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"Pithouse Life" Sign at Mesa Verde

“Pithouse Life” Sign at Mesa Verde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rio Grande from Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Rio Grande from Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Chapter seven of Crucible of Pueblos brings us to the final geographical region covered by the volume: the Rio Grande Valley, at the eastern edge of Pueblo settlement for the period in question. As it happens, I’m currently visiting my mom in Albuquerque, so I’m actually in this region as I write this. (Today also happens to be my birthday; I’m 31.) The chapter is by Steven Lakatos and C. Dean Wilson, and in a lot of ways it echoes an earlier paper by Lakatos about the Rio Grande Developmental Period that I have discussed before. This chapter, however, discusses only the Early Developmental Period, defined as AD 600 to 900, and primarily focuses on the part of the region that the authors called the Middle Rio Grande Valley, defined as lying between the Rio Puerco of the East on the west, the Sandia and Manzano Mountains on the east, the Isleta area on the south, and the La Bajada escarpment on the north. This is because agricultural populations only occupied this restricted area of the region during the Early Developmental, expanding north of La Bajada only after AD 900 when there was a huge increase in regional population at the beginning of the Late Developmental Period.

The key point Lakatos and Wilson make about the Rio Grande is that the Early Developmental period was a time of low population density and gradual growth, with little change in material culture over hundreds of years. This is in striking contrast to the “boom-and-bust” pattern now richly documented for the Mesa Verde region during the contemporaneous Pueblo I period there. The picture of continuity is reminiscent of that proposed by the authors of the previous chapter for the Little Colorado region, but it’s worth noting that the major data gaps that plague the study of that region are less of an issue for the Rio Grande, which has a long history of intensive archaeological research continuing to the present day. Furthermore, Lakatos and Wilson present several lines of evidence supporting their conclusions, which seem pretty solid to me. Based on this evidence, it really does seem like the Early Developmental was a time of low population, slow growth, and cultural continuity.

As Lakatos and Wilson note, this is actually a rather surprising conclusion in the context of many theories about early agricultural societies. Most strikingly, there is no evidence here for a “Neolithic Demographic Transition,” in which the increased productivity of agricultural societies compared to hunter-gatherers leads to massive growth among early agriculturalists, with all sorts of ecological and social consequences. Some have argued that the Mesa Verde boom-and-bust cycle is a result of this process. In the Rio Grande, however, the adoption of agriculture does not seem to have resulted in this sort of population growth. This is definitely not for lack of arable land, as the Rio Grande Valley is one of the richest agricultural areas in the northern Southwest, and it was intensively farmed later in prehistory and into historic times. Rather, Lakatos and Wilson argue that the richness of the Rio Grande environment allowed for a mixed farming-foraging economic pattern with high residential mobility, in contrast to the more agriculture-dependent societies further west. The greater importance of foraging versus farming is supported by evidence from faunal assemblages and wear patterns on human remains, and the mobility by the fact that residential pit structures were rarely remodeled.

In keeping with low density and high mobility, the settlement pattern consisted of scattered hamlets, with only occasional evidence for “communities” of hamlets loosely grouped together with possible communal architecture such as “protokivas” or oversized pit structures. Sites were mainly located along the major rivers of the region: the Rio Grande itself, the Rio Puerco of the East, the Jemez. Architecture consisted of residential pit structures and surrounding activity areas, generally oriented toward the east or southeast (perhaps oriented to the winter solstice).

Rio Grande people also appear to have been in closer contact with remaining hunter-gatherers than populations further west. It’s not clear if Early Developmental populations resulted from the adoption of agriculture by existing hunter-gatherers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley or if there was some migration of already agricultural populations involved, but in any case the areas north of La Bajada and east of the Sandias/Manzanos were definitely still occupied by hunter-gatherers during this period, and it’s clear that there was a lot of contact between the two groups. This may have contributed to the greater importance of foraging to Early Developmental people and their differences from other Pueblo populations.

Sandia Mountains from Tent Rocks National Monument

Sandia Mountains from Tent Rocks National Monument

All that said, the Early Developmental people definitely were part of the Pueblo cultural tradition, and their material culture shows a lot of connections to populations to both the west and south. This is particularly true of pottery, which was dominated by plain gray ware similar to that of late Basketmaker groups on the Colorado Plateau, but with small amounts of a decorated white ware, San Marcial Black-on-white, which shows stylistic influence from Mogollon populations to the south but with technological characteristics more like those of early white wares to the west. Lakatos and Wilson mention one model of Southwestern prehistory under which early “strong patterns” of material culture originated in the San Juan Basin (ancestral to the Chaco system) and in the river valleys of the Mogollon region, with the Middle Rio Grande forming a “weak pattern” with influences from both but in varying combinations.

The clear picture that emerges from this is of a small population of forager-farmers moving around within the Middle Rio Grande area but maintaining their basic cultural features with little to no change for about 300 years, from AD 600 to 900. Then, in a development that is likely very important but poorly understood, there was a massive increase in population at the same time that agricultural groups for the first time began to occupy the higher areas about La Bajada. Lakatos and Wilson note that the timing of this change, while not as precise as might be ideal, seems to correspond closely to the collapse of the late Pueblo I villages in the Mesa Verde region and the major population movements involved with the depopulation of that area, including the apparent influx of people into the Chaco Basin that likely laid the groundwork for the Chaco Phenomenon.

