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Archive for the ‘Pottery’ Category

Totah Theater, Farmington, New Mexico

In comments to my post on Salmon Ruins, John Barton asks for more discussion of this area, which is surprisingly poorly understood given its obvious importance to Southwestern prehistory as a whole and the Chaco system in particular.  Wolky Toll has a chapter in the Salmon synthetic volume discussing the Totah region (named from the Navajo name for the Farmington area), and particularly the La Plata subregion, which is becoming somewhat better understood due to a major salvage archaeology project along New Mexico Highway 170, which parallels the La Plata River from the Colorado border south to its confluence with the San Juan just west of Farmington.  Toll has played a major role in this project, and his chapter has interesting things to say about the Totah in general and the La Plata valley in particular.  I don’t really buy all of his interpretations of Chaco; he’s one of the major proponents of a view of Chaco as a regional ceremonial center drawing pilgrims from throughout the San Juan Basin, including the Totah, but with a minimal population permanently resident in the canyon.  He’s particularly associated with the view that even the small-house residents at Chaco only lived there for part of the year, having other residences in other communities, especially along the Chuska Slope to the west.  I’m more inclined to see Chaco as some sort of hierarchical system with at least a relatively large permanent population, mostly in the small houses, though I’m not sure which version of this idea (and there are many out there) I find the most convincing.

Still, Toll knows a lot about the Totah.  He even introduced the term to archaeological use in an important chapter in a previous edited volume that he coauthored with Peter McKenna.  One of the important points he makes in the newer chapter is that while this region has historically been treated as part of either the Mesa Verde region to the north or the Chaco region to the south, it really has an independent identity and cultural trajectory that has been obscured by seeing it entirely in terms of migration or influence from north or south.  This is not to say that the Totah was isolated from developments to the north and south; far from it.  It’s really more accurate to see the whole San Juan basin as a single cultural region, with remarkable uniformity in many cultural expressions and changes over time.  The specific manifestations of those cultural processes were not necessarily identical, of course, but there’s more similarity than archaeologists are often inclined to say.

Mesa Verde Museum

Part of the problem here is just the way archaeology developed in the Southwest.  As Toll notes, the activities of the Wetherill family had a huge influence on which areas came to be considered most important to the interpretation of regional prehistory.  They were not the only influential figures, of course, but they definitely did a lot to put Mesa Verde and Chaco specifically on the radar of the archaeological profession as well as the general public.  In any case, the way things developed was that Mesa Verde and Chaco became well-studied, with major excavation projects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries producing huge numbers of artifacts and a general understanding of the chronological sequence of pottery types and other artifacts.  Once tree-ring dating provided an absolute chronology for the whole region, the general outline became clear: Chaco flourished in the eleventh century then declined in the twelfth, while Mesa Verde hit its peak later, in the thirteenth century, shortly before the whole region was abandoned around 1300.

This was a bit of a shift from the more evolutionary approach to culture history encapsulated in the original Pecos Classification, developed at the first Pecos Conference in 1927 and described by Alfred Vincent Kidder in a short article in Science at that time.  This system saw both Chaco and Mesa Verde, with their big, impressive masonry “pueblos,” as belonging to the Pueblo III or “Great Pueblo” period.  The tree-ring dates, however, showed that Chaco’s peak actually occurred earlier, coincident with the widespread small sites that marked the Pueblo II period.

Aztec West Great House, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Turning back to the Totah, the main excavation project there in the early twentieth century was conducted by Earl Morris at Aztec Ruins.  This was the largest site complex in the area, and it clearly indicated some level of social and cultural importance.  What Morris found there, however, instead of a unique and clearly indigenous material culture, was a mix of what seemed to be Chaco and Mesa Verde material culture.  The early deposits showed clear similarities to Chaco, as did the architecture of the site, which Morris interpreted as evidence for a close cultural connection to Chaco.  After this period, however, Morris saw evidence for an extended hiatus with little evidence of any sort of occupation or use.  After that there was another, quite different suite of material culture that looked much more like Mesa Verde.  Morris interpreted this sequence as an initial Chaco-affiliated occupation followed by abandonment and reoccupation by immigrants from the Mesa Verde region to the north.  In an important chapter in the Salmon synthesis volume, Gary Brown, Peter McKenna, and Tom Windes argue persuasively that Morris was actually wrong about this, and that while the construction and early occupation of Aztec does indeed show substantial connections to Chaco, there was probably not any abandonment or hiatus, just a period of somewhat reduced construction activity at a time of widespread drought and environmental hardship in the mid-twelfth century.  This lull was followed by extensive occupation and construction in the thirteenth century, especially at the east ruin (which Morris didn’t excavate).  The occupants at this time did have pottery similar to that used at Mesa Verde, but that doesn’t mean they were immigrants from there, and it’s much more likely that they were primarily local people who had been living at Aztec all along.  Everyone in the region at this point was making the type of pottery now known as “Mesa Verde Black-on-white,” and there’s no particular reason to think that any groups in the Totah had links to Mesa Verde, which itself seems to have been remarkably isolated during this period, with few trade goods found at the many excavated sites in the region despite its large population.  A similar story seems to obtain for Salmon, with an early Chaco-affiliated occupation followed by a period of continued occupation but little major activity, then an increase in population and activity before the final depopulation of the entire region.

So why did Morris get this wrong?  One reason, which Toll emphasizes, is that the mere fact that Chaco and Mesa Verde have been much more extensively studied than the Totah means that ceramic types (and other types of material culture, but pottery is the most important for cultural classification) have become associated with one or another of these areas, so that when they are found elsewhere in the region they are taken to indicate influence or migration from Chaco or Mesa Verde rather than a regionwide stylistic trend uniting all of these areas.  The latter is more likely, however, especially for the Totah, which was a major population and cultural center throughout the Pueblo II and III periods.  In her chapter in the Salmon synthesis volume, Lori Stephens Reed describes the discovery that the ceramic types found at Salmon and Aztec that have traditionally been classified as “Cibola” (Chaco) or “Northern San Juan” (Mesa Verde) types based on temper and design were mostly made within the Totah, judging from the type of clay used for the paste and slip of the vessels.  Rather than define new types, she just adds the qualifier “Animas Variety” to the existing type designations to indicate this local origin.  This makes sense from an Ockham’s Razor perspective, but as Toll notes in his chapter it’s really the type names themselves that have led to the downplaying of the local factor in the prehistory of the Totah.

Mesa Verde Escarpment from 2009 Pecos Conference at McPhee Campground

The best example of this is the very widespread thirteenth-century pottery type known as “Mesa Verde Black-on-white,” which is found all over the place but has tended to be interpreted as indicating some sort of influence or migration from Mesa Verde.  This is highly improbable, however, since Mesa Verde was gaining rather than losing people for most of this period (until the very end), and the people there don’t seem to have been very actively engaged in regional trade.  This strongly suggests that Mesa Verde Black-on-white is probably of local origin wherever it is found, despite the name.  Toll even muses more than once about how interpretations of Southwestern prehistory might be different if it were called “Aztec Black-on-white” instead.  It’s quite clear that Aztec was a very important site during this period, perhaps not as important as Chaco had been earlier but certainly more important than any single site in the Mesa Verde area.  And yet, because Mesa Verde has been more intensively studied, until quite recently it has been accorded an enormously important role in regional dynamics during this period that closer examination is revealing to be mostly undeserved.  Chaco has received a similarly privileged position for its period of florescence for similar reasons, but it seems to have actually been roughly as influential as this assumption implied.  (Something of an archaeological Gettier case.)

But why didn’t the Totah get the early attention that would have gained it the pride of place in Southwestern archaeology occupied by Chaco and Mesa Verde?  Ironically, a big part of the answer seems to be tied precisely to the geographic factors that made it such an important area in the first place.  One of the main reasons Mesa Verde and Chaco attracted early attention from archaeologists and pothunters was that their isolated locations left them unbelievably well-preserved.  The sites were very obvious on the landscape, many had stood relatively well due to either their massive construction (at Chaco) or their sheltered locations (at Mesa Verde), and they were sufficiently hard to get to that subsequent inhabitants and explorers hadn’t done them much harm.

Animas River, Farmington, New Mexico

The Totah, however, is an enormously attractive and productive agricultural area.  This is presumably what attracted people to Salmon, Aztec, and other communities in prehistory, and it definitely attracted huge numbers of Anglo settlers in the late nineteenth century who proceeded to plow over, loot, and otherwise damage the numerous archaeological sites they found before archaeologists had even heard of them.  The really big sites, like Salmon and Aztec themselves, managed to remain in relatively good condition until they could be professionally excavated, but innumerable smaller sites have likely been completely destroyed.

The local environment has also led to decreased visibility for these sites directly, by covering them with alluvial silt that makes them difficult or impossible to see from the surface.  As a result, we have little sense of how many sites are out there today, let alone how many were there initially before the farmers and the pothunters got to them.  Again, this is in contrast to the harsh environments of Chaco especially, and Mesa Verde to a lesser extent, where there are no permanent rivers to bury sites so deeply.  Furthermore, modern development in the Totah has been extensive, and there’s very little information about what lies underneath the rapidly growing modern towns of Farmington, Aztec, and Bloomfield.  For all of these reasons, the Totah remains surprisingly understudied, despite its obvious importance for understanding Southwestern prehistory.  Luckily this is starting to change a bit, at least on the conceptual level, with publications like Toll’s and Reed’s that point out the distinctiveness of this area and its independent identity.  The Totah has stood in the shadow of Chaco and Mesa Verde for a very long time, but it now seems to be finally coming into the light.

