not always) conform to the same alignment, and when the back of a row of surface rooms is straight, it is typically perpendicular to the main orientation. Malville and Munro argue that these perpendicular back walls on many Chacoan great houses, which Sofaer has identified as having alignments to various astronomical phenomena, are really subsidiary effects of the main emphasis on frontal orientation.

The authors start their survey of orientations with the Basketmaker III pithouse village of Shabik’eschee at Chaco. Of 15 pithouses for which they could find adequate information on orientation, 11 faced SSE with an average azimuth of 153.7 degrees and 4 faced south with an average azimuth of 185 degrees. Strikingly, none of the pithouses showed any other orientation.

The north-south orientation isn’t difficult to understand, and Malville and Munro attribute it to use of the night sky for navigation (which would have been easy enough at this time even though there wasn’t actually a north star), and they also mention the widespread presence of Pueblo traditions mentioning origins in the north. While the exact reasons for adoption of this orientation may not be clear, its consistency isn’t unexpected since it’s pretty obvious and easy to replicate.

The SSE orientation, on the other hand, is a different matter. Note that at Shabik’eschee this was much more common than the southern orientation, from which it is offset by about 20 to 30 degrees in individual cases. There is more variation in this orientation than with the southern one (standard deviation of 7.7 degrees versus 2.4), but it’s sufficiently consistent and common that it seems like there must be some specific reason for it. Unlike the southern orientation, however, it’s not at all clear what that might be. Malville and Munro, sticking to their interpretation of orientations as references to places of origin, suggest that in the case of Shabik’eschee it might reflect the fact that some people might have migrated to Chaco from an area that was more to the north-northwest than due north, which seems implausible to me but then I don’t have a better explanation myself.

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

In any case, this pattern continues through time. The next set of orientations Malville and Munro look at are those of the pit structures at the Pueblo I Dolores villages. What they find is that SSE orientations are dominant here too, even more so than at Shabik’eschee. In fact, all of the pit structures they looked at had SSE orientations except those at Grass Mesa Village, which mostly faced faced south (although even here there were a few SSE orientations). This is in keeping with other evidence for differences in architecture among different villages at Dolores; Grass Mesa is known for having long, straight room blocks, as opposed to the smaller and often crescent-shaped roomblocks at McPhee Village, which with it is most often compared.

The Duckfoot site, to the west of the Dolores villages but contemporaneous with them, also had a SSE orientation. Further west, however, southern orientations become more common, including at the important village sites of Yellow Jacket and Alkali Ridge, plus some of the earlier Basketmaker II sites on Cedar Mesa in Utah.

There was one more orientation used during the Pueblo I period in the Northern San Juan region, however. At Sacred Ridge, in Ridges Basin near modern Durango, Colorado, the average azimuth of the pit structures is 120 degrees, the same east-southeast orientation corresponding to winter solstice sunrise so common in the Rio Grande. Malville and Munro remark on the similarity to the Rio Grande pattern and consider it “puzzling,” positing some potential ways that it could have come about. They argue, however, that wherever this pattern came from it didn’t last in the north, and they point to the extremely violent end to the occupation of Sacred Ridge as the end of this orientation tradition in the San Juan region (although this may not be strictly true, as discussed below).

From here Malville and Munro turn back to Chaco. Specifically, they look at the great houses at Chaco during its heyday from about AD 850 to 1150. Rather than pit structures, they focus on roomblocks, and they interpret the orientation of a roomblock to be the perpendicular to its long axis (in the case of rectangular roomblocks) or the perpendicular to the ends of the crescent of roomblocks with that shape. They find that most of the great houses have a SSE orientation, in keeping with the general trend throughout the region, as do the three northern outlier great houses of Chimney Rock, Salmon, and Aztec. Since this orientation is very close to the perpendicular of the minor lunar standstill moonrise alignment that Sofaer has proposed for many of these buildings, Malville and Munro argue that this widespread orientation explains the pattern much better than the lunar alignment. Pueblo Alto and Tsin Kletzin have north-south orientations, which is unsurprising since they lie on a north-south line with each other.

A few of the great houses have a more complicated situation. Peñasco Blanco appears to face east-southeast at an azimuth of approximately 115 degrees. This is intriguingly close to the Rio Grande/Sacred Ridge winter solstice orientation, which Malville and Munro do note. Although the unexcavated nature of the site makes it hard to tell for sure, it is possible that this is in fact an example of this orientation surviving much later in the San Juan region than the destruction of Sacred Ridge, although what, if any, connection there might be between the two sites is unclear.

Pueblo Bonito from Above

Pueblo Bonito from Above

And then there’s Pueblo Bonito. While the very precise north-south and east-west cardinal alignments of some of the key walls at this site are well known, it has also long been noted that there is evidence for different alignments and change over time here. Malville and Munro interpret the early crescent shape of the building as having a SSE orientation, and like many others they relate it to the similar size, shape, and orientation of McPhee Pueblo at McPhee Village. They then describe multiple stages of drift away from this orientation toward the cardinal orientation. There is surely something to this interpretation, but a careful look at the stages of construction of the site shows that the picture is probably more complicated. The very first construction at Bonito appears to have been straight and oriented to the south, and to have been incorporated later into the SSE-facing crescent. Subsequent building stages show evidence of both orientations having been present throughout the history of the building.

The complicated situation at Pueblo Bonito provides a convenient segue to the key issue here: what was driving this long-term but consistent variation? Why were two different orientations for buildings present in close proximity for hundreds of years, even as populations moved long distances and adjusted their cultures in profound ways? Malville and Munro suggest that these orientations may reflect longstanding cultural and ethnic diversity in the prehistoric Southwest. Given how long-lived and consistent these patterns are, they propose that they were related to deep-seated cultural identities. This is an intriguing idea that may allow tracking of specific cultural groups across the Southwest over centuries. It also provides another piece of evidence that Chaco Canyon was a multicultural community, and implies that even Pueblo Bonito itself contained groups with diverse backgrounds.

The picture is probably even more complicated than Malville and Munro suggest. They tend to implicitly assume that the orientations of pit structures are the same as those of the room blocks with which they are associated, but at least at Chaco this is not necessary true, particularly for small-house sites, which they also don’t address at all in this study. There are many examples of small houses where the room blocks are oriented to the east but the pit structures are oriented to the south (and possibly also SSE, although I haven’t checked this). This eastern orientation may reflect connections to the south, which have gotten a lot less attention in the literature than connections to the north although they appear to have been pretty important in the origins of Chaco.