It seems very plausible that the increase in population in the Rio Grande was linked to these developments, though exactly how is unclear. Material culture actually remained fairly stable and consistent with Early Developmental patterns across this transition, although architecture did become more standardized and San Marcial Black-on-white was replaced by Red Mesa Black-on-white as the main decorated ceramic type. The latter change, especially, suggests influence from the west, as Red Mesa is the main decorated type in the Chaco area and other parts of the southern Colorado Plateau during this same period. It’s possible, as Lakatos and Wilson suggest, that the increased population in the Chaco Basin directly spurred Middle Rio Grande populations to move northward, although it’s not clear how exactly this would have worked. Other possibilities are that populations from the intermediate areas, such as the Puerco of the East, began to move eastward in the Rio Grande Valley as a result of the population movements immediately to the west of them, perhaps pushing existing Rio Grande populations north, or that western populations were moving directly to the Northern Rio Grande area above La Bajada, “leap-frogging” existing populations in the Middle Rio Grande.

The fact that material culture continued to show local Rio Grande features throughout the region, however, suggests that some level of assimilation or cultural accommodation between the locals and immigrants was involved, rather than a more directly confrontational situation. It’s noteworthy that Lakatos and Wilson don’t discuss evidence for warfare or defensive features at all, which of course doesn’t mean those things didn’t exist but does suggest that they may have been less prevalent than in some other regions.

Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Another thing Lakatos and Wilson don’t discuss, but which seems particularly important to understanding these relationships, is turquoise, specifically that from the well-known mines in the Cerrillos Hills east of the Sandias. Turquoise is of course strongly associated with Chaco, and while not all of the turquoise there has turned out to be from Cerrillos, a substantial portion of it definitely was. Evidence for increased connections between the San Juan Basin and the Rio Grande area at the same time as the rise of Chaco as a regional center is very intriguing in this light. Could increasing demand for turquoise at Chaco have led to the Cerrillos mines being a “pull” factor leading western groups into the Rio Grande Valley? Could the mines have even led local Rio Grande groups, or mixed groups of locals and immigrants, to move further east, across the mountains and even up over La Bajada into the Santa Fe area, which may have become more attractive as increased immigration reduced the supply of land in the Middle Rio Grande? And what about those remnant hunter-gatherer groups east of the Sandias and north of La Bajada? What happened to them? Were they attacked and defeated by the encroaching farmers? Pushed out into areas further north and east? Assimilated into agricultural society, which even in the Late Developmental period had a strong foraging component? There are a lot of questions about this period in this area, and very little evidence on which to base any answers. Lakatos and Wilson recognize this and suggest some research directions that would be helpful in answering the remaining questions, although they don’t point out as many as I have here.

Overall, this is a very informative chapter that brings into the discussion of Pueblo I societies an area that is often left out of these discussions. It’s an area of crucial importance for understanding regional dynamics throughout the northern Southwest, however, so I’m glad it was included in this volume. This chapter concludes the geographical summaries in the book; the remaining chapters cover various thematic topics of interest in understanding the Early Pueblo period as a whole.

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Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

As I mentioned in the previous post, the most mysterious thing about the Fremont is what happened to them. Unlike the Anasazi, who obviously became the modern Pueblos, the Fremont have no obvious connections to any modern groups. Fremont sites appear to disappear around AD 1300 in most areas, although there is some regional variation and in part defining an end date depends on how you define “Fremont.” Since the practice of agriculture is closely associated with the Fremont complex, the latest dates of sites with clear evidence for agriculture is one convenient way to date the end of the Fremont. In their important 1998 review essay, David Madsen and Steven Simms give the following dates for the end of agriculture in different Fremont regions:

  • Uinta Basin: AD 1000
  • Parowan Valley and Great Salt Lake wetlands: AD 1100 to 1150
  • “Much of the Fremont region”: AD 1250 to 1300
  • Northwestern Colorado: After AD 1450

(Note that Madsen and Simms annoyingly cite their dates as “Before Present” without specifying what date they are using for the “Present” or whether these are calendar or radiocarbon years; in calculating the above dates I have assumed a “Present” of AD 1950 as conventionally used in radiocarbon determinations.)

The Madsen and Simms date for much of the region is very close to the “Great Drought” of AD 1276 to 1299 known from Anasazi sites to the south (assuming of course that their dates are in calendar years). Given the low precision of the radiocarbon-based Fremont chronology compared to the tree-ring based Anasazi one, however, it is risky to make too much of coincidences like this, and the wide variation across different Fremont sub-regions suggests that something more complicated is going on here than a simple reaction to a single prolonged drought. The Great Drought may well have affected Fremont farmers, of course, but the Fremont data are not clear enough to establish a definitive association. In general a rough date of AD 1300 for the end of Fremont in most areas is widely used and probably close enough for most purposes. It does seem that some form of the Fremont lifestyle persisted significantly longer in northwestern Colorado, which could have served as a refuge for Fremont farmers displaced from other areas.

In keeping with their general interpretation of Fremont as involving a wide variety of adaptive strategies and frequent movements of people between farming and foraging, Madsen and Simms interpret the end of the phenomenon as consisting largely of farmers switching to foraging, along with possible immigration of foragers from outside the region. Basically they see this period as a time when the precarious balance between farming and foraging characteristic of the Fremont period tipped decisively in favor of foraging, perhaps in response to climatic changes that made foraging a more effective subsistence strategy.

Whatever the mechanism for the collapse of Fremont as an archaeological complex, the question of what became of the people remains. There are three main logical options:

  1. They died out entirely and left no descendants.
  2. They changed their culture and stayed in the same region.
  3. They left the region.