Chaco Street in Aztec, New Mexico

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Sleeping Ute Mountain from Mule Canyon, Utah

In their critique of the article reporting evidence for alleged cannibalism at site 5MT10100 near Cowboy Wash on the southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain, Kurt Dongoske, Debra Martin, and T. J. Ferguson challenged many of the conclusions and lines of evidence presented in the article.  Among these was the evidence of consumption of human flesh from a coprolite found in a hearth at the site, which could potentially serve as the “smoking gun” offering physical proof of cannibalism, if the analysis is correct.  The authors of the critique found the presentation of this evidence in the initial article unconvincing, however, describing the data as “sketchy” and implying a lack of scientific rigor in the analysis.  They concluded this section of the critique by saying:

We are not microbiologists, and therefore before accepting the claim that the coprolite contains human myoglobin, we await peer review and publication of the fecal study by Science or another scientific journal specializing in biomolecular research.  As presented in the Cowboy Wash study, the fecal evidence is suggestive but not convincing. More work pursuing this line of evidence is warranted in future studies.

In their response to the critique, the authors of the original paper added more detailed information on the coprolite analysis, but they also did as the critique authors recommended and published a short article in Nature (Science‘s main competitor) giving more specific details on the analytical techniques used to detect human myoglobin both in the coprolite and on some potsherds from a cooking vessel found in the same pitstructure.  There isn’t actually much in this paper that wasn’t in the response to the critique, aside from the laboratory procedures, which I am not in a position to evaluate.  It’s not actually clear to me if this article was peer-reviewed; it doesn’t explicitly mention any reviewers or any details of the review process, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t reviewed.  It’s also not clear to me if the authors submitted it in response to the critique or if they had already intended to.  Both the original article and the critique were published in January 2000, and this article was received by Nature on March 7,  accepted on June 6 (which does seem to imply some sort of review process), and published on September 7.  Meanwhile, the response to the critique was published in April.  In any case, whether or not the authors of the initial paper were spurred by the critique to submit additional publications (and this is not the only one to appear after the critique was published), they certainly can’t be accused of shrinking from the challenges it set for them.

Mentioning this paper also allows me to go into a bit more detail about the myoglobin analysis, which I didn’t in the previous post.  Basically, to determine if the coprolite resulted from the consumption of human flesh the researchers needed to find something to test for that would be present in parts of a human body likely to be consumed but not in parts of the consumers body likely to end up in the coprolite during the digestion process  (e.g., blood or intestinal lining).  They decided on myoglobin, which is a protein molecule in the skeletal and cardiac muscles that transports oxygen from the outer membrane of muscle cells to the interior parts of the cells where it is used to generate energy.  Importantly, this protein is not found in the smooth muscles of the digestive system or in the blood, so it is unlikely to end up in fecal matter as part of the digestive process.  The researchers used a variety of controls to establish this, including coprolites from Salmon Ruin and modern fecal samples from “normal individuals,” people with blood in their stool, and people who had recently eaten beef.  None of these ancient or modern samples tested positive for human myoglobin, but the beef ones did test positive for bovine myoglobin, establishing that myoglobin can indeed be found and identified to species in fecal material.  These controls were mentioned in the original article, and when I read it I had wondered where they had gotten the modern samples.  The Nature article explains that they came from leftover material from clinical samples that was turned over for research use, which makes sense.  For the sherd testing, the controls were other sherds from the same site, sherds from another site in Southwestern Colorado dating from the same period but without evidence of cannibalism, and sherds from a Plains site near Denver also dating to roughly the same period.  None of these control sherds tested positive for human myoglobin either, although some tested positive for deer or rabbit myoglobin.  Thus, since the coprolite from Cowboy Wash and the sherds found near it were the only samples to test positive for human myoglobin, the hypothesis that they were associated with ingestion of human flesh was not disproven, and it remains the most plausible explanation of the Cowboy Wash assemblage.

It’s certainly possible that problems may be found with this analysis that cast doubt on the result, but I haven’t seen any, and until I do I’ll provisionally accept it as indicating very strongly that broken and burned bone assemblages like the one at Cowboy Wash most likely result from cannibalism.  What that might mean culturally and historically, of course, is a different and more difficult question.
ResearchBlogging.org
Marlar RA, Leonard BL, Billman BR, Lambert PM, & Marlar JE (2000). Biochemical evidence of cannibalism at a prehistoric Puebloan site in southwestern Colorado. Nature, 407 (6800), 74-8 PMID: 10993075

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Sunset Crater Volcano

The effect of the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano on the prehistoric population of northern Arizona has long been a topic of interest to archaeologists.  As I’ve mentioned recently, in the 1930s and 1940s Harold Colton of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff came up with a theory to explain the settlement dynamics of the Wupatki area northeast of Sunset Crater.  In Colton’s view, the eruption resulted in a level of volcanic ash falling on Wupatki that acted as a mulch to retain water and make that very arid area suitable for farming for the first time, resulting in a “land rush” in which people from all over the region converged on Wupatki to farm the newly available land.  Over time, however, the ash began to blow away and the land became less productive, so people aggregated into the large pueblos for which Wupatki is best known, then left entirely when the area could no longer support its population.  Dendrochronological evidence from timbers at Wupatki Pueblo later provided a basis for dating the eruption to around AD 1064, which would put the “land rush” shortly after that.  Other evidence has shown that the abandonment of the area probably occurred some time in the thirteenth century, a time when many parts of the Southwest were being abandoned as well.

As I’ve mentioned, recent archaeological survey at Wupatki has cast doubt on some aspects of this model.  The main influx of population seems to have come after AD 1130, a few decades after the eruption, and the scale of that influx was probably quite a bit lower than Colton estimated, since many of the sites he counted to compute his population estimates were probably season field houses or other temporary structures rather than permanent habitations.  This implies that there wasn’t really a “land rush” the way Colton described it, but rather a substantial increase in population at some point after the eruption, perhaps in response to drought or other problematic conditions in other parts of the Southwest.

A few parts of Colton’s model do seem to hold up, however.  Experiments have shown that the levels of ash found at Wupatki do indeed work well as a mulch.  Without this mulch, dry farming in the area with any reasonable measure of reliability is basically impossible, since there just isn’t enough rain, and irrigation or floodwater farming isn’t possible on any substantial scale either due to the geological conditions and the lack of permanent surface water sources.  Furthermore, the Wupatki survey showed that this lack of agricultural suitability made the area essentially uninhabited before the eruption.  Of nearly a thousand datable sites recorded by the survey, only two dated to before the eruption.  The biggest influx of population came after about 1130, but there was already a fairly significant movement of people into the area in the immediate post-eruptive period.  Perhaps these people first experimented with agriculture using the ash as a mulch, and were so successful that when conditions deteriorated elsewhere others joined them.  The ash was liable to blow away in the strong winds, however, and over time the advantages it offered as a mulch would have diminished as a result of this and other factors, so it’s quite possible that it was declining agricultural productivity, perhaps exacerbated by warfare to defend land claims, that led the area to be abandoned in the thirteenth century.

Volcanic Rock in Masonry at the Citadel, Wupatki National Monument

That’s all well and good, but where did the people who moved to Wupatki after the eruption come from?  Colton saw them as coming from all over, but at least in the immediate post-eruptive period a more specific answer is tempting: perhaps they came from the area right around the volcano, which would have been rendered uninhabitable (and certainly unfarmable) by lava flows and massive ash fall.  A relatively recent paper takes a close look at the circumstances of the Sunset Crater eruption and its likely effects on local people, and basically comes to this conclusion.

From a detailed analysis of the details of the eruption, the authors of this paper found that the area of the heaviest ash fall and the largest lava flows was probably densely populated and heavily farmed before the eruption.  They cast some doubt on the tree-ring evidence pointing to an AD 1064 date for the eruption itself, but they argue on other grounds that the eruption likely took place between AD 1050 and 1100 and that it was relatively quick, lasting from a few weeks to a few years at the most.  Because the high-elevation area where the eruption took place gets more precipitation than lower-elevation Wupatki, it would have been the most favorable area for farming at the time, and a large number of homes and farms were likely buried by the lava and ash.  The amounts of ash falling right around the volcano would have been much too thick to serve as a mulch.  The ash itself is sterile, so it could only function effectively as a mulch if plants could reach their roots down through it to the soil underneath.  The few inches of ash cover at Wupatki would have allowed this, but the uplands immediately around the volcano got over a foot of ash, which would have effectively killed any agricultural potential.

Lava at Sunset Crater

Thus, the effects of Sunset Crater on local agriculturalists were two-fold: they were forced to leave a rather large and previously quite productive agricultural area around the volcano, but they were able to go to a previously unproductive area nearby that was made newly fertile by the ash.  Cinder-cone eruptions like the one that created Sunset Crater rarely cause much direct loss of life, and that would have been particularly the case in this context, since the pre-eruption populations lived in dispersed farmsteads and were probably not organized sociopolitically at any level above the household or extended family.  This would have allowed rapid reactions to the eruption, which would primarily have taken the form of migration away from the immediate area.  Since the population was so dispersed, people fleeing the ash-fall zone would likely have had relatives or friends in less affected areas to whom they could go for shelter and assistance in the immediate aftermath of the eruption.  The population movements spurred by the eruption, however, could well have resulted in groups infringing on territory claimed by others and resulting violence and loss of life.  Within this context, the relatively empty Wupatki area may have seemed particularly attractive even before its enhanced potential for farming was discovered.

Another reaction of people in the local area to the eruption, which was documented in an earlier paper by some of the same authors, was the apparent practice of placing corncobs in the path of lava and carrying the resulting “corn rocks,” with visible imprints of the cobs (which were vaporized by the heat) to rather distant settlements.  Given the amount of effort this would have required, it probably had some ritual significance, perhaps to appease the spirits of the volcano or something similar.