In any case, I think this is fascinating stuff. It may not be archaeoastronomy per se, but it seems like a fitting way to mark the solstice.
ResearchBlogging.org
Malville JM, & Munro AM (2010). Cultural Identity, Continuity, and Astronomy in Chaco Canyon Archaeoastronomy, 23, 62-81

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Old Bonito from Above

Old Bonito from Above

Having introduced the basics of archaeological use of DNA evidence, and discussed some other applications of DNA studies in archaeology, let’s take a look at the data relevant to the Southwest specifically. For modern populations in North America overall, there are some broad trends that have been identified in mitochondrial haplogroup distribution by region, as first elucidated by Joseph Lorenz and David Glenn Smith of UC Davis in 1996. They only looked at haplogroups A, B, C, and D, since haplogroup X had not yet been identified as a founding haplogroup at that time. Their results showed that there are definite patterns in haplogroup distributions by region. For the Southwest specifically, they found most groups showed very high levels of B and low levels of A, despite the fact that A was the most common haplogroup in their sample overall. The main Southwestern groups that showed high levels of A were the Athabascan-speaking tribes (Navajo and Apache), which is unsurprising since northern Athabascan groups, along with most other groups in the Arctic and Subarctic, are almost exclusively A, and it’s well established that the southern Athabascans immigrated into the Southwest from the north relatively recently. Some other Southwestern groups show some representation of A as well, which Lorenz and Smith attribute to intermixing with the Athabascans (although as I’ll discuss below this doesn’t seem to be the whole story). Similarly, the Navajos and Apaches showed substantial representation of B and C, unlike their northern cousins, and this is probably due to intermixing with the Pueblos and other Southwestern populations.

A subsequent study by Smith, Lorenz, and some of their students at Davis looked specifically at haplogroup X, which had been identified in both modern and ancient Native American samples by then and was established as a founding haplogroup. They found it widely distributed among modern populations speaking a variety of languages but particularly among speakers of Algonquian and Kiowa-Tanoan languages. The Kiowa-Tanoan connection is of particular interest for Southwestern purposes, of course, as this is one of the main language families spoken by the eastern Pueblos in New Mexico. In this case, haplogroup X was found in the Kiowa and Jemez samples. This is very interesting since the Jemez are Pueblo and the Kiowa are not, and the relationship between the Kiowa and the Tanoan-speaking Pueblos is a longstanding mystery. It’s hard to know how to interpret the haplogroup X data in this connection. Since X is so rare overall the fact that it is so concentrated in certain groups seems meaningful somehow, but since it’s still pretty rare in those groups and little follow-up research on this has since been done it remains quite mysterious.

Turning to the ancient evidence, the first work in the Southwest was associated mostly with the University of Utah. In 1996 Ryan Parr, Shawn Carlyle, and Dennis O’Rourke published a paper reporting on aDNA research on the remains of 47 Fremont individuals from the Great Salt Lake area, 30 of which could be assigned to a haplogroup. The Fremont have always been something of a mystery, with many Southwestern cultural features but living on the northern fringes of the Southwest and having some notable differences from Pueblo cultures to the south. What the Utah researchers found, however, seemed to show the Fremont patterning genetically with the Pueblos rather than with other groups in the Great Basin or Plains. Haplogroup A was completely missing from their sample, while B was by far the most common haplogroup and C and D were also present in small numbers. This seems to clearly rule out one theory about the Fremont, which is that they were composed in part of Athabascans on their way south from the Subarctic, and also casts in serious doubt other theories linking them to later cultures on the Plains (where haplogroup A is also very common). It’s true that there is internal cultural variation within the construct “Fremont” and it’s quite possible there was genetic variation as well, but the Great Salt Lake Fremont were the furthest north of the identified subdivisions and the closest to the Plains, so if even they show more genetic similarities to the Southwest that is strong evidence against theories associating them with areas to the north and east.

It’s also noteworthy that the Fremont distribution is in contrast to what Lorenz and Smith found among modern Numic peoples who now occupy the Fremont’s Great Basin home. The Numic Paiute/Shoshone sample that Lorenz and Smith looked at lacked haplogroup A, but it showed a very high proportion of haplogroup D (the highest in their whole study, in fact) and a low proportion of B and C. This doesn’t totally rule out some Fremont contribution to Numic ancestry, but it makes it seem unlikely that there was substantial genetic continuity between Fremont and Numic populations, which supports the “Numic Expansion” hypothesis for the late prehistory of the Great Basin. Smith and his student Frederika Kaestle later published a paper making this exact argument, using not only the Fremont data but additional ancient remains from the western Great Basin to argue that the differences in haplogroup frequencies supported a replacement of the earlier Basin inhabitants by the Numa.

Following up on this research, a subsequent paper by the same Utah researchers added in data from the Anasazi. They successfully assigned 27 Anasazi samples to haplogroups. Of these, 12 were from southeastern Utah, 9 were from Canyon del Muerto, 4 were from Canyon de Chelly, and 2 were from Chaco Canyon. Of the Chaco remains, one came from the debris in Room 56 at Pueblo Bonito, a part of the north burial cluster in Old Bonito which was very crudely worked over by Warren K. Moorehead in the 1890s. The other I can’t seem to find any specific information on. All of the Anasazi remains analyzed in this study were from the collections of the American Museum of Natural History, which makes me surprised that only two Chaco samples were involved. It’s possible that more were analyzed but only these two produced enough DNA to work with. In any case, if in fact there are more Chaco remains at the AMNH that have not yet been analyzed for DNA it would be very helpful to analyze them.

The results of this analysis were consistent with the standard archaeological understanding that the modern Pueblos are the descendants of the Anasazi. B was the most common haplogroup, with smaller levels of A and C. D wasn’t present at all, and two of the specimens didn’t fall into any of the four haplogroups, implying that they might have belonged to X. (The two Chaco samples belonged to haplogroups B and C; the sample from Room 56 belonged to haplogroup B.) Note that A is present here in populations dating well before any likely admixture with Athabascans, which is evidence against Lorenz and Smith’s contention that the presence of A in modern Pueblos can be attributed entirely to mixture with Athabascans.

Based on the dominance of B and low levels of other haplogroups, these researchers concluded that the Anasazi remains they analyzed were not significantly different from the Fremont remains they had analyzed earlier, adding further support to their contention that the Fremont pattern with the Pueblos. Note, however, that the Fremont hadn’t shown haplogroup A at all, while the Anasazi had it at a low but still respectable level (22%). Also, the Fremont showed a low level of haplogroup D, which the Anasazi didn’t have at all. These differences don’t necessarily mean the Fremont and Anasazi weren’t related, of course, but they do show how much that similarity is a judgment call supported by questionable statistics. In this case one big problem with the statistical analysis was treating the haplogroup frequencies as ratio-level data, which implies that they are meaningfully representative of the underlying populations despite the very small and non-random samples. This is highly implausible. This problem means that the authors’ conclusions about whether differences between samples were “significant” or not in a statistical sense is not really meaningful since it can’t reasonably be expected to generalize to the populations, which are what we really care about.