The first option is apparently attractive to a lot of people, judging by the popularity of descriptions of ancient peoples as “vanished” and so forth, but it’s actually quite rare for a group to literally die out entirely. It’s certainly possible that this is what happened to the Fremont, especially given the lack of continuity with later groups, but the number of people and large area involved make it implausible. That leaves us with either continuity between the Fremont and the ethnographic inhabitants of their region or a migration of the Fremont to somewhere else.

The idea that the Fremont might have developed into the hunter-gatherers known ethnographically in the eastern Great Basin and northern Colorado Plateau has a respectable history in the literature; as I noted in the previous post, James Gunnerson proposed just this back in the 1960s. The distinction in material culture between the Fremont and the Numic-speaking groups that followed them (Shoshone and Ute) is quite marked, however, as Albert Schroeder pointed out at the time. Furthermore, Madsen noted in 1975 that the distinctive Numic pottery is associated with the very different Fremont pottery at several well-dated sites in the region, suggesting that the two groups were distinct but contemporaneous. It is certainly possible that some of the Fremont assimilated into Numic society in some areas, or that the two merged in various combinations, and Madsen and Simms suggest that some such merging may have occurred in the Great Salt Lake area, though it’s not clear from their discussion whether they see the immigrant groups that merged with the Fremont as specifically Numic, as they propose a hiatus between this merged society and the ethnographically known culture of the region, perhaps due to the spread of European disease in the contact era. The whole issue of the Numic groups and how they got to where they are today is important in understanding the prehistory of these areas, but it is a big, complicated issue and I’ll address it more fully in a subsequent post. The material culture differences are significant enough that it seems unlikely that assimilation in place is the answer to the question of what happened to the Fremont in general.

As an alternative to seeing the Fremont as turning into the modern Numic groups that occupy the same areas, they may have migrated elsewhere. But where? Another theory noted in my previous post is that proposed by Melvin Aikens in the 1960s that the Fremont originally came from the Plains and ultimately migrated back there to become one or more of the ethnographically known Plains groups, probably Athabascan-speaking (i.e., Apache and/or Navajo). He based this theory on some suggestive parallels in material culture between the Fremont and Plains groups, especially the later Dismal River culture, generally thought to be associated with the Athabascan Na’isha. There certainly do seem to be some Plains-like traits in Fremont culture, including an emphasis on bison hunting, use of the shield-bearing warrior rock art motif, wearing of moccasins rather than sandals, etc. It’s not clear, however, whether these result from actual migrations of people from the Plains to the Fremont area or vice versa (and the two migrations Aikens posits would not be necessary in any case to explain the similarities). Aikens also used some physical anthropological evidence from skull morphology to support his theory, but the usefulness of the type of data he used was disputed even at the time, and it is not taken seriously at all now. Furthermore, more recent physical anthropological research using DNA analysis suggests strongly that there is no genetic connection between the Fremont and modern Athabascans or other Plains groups. In a sample of remains from the Great Salt Lake area the most common mitochondrial haplotype among Athabascans was not present at all, which is quite striking since it is quite common among Native American groups in general. It is of course possible, even likely, that this sample was not representative of Fremont groups in general, but of all the Fremont sub-areas the Great Salt Lake is the closest to the Plains both geographically and culturally, so if there’s no evidence of a genetic connection to the Plains from there it’s very unlikely that one will be found anywhere else. The same study found no clear evidence for a connection to the modern Numic groups either. This DNA stuff is another interesting, complicated issue that deserves its own post, but for now the upshot of this is that the Plains traits seen among the Fremont probably result from contact and cultural diffusion rather than migration in either direction, and the fate of the Fremont remains mysterious.

So if they didn’t go east onto the Plains, where did the Fremont go? The next obvious option is that they went south and joined the Pueblo groups with which they had many cultural similarities. This is another idea that has been proposed by some archaeologists, and it also appears to have support from oral traditions. David Pendergast and Clement Meighan published a paper in 1959 reporting that during their excavations of a site in southwestern Utah that would today be considered Parowan Fremont (though Pendergast and Meighan called them “Puebloid”) local Paiutes (a Numic group) told them some things about the people who had inhabited the site that they considered surprisingly accurate given the archaeological evidence. The Paiutes referred to the Fremont by the term Mukwitch, which is also the Paiute term for the Hopis, and reported that they had moved south and joined the Hopis when they left Utah. While their comments on the lifestyle of the Mukwitch and the reasons they had left were rather inconsistent, the consistency of the accounts of where they went is striking. The Paiutes also said that the Mukwitch were quite different from the Paiutes but had lived peacefully alongside them, which is noteworthy in light of the Numic pottery found in association with Fremont pottery mentioned above.

This paper has not been taken very seriously by archaeologists, and in fact I have not seen it cited at all in other Fremont literature. The only mentions of it I have seen, in fact, have been in cautions about the problems with taking oral traditions seriously, presumably because of the inconsistencies in the accounts. The accounts certainly are inconsistent on certain points, but consistent on others, and I think this paper deserves more attention from archaeologists wondering what happened to the Fremont. It’s certainly plausible that they moved south to join the Anasazi, and the Hopi are the most likely of the modern Pueblos for them to have ended up at for straightforward geographical reasons. A look at some of the recorded Hopi clan traditions with this in mind would likely be interesting. It’s unlikely that all of the Fremont moved south to join the Hopis, but it’s plausible that at least some did. Others may have stayed in place and been assimilated into the Numic groups spreading across the region, and still others might have died out entirely due to drought, warfare, or other factors.

