Archive for the ‘Northern San Juan’ Category


Explanatory Plaque at Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

Today is the summer solstice, on which I like to do posts about archaeoastronomy. Today I’d like to discuss a well-known site, Sun Temple at Mesa Verde, which as its name suggests has long been associated with astronomical observations. As we’ll see, however, it appears that some of the early interpretations of the site’s architecture haven’t held up under further examination. This is another good example (along with Wupatki) of the need to carefully analyze proposed archaeoastronomical alignments.

Like many sites at Mesa Verde, Sun Temple was excavated and partly reconstructed in the early twentieth century by the pioneering archaeologist Jesse Walter Fewkes. Fewkes named the site “Sun Temple” after finding a feature that he interpreted as a “sun shrine” aligned to the position of sunset on the fall equinox. After identifying this possible alignment, Fewkes looked at the orientation of the building to see if there were any other astronomical alignments present. Sun Temple is D-shaped, with the flat side of the “D” to the south (a shape and orientation that those familiar with Chaco may find familiar), so the straight front wall was an obvious place to check for alignments. Fewkes, presumably guided by the equinoctial alignment of the shrine, initially checked to see if the front wall aligned to the positions of sunrise/sunset on the equinoxes, which would be the same and would mean the wall was oriented due east-west. He found that it was not, but was rather aligned about 20 degrees north of due east at the east end, and 20 degrees south at the west end.


Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

In his published reports Fewkes went on to conclude from this alignment that the front wall was actually oriented to the summer solstice sunrise. This is an important event in modern Pueblo societies, and subsequent research has found evidence for alignments to it in prehistoric Pueblo sites as well, so on first glance this seems like a reasonable conclusion. When archaeoastronomer Jonathan Reyman began to research the site using modern techniques in the 1970s, however, he found that it didn’t hold up, and published a short article explaining why.

The basic gist of Reyman’s article is very simple: The front wall of Sun Temple is indeed oriented to about 20 degrees north of east, but this is not the same alignment as the summer solstice sunrise at this latitude, which is more like 30 degrees north of east. Fewkes appears to have simply made a simple mistake. It’s not clear exactly how this would have happened, but Reyman suggests he either made a mistake in his notes or his notes were unclear and he became confused when writing them up for publication. In any case, this is a pretty clear-cut case of a mistake in the literature being corrected, and Fewkes’s error does not seem to have been propagated since. (Note that the NPS link I gave above says nothing about a solstice alignment.)

Reyman did also confirm that the “sun shrine” is aligned to the equinoctial sunsets and may well have been used to observe them, so the name “Sun Temple” remains appropriate (or as appropriate as it ever was). This is an intriguing building for a lot of reasons, some of which do support the idea that it had an astronomical function, but that’s a discussion for later. Sun Temple is also one of the most accessible sites at Mesa Verde, being on a mesa top where it can be visited without a guided tour, and it is well worth visiting even though it’s quite different from the cliff dwellings for which the park is best known.
Reyman JE (1977). Solstice Misalignment at Sun Temple: Correcting Fewkes The Kiva, 42, 281-284

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Third-Story Walls with Type I Masonry at Una Vida

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

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

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

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


Great Kivas A and Q, Pueblo Bonito

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

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

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

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


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

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Chaco Petroglyph Panel Showing Abstract “Blanket” Designs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Durango, Colorado

Durango, Colorado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bone Tools at Chaco Museum

Bone Tools at Chaco Museum

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Animas River, Durango, Colorado

Animas River, Durango, Colorado

The fourth chapter of Crucible of Pueblos discusses the eastern portion of the Mesa Verde region, essentially the northern portion of the watershed of the San Juan River from the La Plata drainage east to the San Juan headwaters. This area has seen less research than some other parts of the Southwest, but several major salvage projects in recent decades have added a lot of data on Pueblo I period settlement in particular. The most important of these has been the Animas-La Plata Project associated with the inundation of Ridges Basin to create Lake Nighthorse south of Durango. These projects haven’t revolutionized our understanding of the Pueblo I period the way the Dolores Project did in the Central Mesa Verde region in the 1980s, but they have added large bodies of systematically collected data to broaden our understanding of the period.