In addition, as Connie Mulligan pointed out in the general paper on aDNA that I discussed previously, the differences that the Davis researchers found between the haplogroup frequencies of the Fremont and Numic samples, which they used as evidence of a lack of population continuity, were actually quite similar statistically to the differences the Utah researchers found between the Fremont and Anasazi, which they interpreted as not being significant! This disconnect goes to show that there’s actually quite a bit of subjective judgment in interpreting results like this, despite the superficial impression of “objective” statistical data.

One way to overcome this confusion would be to increase the number of samples analyzed and try to make them as close to representative of the underlying populations as possible. That would certainly help, but the fundamental problem of defining the ancient population of interest, and the apparent impossibility of analyzing a sample from it that could be assumed to be truly representative, are daunting challenges. A more productive approach, which subsequent research has in fact been following, is to do more in-depth analysis of available samples, so that more detailed data than crude haplogroup assignments are possible.

One way to do more in-depth analysis would be to move away from relying exclusively on haplogroup assignments and look instead at the nuclear genome. Sequencing the whole nuclear genome provides vastly more, and more statistically robust, information than mitochondrial haplogroup assignment, as commenter ohwilleke pointed out in response to my initial DNA post. Most of the studies mentioned in my previous post in other parts of the world have used this methodology, with very informative results. This type of analysis has, however, not been done on ancient remains from the American Southwest to my knowledge. I’m not sure why exactly, but there are various reasons including cost and level of preservation of remains that could account for this lacuna.

Instead, Southwestern researchers have mostly doubled down on mitochondrial haplotype analysis and extended its reach by looking at further mutations within the defined haplogroups to identify sub-haplogroups that can further narrow down genetic relationships. This has been a productive line of investigation, as exemplified by a very interesting paper from 2010 dealing with Chaco-era sites in the area of Farmington, New Mexico.

B-Square Ranch, Farmington, New Mexico

B-Square Ranch, Farmington, New Mexico

The paper, by Meradeth Snow and David Glenn Smith of Davis and Kathy Durand of Eastern New Mexico University, analyzed human remains from two sites on the B-Square Ranch, a large ranch that includes most of the land south of the San Juan River in Farmington. The ranch is owned by the Bolack family, which has long been prominent in local and statewide affairs. Its patriarch for many years was Tom Bolack, who was governor of New Mexico for a brief period in the 1960s and was also well known for his elaborate produce displays at the State Fair. His son Tommy Bolack, who took over management of the ranch when Tom died, has long had an interest in archaeology and did his own excavations in various of the many archaeological sites on the ranch. In recent years rather than continuing his own excavations he has worked with Linda Wheelbarger, a professional archaeologist who teaches at San Juan College in Farmington, to conduct field schools in the summers for SJC students as well as analyses of artifacts and human remains from both these recent excavations and his own earlier amateur work.

Among these analyses was the aDNA analysis of remains that Bolack excavated from the Tommy and Mine Canyon sites, two small-house sites on the ranch dating to the Chaco era. The Tommy site is slightly earlier, dating to approximately AD 800 to 1100, while the Mine Canyon site dates to approximately AD 1100 to 1300. Since the Tommy site seems to have been abandoned at approximately the same time the Mine Canyon site was founded, one obvious interpretation is that the Mine Canyon site was founded by the same people who had previously lived at the Tommy site. The DNA evidence, however, challenges this interpretation and suggests a more complicated story.

For this study, 73 samples were sent to Davis for aDNA analysis. This included a mix of tooth and bone samples. Of these samples, 48 (65.7%) could be assigned to a mitochondrial haplogroup. Of these, 26 were from the Tommy site and 12 from the Mine Canyon site.

The successfully analyzed samples from the Tommy site showed a typical distribution of haplogroups for a Southwestern population: 3% A, 69% B, 14% C, and 14% D. (This study didn’t look for haplogroup X, and all successfully analyzed samples fell into one of the other founding haplogroups.) The Mine Canyon sample, however, showed a very unusual distribution: 58% A, 33% B, 8% C, and 0% D. This is an exceptionally high proportion of haplogroup A, which is generally fairly rare in the Southwest except in Athabascan groups which are generally thought to have arrived in the region well after these sites were abandoned. Haplogroup A is also very common in Mesoamerica, which makes its dominance in a Chaco-associated site particularly intriguing given the evidence for contact with Mexico seen at Chaco Canyon itself and some outlying Chacoan sites.

The authors are careful to note that these are very small sample sizes, which makes sampling bias a very real possibility to account for this sort of striking result. They compare these distributions to several other ancient and modern Southwestern and Mesoamerican populations using Fisher’s exact test and find, unsurprisingly, that the Tommy site sample isn’t significantly different from other ancient Southwestern populations but is significantly different from all the modern populations as well as the ancient Mesoamerican ones. The Mine Canyon sample, on the other hand, was found to be significantly different from all the ancient Southwestern samples as well as all the modern Southwestern ones except the Athabascan Navajo and Apache, while it wasn’t significantly different from any of the ancient or modern Mesoamerican samples. This result is clearly driven primarily by the unusually high proportion of haplogroup A at Mine Canyon, which means it doesn’t really add much to the paper. Although Fisher’s exact test does take into account the small sample sizes, it doesn’t address the more fundamental problem with this sort of use of statistics on this type of data which can’t really be trusted to be representative of the underlying population of interest. This is the sort of thing I was talking about in the earlier post under the somewhat tongue-in-cheek label of “elaborate statistical techniques” on data that don’t necessarily fit the necessary requirements for their use. This sort of technique is not actually very elaborate compared to more sophisticated statistical analyses used for studies of whole genomes, where the number of data points is immense and they can actually be assumed to be representative of the analyzed individual’s full ancestry. Calculating P-values for differences between two samples based on four data points for each, when neither sample is necessarily representative of its underlying population of interest, is not very useful, but very common in mtDNA studies at least in the Southwest. To their credit, the authors of this paper are well aware of the weaknesses of this part of it and are careful to downplay the significance of the statistical analysis.