So in some sense we’re back where we started, with no clear answer. But in other senses we do have some answers, at least in ruling out some options: The Fremont don’t seem to have either come from or gone to the Plains, and the Apaches are probably not their descendants. Wherever they did go (or stay), they changed their material culture rapidly and completely to assimilate into other groups, whether Numic or Hopi. This sort of rapid and complete assimilation is actually not as implausible as it seems; there are other examples of it in the prehistoric Southwest, and it must have happened quite a lot if the archaeological record is to be reconciled with the ethnographic one. All this suggests above all that the late prehistoric period, from AD 1300 on, was a time of immense change in the Greater Southwest, which makes it very difficult to figure out what was going on before that. Difficult, but not necessarily impossible. There are some ways to see through the haze.
ResearchBlogging.org
Aikens, C. (1967). Plains Relationships of the Fremont Culture: A Hypothesis American Antiquity, 32 (2) DOI: 10.2307/277904

Armelagos, G. (1968). Aikens’ Fremont Hypothesis and Use of Skeletal Material in Archaeological Interpretation American Antiquity, 33 (3) DOI: 10.2307/278710

Gunnerson, J. (1962). Plateau Shoshonean Prehistory: A Suggested Reconstruction American Antiquity, 28 (1) DOI: 10.2307/278076

Madsen, D. (1975). Dating Paiute-Shoshoni Expansion in the Great Basin American Antiquity, 40 (1) DOI: 10.2307/279271

Madsen, D., & Simms, S. (1998). The Fremont Complex: A Behavioral Perspective Journal of World Prehistory, 12 (3), 255-336 DOI: 10.1023/A:1022322619699

Parr RL, Carlyle SW, & O’Rourke DH (1996). Ancient DNA analysis of Fremont Amerindians of the Great Salt Lake Wetlands. American journal of physical anthropology, 99 (4), 507-18 PMID: 8779335

Pendergast, D., & Meighan, C. (1959). Folk Traditions as Historical Fact: A Paiute Example The Journal of American Folklore, 72 (284) DOI: 10.2307/538475

Schroeder, A. (1963). Comment on Gunnerson’s “Plateau Shoshonean Prehistory” American Antiquity, 28 (4) DOI: 10.2307/278572

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Garden at Chucalissa Mounds, Memphis, Tennessee

One of the main ways Mississippian societies differed from earlier societies in eastern North America was in their much heavier reliance on maize agriculture for subsistence. There had been agriculture, and even maize, before in the east, but the Mississippians farmed much more intensively and used maize in particular much more heavily than people had before. The high productivity of maize agriculture presumably led to the increased population and more elaborate societies characteristic of the Mississippians, and also would have provided a dependable basis for the incipient urbanism seen in the biggest Mississippian centers like Cahokia. While maize had been introduced (ultimately from Mesoamerica and probably via the Southwest, although the details remain murky) to parts of the Eastern Woodlands hundreds of years before the rise of Mississippian societies after AD 900, it was only with the so-called “Mississippian Emergence” that it became a staple crop. The amount of maize typically found at archaeological sites in the east skyrockets after the Emergence, and intensive use of this crop seems to be a fundamental characteristic of the Mississippian lifeway.

Most of this has been known for a long time, based on the amount of maize found in Mississippian sites, but actually identifying and studying the fields where maize and other crops were grown had to wait until the incorporation of aerial photography into Midwestern archaeology in the 1960s. An important early contribution to knowledge of these issues is a paper published by Melvin Fowler in 1969. Fowler reports on work done by Southern Illinois University over the preceding few years at Mississippian sites in that incorporated aerial photography. He focuses on two sites specifically: the Lunsford-Pulcher site, a secondary mound center about 7 miles south of Cahokia, and the Texas site, a smaller farmstead on the Kaskaskia River about 50 miles east of Cahokia.

In both cases, aerial photography indicated the presence of parallel ridges that were not obvious on the ground in the proximity of the main architectural components of the sites. Surface collection of artifacts indicated a particular association between these ridges and fragments of the flaked-stone hoes that are very common at Mississippian sites, strengthening the hypothesis that the ridges indicated fields. Excavation further confirmed the hypothesis, revealing that the ridges consisted of dark topsoil piled up and revealing the lighter subsoil between the ridges. The narrowness of the ridges further indicated that they were definitely prehistoric and not the result of historic plowing. Fowler also refers to evidence from excavations in the 1930s at Ocmulgee National Monument, a major Mississippian center in Georgia, that revealed very similar ridges beneath at least one mound. This indicates that rather than an idiosyncratic practice in southern Illinois these ridges were a widespread Mississippian trait, apparently connected to hoe agriculture. He also refers to historical accounts from the nineteenth century indicating that similar ridged fields covered vast areas of Wisconsin and Michigan before white settlement.

Gardening Sign, Chucalissa Mounds, Memphis, Tennessee

The exact reason for the ridges was unclear to Fowler, and he offered just a few tentative ideas. It could have been a development stemming from the adoption of hoes, which would have been more effective than the digging sticks used previously and may have made it easier to pile up good soil for planting. The linear ridges of Mississippian agriculture may have been more efficient than the small hills used previously and associated with the use of the digging stick rather than the hoe. They may also have contributed to a more effective distribution of water to the plants; irrigation would not have been necessary in this wet climate, but a more efficient use of the copious rainfall may have been beneficial. It is also possible that the ridging allowed the use of low-lying land along rivers that would otherwise have been too swampy for planting. The two Illinois sites are certainly in locations where this would likely have been a factor, although Fowler notes that this is not the case for all the other reported areas with ridged fields.