Mt. Trumbull from Pipe Spring National Monument

In addition to the Sunset Crater eruption, the authors of this paper also discussed a smaller and less studied eruption that likely took place about the same time at Little Springs, next to Mount Trumbull on the Arizona Strip just north of the Grand Canyon.  Here there was relatively little ash fall, so the loss of productive land and enhanced productivity of other land seen in the Sunset Crater case did not occur.  Instead, the main effect was a lava flow, with the land immediately surrounding it continuing to be largely ash-free and fertile.  The people who had lived and farmed in the immediate area covered by the lava flow would have had to leave, but people clearly continued to live and farm right around the lava, and they also built sites on top of the flow itself.  These sites have few artifacts and likely served defensive purposes, a theory that is supported by the presence of an elaborate system of trails on the lava flow that would have made it an effective refuge in times of war.  The use of defensive refuges or strongholds separate from ordinary living quarters is well-attested in the prehistoric and historic record of the Southwest.  Similar to the corn rocks at Sunset Crater, in this area there were some rocks with potsherds embedded in them, a sign of similar ritual behaviors with respect to the volcano.

These two eruptions and the different reactions to them by local populations show the effects that sudden, catastrophic events can have on human societies.  The eruption of the much larger White River Volcano a bit earlier and its effect on local Athapaskan populations in Alaska and the Yukon is another example.  Unlike many other catastrophes, volcanic eruptions are generally pretty visible in the archaeological record, which makes them a useful source of information on how societies adapt to sudden shocks.
ResearchBlogging.org
ORT, M., ELSON, M., ANDERSON, K., DUFFIELD, W., & SAMPLES, T. (2008). Variable effects of cinder-cone eruptions on prehistoric agrarian human populations in the American southwest Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 176 (3), 363-376 DOI: 10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2008.01.031

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Ledge at Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki is a very dry place even by the standards of the Southwest, with annual precipitation averaging about 8 inches.  Human habitation in such an arid landscape is therefore highly dependent on capturing as much available moisture as possible.  It appears that the prehistoric inhabitants took advantage of the volcanic ash laid down over the area by the eruption of Sunset Crater in AD 1064 for farming purposes since it acted as a mulch, retaining water from the summer rains that would otherwise have evaporated in the heat and strong winds.  For other purposes such as drinking, cooking, and construction, however, water trapped in the soil isn’t very useful, so other sources needed to be found.  As at Chaco Canyon, which is similarly dry, some of this water would have come from a few springs in the area, especially in the dry season, but it would also have been useful to capture as much of the runoff from the summer rains as possible.  Due to the geology of the Wupatki area, this water could only be used for floodwater farming in a very few places, but there were other ways to take advantage of it.

One such way was apparently shown by a discovery made by two National Park Service archaeologists in the 1940s.  While out evaluating sites for stabilization needs, Albert Schroeder and Philip Van Cleave found some potsherds on the ground in sufficient number to make them think that they might be reconstructible into something approaching the original vessel.  They picked up the sherds and dug a bit into the ground beneath them to see if there were any more.  Sure enough, just under the surface of the ground there was a whole ring of sherds in place, indicating the presence of a broken but substantially complete jar that had apparently been deliberately buried.  They excavated it and took some pictures, and Schroeder wrote up a short article on the discovery for American Antiquity which was published in 1944.

Small Site on Ledge, Box Canyon, Wupatki National Monument

The jar was of the ceramic type Moenkopi Corrugated, which Schroeder dates to AD 1075 to 1275.  This is unfortunately a quite wide date range, encompassing almost the entire period of substantial prehistoric occupation of Wupatki, so it is not possible to say at what point during the occupation the jar was buried.  From its position, however, Schroeder was able to determine that it was likely placed to capture runoff from the summer rains.  It was buried in the sand underneath one of the sandstone ledges that are so common at Wupatki, so one possibility is that it was placed to capture runoff from the ledge.  Indeed, it seemed that the part of the ledge above the jar naturally collected runoff from a wide area of the sandstone outcrop.  At the time Schroeder and Van Cleave found the jar, however, the water pouring off the ledge fell somewhat short of where the jar was.  Schroeder suggested that there may have been some erosion in the period between the time the jar was buried and the time it was found, such that at this time of placement the ledge extended further out and the runoff may have poured directly onto the jar.  If this was not the case, however, the jar was probably buried with the sand level with or a bit higher than the rim, so that runoff from the sandy ground around the jar rather than the ledge above would flow into the jar.

Either way, it seemed apparent to Schroeder that the purpose of the jar was likely to collect water, which makes sense in such an arid environment.  He admitted to being somewhat unsure of the details of his proposal, and he did not venture any theories as to what the water would have been used for or why a jar was used in this way to collect it.  Obviously the amount of water in a single jar would not have been much for agricultural purposes, so I suspect the water was used for household use.  To be so used, depending on how close the household in question was (which Schroeder unfortunately did not mention), the jar could either have been dug up after filling or left in place.  In the latter case, the water could have been taken out with a ladle and transferred to a canteen or some other sort of vessel for transportation.

I don’t have any sort of major point to make about this paper, but it’s interesting as an example of the kinds of adaptations people make to harsh environments.  Wupatki would have been a hard place to live in prehistoric times, but people gave it their best shot.
ResearchBlogging.org
Schroeder, A. (1944). A Prehistoric Method of Collecting Water American Antiquity, 9 (3) DOI: 10.2307/275790

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Duck Pots at Chaco Museum

Effigy vessels are very rare in the prehistoric Southwest, and human effigy vessels even more so.  Most known examples, especially in the Anasazi area, are of animals, and by far the most common of these are the so-called “duck pots,” a distinctive type of vessel shape that is often considered to be a representation of a duck or similar bird, although there has been some dispute over whether this is actually a single type of vessel, rather than a number of different types with different functions that happen to look similar, and to what extent the resemblance to a duck is really an inherent characteristic of the type(s).  Certainly some examples do seem to have been molded and/or decorated in a way that makes them clearly resemble ducks, but others do not, and the fact that the shape of the pot generally leaves an opening at the top (the duck’s neck) means that there is rarely a head, making even the most duck-like of these vessels considerably more abstract than is typical of other types of more obvious effigy vessels.   That is, some of these do seem to have been intended to represent ducks, but that does not imply that the others, more abstract in both form and decoration, were also so intended.

Be that as it may, quite a few duck pots were found at Chaco, and under the assumption that they were in fact effigy vessels they make up the majority of known Chacoan effigy vessels.  One noteworthy example, which most definitely does not look like a duck, was described by Marjorie Lambert of the Museum of New Mexico in 1967.  This is an unusually large specimen, almost a foot in length, that was found in “a burned room in a stone masonry site” to the southeast of Chaco, near the line between Sandoval and McKinley Counties.  (The abstract mistakenly identifies this as southwest of Chaco, but from the description in the text it is clearly southeast.)  The exact location of this site and the circumstances of its excavation are left suspiciously vague, presumably because it was excavated illegally.  When Lambert examined it the vessel was in the private collection of William Littrell, the superintendent of the Philmont Scout Ranch in northeastern New Mexico.  It is unclear from Lambert’s article if Littrell excavated the site in question himself, although from the details included it seems likely that he did.

The vessel, while having the general “duck pot” shape, has the remarkable characteristic of two modeled clay arms reaching out from the sides to the hollow tube connecting the top to the rear of the vessel.  This tube is a common feature of duck pots, but the arms are unique.  From their position Lambert interprets the vessel as a representation of a flute player, specifically the alleged “humpbacked flute player” of Hopi tradition known as Kokopelli.  My understanding is that this interpretation of the Hopi traditions in question is now thought to be mistaken, and that while they do include humpbacked divinities and flute players, there is not in fact a single divinity known as “Kokopelli” who is both humpbacked and a flute player.  I haven’t really looked into the details of this issue, but I’ve been meaning to.

In any event, Lambert definitely took the standard approach to the Kokopelli idea and interpreted this vessel accordingly.  She even interpreted it as a representation of Kokopelli lying down, with the curved underside of the vessel standing for his hump, when it seems clear to me that both the position of the vessel and the curved underside were due mostly if not entirely to the fact that this is a duck pot and that is how duck pots are shaped.  It’s certainly possible that the potter intended to exploit those characteristics of the type of pot to represent attributes of the being portrayed, but it’s not at all obvious just from looking at the pot, and I think Lambert’s conclusions here were heavily influenced by her assumptions about Kokopelli.

Despite Lambert’s Kokopelli focus in interpretation, her article contains some interesting information about the vessel.  For one thing, it showed extensive evidence of use, which she interpreted as ceremonial due to the unusual shape.  The actual uses of duck pots are not known, however, and it is possible that this was just a particularly elaborate example of a mundane item.  Another interesting aspect of the decoration, which is mostly Gallup Black-on-white in mineral paint, a common Chacoan style, is the presence of a pair of human figures, one male and one female, on the shoulders of the figure.  Since painted human figures, like effigy forms, are rare in Anasazi ceramics, this pair makes this vessel even more interesting.

Unfortunately, given the lack of precise geographic or chronological provenience information, not much more can be said about this fascinating vessel.  From the decoration it is clearly Chacoan and probably dates to the eleventh or twelfth century, and from the general geographical information it may have come from one of the late or even post-Chacoan sites on Chacra Mesa to the southeast of the canyon.  This area was sparsely populated during the height of the Chacoan era, so while it is possible that this vessel came from one of the few known sites from that period (perhaps associated with a road between Pueblo Pintado and Guadalupe?), it is more likely that it came from a slightly later time.  Beyond that, however, it is difficult to interpret.
ResearchBlogging.org
Lambert, M. (1967). A Kokopelli Effigy Pitcher from Northwestern New Mexico American Antiquity, 32 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2694672

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Macaw Feathers and Copper Bell on Display at Chaco Visitor Center Museum

Given the rarity of human effigy vessels in the ancient Southwest, it seems clear that understanding them requires looking elsewhere.  Specifically, it requires looking south, to Mesoamerica, where effigy vessels were quite common starting from an early date.  Since most evidence of Mesoamerican influence in the Southwest seems to point to West Mexico as the proximate source, and since that is an area particularly known for human effigy vessels in particular, a look at the current state of knowledge on the archaeology of West Mexico seems advisable to try to understand the Chaco effigy vessels and many other aspects of the Chaco system.