With these intriguing preliminary results, the researchers attempted further sequencing to identify more specific mutations that might define sub-haplogroups and clarify relationships on a more granular scale. Of the 48 samples that could be assigned to haplogroups, 23 were successfully sequenced for mutations in a region of the mitochondrial genome known to be highly variable. (Note how small the sample gets with subsequent levels of analysis.) Poor preservation was a major problem at this point, and there wasn’t enough genetic material remaining to construct the sort of network diagram that is often included in papers like this, showing specific mutations and the relationships they imply between specific ancient and modern samples.

The most interesting results from this further sequencing were with haplogroup A. Of the 8 samples initially identified as belonging to this haplogroup, 6 samples from the Mine Canyon site showed two distinctive mutations that are otherwise known only from 3 modern Zuni samples, along with one Tohono O’odham and one Chumash sample. Importantly, this set of mutations is unknown from both Mesoamerican and Athabascan groups. This is strong evidence that the dominance of haplogroup A at the Mine Canyon site does not indicate either migration from Mesoamerica or an early Athabascan presence in the Southwest; instead, it seems that this site just happens to have had an unusually high proportion of a rare but natively Southwestern lineage which survived into modern times at Zuni (and may have had some connections further west). The samples belonging to haplogroup B similarly showed the dominance of a sub-haplogroup distinctive to the Southwest and unknown in Mesoamerica.

The differences between the Tommy site and the Mine Canyon site in haplogroup frequencies, while they may well be a function in part of the small sample sizes, may also provide evidence for complex population movements within the late prehistoric Southwest. The exact parameters of these movements can’t be defined until more evidence is available from other areas, however, especially Chaco Canyon and the Mesa Verde region.

Overall, despite the poor preservation of the samples involved, this study provides important support for a finding that has come out consistently across all lines of evidence relating ancient to modern Pueblo people: there is a lot of evidence for continuity over time on a regional scale with complex movements within the Southwest, but little to no evidence of significant population movement into or out of the Southwest in recent centuries. (There is a whole other debate about the extent of population movement into the Southwest much earlier, at the time when agriculture was first introduced, which I haven’t discussed much in these posts and which isn’t of much importance for the specific issue I’m addressing here.) I think there is a lot of potential for more detailed reconstruction of movement within the Southwest based on a combination of lines of evidence, but we’re certainly not there yet.

I’ve gotten some questions about how the DNA evidence relates to the issue of hierarchy at Chaco. I’ll have a more extensive post on the evidence for social hierarchy, which I think is extensive, but the short answer is that DNA doesn’t really provide any evidence one way or the other on this point. Since all evidence points to a general pattern of population continuity in the Southwest at least since the introduction of agriculture, the genetic patterns of any elites that arose wouldn’t be likely to differ in any noticeable way from those of the commoners they rose from. Indeed, the one sample to be analyzed for mitochondrial DNA that is very likely to come from an elite Chacoan context, the sample from Room 56 at Pueblo Bonito, belonged to haplogroup B, the most common in both ancient and modern Southwestern populations. It’s theoretically possible to imagine an elite group immigrating into the Southwest from Mesoamerica, and theories have been proposed along these lines, but the DNA evidence doesn’t particularly support this, and it’s much more likely based on all lines of evidence that the rise of an elite at Chaco was a primarily indigenous development involving some indirect influence from Mexico but little to no permanent population movement over that distance.

This is the last substantive post in my series about “tracing the connections” between the ancient and modern Southwest, although I will probably do a follow-up post linking to all the others for the convenience of readers. Overall, I think these posts have shown that we have substantial evidence from various perspectives that the modern Pueblos are the descendants of the ancient Anasazi (and other prehistoric Southwestern groups), but the evidence we have so far is not sufficient to connect any specific ancient sites with any specific modern pueblos. I am hopeful, however, that that may change as more evidence comes in and we are able to tie together new data with the evidence we already have to make some more specific connections.
ResearchBlogging.org
Carlyle SW, Parr RL, Hayes MG, & O’Rourke DH (2000). Context of maternal lineages in the Greater Southwest. American journal of physical anthropology, 113 (1), 85-101 PMID: 10954622

Kaestle FA, & Smith DG (2001). Ancient mitochondrial DNA evidence for prehistoric population movement: the Numic expansion. American journal of physical anthropology, 115 (1), 1-12 PMID: 11309745

Lorenz JG, & Smith DG (1996). Distribution of four founding mtDNA haplogroups among Native North Americans. American journal of physical anthropology, 101 (3), 307-23 PMID: 8922178

Smith DG, Malhi RS, Eshleman J, Lorenz JG, & Kaestle FA (1999). Distribution of mtDNA haplogroup X among Native North Americans. American journal of physical anthropology, 110 (3), 271-84 PMID: 10516561

Snow, M., Durand, K., & Smith, D. (2010). Ancestral Puebloan mtDNA in context of the greater southwest Journal of Archaeological Science, 37 (7), 1635-1645 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2010.01.024

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Old Bonito from Above

Old Bonito from Above, Including Northern Burial Rooms

So far in this series of posts on “tracing the connections” between ancient Pueblo sites like Chaco Canyon and modern Pueblos, I’ve discussed evidence from linguistics and folklore, but of course if the issue is determining which modern groups are physically descended from which ancient ones it’s hard to beat evidence from actual physical remains. Physical anthropology has been somewhat less emphasized in the history of Southwestern anthropology, especially compared to archaeology and ethnography, but there has been a fair amount of this kind of research over the years and it is clearly at least potentially useful in answering these questions.

These days when people talk about physical evidence of genetic connections they often mean DNA, and there have been several interesting recent studies of the DNA of both ancient and modern Southwestern populations that are relevant to my present concern. That topic deserves its own post, however (which I am working on), so for now I’m going to focus on a more “traditional” type of physical anthropological study: the statistical comparison of skull features and measurements.

This sort of study generally takes the form of measuring various attributes of skulls from different archaeological excavations and comparing them statistically to see which ones pattern together. (There are also studies of non-metric features that work somewhat differently, but here I’m going to focus on studies of metric features.) I’m always a bit dubious about the relevance of these studies, since I’m not sure how clear it is that the traits they’re measuring really do correlate with genetic relatedness, but this is a well-established and longstanding field of inquiry so for now I’ll take it as given that the underlying theoretical assumptions are well-founded.

Old Bonito from West Plaza Showing Plaza Kivas in Foreground

Old Bonito from West Plaza Showing Plaza Kivas in Foreground

Turning to Chaco specifically, the most influential studies along these lines are those done by Nancy Akins as part of the Chaco Project in the 1970s and 1980s. It was her work that famously concluded that the two main burial populations in Pueblo Bonito, in the northern and western parts of the site, were most similar not to each other but to two different small house sites elsewhere in the canyon. This was an important finding, in that it implied that the population inhabiting the canyon in its heyday was physically diverse in ways that didn’t necessarily pattern with geographical settlement patterns. This in turn implies that there may have substantial diversity in ethnic and linguistic backgrounds among different Chaco residents as well, an implication that some other lines of evidence also support.