Overall, this is an interesting study pointing out the advantages of aerial photography for identifying subtle archaeological features that may not be apparent on the ground. I am reminded especially of the Chaco road system, which was similarly identified via aerial photography a few years later. Also, and this has nothing to do with this particular article, I was interested to see the following notice in a box at the end of the last page:

NOTICE TO AUTHORS

A formal review procedure for all papers submitted to American Antiquity is being initiated. Papers will be evaluated by two referees; authors will receive copies of referee comments (unidentified as to source). Beginning immediately, THREE COPIES of all articles and submissions to Facts and Comments must be submitted. Contributions will not be considered for publication unless submitted in triplicate. Address inquiries to the editor-elect, EDWIN N. WILMSEN, Museum of Anthropology, Universitv of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 48104.

Peer review was slow to catch on in archaeology, it seems.

ResearchBlogging.org
Fowler, M. (1969). Middle Mississippian Agricultural Fields American Antiquity, 34 (4) DOI: 10.2307/277733

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Core Samples Taken for Tree-Ring Dating, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Despite their impressive preservation, the Gila Cliff Dwellings have gotten surprisingly little attention in the archaeological literature.  This is apparently because they were so thoroughly ransacked by pothunters early on that there wasn’t much left intact for archaeologists to study, and possibly also because the early establishment of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907 has led most subsequent research to be done by the National Park Service, which has often had a tendency to keep findings in internal reports for management purposes rather than publishing them in peer-reviewed journals or books.  The surviving structural timbers have clearly been sampled for tree-ring dating, and the interpretive material put out by the monument discusses the results of this analysis.  The museum at the visitor center also displays some artifact that were apparently found in the cliff dwellings, although it’s not always clear if they were excavated by the NPS or recovered from private collections after having been looted and sold.  The NPS does have an online administrative history of the monument; I haven’t read it yet, but from a casual look through the section on archaeological research it seems to confirm that there has been some excavation by the Park Service, mostly in the 1960s, but that the data have not been thoroughly analyzed or reported.

The only substantial discussion of the cliff dwellings that I have found in the published literature is a short article published by Editha Watson in 1929.  She discusses several cave sites in the Upper Gila River area, but gives the most detailed description (which is still not very detailed) of the caves in the monument.  She discusses the highly looted state of the sites and some of the things found in them, although she does not make it very clear who found them or how:

Corncobs are plentiful in this ruin. They are very small, and the dry atmosphere has preserved them so beautifully that they may be indented with the fingernail. Black-and-white pottery and corrugated ware blackened on the inside are the only sorts noticed among the sherds. Turquoise beads have been found here. As this is a national monument, excavation is forbidden, but vandals have torn up the floor in search of treasure.

She also mentions a “desiccated body of an infant” found in one of the caves.  According to the administrative history four such mummies were allegedly found in the cliff dwellings at various points in the late nineteenth century and sent to the Smithsonian, which apparently never received any of them.  It’s not clear which of these Watson refers to, or where she got her information.

Pictographs on Cave Wall behind Room, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Watson also mentions the red pictographs found in the caves, which she says are “supposed to be the work of later tribes.”  As the administrative history notes, it’s not clear who is supposing this or why.  More recently, Polly Schaafsma has classified these pictographs as belonging to the Mogollon Red style, which is also found to the northwest in the area around Reserve, New Mexico.  She also thinks the pictographs in the caves were made by residents of the cliff dwellings standing on rooftops, which makes sense given their positions and firmly dates them to the late thirteenth century AD.  There are other pictograph locations in and around the monument, including one in Lower Scorpion Campground that is quite impressive in its number and variety of designs.

Pictographs at Lower Scorpion Campground

The Mogollon Red style is very different from most other Southwestern rock art styles, at least the ones I’ve seen examples of.  It includes a lot of abstract geometrical designs and stick-figure humans, and is always in the form of pictographs rather than petroglyphs.  It is particularly different from the Jornada style found to the east in the Mimbres and Jornada Mogollon regions, which consists mainly of petroglyphs and has a lot of naturalistic animals and human faces or masks.  Schaafsma has proposed that the Jornada style represents an ideological system that later developed into the kachina cult of the modern Pueblos.  The Mogollon Red style forms another link between the Gila Cliff Dwellings and areas to the north and west, reinforcing the impression from pottery styles that link them to the Tularosa area.  This is interesting given their geographical proximity to the Mimbres area, with its very different iconographic traditions, and strongly supports the idea that the builders of the cliff dwellings were immigrants from somewhere to the north.

That’s about all I’ve found in the published literature about the cliff dwellings.  Clearly they have a lot of potential to shed light on a number of issues important in the study of Southwestern prehistory, especially interregional relationships and migration, but so far they have not been widely incorporated into discussion of those issues.
ResearchBlogging.org
Watson, E. (1929). Caves of the Upper Gila River, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 31 (2), 299-306 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1929.31.2.02a00070

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Basketmaker Pithouse, Mesa Verde

The Basketmaker III period (ca. AD 500 to 750) is a very important time for understanding the prehistoric Southwest.  Maize agriculture had been introduced earlier, although exactly how early is still a matter of debate, and it was definitely well-established by the immediately preceding Basketmaker II period, but Basketmaker III saw the introduction of beans, pottery, and the bow and arrow, all of which led to major changes in the lifestyles of local agriculturists.  Residence was in pithouses, which are clearly ancestral in form (and probably in function) to the “kivas” of later sites, and while these are usually found isolated or in very small groups, there are a few known examples of large “villages” containing dozens of pithouses.  The processes that led to the formation of these sites, as well as their relationships to the more common isolated sites, are very poorly understood, but it seems pretty clear that residential aggregation in certain locations during this period set the stage for the later formation of large villages during the succeeding Pueblo I period and afterward.