A recent review article by Christopher Beekman provides a good start.  He points out that understanding of many aspects of West Mexican prehistory has advanced considerably recently with more controlled excavations and radiocarbon dates, which are finally beginning to establish a firm framework within which to interpret earlier evidence.  This is particularly important since until recently much of what was known about West Mexico came from artifacts in private collections, virtually all of them looted and without firm provience information.  Beekman also points out that “West Mexico” is a very large and poorly defined area, and he divides it into four subareas with quite different cultural histories: the coastal plain, the western and eastern volcanic highlands (the distinction between the two is cultural rather than physical but quite important, with the dividing line roughly along the border between Jalisco and Michoacán), and the Sierra Madre Occidental.  Another area that Beekman includes in West Mexico, although it is rather far east and I don’t think everyone else includes it, is the Bajío of southern Guanajuato and Querétaro, which patterns with the eastern highlands culturally.  Beekman’s own research is mostly on the highlands of Jalisco, so he devotes more attention to the western highlands than to some other subareas, especially the coast.

West Mexico is particularly well known for the human effigy vessels, also sometimes rather confusingly called “figurines,” associated with the shaft tombs present especially in the western highlands but also in some parts of the coastal plain.  Since most of the known effigy vessels have been looted from shaft tombs, neither the vessels nor the tombs are very useful for understanding the chronology or context of these very impressive artifacts.  Recent controlled excavations, however, have shown that the shaft tombs date to a relatively short period of time in the Late Formative and Early Classic periods, roughly 300 BC to AD 600, and that they are contemporaneous with a distinctive tradition of surface ceremonial architecture focused on circular pyramids with surrounding structures.  This was previously thought to postdate the shaft tombs, but newer evidence shows that the two phenomena were part of the same cultural tradition, which peaked quite early and was followed by many changes during the Epiclassic period.

The relevance of this for the Chaco effigy vessels is that the best-known West Mexican examples are earlier by a thousand years or so, and are thus not likely to be very useful in understanding the Chaco ones.  This is not too surprising since, while there is clearly a general resemblance between the two types, there are a lot of differences in the details, and there is no particular type of shaft-tomb vessel that clearly looks like a model for the Chaco ones.

The most important period in West Mexico for understanding Chaco is, of course, the period that was contemporary with it, which is the Early Postclassic (ca. AD 800 to 1200).  The changes during the Epiclassic had led to a substantial reorganization of the political structure of the region, and by the Postclassic many interior areas had been largely abandoned.  At the same time, populations on the coast grew dramatically and a new set of cultural phenomena known as the Aztatlán complex arose in a series of towns, mostly on rivers a bit upstream from the coast.  These towns were united by a common ceramic tradition, and they seem to have been intensely involved in agriculture, craft production, and especially trade.  It appears that trade with the Southwest, in particular, became dominated by these coastal towns at this time, after having long been conducted mainly along the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Occidental.  This would certainly explain the distinctively West Mexican qualities of Mesoamerican influence at Chaco, and it helps to pinpoint where to look for sources for that influence.  Beekman doesn’t mention effigy vessels in talking about Aztatlán, but whether they were present at these sites and what they looked like if they were are things that I’ll be looking into.  Unfortunately, the way he defines the region geographically for this review also excludes probably the most important Aztatlán site for Southwestern purposes: Guasave, in far northern Sinaloa, the northernmost of the Aztatlán sites and thus the closest to the Southwest.  Interestingly, he mentions claims that some of these towns grew cacao along with some other specialty crops, although he doesn’t assess the plausibility of cacao specifically.  These towns, like many other parts of West Mexico at this time, also practiced copper smelting, which had been introduced from South America around AD 650.  The Aztatlán sites appear to have had some links to interior sites, especially those remaining in the highlands, but contacts with areas further east seem to have been weak, especially compared to some sites further south on the coast in Colima, which show much more evidence of connections to central Mexican sites such as Tula.

There’s plenty more in the review, of course, but those are the parts that seem most relevant to Chaco.  Understanding the background and connections of the Chaco effigy vessels in particular looks to be quite a challenge, but I’ll see what I can do.
ResearchBlogging.org
Beekman, C. (2009). Recent Research in Western Mexican Archaeology Journal of Archaeological Research, 18 (1), 41-109 DOI: 10.1007/s10814-009-9034-x

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Room 38, Pueblo Bonito

One noteworthy thing about George Pepper’s interpretations of the effigy vessels found at Pueblo Bonito is his attempt to link them to specific Hopi kachinas.  He does find a general similarity in facial and body decoration between one of the partial vessels, found in Room 38, and one kachina and notes at the end of his article that this type of iconographic analysis could be useful in tracing clan migrations and connections between ancient and modern Pueblo peoples.  I think he’s righter about that last part than most archaeologists these days are prepared to accept, but that he’s probably wrong about the kachina identification.

The main reason is just that the timing is wrong.  Pepper had no way of knowing this, of course, since there were no absolute dating techniques available to archaeologists in his day and even relative dating was in its infancy.  More recent study, however, has shown pretty conclusively that the kachina cult arose somewhere in the southern Southwest in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, which is to say, over a hundred years after the decline of Chaco as a regional center and possibly after the total abandonment of the San Juan Basin.  Indeed, there is essentially no evidence of kachina ceremonialism at Chaco or anywhere else in the northern Southwest during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which is most likely when the effigy vessels found at Pueblo Bonito were made.  Some have argued that the roots of the kachina cult lie in the Mimbres region of southwestern New Mexico during this period, based largely on some alleged similarities between imagery on the famous Mimbres pottery and later kachina imagery, but there’s basically no evidence for a strong connection between Chaco and the Mimbres region either, so even if some early aspects of the cult were developing there at the time, which I doubt, it’s unlikely that they would have had much impact on Chaco.

Now, it’s important to note one major exception to these generalizations about what archaeologists believe about the kachina cult and the lack of a relationship between Chaco and the Mimbres: Steve Lekson, who has argued that the Mimbres area was incorporated into the Chaco system and that early forms of kachina ceremonialism were part of the distinctive Chacoan religious system.  I think Lekson has a lot of interesting ideas, but that he’s just dead wrong about this one.  I haven’t read any of the recent books that contain more developed versions of his theories, so my understanding of them is based on an article he wrote in 1995 with Catherine Cameron, but my understanding is that most of them major features of the argument there have survived into later versions.

Aligned Vents, Pueblo Bonito

What Lekson and Cameron basically argue is that the Chaco system extended over a much larger area than most theories posit, that it included the Mimbres area, and that kachina ceremonialism, which began to develop among the Mimbres to deal with the stresses of aggregation (which began much earlier there than elsewhere in the Southwest) was adopted at Chaco, but apparently not in other parts of the northern Southwest.  Then, when things began to change in the twelfth century, people began to move into the previously non-residential Chacoan great houses and turn them into residential Pueblos, which required the development of new social integrative systems to deal with the stresses of aggregation.  Among these was the kachina cult, which was adopted in the southern part of the old Chaco system, which continued to be occupied, but not further north in the Mesa Verde area, which was subsequently abandoned.  They’re playing a bit fast and loose with the chronology here (typical for Lekson), but the basic idea seems to be that “protokachina” ceremonialism arrived at Chaco in the twelfth century, as people were aggregating into the great houses, but for some reason didn’t continue north, possibly because of the increasing isolation of the Mesa Verde area from the rest of the Southwest.

There are some interesting insights here, including the connection between early aggregation in the Mimbres area and a possible Mimbres origin for the kachina cult, which had not occurred to me before.  The general thrust of the message, too, is pretty compelling to me, namely that Chaco didn’t really “collapse” in a catastrophic way but rather declined in importance within a regional context containing much continuity.  There are also a lot of holes, however.  To take one obvious example, if protokachina ceremonialism, with its community-integrating functions, was adopted at Chaco as people began to aggregate into the great houses, why was Chaco also abandoned at the end of the thirteenth century along with Mesa Verde?  Indeed, they suggest at one point that more “traditional” Chacoan religion may have dominated at Aztec and made that area too inflexible to handle increasing aggregation, resulting in abandonment along with Mesa Verde, but don’t explain why this wouldn’t have also been the case at Chaco itself.  (I think Lekson has modified his view of the relationship between Chaco and Aztec somewhat since this article, so it may not be totally fair to criticize it too strongly here.)