Akins only compared populations from within Chaco Canyon, however. To evaluate the connections between Chaco and later Pueblo sites, comparable measurements needed to be made of remains from later Pueblo sites and compared to Akins’s Chaco data. The most extensive study along these lines that I know of is in a short article by Michael Schillaci and Christopher Stojanowski published in 2002. Interestingly, this article was actually a comment on an earlier article by Peter Peregrine arguing that Chacoan society was matrilocal based in part on the fact that some modern Pueblo groups, such as the Hopis and Zunis, are matrilocal. (Matrilocality is the practice of newly married couples living with the wife’s parents, and it is apparently very uncommon cross-culturally compared to patrilocality, where couples live with the husband’s parents.)

Schillaci and Stojanowski argue that while it’s certainly possible that the matrilocal western Pueblos of Hopi and Zuni are descended in part from the Chacoans, it’s not at all obvious that they have a better claim to such descent than the eastern Pueblos of the Rio Grande Valley, which are generally either patrilocal or bilocal (couples live with either set of parents). To test this idea, they take Akins’s data from Chaco and compare it to measurements made according to the same protocol on several other contemporaneous and later Pueblo populations. These include Village of the Great Kivas, a Chacoan outlier in the Zuni area, as well as Hawikku, a much later ancestral Zuni site. They also include several samples from the Rio Grande area, both contemporary with Chaco and later.

As expected from Akins’s results, Schillaci and Stojanowski found that the different samples from Chaco don’t particularly pattern with each other. Interestingly, in their analysis the northern burials at Pueblo Bonito stand somewhat apart from all the other samples. This could potentially be evidence that these, the richest burials ever found in the Pueblo Southwest, represent a group that was genetically distinct from most other Southwestern populations, but it’s important to keep in mind that the number of samples being compared here is relatively small and there’s no way to know how representative it is, so sampling error is always a strong possibility when patterns like this show up. (Other studies have found that these remains are well within the range of variation typical of Southwestern populations, so the fact that they stand apart from the other groups in this study probably doesn’t imply that they were immigrants from outside the region or anything.)

Western Burial Rooms in Old Bonito

Western Burial Rooms in Old Bonito

Of the other Chaco samples, the western burials at Pueblo Bonito cluster most closely with those from both Hawikku and the ancestral Tewa site of Puye in the Rio Grande Valley. The burials from the small sites in the Fajada Butte area at Chaco pattern most closely with the ancestral Tewa site of Tsankawi, and in fact these two form a somewhat distinct group compared to most of the other samples. Finally, the burials from the small sites of Bc 51 and Bc 53, on the south side of the canyon across from Pueblo Bonito, pattern closely with those from Picuris, a Northern Tiwa Pueblo which is still occupied, as well as with those from the ancestral Tewa sites of Sapawe and Pindi.

Schillaci and Stojanowski conclude from this that there is no good reason to conclude that Chacoan society was matrilocal based on the practices of the likely descendants of the Chacoans, among whom they have identified both eastern and western Pueblos practicing various forms of postmarital residence. They do acknowledge that they weren’t able to include any Hopi samples in the analysis, so the western Pueblos are represented only by the two Zuni-area sites, which leaves open the possibility that the Hopis are closely connected to Chaco, which would strengthen Peregrine’s position and weaken theirs. On the other hand, other lines of evidence suggested somewhat weaker ties to Chaco among the Hopis than among most other modern Pueblos, so this probably isn’t a major problem. In his response, Peregrine notes the possibility that bilocality among the eastern Pueblos is a post-contact development related to declining population and therefore not necessarily relevant to the prehistoric evidence. He doesn’t challenge the overall validity of the analysis, however, which is our main concern here.

This is an interesting study, and it identifies some later sites with at least a high probability of including people descended from the Chacoans, but the facts that these sites don’t particularly pattern with each other and that there was considerable diversity within Chaco itself point to how complicated the picture seems to be. Overall, this evidence seems to support the idea that most of the modern Pueblos include at least some people who are descended from the Chacoans, and it provides particular support for such ties among the Zuni, Tewa, and Northern Tiwa. It also supports the previously existing evidence for considerable population diversity at Chaco itself. As we’ll see in the next post, this is not very different from where the DNA evidence leads.
ResearchBlogging.org
Schillaci, M., & Stojanowski, C. (2002). A Reassessment of Matrilocality in Chacoan Culture American Antiquity, 67 (2) DOI: 10.2307/2694571

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Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

Today is the summer solstice, on which I typically make posts about archaeoastronomy, so I’m going to take a break from my very gradual series of posts on tracing the connections between ancient and modern Pueblos to speculate a bit about the role of astronomy at Chaco. Briefly, what I’m proposing is that the rise of Chaco as a regional center could have been due to it being the first place in the Southwest to develop detailed, precise knowledge of the movements of heavenly bodies (especially the sun and moon), which allowed Chacoan religious leaders to develop an elaborate ceremonial calendar with rituals that proved attractive enough to other groups in the region to give the canyon immense religious prestige. This would have drawn many people from the surrounding area to Chaco, either on short-term pilgrimages or permanently, which in turn would have given Chacoan political elites (who may or may not have been the same people as the religious leaders) the economic base to project political and/or military power throughout a large area, and cultural influence even further.

I don’t have any specific research papers to discuss on this topic because as far as I know no one has really looked at it quite this way. It’s similar in some respects to the theories of the Solstice Project, although I don’t buy that astronomical alignments were quite as important in the Chacoan system as they propose. There is also some overlap with the theories of various archaeologists, but none of them have put the pieces together in quite this way. This may be because it’s demonstrably wrong, but if it is I haven’t seen the evidence that disproves it yet (but would be very interesting in doing so).