Two of the largest and best-known Basketmaker III villages are in Chaco Canyon.  The better-known of these, by far, is called Shabik’eschee Village, and it is located on the lowest terrace of a finger of Chacra Mesa at the east end of the current Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  Shabik’eschee was excavated by Frank H. H. Roberts in the 1920s as part of the Smithsonian/National Geographic project led by Neil Judd.  The main focus of the project was the excavation of Pueblo Bonito, but Judd had other members of the team, including Roberts, excavate several other sites in and around the canyon as well.  Roberts published his results in 1929, and this publication has been enormously influential in shaping subsequent interpretations of Basketmaker III villages and the period as a whole.

Looking South from Peñasco Blanco toward 29SJ423

The Chaco Project in the 1970s did some additional work at Shabik’eschee, as well as at the other Basketmaker Village in the canyon.  This site, known as 29SJ423, is just south of Peñasco Blanco at the far west end of the canyon, near the confluence of the Chaco and Escavada Washes.  It is situated in a similar location to Shabik’eschee, on a lower terrace of West Mesa (but above Peñasco Blanco, which is on the lowest terrace).  Tom Windes excavated a small portion of 29SJ423 in 1975, but he and other Chaco Project personnel soon came to the conclusion that additional excavation there would not be worth the considerable effort involved.  The collections from this excavation are important, however, since they were acquired using more careful, modern methods than Roberts’s.  Similarly, a very small amount of additional excavation at Shabik’eschee in 1973 has provided important supplemental information with which to evaluate Roberts’s interpretations.

Windes and Chip Wills published an article in 1989 looking back at Roberts’s interpretations at Shabik’eschee in the light of the additional knowledge gained by the Chaco Project excavations.  They concluded that some of Roberts’s ideas, such as his proposal that the site had two discrete periods of occupation separated by a hiatus during which it was abandoned, are likely untenable, and they also concluded that the site was considerably larger than Roberts thought.  They agreed with Roberts that some of the pithouses had been abandoned and their materials were used in subsequent construction, but they saw this as more of an ongoing process related to the short use-life of pithouses and the demands of demographic processes rather than a discrete series of two occupations.  They also saw more spatial patterning in the layout of pithouses within the site than Roberts did, suggesting that the pithouses grouped into what might be family residence units, although they were quite tentative in this finding and did not use these groups as units for any subsequent analysis.

Pinyon Trees, Pipe Spring National Monument

Wills and Windes also posited a novel interpretation for the site as a whole.  Rather than seeing it as a permanent agricultural village, they saw it as a site of occasional gatherings of more mobile families practicing a “mixed” subsistence strategy of small-scale agriculture along with hunting and gathering.  In their interpretation, a small number of families inhabited Shabik’eschee permanently, while others joined them periodically to take advantage of the site’s proximity to piñon woodlands in years with bountiful piñon-nut harvests.  They based this theory on the presence of two types of storage facilities at the site: household-level storage in the antechambers associated with some but not all of the pithouses (presumably the residences of permanent residents) and community-level storage bins scattered around the site.  The idea is that occasional surpluses of corn or whatever would be stored in the bins, and the people who lived at the site permanently watched over it and protected it.  Whenever there was a plentiful crop of piñon nuts, which happens at irregular intervals in the fall, people who lived the rest of the time in scattered locations throughout the area would congregate at Shabik’eschee to take advantage of this and stay for the winter.  If conditions in the spring were good for planting, people might stay longer and plant their crops in the area, but if not they would move on to more attractive planting locations.  Other pithouse villages, such as 29SJ423, would presumably have served similar purposes, allowing periodic aggregation to take advantage of various localized resources.

This is an interesting theory, but it’s based on exceptionally thin evidence.  Wills and Windes even concede that they are spinning this whole story purely from the nature of the storage facilities at the site, and they note that there are other ways to interpret the communal bins in particular.  Instead of protecting food stores during periods of reduced occupation, they may just have functioned to protect them in general.  The shape of the bins makes it more difficult to access their contents, which Wills and Windes interpret as evidence for a sort of semi-caching, but it would also just provide better protection from the elements, vermin, etc. for the contents.  Basically, there’s just no reason from the available evidence to buy the Wills and Windes theory.

"Pithouse Life" Sign at Mesa Verde

Indeed, the assumptions behind this theory seem problematic to me.  The ethnographic comparisons Wills and Windes use to support it are mostly from hunter-gatherer societies, and indeed their model seems to imply that the residents of Shabik’eschee were basically hunter-gatherers who did some farming on the side.  Such societies exist, and may well have existed at certain times in the ancient Southwest (such as the late Archaic), but recent studies have shown with increasing certainty that heavy dependence on agriculture was widespread already in the Basketmaker II period.  Wills and Windes seem to see the Basketmaker III inhabitants of the Chaco area as just beginning to experiment with adding agriculture to a hunter-gatherer lifeway, but it’s much more likely that they were full-time agriculturalists and had been for centuries.  They did of course still do some hunting and gathering, as their Pueblo descendants have continued to do up to the present day, but while this may in some sense qualify as a “mixed” economy that shouldn’t obscure the important fact that Pueblo societies have been overwhelmingly farming-based societies since well before the occupation of Shabik’eschee.