Cameron and Lekson don’t mention the effigy vessels in this article, but they are obviously relevant to an argument for an early arrival of the kachina cult or something like it during late Chacoan times, and Lekson may well discuss them in his subsequent books.  In any case, he would presumably be receptive to Pepper’s argument that at least one of them represents a known kachina, since it would bolster his own very thin case for kachina imagery at Chaco (based mostly on the presence of macaws).  Still, though, I don’t find Pepper’s argument very convincing.  One interesting thing about the kachina cult, however, which may have been important in its success, is that it’s a very flexible system that can easily incorporate other religious traditions.  New kachinas can easily be added to the system, and there is plenty of evidence of this having happened in recent times as new kachinas were introduced from one Pueblo to another.  It’s possible, then, that whatever deities were represented by the Chaco effigy vessels (if indeed they did represent deities) were later incorporated into the kachina cult when it arrived, complete with their characteristic dress and decoration.  It’s also possible that some of the same Mesoamerican influences that later resulted in the development of the kachina cult had earlier reached Chaco in a different form and resulted in the effigy vessels.  I think it’s more likely, however, that whatever was going on at Chaco was totally different from the later kachina cult and the resemblances Pepper noted were just coincidental.
ResearchBlogging.org
Lekson, S., & Cameron, C. (1995). The abandonment of Chaco Canyon, the Mesa Verde migrations, and the reorganization of the Pueblo world Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 14, 184-202 DOI: 10.1006/jaar.1995.1010

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Effigy Vessels and Figurines at Chaco Museum

Okay, I said I would say more about George Pepper’s description of the effigy vessels from Chaco, so here goes.  One interesting thing that he notes is that these are the northernmost examples of human effigy vessels found in the Southwest.  I believe this is still the case over a hundred years later; in general, effigy vessels are very rare among the Anasazi, and human effigy vessels are vanishingly rare.  It’s important to distinguish here between effigy vessels, which is to say pots in the form of humans or animals, and figurines, a very different type of artifact.  At least in the Southwest, figurines are generally small and they portray humans or animals in a somewhat abstracted manner.  They are usually made of clay, but often unfired, and they generally bear little resemblance to “ordinary” pottery.  The Fremont culture in Utah and environs is particularly known for its elaborate anthropomorphic figurines which often resemble rock art figures, but the figurine tradition is very widespread throughout the Southwest, and is known in Mesoamerica as well.  The functions of figurines are very poorly understood, but it seems pretty clear that they had quite different functions from standard pottery regardless of its form.

Effigy vessels such as the ones at Chaco, however, were made the same way regular pots were, were always fired, and generally differ from other pots only in form.  They are much more common in the southern Southwest than in the north, although they are not very common anywhere in the Southwest compared to West Mexico, the core area for human effigy vessels in particular, where they were very widespread and had a wide range of local variants.  Unfortunately, very little specific provenience information on West Mexican effigy vessels is available, although there are many in museum collections, because almost all of the known examples were looted.   From the few known examples from controlled excavations, however, it seems that they were often used as burial goods.  In West Mexico there are both solid and hollow types of effigy vessels; I believe all the Southwestern examples are hollow.  The terms “figurine” and “effigy vessel” seem to sometimes be used interchangeably in Mesoamerican archaeology, which makes understanding the exact nature of the artifacts a bit challenging at times.  The effigy vessel tradition does seem to have been present in at least some other parts of Mesoamerica, such as Central Mexico and the northeast, but in general the center of it seems to have been along the west coast.  This makes the appearance of similar vessels in the Southwest unsurprising, given that West Mexico is the part of Mesoamerica generally thought to have had the closest ties to the Southwest.

The main part of the Southwest known for human effigy vessels is the Casas Grandes region in northwestern Chihuahua and the surrounding area.  The Casas Grandes culture, centered on the great center at Paquimé, flourished from about AD 1200 to AD 1450, and it is noteworthy for its very obvious Mesoamerican traits, including ballcourts and macaws in addition to the effigy vessels.  The cultural background for Casas Grandes has been disputed.  Charles Di Peso, who excavated about half of Paquimé for the Amerind Foundation, thought it was a Mesoamerican outpost founded by pochteca traders to acquire turquoise and other Southwestern trade goods for the Mesoamerican market.  He also interpreted the chronology of the site differently from more recent researchers, and thought that it was at least partially contemporary with Chaco and the Classic Mimbres and a possible source of the Mesoamerican influences found in those areas.  The fact that it actually postdates those cultural florescences has led some others more recently to argue that Casas Grandes is more of an effect of them than a cause, and Stephen Lekson has argued that it was actually the third great center founded by the people who had earlier built Chaco and Aztec.  Few others have followed Lekson’s lead on that, and the main dispute today seems to be whether Casas Grandes was a totally indigenous development or tied to the disruptions of the 1100s elsewhere in the Southwest.

Among the most prominent scholars working on Casas Grandes today are the husband and wife team of Todd and Christine VanPool at the University of Missouri.  His specialty is stone tools, while hers is ceramics, and they have done some interesting work on trying to reconstruct the social structure of the society based on these remains.  Christine VanPool published an interesting article in 2003 on shamanism at Casas Grandes in which she argued from the way male figures are presented in effigy vessels and painted on other pots that the leadership at Paquimé was likely led by shaman-priests who derived their political and economic power from their ability to interact with the supernatural world.  Some of the male effigy vessels are shown smoking, which VanPool argues is a sign of the use of tobacco to induce a trance state (apparently tobacco can cause a hallucinatory and even a catatonic state if used in sufficiently massive amounts) in which the shaman would travel to the other world and interact with various deities there.  Both VanPools published a later article on gender imagery as seen in the effigy vessels, which tend to have highly exaggerated primary and secondary sexual characteristics.  They argue that the images associated with gender imply a “complementary” gender structure in the society, in which men and women have different roles that interact to support the society as a whole.  Both articles lend support to the idea of a more  Mesoamerican than Southwestern social structure at Paquimé, with a highly hierarchical society led by male shaman-priests and a set of complementary gender roles supporting that hierarchy.  This is in contrast to the (allegedly) more egalitarian Pueblo societies, where rituals were conducted by corporate groups and gender roles were often organized in parallel hierarchies involving less interaction between male and female domains.

This is all very interesting, and it at least implies that something similar could have been going on at Chaco, but there’s not much more that can be said than that in terms of the implications of this research for other areas.  One reason the VanPools can come to such strong conclusions about gender roles and other aspects of Casas Grandes society from the effigy vessels is that there are so many of them.  Their second article lists 50 male and 40 female vessels.  At Chaco, however, the two or three vessels described by Pepper are pretty much the whole corpus that is complete enough to draw any conclusions about, and that just isn’t enough data for any major conclusions at all.  One thing that is noteworthy, however, is that while there are some obvious similarities in form between the Casas Grandes and Chaco vessels, there are also some noteworthy differences.  For one thing, none of the Chaco vessels are smoking.  This could just be due to sampling issues, but the absence of this important shamanic characteristic (in the VanPool interpretation, at least) does undermine any argument that leadership at Chaco may have been based on shamanic power, at least in the absence of other evidence.  Also, the female vessel with the lovingly sculpted genitals, although incomplete, seems to be sitting with legs raised, like the complete male vessel, which at Casas Grandes is a very strongly male-identified posture.  Females there almost all have their legs stretched out in front of them.  The decorations on the Chaco vessels are also pretty different from the Casas Grandes ones, although this is probably just a reflection of the rather different decorative traditions for pottery from both places in general.

Overall, then, I think the VanPools’ research on Casas Grandes effigy vessels is of limited utility in understanding the Chaco ones.  If, as Lekson thinks, Casas Grandes is the ultimate heir to the Chaco tradition, it seems there had been quite a bit of change in the intervening period.  On the other hand, and perhaps more likely, it may be that both Chaco and Casas Grandes were influenced separately by the cultures of West Mexico, where the wide variety of effigy vessels used in different local areas may have resulted in somewhat different types being adopted in the two parts of the Southwest.  It would be good to be able to look at all the different types of West Mexican human effigy vessels to see which ones correspond most closely to both the Chaco and Casas Grandes examples, but the literature on the vessels seems to be rather scattered, and the lack of provenience information for so many, combined with the somewhat insecure dating of the archaeological sequences in many parts of the region, makes this a difficult task.  I’ll continue to wade through the literature I can find, however, and see if I can come up with anything more specific to say.

The general lack of Anasazi examples of vessels like these outside of Chaco is another line of evidence pointing toward a greater level of Mesoamerican influence at Chaco, also seen in the presence of macaws, copper bells, and chocolate, and the association of effigy vessels with West Mexico specifically is another sign that that is the place to look.  The same applies almost verbatim to Casas Grandes with the exception of the chocolate, which has not been found there (yet?).  The Casas Grandes effigy vessels have gotten a lot of attention, however, while the Chaco ones have mostly languished in obscurity, used mainly as illustrations in general-interest books and the like.  They definitely deserve more attention, however, since despite (or because of) their rarity they are enormously important in understanding the nature and context of the Chaco system.
ResearchBlogging.org
VanPool, C. (2003). The Shaman-Priests of the Casas Grandes Region, Chihuahua, Mexico American Antiquity, 68 (4), 696-717 DOI: 10.2307/3557068

VanPool, C., & VanPool, T. (2006). Gender in Middle Range Societies: A Case Study in Casas Grandes Iconography American Antiquity, 71 (1), 53-75 DOI: 10.2307/40035321

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Room 48, Pueblo Bonito

George Pepper’s article on the excavation of Room 33 at Pueblo Bonito is fairly well-known and frequently cited, but he also published a few other articles on specific finds by the Hyde Exploring Expedition that have remained more obscure.  Among these is a chapter in a Festschrift for Franz Boas, similar to the Festschrift for Frederick Ward Putnam in which the Room 33 article appeared, describing the pottery vessels in human form found by the expedition.  These effigy vessels often get mentioned in discussions of Chaco, but are rarely given much close attention these days.  Pepper’s description of them, which I have transcribed and posted below, is fascinating for a number of reasons.  In the text Pepper notes that the vessels are very anatomically correct, which is quite clear from the photographs included with the article, so some discretion about where and when to read this post may be in order.  I may discuss these vessels further some other time, but for now I just want to make Pepper’s description available.

Human Effigy Vases from Chaco Cañon, New Mexico.

By George H. Pepper

The distribution of human effigy vases in the southwestern part of the United States presents an interesting problem. The Pueblo country has furnished but few such objects for comparison; and any new locality in which they are found, especially when situated in the northern boundaries of the culture area, is worthy of consideration.