This theory first occurred to me when I was reading about Tiwanaku in Bolivia, which was a prehistoric society that, like Chaco, left very impressive physical remains in a very isolated location with few obvious economic advantages. As I noted in my post on Tiwanaku, the similarities actually go well beyond that, extending also to the shifting interpretations by archaeologists and the evidence for astronomical alignments. Most relevant in this context is the theory of John Janusek at Vanderbilt, whose theory of Tiwanaku is the model for the theory I’m suggesting here for Chaco. As he wrote in one paper, which I also quoted in the earlier post:

Tiwanaku’s long rise to power in the Andean altiplano was predicated on the integration of diverse local ritual cults and various symbolic dimensions of the natural environment into a reasonably coherent, supremely elegant and powerfully predictive religion. The shifting physicality of Tiwanaku’s religious monuments attests the construction and ongoing transformation of an urban landscape that not only visually expressed the altiplano’s ‘natural’ forces and cycles, but, via recurring construction and ritual, simultaneously shaped new social practices and Tiwanaku’s ever-increasing political influence and productive coordination, intensification and expansion. Tiwanaku was an imperfect and potentially volatile integration of religious cults, productive enterprises and societies. The material objectification of a seductive religious ideology that infused the monumental centre with numinous natural forces and simultaneously projected those forces across distant Andean realms helped drive Tiwanaku’s very worldly imperial mission.

Tiwanaku was apparently the first society in the altiplano to develop the level of astronomical skill which allowed it to develop such a “powerfully predictive” religion, and my application of a similar theory to Chaco relies on it also being the first place that developed a comparable knowledge of astronomy in the Southwest. I hadn’t really thought about this before reading Janusek’s work, but as far as I can tell it does in fact seem to be the case. Ray Williamson’s somewhat dated but still very useful book on Native North American astronomy (which I reviewed here) doesn’t mention any evidence of Southwestern astronomical knowledge predating Chaco, and I haven’t seen any other publications that do either. Granted, some of the evidence for astronomical evidence comes from rock art which is difficult or impossible to date, but at least when it comes to building alignments, which are more securely datable, the Chacoan great houses seem to be the earliest manifestation of detailed astronomical knowledge. Some earlier sites do show general alignments to cardinal directions and so forth, but the precise alignments to solstices and lunar standstills that are characteristic of Chacoan buildings do really seem to be innovative. I’m not totally certain that there aren’t counterexamples out there, though, so if anyone knows of any I’m very interested in hearing about them.

If this is in fact the case, it opens up several additional lines of inquiry. First, if Chaco was in fact the first place in the (northern?) Southwest to attain detailed astronomical knowledge, where did that knowledge come from? Many discussions of Chacoan astronomy have assumed, implicitly or explicitly, that the answer is “Mexico,” but I’m not so sure. There is definitely extensive evidence of contact with Mesoamerica at Chaco, but it’s all fairly indirect and there are lots of important aspects of Mesoamerican culture that are noticeably lacking. Mesoamerican astronomical knowledge was certainly impressive, and certainly predates the rise of Chaco, but given the general context I think it’s still an open question whether the Chacoans got their knowledge from contacts to the south (either directly or via the Hohokam and/or Mogollon) or developed it independently. This is an area that would definitely benefit from further study.

Secondly, why Chaco rather than somewhere else in the region? This is sort of the key question hanging over everything about Chaco, and so far no one has come up with a broadly convincing answer. I don’t have one either; the astronomy theory I’m proposing here answers the “how” of Chaco but not the “why.” It could be that, as some archaeologists have proposed, the physical setting of the canyon had unique attributes within the region that contributed to its ritual importance from an early period, which from my perspective would have provided the impetus for the development and/or integration of new astronomical knowledge into existing belief systems. Alternatively, as other archaeologists have argued, there could have been economic advantages to the location, which are not obvious to modern eyes but were sufficient to give Chaco an important role in the region, which may have made it a promising place for new ideas to develop or be introduced. And finally, maybe it’s all just a matter of historical contingency: this was where people happened to figure this stuff out, and that’s what made it attractive to others for both religious and economic reasons.

Another question is when this would have happened. Chaco was occupied for hundreds of years, but its florescence as a regional center was relatively brief, lasting roughly a century from AD 1030 to 1130 or so. One natural conclusion would be that the development of new astronomical knowledge happened at the start of this period, but I suspect it actually began earlier, probably during the period (roughly the late ninth and tenth centuries, or the late Pueblo I period) when Chaco was just one of several “proto-great-house” communities in the San Juan Basin that were more or less equal in size and influence. Over time, the advantages of the Chacoan rituals over the others would have become apparent, perhaps through fortuitous stretches of good weather and/or military successes by Chacoan warriors. This would have set the stage for Chacoan influence to expand on a vast scale during the eleventh century.

As the reference to military success in the previous paragraph suggests, I don’t see the expansion of Chacoan religious influence fueled by astronomical knowledge as having necessarily been entirely peaceful. Here again, the parallel to Tiwanaku is instructive. Note Janusek’s reference to Tiwanaku’s “very worldly imperial mission” in the quote above. I suspect what we would today see as “religious” and “secular” impulses were much more intertwined at Chaco, as indeed they have been shown to be in many societies.

All that said, I’m not totally convinced by this theory myself, and there are many strands of the Chacoan record that it doesn’t really seem to account for in an obvious way. I figured this was a good opportunity to toss it out there, though, to see whether it’s worth pursuing further.
ResearchBlogging.org
Janusek, J. (2006). The changing ‘nature’ of Tiwanaku religion and the rise of an Andean state World Archaeology, 38 (3), 469-492 DOI: 10.1080/00438240600813541

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Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

It’s quite clear that, in a general sense, the modern Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona are the cultural descendants of the ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) groups of Chaco Canyon and other parts of the northern Southwest no longer occupied by people of Puebloan culture. Indeed, as the previous post explains, the descendants of the Chacoans are much easier to identify than those of pretty much any other prehistoric society in the Southwest. Nevertheless, the modern Pueblos are quite diverse in many ways. While they all have similar material culture, which is what most clearly shows their relationship to prehistoric sites like Chaco, the Pueblos speak six different languages belonging to four completely unrelated language families, and the linguistic divisions correspond generally (but not perfectly) to differences in other aspects of culture, such as kinship systems, sociopolitical structures, and religious practices.

With so much diversity, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that some modern Pueblo groups have closer connections to particular ancient sites than others. Demonstrating any specific connections has been frustratingly difficult for scholars so far, however. The immense upheavals of the Spanish colonial period led to significant changes in many Pueblos that make it difficult to trace their histories back into the prehistoric period, and archaeology has demonstrated considerable evidence for prehistoric upheavals that similarly obscure continuities of culture and population. Adding to the difficulty are the facts that the Pueblos have long had very similar material culture to each other, which makes it difficult to tell different ethnolinguistic groups apart archaeologically, and that the extensive migrations of the late prehistoric period seem to have involved rapid change in material culture as well, obscure whatever small differences had existed among different Pueblo groups.