I think this interpretation, and others like it which were popular in Southwestern archaeology in the 1980s, results in part from the enormous influence of Lewis Binford on the development of processual archaeology.  Binford’s personal research and expertise were largely on hunter-gatherer societies, and the guidelines he set forth for “archaeology as anthropology” that were eagerly followed by young “New Archaeologists” were heavily influenced by that background.  Wills and Windes cite Binford several times in this article.

Excavating the Lift Station Site in the Chaco Maintenance Yard

Be that as it may, this is an important article just in providing an updated take on the facts about Shabik’eschee, which as Wills and Windes note has been very important in the interpretation of ancient societies generally.  It contains relatively little information about 29SJ423, but it does briefly discuss this site as a comparison.  It says even less about the much more numerous isolated Basketmaker III sites in the canyon, but it notes that Chaco Project surveys identified at least 163 pithouse sites from this period.  One that they didn’t find, because it was deeply buried under the ground, was later found by the park in the course of trying to build a lift station for the septic system.  This site, informally known as the Lift Station Site, is a Basketmaker III pithouse that was excavated while I was working at Chaco.  One of the more interesting things it revealed was an apparent location for pottery manufacture.

One of the major problems with trying to understand the Basketmaker III period at Chaco is precisely that the site are typically deeply buried, so it’s hard to even know how many of them there are.  It’s clear that this was a period of significant population in the canyon, but it’s hard to tell how many sites were occupied simultaneously.  This problem is exacerbated by the difficulty of dating many of the sites.  Tree-ring dates are often hard to obtain from the scarce wood found at excavated sites, and Shabik’eschee is particularly poorly dated.  The few tree-ring dates available seem to suggest it was occupied at some point after the mid-500s, but there are no cutting dates so any greater precision is impossible.  29SJ423 did produce two cutting dates, at 550 and 557, so it seems the two villages were most likely contemporaneous.  The isolated sites are even harder to date, of course, but the Lift Station Site produced corn that was radiocarbon dated.  I don’t know the dates that resulted, but I did hear that they were earlier than was expected based on the pottery types found.

Whole Pot from the Lift Station Site

The size of the Basketmaker III occupation at Chaco, and particularly the presence of the two large villages, has important implications for understanding the subsequent history of the canyon that I think are just beginning to be realized.  The local population seems to have declined during the subsequent Pueblo I period (ca. AD 750 to 900), when people seem to have begun to move in large numbers to higher elevations where they formed some really large villages.  However, it’s not clear that Chaco was completely abandoned during this period, and recent improvements in dating the early great houses in the canyon have shown that some of them, especially Pueblo Bonito, go back further than was once thought.  Pueblo Bonito is now known to have been begun no later than 860, and the earliest part of it may date much earlier, possibly to 800 or even before.  This means that the gap between the Basketmaker III villages and the earliest great houses suddenly looks a lot smaller, and may disappear entirely.  There are pithouses under the plaza at Pueblo Bonito that may date to very early Pueblo I or even Basketmaker III, and there is a small Pueblo I occupation at Shabik’eschee that dates as late as 750.  This suggests that these two iconic sites in Chacoan archaeology, generally interpreted in very different ways, may actually overlap in occupation.  This would require some serious modifications of the ways the origins of the Chaco system are often interpreted.

Chaco had been an important place for a very long time when it started to become a major regional center around AD 1040.  It’s looking increasingly plausible, though by no means certain, that it had been continuously occupied for 500 years at that point, and even if there was a brief gap between the Basketmaker III villages and the first Pueblo I great houses it is very unlikely that is was long enough for people to have forgotten about Chaco and what had happened there.  Even if many of the people who built and/or occupied the early great houses in the 800s hadn’t been born at Chaco, they probably knew it was there long before they made it their home.
ResearchBlogging.org
Wills, W., & Windes, T. (1989). Evidence for Population Aggregation and Dispersal during the Basketmaker III Period in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico American Antiquity, 54 (2) DOI: 10.2307/281711

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Metate Incorporated into Wall Capping, Pueblo Bonito

I’ve written a bit about the recent research, spearheaded by Larry Benson of the USGS, into the sources of the corn found at Chaco.  These studies continue to refine the techniques used to identify source areas, but so far they have shown that corn was almost certainly being imported to Chaco both during and after the florescence of the Chaco system between AD 1030 and 1130.  As they begin to test more potential field areas, of course, the number of matches for the strontium isotope ratios in the corn at Chaco has increased.  While early studies indicated that much of it likely came from the Chuska Valley, it now looks much more likely that it instead came from the area along the Chaco River between there and the canyon.  This is an area with numerous outlying great houses, and it was probably the main route for the many commodities from the Chuska area that were brought to the canyon, and it’s also generally a better area for agriculture than the canyon itself, so this all makes sense.  There has also been some evidence that at least some corn was also coming from the Totah area to the north, again a more productive agricultural area with many Chacoan outliers.

Based on the proveniences of the corncobs from Pueblo Bonito that were tested early on, one tentative suggestion emerging from this research was that the main sources of imported corn changed over time.  The cobs that came from the lower Chaco River were from Rooms 3 and 92 in the northern part of Old Bonito, one of the earliest parts of the building to be built, while the one cob of possible Totah origin came instead from Room 170, in the southeast corner, one of the newest parts of the site.  Since there does seem on other grounds to have been a shift in the emphasis of the Chaco system from south to west to north over time, it would make sense that the early rooms contained early cobs from the west while a later room contained a later cob from the north.