In the explorations carried on by the Hyde Expedition in the ruined Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Cañon, New Mexico, several portions of human effigy vases were found, and the head of a large effigy vase was taken from a room that contained ceremonial material. This deposit was described in the “American Anthropologist” as Room 38, and by this name it will be known whenever it is mentioned in this article.

The human figure from Room 38 furnished an object worthy of a detailed report, but the finding of a complete figure from the Chaco Cañon strengthened conclusions already formed concerning the specialized form from this restricted area.

The perfect figure is the property of Professor and Mrs. F. W. Putnam. It was in the possession of a trader at Putnam, Chaco Cañon, and was bought by J. W. Hastings, a Harvard student, who gave it to the present owners. The specimen was found in a grave in the Chaco Cañon, but the exact location of the burial is not known.

The jars in question were considered from the standpoint of decoration in an endavor to identify them by means of modern katcinas, or impersonators of gods. According to the evidence that has been gathered among the Zuñi and Hopi, it would seem that clans from the region of the Chaco had migrated to both of these modern towns.

After studying the katcina masks figured by Dr. Fewkes in his work on the katcinas of the modern Hopi, it was found that the face of the He’heā mana was in many respects an exact counterpart of that of the fragment of the effigy vase from Room 38, Bonito.

Mrs. Stevenson’s book on the Zuñi gives a large series of masks and figures, but none of them present markings or physical characteristics in keeping with the figures under consideration, nor any that might have been the prototypes of the effigy-vase faces. Owing to the zigzag markings on the face of the masks, the He’heā Kĭa’nilona and the Hémishikwe goddess were noted for special study, but no particular attention was given to the He’heā until mention of this mask was found in Dr. Fewkes’s monograph on the effigy vase from Arizona. The coincidence was striking, and particularly so in view of the fact that the Hopi mana of this form of katcina had been identified as being the one nearest related to the figure from Pueblo Bonito, before mention of the resemblance of the one found by Dr. Fewkes to the Zuñi form had been noted.

Before entering upon a description of the Chaco Cañon forms, a brief résumé of the monograph by Dr. Fewkes, showing the type of figure found by him and the distribution of such figures, will serve as a guide in making comparisons, and will be conducive to a better understanding of the question in general.

The vase from Arizona was found in a cave in the upper part of the Gila Valley, in a section known as Pueblo Viejo. This valley is in Graham County, between Mount Graham and the Bonita Mountains. The vessell is of red clay, made in the form of a seated figure. It is rough on the exterior, and undecorated save for a few lines under the eyes. It is a female figure, with the arms and face modelled in relief. The body is of a globular form, and there is no suggestion of legs. The eyes and mnose are large and well defined; but the mouth is small, and rectangular in form. Flat, half-circular pieces form the ears, and both are drilled for the suspension of an ornament. The rim of the opening, which is the full diameter of the head, begins at a point half an inch above the eyes. The arms are flattened against the sides of the body, the fore-arm bending forward, and the closed hands resting upon the abdomen. The type is not unique from the Gila-Salado watershed. Dr. Fewkes considers that the origin of this form is traceable to direct Mexican influence, and that the type extended to the head waters of the Gila. At the time that this specimen was described, none had been found north of the White Mountains in Arizona, according to the writer’s knowledge.

The Pueblo Bonito Type.The head of an effigy vase from Room 38, Pueblo Bonito, has a face that is flat and circular (Plate XXVIII, Fig. 2). The facial plane, as viewed in profile, presents a slightly rounded appearance, but there has been no endeavor to conform to the natural configuration of the sides of the head. The eyes, nose, and mouth are modelled, and there is a slight upward tilt at the lower part of the face, which forms a chin. The nose expands slightly at the base, and nostrils have been formed by holes punched with some pointed implement. The nostril-openings are outlined with black circles. The mouth and eye openings average nearly one centimetre in depth. They are of an ovoid form, and the left eye retains a well-modelled eyeball. This is a separate piece of clay, which extends from the surface at the back of the eye-opening to the level of the eyelids. The diameter is uniform throughout its length, and the end which forms the pupil is painted black. The tongue is of the same character, and its end is painted with the same color. The eyelids and the lips are in slight relief, and are outlined with a narrow line of black. The eyebrows are formed by ridges which merge into the base of the nose; they are accentuated by broad lines of black paint. The ears are well formed and carefully placed. Viewed from the front, they are partly concealed by the projecting edge of the face.

The facial decorations, which are suggestive of tattooing, are composed of bands formed by dotted lines beneath the eyes, and a scroll on the chin. Under the rigth eye the design is formed by means of five lines, four of which have six dots, and one five. The space occupied is about equi-distant from the eye-opening and the upper part of the scroll on the chin. The corresponding series under the left eye has the same number of lines; but, owing to the fact that they have been placed closer together, the band is narrower, and four of the five lines have eight dots and one seven. The scroll forming the chin decoration is composed of the same-sized dots as in the other designs. It is a continuous line, forming a triple combination, the central double scroll directly under the mouth joining single scrolls of similar form on either side. The design in its entirety occupies the whole lower portion of the face.

Plate XXVIII, Figure 1

The neck of the jar is ovoid in shape, and has a line of black paint on its edge. This line is open on the posterior edge, which brings up the question of the open and closed “life-lines,” as seen in pottery from the Southwest. About three centimetres below the rim, straight lines, representing the hair, begin. They continue over the founded surface of the occiput. Behind, and at a level with the lower lobes of the ears, coils of hair are represented (Plate XXVIII, Fig. 1). They are not of the circular form now worn by the marriageable girls of the Hopi, but are elongate in form. They are 3.5 cm. long, and over the central portion of each are two strands of clay made to represent cords. These cords are carried from the base-lines across the back of the head. They are raised four millimetres above the surface. The ends of the coils, and the face of the cord projection, are painted black. The lines that form the back hair end at the cross-band. The office of such a band is the retention of the back hair, and in a realistic portrayal the hair-lines should pass under it.

Plate XXVIII, Figure 2

At the base of the neck, which is massive, are the remains of a decoration in the form of interlined triangles similar to those on the torso of the figure from Room 46, Bonito, which is herein described. Similar decorations may be noted on the upper part of the breast, as shown in the illustration in Plate XXVIII, Fig. 2. The height of this effigy head is 13.4 cm. The face is 9.9 cm. wide, and 9.1 cm. high. The nose projects 1.6 cm. above the face-plain; and the neck is almost circular, there being a difference of but one millimetre between the width and the thickness, the latter measurement being 7.4 cm.

Among the modern Hopi katcinas, the He’heā mana has the hair-whorl of the maidens. In comparing the head from Room 38 with the mask of this mana as figured by a Hopi artist, a very strong resemblance may be noticed. The face of the mana is caused to appear circular in form by the arrangement of the hair, which extends to a point near to, or perhaps actually covering, the upper part of the ears.

In the Bonito figure the hair is represented by a series of short lines, which form a dark band on the upper rim of the face, extending a little below the upper lobes of the ears. The eyes of the figures are similar in shape, as is also the mouth. The eyeball of the Bonito figure is represented by a painted ball in the mana, and its tongue is painted in such a way as to reproduce the form of the other most perfectly. Continuing with the analogy, we find that the mana has well-defined eyebrows; these physical characteristics, in as pronounced a state and of the same form, are found on the face of the effigy-vase head. The nose is of an elongated form in both figures.

The He’heā mana has zigzag lines forming decorations on the cheeks, and ear-rings of turquoise pendant from the ears. These embellishments and decorations change the appearance of the face of the mana. In the effigy figure there are no perforations in the ear-lobes from which an ear-ring might be suspended; and the facial decoration is in the form of parallel dotted lines on either cheek, and a peculiar scroll, formed also of dots, on the chin. The mana has decorations similar to those of her brother, and is no doubt associated in some way with the grinding of the corn in special ceremonies. From the arrangement of the dotted lines on the cheeks of the effigy, it would seem that they were intended to represent a corn symbol. There are such conclusive evidences in Pueblo Bonito that this form of decoration was intended to convey the idea of the ear of corn with the individual kernels, that the interpretation of this particular design as one typifying the corn would be but a natural conclusion.

Regarding the scroll on the chin, nothing can be said. Certain ideas are suggested by its form, but none of them are supported by evidence weighty enough to warrant serious consideration.

Torso from Bonito.The torso of a human figure was found in Room 48 of Pueblo Bonito, and is suggestive of the phallic designs which appear upon the He’heā and He’heā mana. It represents a portion of a seated figure; and from the angle of the remaining portion of the leg, it would seem that the legs were drawn up against the body, the feet no doubt resting flat upon the ground, with the knees outward. The texture of the clay, the differentiation in color due to the firing, and the general technique of the work, would seem to place it as the lower part of the torso of the effigy vase found in Room 38, or of a figure similar in size and form. The fact that the pieces were found in different rooms would have no special bearing on the question, as fragments of other vessels and implements have been encountered in widely separated rooms in this pueblo. In studying the torso in detail, we find that the lower part of the abdomen, a portion of the left leg, and the major part of the hips, are the only parts represented in the fragment. As shown in the accompanying illustration (Plate XXVIII, Fig. 3), the figure measures 12.8 cm. in height, and 14 cm. in width. The cross-section of the leg shows a thickness of 3 cm. This leg is solid, as is the case with the fragments of arms that were found with it. There are evidences that human figures were made to quite an extent in the Chaco Cañon region, and from the fragments of legs and arms we know that in Pueblo Bonito they were made both in the hollow form and of solid construction.