On account of these difficulties, for a long time Southwestern archaeologists and anthropologists were often reluctant to try to reconstruct culture history in enough detail to connect specific ancient sites with specific modern Pueblos. In recent years this reluctance has decreased, however, and there is now a fair amount of interest in these questions, spurred in part by the requirements under NAGPRA for demonstrating cultural affiliation of modern groups in ancient sites. It’s interesting to compare this trend to the last period of considerable interest in this topic, which was similarly spurred by the effort in the 1950s to settle Indian land claims. In any case, archaeologists today have proposed various models of Southwestern prehistory to account for the distribution of modern Pueblo peoples.

With this context, and inspired in part by some interesting questions asked by commenter J. R. Barnett, I’ve decided to do a series of posts addressing this issue and the types of evidence available to address it. I’ll be focusing heavily on linguistic evidence, which is of particular interest to me personally as well as being of considerable importance in defining cultural differences among the Pueblos. I will, however, also discuss the evidence from archaeology, physical anthropology (including DNA studies), sociocultural anthropology, and oral traditions. In doing some reading on these topics recently, it’s been apparent that there really is quite a lot of relevant evidence out there. While we will surely never be able to recover every detail of the story, it’s worth taking a serious look at the available evidence to see what we can find out.

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

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"Supernova" Pictograph

“Supernova” Pictograph

I recently finished reading Living the Sky: The Cosmos of the American Indian by Ray Williamson. This is a classic work on the archaeoastronomy of North America, and it’s the best introduction to the subject I’ve found. (Granted, there aren’t many out there.) Although it was written in the 1980s, the research it discusses is still quite relevant, and Williamson does a good job of giving a pretty comprehensive overview of research in most parts of the US. The 1970s and 1980s were kind of the heyday of archaeoastronomy in the US, and while there has been continuing research since then, it’s striking how few major discoveries have been made since Williamson’s book was published. Virtually all of the major discoveries I knew about before reading the book are included, plus many others I didn’t know about.

Williamson did quite a bit of research himself on astronomical phenomena at Chaco, which gets lots of coverage in the book. There is some discussion of the Sun Dagger on Fajada Butte, as well as of alignments at Pueblo Bonito and Casa Rinconada and the alleged “supernova petroglyph” near Peñasco Blanco. Williamson gives the latter a lot more credence than others, and actually has a whole chapter on alleged representations of the 1054 supernova in rock art, including several other sites I had not heard about. I’m pretty skeptical about the supernova stuff, but it’s interesting to hear about these other sites.

Reconstructed "Woodhenge" at Cahokia

Reconstructed “Woodhenge” at Cahokia

While the Chaco stuff is interesting, I already knew most of it and Williamson’s account doesn’t add a whole lot to anyone who is reasonably well-versed in it. Where this book really stands out for me is in its discussion of archaeoastronomy in other areas that get less attention, especially the Plains and California, which have a lot of archaeoastronomical phenomena despite their lack of impressive well-preserved architectural sites like those in the Southwest. The chapter on the East is also interesting, with discussion of the famous “Woodhenge” at Cahokia and the “SunWatch” site in Dayton, Ohio as well as other lesser-known sites. Even within the Southwest, Williamson devotes space to research at more obscure places like Hovenweep (which turns out to have a lot of interesting potential alignments) as well as major centers like Chaco.

Williamson also does a good job of connecting the archaeological data to ethnographic reports about astronomical practices among modern groups. There has historically been a tendency for archaeoastronomers, many of whom are astronomers or surveyors by training, to focus on identifying alignments without giving much consideration to the cultural context in which they may have existed. Williamson avoids this pitfall by giving extensive attention to ethnographic practices and their potential connections to the evidence from ancestral sites. He does a particularly good job with respect to the Pueblos, for which both the ethnographic and archaeological data are extensive, but he also includes extensive discussion of the Navajo, Pawnee, and Chumash, and some attention to various other groups. His interpretations of the ethnography at times show a tendency toward oversimplification, and some of his general comments about Native American societies are, well, overly general and imply more widespread commonalities among very different societies than is really reasonable, but he’s not an anthropologist and as such I think these flaws are quite forgivable given all the interesting data he presents in accessible form.

Hovenweep Castle, Utah

Hovenweep Castle, Utah

I also read a 2003 review article on archaeoastronomy in the Americas, written by prominent archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni, to get a sense of research since the 1980s, but it didn’t add much. For one thing, as mentioned above, the pace of archaeoastronomy seems to have leveled off a lot since then, and it’s striking how many of the references in Aveni’s article are to publications from the 1970s and 1980s. Also, while the article does cover North America as one of its three main sections, it spends much more space on the other two sections, Mesoamerica and South America. This is unsurprising, since the major civilizations in these areas have written records (mostly from the contact period but in the case of the Maya precontact as well) to which archaeological data can be compared. In addition, they have just received more attention in general from archaeoastronomers than cultures further north. Aveni himself studies Mesoamerica, so he has a lot to say about research there.

That said, however, Aveni’s account of North American archaeoastronomy is also surprisingly sloppy and riddled with obvious errors. He refers to Cahokia as “part of the Adena-Hopewell culture,” which is just laughably wrong; Cahokia is the preeminent site of the Mississippian culture, which arose centuries after the decline of Hopewell. He also attributes the Poverty Point site in Louisiana to the Adena, whereas it is actually significantly earlier. His discussion of the Southwest doesn’t contain any obvious errors of that magnitude, but it is very brief and superficial, as is the whole North American section of the paper.

Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Overall, then, I guess I would say that Williamson’s book is a much better introduction to North American archaeoastronomy than Aveni’s article, but that is kind of a trivial conclusion since it’s also much easier to find for the general reader. Even academics who have access to the Aveni paper, though, probably won’t get much out of it on this topic.
ResearchBlogging.org
Aveni AF (2003). Archaeoastronomy in the Ancient Americas Journal of Archaeological Research, 11 (2), 149-191 DOI: 10.1023/A:1022971730558

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Utah Welcome Sign

Utah Welcome Sign

The initial discovery of chemical markers for chocolate on potsherds from Chaco Canyon in 2009 was a hugely significant development in understanding Chaco. The evidence for the presence of chocolate, a Mesoamerican product that couldn’t possibly have been locally grown and is very unlikely to have been gradually traded northward through a series of intermediaries, gave a huge boost to the “Mexicanist” school of thought about Chaco, which holds that many of the unusual aspects of the Chaco system are due to influence from Mesoamerica.