Talus Unit with Snow

A paper published in 2008 by a group of big names in Chacoan studies sought to look at this directly by radiocarbon dating the cobs.  This is an interesting paper which goes beyond that narrow topic to also look at the characteristics of the corn found at the various great houses and other sites.  One of the co-authors is Mollie Toll, a specialist in archaeobotany who has done a lot of research on Chacoan corn.  As part of that research, she had long noted that the corn at Pueblo Bonito generally had bigger ears with more rows of kernels than most other corn known from the prehistoric Southwest.    It was bigger than earlier and later corn, for one thing, but it was also bigger than most other corn from the same period.  Corn from the Chacoan occupation of Salmon Ruin was also unusually large, as was corn from the Talus Unit behind Chetro Ketl, but corn from Pueblo Alto and Pueblo del Arroyo, other contemporary great houses at Chaco, was smaller and more in line with that from earlier and later sites.

Toll came up with three possible explanations for the difference.  Pueblo Bonito corn could be a different variety or “landrace” from the others, which is plausible but not directly testable with current technology.  It could also have been grown outside of the canyon where conditions were better for agriculture, while the corn from other great houses was grown in the canyon where conditions were poorer.  Finally, and problematically, the corn at Bonito might not have been Chacoan at all!  Since modern corn is generally bigger than ancient corn, Toll (when she was first looking at this in the 1980s) couldn’t exclude the possibility that the corn found at Pueblo Bonito had actually been put there by Navajos in the nineteenth century.  Much of it was from George Pepper‘s excavations in the 1890s, so it couldn’t be newer than that, but there was no way for Toll to tell how much older it was.

Room 3a/92/97, Pueblo Bonito

We still can’t tell different ancient landraces apart (although the recent sequencing of the maize genome may make this more feasible in the future), but the strontium isotope testing is giving us a sense of where the corn was grown, and accelerator mass spectrometry now makes directly dating the corn relatively easy.  Seven cobs from Pueblo Bonito that had been used in the strontium studies were dated for this paper.  One was the cob from Room 170 that possibly came from the Totah, one was from Room 92, and the rest were from Room 3.

The results were illuminating, but also challenging.  All the cobs clearly dated to ancient times, so the possibility that the size of Pueblo Bonito’s corncobs represents recent deposition is effectively quashed.  Three of the Room 3 cobs had closely clustered dates with intercepts around AD 1000, which offered some partial support for the idea that the corn in the early rooms was relatively early, but the other two were widely spaced, one at 870 and at 1170.  This is problematic for the idea that the date of corn in a room can be predicted from the date of that room’s construction, but it makes sense that the deposits in a room may date to well after its construction.  Since Room 3 dates very early, probably to the 900s, it’s likely that the deposits there resulted from much later trash dumping once it was no longer used for its original purpose.  Room 3 has a firepit, so it was probably originally a residential room, and it is likely one of those “big square rooms” that I have argued began to take the place of kivas in Chacoan room suites of the tenth century.  Room 92 is part of the maze of confusing rooms next to Room 3.  It had a well-preserved floor with corn and bean bushes on it (it’s not clear from Pepper’s description if this was the second or third floor), which suggests that it was used as a storeroom at the end of the period of occupation in this part of the building.  The cob from this room had the latest date of any in the study, with an intercept of AD 1220, which is consistent with the idea that this room was in use as a storeroom at the end of occupation.

Room 170, Pueblo Bonito

The biggest surprise, however, was the cob from Room 170, which dated to AD 1010.  This is particularly odd, since Room 170 was probably built around 1080 or even later.  Looking at the probability curve for this date, there is some chance that the actual date was around 1100, but the curve as a whole has a much more prominent peak around the intercept at 1010 than any of the other reported dates, which suggests that the probability is quite high that the intercept does in fact represent the true date or close to it.  The authors give various possibilities for why the cob might have been placed in this room long after it was grown, including the idea that it was put there as some sort of ritual offering of continuity with the occupation of earlier parts of the building.  I prefer another explanation they also suggest, which is that it was part of an earlier trash deposit that was redeposited in Room 170 for some reason.  There is very little information on what the deposits in this room were actually like, but many of the rooms in this part of the building were full of trash when excavated, and I think it’s most likely that this one was too.  The trash could have been put there for any number of reasons; if it was redeposited from somewhere else, it may have served as structural fill to support an upper story.  In any case, this puts a damper on the idea that the overall sources of corn changed over time.  Indeed, the sources seem to have been pretty constant through time for cobs left in different areas of the site, which suggests that the real story is much more complicated.

One nice thing about this paper is that the authors do a very good job of properly reporting their radiocarbon dates, particularly in giving point estimates as intercepts, which are meaningful, rather than midpoints, which are not.  Many papers make this mistake, including some of Benson’s reporting these and other dates on corn.  This paper also shows the probability curves for the dates, which give even more information.  This seems to be pretty common these days among Mesoamerican archaeologists, but it’s still quite rare in the Southwest, where radiocarbon dating has only recently become a major focus.  The availability of tree-ring dates, which are much more precise, has generally led Southwestern archaeologists to neglect radiocarbon, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious from studies like this one that the ability to date things other than trees is very useful in interpreting sites.

Obviously this paper just reports a handful of dates, and the authors take pains to point out the tentative nature of any conclusions they draw, but it’s an important contribution to the issue of where the Chaco system, whatever its nature, was getting its means of support.  As is often the case with new avenues of research, at this point papers like this pose more questions than they answer, but there are plenty of corncobs out there to date and analyze in other ways, just as there are plenty of potsherds to test for theobromine.  Once we get a bigger database of dates and strontium (and other) ratios, we’ll start to get a clearer picture of the behavior behind these remains.

Metate Fragment at Pueblo Alto

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