The picture that emerges from this evidence shows the Pueblo I period to have been a dynamic, complex time in this region. Indeed, in some respects “chaotic” might be an appropriate descriptor. Population movement, both within the region and between it and other regions nearby, was frequent, sites were short-lived, and evidence for violence is abundant. The population fluctuated wildly but was never very large compared to other areas, but even this small population seems to have been culturally and perhaps ethnically diverse, which may have contributed to the instability and violence. Some of the earliest aggregated villages in the northern Southwest arose in this region during the eighth century AD, but they all appear to have been highly unstable: none lasted more than a few decades, and most appear to have met violent ends. Perhaps relatedly, these villages never held more than a small portion of the overall regional population, in contrast to early villages in some other regions. By the end of the Pueblo I period around AD 900 most parts of the region were largely depopulated, with the residents apparently moving primarily to the south, where many of them likely ended up at Chaco Canyon and were involved in the rise of the Chaco Phenomenon over the course of the tenth and early eleventh centuries.

The authors of this chapter divide their region into four “districts”: La Plata, Durango, Piedra, and Navajo Reservoir/Fruitland. While showing similarities in material culture suggesting connections with each other, the districts have markedly different demographic trajectories, and it seems clear that there was significant population movement among them over the course of the Pueblo I period.

Despite an earlier Basketmaker II occupation, Basketmaker III period settlement was limited to nonexistent in most of the districts, implying that the Pueblo I occupation was primarily the result of migration into the region. Only the La Plata district shows clear evidence for a small BMIII occupation, and even this is probably too small to account on its own for the larger population in the district during Pueblo I. It appears, then, that beginning in the AD 720s there was a migration of people into the La Plata and Durango districts, probably from the south. Site densities increased markedly around 750, especially around Durango, suggesting a further wave of migration, again from the south. It was at this time that the earliest villages began to develop in these areas, although most of the population continued to live in widely scattered hamlets and individual residences. These villages were short-lived and seem to have collapsed in the early 800s, in some cases with evidence for intense violence including, at Sacred Ridge in Ridges Basin, the earliest evidence for the sort of “extreme processing” (probably including cannibalism) of human remains that would recur periodically in later periods of Pueblo prehistory.

The collapse of the early villages in the Durango district appears to have coincided with a general depopulation of that district, with residents emigrating in multiple directions. Some went west and appear to have contributed to the rise of large villages in the Central Mesa Verde region, particularly in the Dolores area, where one large and well-documented community, Grass Mesa Village, shows evidence in its material culture for strong ties to the east. Other Durango people may have gone south into the Frances Mesa area in the lower Animas River valley, possibly mixing with other groups migrating north at the same time. This occupation was short-lived and may have ended with the people moving north into the Dolores area to join the villages there. Some Durango people may also have gone east to form the first Pueblo I occupation in the Piedra district, although this area has seen less research than others and the picture isn’t as clear. Recent surveys do suggest that the Piedra was somewhat marginal to developments elsewhere in the region during Pueblo I, and that its population was both smaller than had been thought and mostly limited to the late Pueblo I period. The fate of the La Plata population is less clear, but there is a definite decline in site numbers after AD 800 coinciding with an increased number of sites in the Mancos River drainage to the west, suggesting emigration to the west there as well.

Chimney Rock Great House

Chimney Rock Great House

As it turned out, the Dolores villages weren’t very stable either, and after their collapse in the mid- to late ninth century people seem to have migrated back into the eastern Mesa Verde region. A surge of immigration into the Fruitland/Navajo Reservoir district after about 880 contributed to the highest regional population of the whole Pueblo I period, although it still wasn’t very high (3,000 people at most regionwide, and likely more like 2,000). The Piedra district also saw a considerable increase in population at this time. The Fruitland/Navajo Reservoir occupation was short-lived, with more evidence of violent ends for some village sites, and it seems that most or all of the people moved south, with at least some of them joining the growing communities in and around Chaco Canyon. There may have been some migration south from the Piedra district as well, but it continued to be occupied into the Pueblo II period after 900. The Piedra people seem to have been somewhat isolated from developments elsewhere in the Pueblo world during early Pueblo II, which is unsurprising given that they were left quite isolated geographically by the depopulation of the Animas drainage and Navajo Reservoir area. They don’t seem to have been completely cut off, however, and ongoing contact with Chaco in particular is suggested by the development of the Chimney Rock great house with its remarkable astronomical alignments in the eleventh century.