The initial study only involved a few sherds, though, and understanding the exact role of chocolate at Chaco and its implications for Mexican contact needs a much deeper understanding of where and when cacao was present in the ancient Southwest. Thus, soon after the initial discovery further research by a different set of researchers (using somewhat different methods) began to test other pots from Chaco and elsewhere. They did find further evidence that at least some of the famous cylinder jars from Chaco were used in the consumption of chocolate, but they also found traces of cacao in vessels of similar form from the later Classic Hohokam period in southern Arizona, and, most surprisingly, also in vessels from the “small-house sites” at Chaco and elsewhere that are thought to have housed the lower classes of Chacoan society. The previous evidence for chocolate came from distinctive vessels at the “great houses” that are the hallmark of the Chaco system and seem to have been used by elites (though exactly what they used them for remains unclear and controversial). This is exactly the kind of setting where it would be unsurprising to find unusual, exotic things, and indeed the great houses clearly contained many such things in addition to the chocolate. Finding this sort of exotic foodstuff in more mundane pots at the small houses implies that it may have been more widely accessible than previously thought, which has important implications for understanding the nature of the Chaco system.

Well, now things have become even more complicated. The same researchers who did that follow-up study have done another, this time looking at a much earlier period and a different part of the Southwest. They used their same techniques to test for the presence of chocolate in pottery at Alkali Ridge Site 13 in southeastern Utah, a very important early village site dating to the eighth century AD. Site 13 was one of the earliest large villages established in the northern Southwest during the Pueblo I period, and its architecture shows some striking parallels to later Pueblo I villages such as McPhee Village in the Dolores, Colorado area, as well as to some of the early great houses at Chaco and elsewhere that developed even later. The early Pueblo I period in southern Utah is also associated with the introduction of a new type of pottery, San Juan Red Ware, which was widely traded from an apparently rather restricted production area and probably used for ceremonial purposes of some sort. In addition to being a different color from the more common gray and white pottery of the area, San Juan Red Ware also featured a distinctive design system in its decoration, one without obvious local antecedents. Combined with the distinctive architecture, this has led some archaeologists to posit that there was a migration into southern Utah during early Pueblo I from somewhere to the south, bringing these distinctive traits.

In that context, looking for cacao makes sense, as that would be a clear sign of ties to the south and cultural distinctiveness. Dorothy Washburn, who was the lead author on both this and the previous study,  has actually written mainly on design style in ceramics and other handicrafts, focusing on symmetry patterns. Based on the changes she has found in these patterns, she has argued for a very strong Mexicanist interpretation of Chaco, involving actual migration of people from far to the south bringing a distinctive pottery decoration style. She seems to have a similar view about Alkali Ridge, for similar reasons.

In any case, the study found that there was in fact evidence for cacao on several of the vessels found at Site 13, including some (but not all) of the redware ones. The conclusions, understandably, focus on the association between the new ceramic design system and the use of chocolate, but in fact the redware vessels don’t seem to be much more likely to have evidence of chocolate use than the other ones that were tested. It’s quite possible that San Juan Red Ware was associated with consumption of chocolate specifically, but it seems that other types of pottery were also used for chocolate-related purposes.

This is all very interesting, but it’s also confusing and hard to interpret, in a way that the authors of this paper don’t really address. Back when it seemed like chocolate was limited to cylinder vessels at Chaco great houses, that was easy to interpret: chocolate, like many other exotic goods found at these sites, was part of an extensive trading systems for elite goods, probably used for ritual purposes, which the elites of Chaco participated in (and perhaps dominated and directed). Finding it in the Hohokam vessels implied a similar system operating among elites at Classic Hohokam sites, which is consistent with some interpretations of Classic Hohokam society, plus the Hohokam in general show lots of evidence of contact with Mesoamerica in general so the presence of chocolate is much less surprising there than it was at Chaco. Finding it in the small houses at Chaco complicated the story somewhat and implied that the chocolate imported to Chaco wasn’t as restricted as had been thought, but since it was already known to be present at the great houses it’s not too surprising that the contemporaneous small houses had it too.

Alkali Ridge, though, is much earlier and much further north than any of these other sites. Getting chocolate there in significant quantities would have required a pretty elaborate and robust supply chain over a very long distance, much of which was inhabited by societies that are not generally considered to have been capable of this kind of long-distance coordination. Checking some of those intermediate areas (especially the Hohokam region) to see if they too had chocolate this early is necessary to understand the logistics of this.

There’s also the question of time. We now have evidence of chocolate from Utah in the eighth century, New Mexico (and to a lesser extent Colorado and Arizona) in the eleventh, and Arizona in the fourteenth. There are some big gaps there that need to be filled in to determine if these are three snapshots of a long-term and continuous tradition of chocolate consumption in the Southwest (which would have important implications about trade networks and relations with Mexico) or three separate episodes of chocolate being introduced from the south, possibly through population movement (which would have important implications for regional culture history in general). I think the most important place to look for evidence of continuity between Alkali Ridge and Chaco is in the large late Pueblo I villages in southwestern Colorado, especially the Dolores-area ones like McPhee Village. These sites have apparent connections to both earlier villages like Site 13 and later developments at Chaco. If they also reveal evidence for chocolate use, that would be a strong indication of continuity. The most important places to check for continuity between Chaco and the Classic Hohokam would probably be the Pueblo III communities in east-central Arizona, which again show connections in both directions. Both of these sets of sites are among the best-studied in the Southwest and there should be plenty of pots available for these analyses.

Finally, there is a methodological issue here. It’s possible that these tests aren’t actually detecting chocolate at all, but something else. The authors of the recent paper noted this possibility and looked into whether there are any plants native to the Southwest that might have chemical profiles similar to cacao that would throw off the analysis. They didn’t find any, but they note that many plants have not been analyzed in this way and it’s possible there is a different plant that is showing up in these analyses instead. Another possibility is that there is something about their method itself that is leading to false positives. It’s noteworthy that they have been finding much more extensive evidence of chocolate than the team, led by Patricia Crown and Jeffrey Hurst, that did the initial Chaco study found. That team hasn’t published any more about chocolate at Chaco since then, but I hear Crown was able to do some re-excavation in Room 28 at Pueblo Bonito this summer so there may be more from her on this in the future. Ideally I’d like to see a test of both methods on the same vessels to see how they match up.

The ultimate message here is that even important discoveries, like chocolate at Chaco, require many further studies and refinements to interpret properly. We’re nowhere near a full understanding of the true role of chocolate at Chaco or any other site in the prehistoric Southwest, but every study gets us closer.
ResearchBlogging.org
Washburn DK, Washburn WN, & Shipkova PA (2013). Cacao consumption during the 8th century at Alkali Ridge, southeastern Utah Journal of Archaeological Science, 40, 2007-2013 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.12.017

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