Plate XXVIII, Figure 3

In modelling this figure, the anatomy received serious attention, the genital organs being represented faithfully and in their proper relations. The vulva is very pronounced. The mons veneris rises over a centimetre above the abdominal plane, and the labia majora slope from this point to the vaginal orifice. The labia majora are parted, and from the upper section there protrudes a ball of clay, which was evidenctly made to represent the clitoris. It was adjusted in the same manner as was the eyeball in the figure from Room 38. It is 6 mm. in length. The vaginal opening and the anus are represented by openings that were made with some blunt implement while the clay was in a plastic state. The labia majora have been outlined with a broad black line, and the end of the clitoris is painted with the same color. The abdomen is decorated with a double series of triangles, which are filled with lines, forming a hachure effect. Between these are two broad bands which are divided into three parts at their lower ends. Owing to the fact that the upper part of the body is missing, it is impossible to tell what these bands were meant to represent; but from their form it seems quite possible that they were the ends of a scarf of some kind, that hung from the shoulders, or at least from the upper part of the decorated area, the general decorations possibly showing the paintings of a mana, and the scarf a portion of her dress.

The decorative element shown on this specimen is similar to that which has been preserved on the neck part of the figure from Room 38. The decoration, the outlining of the vulva in the same manner as are the eyes and mouth in the other specimen, and the finding with the torso of an arm which has the same scroll ornamentation as that shown on the chin of the other figure from Bonito, present similarities that are self-apparent. The section of the upper arm is shown in Fig. 13, d. This fragment is of solid pottery, 10.7 cm. long, and 2 cm. in diameter on the wider axis. It is somewhat flattened, as is also the companion-piece found in the same room. The second arm-fragment is heavier, and the diameter is greater. Both specimens have a rosette on the shoulder, with a black mark in the centre.

The scroll on the first-mentioned arm is not the same in form, nor is the arrangement of the dots the same, as that on the chin; but in both cases a continuous line is maintained,on the chin with a single line of dots, on the arm with a double line.

Human Effigy Jar from Chaco Cañon.―The effigy jar mentioned as having been found in the Chaco Cañon and now in the possession of Professor Putnam is unusual, in view of its perfect condition as well as from the standpoint of workmanship. It is made of the usual light-colored clay, with a white slip over the entire outer surface. Over this, designs in black have been painted. The figure is that of a seated man. The legs are flexed, and the feet rest flatly upon the ground. From the position of the fragment of the leg in the torso of the figure from Room 38, Bonito, it would seem that the legs of that body had been in the same position as in this figure. The arms of the perfect figure are crossed on the breast, and the elbows rest upon the knees. The neck is slightly ovoid in form; the nose is modelled in relief, is narrow at the top, and broadens considerably at the end; the nostrils are represented by depressions. The eyes and mouth are narrow incisions. One peculiarity presented by these organs is the painting of the inner edges of the depressions with black. This is quite noticeable, compared with the outlining of the eyes and mouth as shown in the other figures. There is but one ear, the other having been broken off: it is a half-circular projection of clay, flat, and with no attempt at modelling. A hole was forced through the central portion, probably for the suspension of an ear-ring, or perhaps a feather. A side view of the figure, as seen in Plate XXIX, Fig. 1, shows the body to be that of a humpback. Deformed figures of this kind are represented in the Hopi katcinas of the present day. Dr. Fewkes, in his description of katcinas, says, in speaking of one of them, “A hump is always found on the back in pictures or dolls of Kokopelli.” The representation of deformed human beings of this nature in pottery and stone is quite widespread. They are not uncommon in Mexico, being found especially in the Huaxteca and Totonac regions of Vera Cruz and in the Valley of Mexico. Pottery figures with this deformity are also known from the Mississippi Valley and from some of the Southern States. The profile which this picture presents enables us to study the facial characteristics to better advantage than the full-face reproduction. The face is shown to be dish-shaped, the forehead low, the cheeks depressed, the nose and lips sharply defined, and the chin pointed, with an upward tilt. In Plate XXIX, Fig. 2, the formation of the chin may be noted; the pointing has caused a seeming elongation of the cheeks, so that they seem to hang on either side of the chin. The head in its entirety shows careful work in the modelling, the occiput being strongly defined and the contour of the cranium well balanced. The profile view shows the thickness of the projection which forms the ear, also the depression that was made in the cheek in punching the hole through it. Considerable care and attention have been given to the modelling of the hip, and even the calf of the leg is accentuated. The backward tilt of the head overcomes what would otherwise be a somewhat overbalanced figure, and from the angle of the neck it seems quite certain that this was intentional.

Plate XXIX, Figure 1

The top of the head, showing the neck of the vessel and the formation of the arms, is best seen in Fig. 3 of this plate. Here the vessel has been tilted forward, in order that the designs on the shoulders might be seen. The neck is similar in shape to that of the head from Room 38, Bonito. The perfect one is round, slightly incurved at its base, and rests on the top of the head; whereas the other is more oval, and the back part slopes gently to the back of the head, there being no perceptible difference in the lines of the two parts. The arms themselves have been carefully worked, and are in keeping with the general high class of technique shown in other parts of the figure; but the hand that rests on the breast is quite crude, and the absence of the hand on the right wrist is surely intentional. Careful examination of the plate will show that the stump of the arm has been rounded and smoothed, and that the end has been painted.

The decorations of this jar, the facial paintings, and the figures on the body, are unusual. The hair is represented by a broad black band above the eyes. In Fig. 1, the continuation of this hair area may be followed. It covers the back part of the head, passing over the temples and behind the ears. It is then contracted to a broad band which passes over the neck, thence down the back, covering the point of the hump, and ends just below it, the end and sides forming right angles. Whether the band in its entirety was intended to show a particular form of hair-dressing, or whether the band from the neck downward was made to represent some ceremonial paraphernalia that was attached to the hair, cannot be determined, as the band shows no break or differentiation in form where it would join the hair at the base of the head. On the right cheek there are six straight lines, extending from a point on a level, and connected with the outer corner of the eye, to the lower point of the cheek-line. These decorations are connected at the top by means of a curved line. On the left cheek there is a similar series of lines. There are seven in this group, and they are connected at the top with a straight line. They pass over a protuberance on the left cheek, its appearance indicating that it was intentional, and it may have been made to represent some deformity. It is 5 mm. high and 1 cm. in diameter. There are no cracks on the surface, and it is too large and regular in form to have been the result of a blister in the clay as the result of firing. Between the nose and the mouth are two zigzag lines resting on a straight line which follows the upper part of the mouth. Two wavy lines depend from either corner of the mouth, and there are four lines of a similar form on either side of the neck.

Plate XXIX, Figure 2

It has been impossible to associate this figure with any of the modern katcinas. There are several that have the zigzag markings on the face, and some have one or two lines on the cheeks, but none have been found that approximated the decoration shown in this effigy vase. The decoration on the arms consists of bands composed of three and four lines, which span the outer half of the arm circumference. There are five of these bands on the right arm, and three on the left. The right leg has a series of three broad bands extending from a point just below the knee to the feet,one in front, and one on either side. The left leg has four bands of similar form. In both cases they are connected by a line just below the knee. A broad belt with breech-cloth appendage is shown in the two front views on Plate XXIX (Figs. 2, 3). It broadens on the back of the figure, and completely encircles it. In Fig. 1 the continuation of the belt-like band is seen. The idea of the artist was no doubt a faithful portrayal of the figure as it would appear in life. If so, realism was not attained in the painting of the band where it passes from the side to the front of the figure. Here the band is carried over the leg, instead of ending at the point where the leg joins the body. If, on the other hand, the painting as shown was intentional, it would show that the legs of the figure had been bound against the body with this band, and, instead of being a belt, it would be a binding cord. The latter supposition is hardly tenable, in view of the fact that the breech-cloth form is represented as being a part of the band. On the sides of the jar the band has a series of pointed figures. These are attached to the upper edge. Just back of them, and in the spaces between the shoulders and the hair-band, there are zigzag designs composed of four lines. They start from the belt-line, and extend upward over the shoulders, ending on either side of the neck.

Plate XXIX, Figure 3

On the right breast there is the figure of a bird. The body is an irregular square, which is filled with dots representing feathers. The head, tail, and one foot are also shown. On the left shoulder there is a diamond-shaped figure, with one end flattened. The space within the lines is filled with dots. It was no doubt meant to represent a butterfly. On the right shoulder is a circular figure which encloses a second circle and a dot. On the chest are four heavy zigzag lines, which start from the breech-cloth band, and end just below the crossed arms. All of these designs are in black. Certain physical features worthy of mention are the crudely modelled feet and hand, the existence of a raised section on the left side, forming a breast, and the genital organs. The penis is in relief, and the scrotum has been painted black. The figure is 19 cm. high and 10.4 cm. wide; from the breast to point of hump, 10.6 cm. The face is 7.1 cm. wide; from chin to forehead, 5.1 cm. The neck is 3.5 cm. wide.

Figure 13a

Fragments of Effigy-Jar Faces from Pueblo Bonito.A number of effigy-jar faces in a fragmentary condition were found in Pueblo Bonito, two of the most complete of which are shown in Fig. 13, b and c. They are of the flat, shield-like form. The former specimen, which was found in Room 105, shows the upper part of the face. The hair is represented by a band of black extending across the forehead and down the left side of the face. The eyes have been formed by slight indentations, which are accentuated with black lines. The nose is long and narrow, and raised 7 mm. above the surface. The ornamentation is in the form of three painted lines in black, which begin at the lower sides of the nose, and evidently extended on either side to the hair-line on the side of the face. The face itself is curved, the angle being similar to that of the figure from Room 38. The top of the head is similar to the perfect figure described, the line from the forehead to the base of the neck-projection being almost a right angle. This fragment was no doubt the top of a jar similar to the other two figured in this article. It is of the usual white ware, the ornamentation being in black.