There are several noteworthy characteristics of this pattern of settlement and migration, which the authors of this chapter point out. One is the obvious importance of population movement, versus natural increase or decrease, in explaining the wild demographic swings both in the region as a whole and among its individual districts during this period. It was a very dynamic period, when people rarely lived in the same place for more than two or three generations. It’s not clear entirely why, but one reason is likely linked to one of the other noteworthy characteristics: widespread violence, including some of the most extreme violent incidents in the whole archaeological record of the Southwest. Interestingly, much of this violence, including the “extreme processing” incident at Sacred Ridge, appears to have been linked to internal conflicts within communities, especially the early villages. This may in turn explain why relatively few people in this region lived in villages, although it still leaves open the question of why anyone did. The authors suggest that one factor may have been the perception of safety in numbers in a chaotic era, although this ultimately proved to be illusory. It’s not clear to what extent warfare between communities was actually occurring, however, and the widespread popularity of a scattered settlement pattern suggests it may not have been that major a concern for most people. On the other hand, palisades around individual residents units are fairly common in the region, so it may be primarily a matter of different strategies for dealing with violence.

One other noteworthy thing about the violence is that the “extreme processing” phenomenon appears to have been exclusive to the eastern Mesa Verde region during this period. This is interesting because in later periods it occurs in other regions, most notably in the Central Mesa Verde region during the mid-twelfth century, where it is possibly associated with the collapse of the Chaco system. There has been much dispute and discussion about the occurrence of cannibalism as part of at least some of these assemblages, which I’ve discussed at length before. The fact that it appears earliest in the eastern Mesa Verde region during Pueblo I, when it appears to be limited to that region, adds an important piece of context for understanding the phenomenon. While the occurrence of ritual cannibalism in Mesoamerica has led some to look there for the roots of cannibalism in the Southwest, there are some important differences in the apparent practices behind the assemblages that make a Mesoamerican source difficult to document, and if the eastern Mesa Verde region was in fact the part of the Southwest where these practices originated that makes the Mesoamerican connection even more tenuous. While the exact connections between specific Basketmaker and Pueblo populations in different areas are hard to pin down, it’s generally thought that the eastern Basketmakers were both ancestral to later Pueblo populations in the same areas and descended from earlier Archaic populations. Importantly, these eastern groups generally show much less evidence for Mesoamerican influence than western groups, among whom “extreme processing” events are both much rarer and, when they do occur, much later than in the east. Obviously it’s not that there was no Mesoamerican influence among eastern groups, since they did have maize agriculture and so forth, but there’s much less evidence for specific, direct influence than in the west. This implies that “extreme processing,” including cannibalism, may actually have been a practice that developed indigenously in the eastern Mesa Verde region and spread to other parts of the northern Southwest as part of the widespread population movements following Pueblo I.

Finally, the violent and chaotic nature of the Pueblo I period in the eastern Mesa Verde region, whatever the underlying reasons for it, adds some context for the attractiveness of new social formations in other regions, such as the Pueblo I villages in the Dolores area and the emerging great-house communities of early Pueblo II in and around Chaco. While the Dolores villages were not ultimately able to deliver the kind of peace and stability that immigrants from the eastern Mesa Verde region may have been looking for, Chaco apparently was. Furthermore, once Chaco rose to regional prominence in the eleventh century it was able to extend that peace and stability over an unprecedentedly large area of the northern Southwest, including the eastern Mesa Verde region itself. Understanding how the system that emerged in Chaco Canyon was able to achieve this remarkable feat when no one had succeeded at anything like it before is one of the most important questions in Southwestern prehistory, and it is still very much an unanswered one. One important piece of the puzzle, however, is clearly the Pueblo I context in the Chaco area itself, and it is to this that we now turn.

Chaco Street in Aztec, New Mexico

Chaco Street in Aztec, New Mexico

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Utah Welcome Sign

Utah Welcome Sign

The third chapter of Crucible of Pueblos deals with the western part of the Mesa Verde or Northern San Juan region, which basically corresponds to what is now the southeastern corner of Utah. In this context the area is bounded by Cedar Mesa on the west and the Abajo Mountains on the north, as well as by the borders with Colorado and Arizona on the east and south. This is a fairly standard way to define this area archaeologically except that the western boundary is more restrictive than usual, which appears to mainly be a decision based on the near-total lack of sites dated to the Pueblo I period west of the eastern edge of Cedar Mesa. (There are actually Pueblo sites dating to this period much further west in southwestern Utah and southern Nevada, the so-called “Virgin Anasazi,” but they aren’t included in this book at all for some reason.)

The authors divide their study area into a series of physiographic sub-regions based primarily on elevation, which is a useful way to track changes in occupation patterns over the course of the period they discuss. It’s also a different approach to defining sub-regions than most of the other chapters in the book use. These sub-regions are important because the differences in precipitation and growing season length among them seem to have been important factors behind shifting settlement patterns during the period of interest. These shifts seem to have mainly taken place across the region rather than separately in spatial sub-regions such as drainages, as was the case in some other regions.

