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.
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.