Figure 13b

The specimen shown in Fig. 13, c, represents a portion of another figure of the flat, shield-like form. The clay and paint are the same as in the last specimen described. It was found in Room 170 of Pueblo Bonito, and presents an entirely different style of decoration from that of the other pieces that have been noted. The facial plane is slightly curved, but it is more nearly flat than any of the others. The eye, as shown in the remaining portion of the upper part of the face, is a shallow depression, as is also the mouth. Both are painted,the eye, within the opening only; the mouth, outlined with a heavy black band. The nose is in relief, and carefully modelled. The ear is almost a duplication of that shown in the illustration of the perfect figure. A hole has been drilled through it for the reception of an ornament. The decoration consists of a heavy band on either side of the face; two lines between the nose and mouth, which enclose a line of dots; and a third line drawn below the mouth, causing this organ to occupy the centre of a rectangle. Passing downward from this line on either side of the chin, are four straight lines, which begin at the third line mentioned, and extend to the edge of the chin. This specimen was in two pieces, which were found in different parts of the room.

Figure 13c

Face fragment from Pueblo Peñasca Blanca.The jar fragment shown in Fig. 13, a, was found by Professor Putnam in the ruins of Pueblo Peñasca Blanca, Chaco Cañon. It shows an entirely different treatment from those that have been described. The general effect is the same; and the face, no doubt, was of the shield form; but the eye has been more carefully modelled than those of the other specimens that have come from the Chaco. The brow is represented in relief, and beneath it a well-formed eyeball is shown. It protrudes 4 mm. above the eye-cavity. The lids are formed by two heavy black lines, and the pupil is indicated by a dot. The only other decoration shown is the band over the forehead, representing the hair, and six narrow lines on the left temple and the remains of one on the right temple. These lines emanate from the black band, and are carried backward over the head. They evidently represent a loose arrangement of the hair. The neck is similar to that in the perfect figure; it is more flaring, however, and the rim is painted black. The clay of which this figure was made is somewhat lighter in color than that shown in the other specimens, but the composition is the same.

Figure 13d

Conclusions.The human effigy jars from the Chaco Cañon have extended the area limit of this form of ceramics several degrees northward in the Pueblo region. Vessels of this nature were in use in Mexico in very early times; and the influence of the Mexican tribes upon the Pueblo people, both in ceramics and in other æsthetic productions, is well known. How great this influence has been on the Pueblo of the North, however, is a question. The arts had reached a high state of development in the Chaco region before the abandonment of the great towns took place; and in Pueblo Bonito, which is the only ruin that has been explored, specialized forms of pottery are found; for instance, cylindrical jars of a certain form, which are, so far as known, restricted to this pueblo. The great variety of forms in most of the wares known to the Southwest indicates either an extensive interchange of specimens or the utilization of ideas as applied to fictile work in the other towns of the region.

The figure described by Dr. Fewkes is closely allied to those found in the Casas Grandes region of Chihuahua, and a similar type has been found in the Socorro region of New Mexico. The general treatment of the face and mouth of the vessels from these parts differs radically from that of the Chaco forms. The modelling of the arms and legs in the round is peculiar to the Chaco, and the specialization of the neck is another marked difference. The head from Room 38, Bonito, is as large as many whole figures from the other regions, and the vase in its entirety must have been at least 30 cm. in height. Stone figures of this size were made, and many of them have been found in the Southwest that were much larger than this figure, but the making of such forms in pottery is known only in the Chaco area.

The Chaco culture is evidently an old one; and the ruins, at least Pueblo Bonito, show no evidences of contact with the Spaniards. It probably lay in ruins at the time of the Conquest. In view of this fact, we may safely affirm that this specialization in pottery forms was developed prior to historic times, and, if copied from the southern forms, it was modified to meet local ceremonial or æsthetic conditions. No records have been found of human forms in pottery from the cave or cliff dwellings of Colorado, Utah, or northern Arizona. This causes the Chaco specimens to hold the most northern point known in the pueblo area, and therefore the farthest removed from the culture from which they may have been derived.

There are many interesting phases of the problem, aside from those of influence and technique. The association of ideas may enable students to trace the origin of certain clans to this region. The fact that the He’heā and the He’heā mana of the Hopi have phallic symbols on their arms, legs, and bodies, and the association of these figures with the meal-grinding ceremonies, present points of analogy that are worthy of study; and, from the evidence obtainable, these Hopi katcinas are very ancient. It is to be hoped that students of cult survivals and those that have been developed in historic times in the pueblo country may be able to use the evidence presented by these specimens in strengthening and extending the knowledge of clan attributes and clan migrations.
ResearchBlogging.org
Fewkes, J. (1898). An Ancient Human Effigy Vase from Arizona American Anthropologist, 11 (6), 165-170 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1898.11.6.02a00000

Pepper, G. (1905). Ceremonial Objects and Ornaments from Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 7 (2), 183-197 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1905.7.2.02a00010

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Wheels at Chaco Museum from Ore Cart Used to Haul Fill from Pueblo Bonito

I’m back at Chaco and giving tours again, so I’m once again being exposed to visitors’ common questions and preconceptions in a way I haven’t been in a long time.  One thing that seems to surprise a lot of visitors is the fact that the Chacoans apparently had no knowledge of the wheel, or if they did have such knowledge they didn’t apply it to transport any of the many things they brought into the canyon from distant sources.  (People are also sometimes surprised to learn that they didn’t have draft animals either, which I find a bit surprising myself since I tend to think of that as common knowledge.)

I think it’s actually not difficult to see why the Chacoans wouldn’t have seen any use for the wheel even if they somehow knew about it, and the lack of draft animals is the key to understanding why.  (This is admittedly a bit speculative on my part, but I think it works.)  Without big, strong animals to pull wheeled vehicles, any efficiency gains from them in terms of human labor would be decidedly non-obvious.  The only type of wheeled vehicle that would really be effective using only human labor would be the wheelbarrow, and while this may provide some efficiency gains over carrying goods by hand I don’t think they would have been clear enough to compensate for the increased effort involved in building the thing, especially given the often rough and broken terrain of the Southwest.  Even the Chacoan roads, which may or may not have actually been intended for use in transporting goods but certainly could have been so used once they were built, were actually not as level and easy as people often assume, although they were more level than the surrounding terrain.  Most of the effort put into the roads went into clearing the surface and defining the curbs, but grading of the cleared ground surface was typically not done and the road beds follow the underlying terrain for the most part.  This was fine for foot traffic, and definitely an improvement over the uncleared surrounding terrain, but it wouldn’t have been particularly suitable for wheeled vehicles.  Furthermore, the vaunted straightness of the roads would actually have made them even less suitable for wheeled vehicles or draft animals, given the common practice of handling steep cliffs in the path of the road with stairways.  Good luck getting a cart up or down one of those!

Jackson Stairway

The lack of draft animals and the unevenness of the terrain have also been posited as reasons for the lack of wheeled vehicles throughout the Americas.  While the terrain would not have been an impediment everywhere, such as in the Yucatan where the terrain is generally flat and the roads built by the Maya were much more elaborate and level than anything seen around Chaco, in highland areas like Central Mexico and lowland areas covered by dense vegetation such as those along the Gulf Coast of Mexico the maneuverability of a person on foot would likely have been far more important to efficient transportation than any increase in efficiency resulting from wheeled vehicles in the absence of animals to pull them.  Gordon Ekholm of the American Museum of Natural History, whom we last saw discovering atlatl finger loops, discussed many of these issues in an interesting article from 1946 about the wheeled toys found in various parts of Mexico, which demonstrate that at least the Mesoamericans were in fact aware of the wheel even though they didn’t use it for any practical purpose.  These clay toys, in the form of animals with wheels in place of feet, had been found in widely scattered parts of Central and Northeast Mexico, from Oaxaca to Veracruz, and while the axles connecting the wheels to the feet were apparently made of a perishable material like wood and did not survive, the fact that one example was found in situ with the wheels in the proper position led Ekholm to conclude that they definitely were originally wheeled.  Robert Lister (a very prominent figure in the history of Chacoan archaeology who also did some work in Mesoamerica) followed up on Ekholm’s article shortly afterward, noting the apparent presence of similar wheeled toys in West Mexico and referring to the discovery of copper examples in Panama as well.

Effigy Vessels at Chaco Museum

Ekholm’s article provides a solid discussion of the implication of these toys for Mesoamerican technology and general anthropological understanding of technological development.  He discusses the lack of draft animals and the difficult terrain, but ultimately concludes that the main factor preventing more widespread use of the wheel was likely a cultural and technological conservatism that privileged the old way of doing things, which in this case meant carrying goods on people’s backs, over an untried new invention like the wheel.  He attributes the origin of the idea of wheeled toys to pure invention, probably stemming from experimentation with the round spindle whorls that are very common Mesoamerican artifacts.  It’s not clear just how far this idea spread, and to my knowledge there is no evidence that anyone in the Southwest was aware of it, although some of the ceramic animal effigies found at Chaco and elsewhere do bear some resemblance to the Mesoamerican toys.  Ekholm makes a convincing case that despite the ingenious nature of these toys, without suitable social and ecological conditions for the wider adoption of the technology it remained more of a curiosity than anything else.

Basically, without draft animals, the idea of making a big vehicle like a cart which could carry a heavy load more efficiently than a person could would be unlikely to have occurred to anyone, because such a cart would still have to be pulled by people.  Or, in other words, if you have a cart but not a horse, you are, well, putting the cart before the horse.  And who would do a thing like that?
ResearchBlogging.org
Ekholm, G. (1946). Wheeled Toys in Mexico American Antiquity, 11 (4) DOI: 10.2307/275722

Lister, R. (1947). Additional Evidence of Wheeled Toys in Mexico American Antiquity, 12 (3) DOI: 10.2307/275708

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