One way this region differs from others, and especially from the Central and Eastern Mesa Verde regions, is that there has been a relative lack of large-scale salvage excavation projects to provide large amounts of detailed archaeological data. Instead, most data is from surveys and small-scale excavations, and detailed chronological information in particular is missing for most sites that have been recorded. Rough dating of sites to Pecos Classification period at best based on frequencies of a few ceramic types is the norm here, which limits the comparability of data on trends in settlement over time. Nevertheless, the authors of this chapter do their best to come up with a coherent narrative of settlement during the Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods in this area, which seems to have been an important one for understanding the cultural development of early farming populations and the origins of aggregated villages.

The most striking pattern in the population dynamics of this region in the Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods is of apparent cycles of population growth and decline on the scale of decades and of greater magnitude than can be explain by internal demographic processes, implying migration into and out of the region multiple times. Most interestingly, these cycles appear to be largely complementary to similar cycles in other nearby regions, especially the Central Mesa Verde region just to the east. This strongly implies that one of the major factors in population changes in both these regions was movement between them.

To go into greater detail, the story told in this chapter begins in the seventh century AD with the expansion of Basketmaker III populations across the region from the narrow area of Basketmaker II settlement along the San Juan River and its major tributaries. The authors attribute this expansion in part to the introduction of beans and pottery, which freed farming populations from dependence on outcrops of limestone to cook with their corn for nitrogen-fixing purposes. Population spread especially into the upland areas with deep soils well-suited to dry farming. Over the course of the Basketmaker III period scattered hamlets began to consolidate into “proto-villages” with public architecture such as oversized pit structures surrounded by scattered households. The authors note the similarity of this pattern to the later Pueblo II great house communities, which is indeed an interesting parallel.

There appears to have been a regional population decline in the early eighth century, although this may be an artifact of the limited data set and difficulty assigning sites to precise time periods. In any case, there is evidence of a noticeable population increase after AD 750, with several villages of tightly clustered households containing public architecture appearing, along with a considerable number of smaller residential sites and a few sites in highly defensive locations, especially at the western edge of the region near Cedar Mesa. The population increase was accompanied by the introduction of a strikingly different type of pottery, Abajo Red-on-orange, which shows many similarities to pottery from the Mogollon region far to the south and likely reflects long-distance migration of some sort. There were still many continuities in architecture and other aspects of material culture, however, which suggests that these migrants combined with local populations rather than replacing them.

The largest and most famous of the villages that developed during this early Pueblo I period is Alkali Ridge Site 13, excavated by J. O. Brew in the 1940s. This site consisted of a series of long, continuous arcing roomblocks, made up of “room suites” of one “habitation” room backed by two smaller “storage” rooms. This is a pattern that would become standard for Pueblo I villages at a slightly later date, and would endure in various forms for centuries. Site 13 consists of six of these arcs, four of which were excavated by Brew. Three of the arcs excavated by Brew also had oversized pit structures with highly formalized features suggesting possible use as public architecture of some sort.

There were other village-sized sites that were established at this time, although few have been excavated. These are among the earliest sites of this size and level of organization in the northern Southwest, and continuities with later sites in other regions suggest they may have been very influential on later developments.

In addition to the early village sites, defensive sites on high, inaccessible promontories began to appear during the early Pueblo I period. These sites have not been studied in any depth, and little is known about them. Some appear to have evidence of extensive residential populations and/or public architecture, while others don’t. One intriguing pattern is an apparent line of them at the western edge of the region along the eastern margins of Cedar Mesa. This, combined with the lack of Pueblo sites to the west, has suggested to some researchers that there was a buffer area or “no-man’s-land” between the Pueblo population in southeastern Utah and early Fremont populations northwest of the Colorado River during this period. It’s worth noting, however, that there were also a few of these apparent defensive sites well within the Mesa Verdean Pueblo region, including the Fortified Spur site near the Colorado-Utah border, so tensions may have been internal as well as external at this point.

During the middle Pueblo I period from AD 825 to 880 there appears to have been a regional population decline, although again this may be due in part to data gaps. It is noteworthy, however, that this is the period of a major population increase in the Central Mesa Verde region to the east, including the formation of the well-known cluster of aggregated villages in the Dolores River Valley, some of which show some striking similarities to earlier Utah villages such as Site 13. It is reasonable to postulate that a pattern of emigration from southeast Utah into southwest Colorado led to this pattern. Southeast Utah wasn’t completely depopulated, however. In addition to scattered small sites throughout the region, there are a very few larger communities firmly dated to this period, including an intriguing site on Elk Ridge called the Pillars that has extensive evidence for middle Pueblo I residential architecture and some tentative evidence for public architecture as well. There are several other sites in the same general area that have more tentative evidence for occupation during this time, and it seems this may have been one of a handful of population clusters in the region during a time of otherwise low population.

After AD 880 population rapidly increased again, and many large villages were built between this point and AD 950. This was a period of rapid depopulation in the Central Mesa Verde region, again suggesting a complementary pattern of migration between the two regions. Many of these new village sites were in highly defensive locations, including some that were nowhere near the frontiers of the region. There is also an intriguing pattern of continuity in location between these early villages and later Pueblo II great house communities from the eleventh century. This pattern is made even more intriguing by two phenomena:

  1. Some of these sites, such as Red Knobs and Nancy Patterson Village, have evidence for masonry roomblocks similar to the “proto-great houses” known from many sites in New Mexico in and around Chaco Canyon during this same time.
  2. There seems to have been another depopulation of southeastern Utah around AD 950, implying that population at these sites was not actually continuous despite these similarities.

It has long seemed to me that southeastern Utah is a crucial area for understanding Chaco. There are several lines of evidence suggesting that at least some people living in Chaco Canyon and involved in its rise to regional dominance had strong ties to Utah, and I suspect those ties were more important in the emergence of the Chaco system than has been generally recognized. This chapter adds some much-needed context on the earlier history of Pueblo populations in Utah, and to me it strongly reinforces those ideas about the importance of Utah to Chaco. The exact nature of these relationships and their importance is still unclear, and the relatively sketchy data available make it harder to figure out, but it still definitely seems like there is something important here.

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McPhee Reservoir and Mesa Verde Escarpment from McPhee Campground

McPhee Reservoir and Mesa Verde Escarpment

The second chapter of Crucible of Pueblos discusses the Central Mesa Verde region, which is defined as basically the southwestern corner of Colorado, bounded on the west and south by the modern borders with Utah and New Mexico, on the east by the La Plata River valley, and on the north by the highlands north of the Dolores River. This is the region where Pueblo I period villages have been most extensively studied, primarily by the Dolores Project during the construction of McPhee Reservoir in the 1980s and in subsequent research by archaeologists building on that work. As a result, there’s not a whole lot that’s new in this chapter for someone who has been following the literature on this topic, although it does make a good introduction to the subject for someone who hasn’t. It also discusses some parts of the area, especially the northern and eastern fringes, that have seen much less research than the well-studied Great Sage Plain (including the Dolores sites) and Mesa Verde proper. Overall, the data assembled here is among the most detailed and reliable available to analyze demographic trends and population movements during the Pueblo I period in the northern Southwest.

Among the key factors that the authors discuss are the inherent attractiveness of this region to early farmers because of its good soil and relatively favorable climatic conditions compared to other nearby areas. Indeed, this is the only part of the northern Southwest that has seen extensive dry farming in modern times, and it is still primarily agricultural in use. This makes it unsurprising that early farmers would have concentrated here, as indeed they did, starting in the Basketmaker III period ca. AD 600 and increasing steadily in population through about 725. These early sites generally consisted of scattered hamlets presumably housing individual families. Villages, which in this context means clusters of multiple residential roomblocks in close proximity, began to appear around 750, often in association with great kivas, which had previously been rare in this region for reasons that are unclear.

Villages to both the west and east, discussed in subsequent chapters, date to the same period as these early ones in the Central Mesa Verde villages, and there was a striking variety in community organization and layout across the broader region. The dissolution of the eastern and western villages seems to have contributed to an influx of population into the Central Mesa Verde area in the early ninth century, resulting in the largest and densest concentration of population seen to that date. Village layout also became more standardized, with two main patterns dominating, one associated with great kivas and another including U-shaped roomblocks that were likely ancestral to later “great houses.” These villages, most extensively documented at Dolores, were however short-lived, and by the early tenth century the area was almost completely depopulated, with the former inhabitants apparently moving primarily to the south, into the southern part of the San Juan Basin, where they seem to have played a key role in the developments that led to the rise of Chaco Canyon as a major regional center in the eleventh century.

As I said before, none of this is groundbreaking information at this point, and I’ve discussed some of the implications of the Dolores data before. It is however useful to have a synthesis of this region during this important period to refer to, and this chapter works well for that purpose.

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