I recently spent a few days in Israel, which is a fascinating, complicated country in all sorts of ways. It was particularly interesting to see the role archaeology plays there, especially in contrast to the way it works in the US. Archaeology is much more visible and important in Israel for both historical and ideological reasons. I haven’t yet had enough time to come to any major conclusions about the implications of this, but I’m thinking about it and may discuss it in future posts. It was also interesting to compare the geography of Israel with that of the Southwestern US. Physically and climatically Israel is very similar to California. It has deserts, humid coastal lowlands, and forested hills, and as in most countries that have both desert and non-desert areas the vast majority of the population lives in the non-desert areas, even though the deserts make up a huge portion of the total land area. There is a common perception in the US that Israel is a desert country full of camels, but while there certainly are deserts and camels there the majority of the country’s population has little to no contact with them. Anyway, it was interesting to see a country so different from the US in some ways and yet so similar to it in others, and I’m still processing everything I saw and learned while I was there. I may or may not discuss Israel at length here, but having seen it will certainly inform my interpretations of archaeology and other issues in the American context from here on out.
Archive for the ‘Touring’ Category
In comments to the previous post, Graham King raises an important question: assuming that the assemblages of broken, burned, and otherwise unusually treated bones at sites like 5MT10010 at Cowboy Wash represent incidents of cannibalism, what does this mean culturally and historically? After all, cannibalism has occurred in various contexts in many societies, including our own, and it can arise from a variety of causes. One of the most obvious is starvation, seen most often in situations like the plane crash in the Andes made famous in the movie Alive and incidents during the settlement of the American West such as the Donner Party and the Alferd Packer case, all of which involved small groups being trapped in mountains under harsh conditions and resorting to cannibalism to survive.
So were the events at Cowboy Wash around AD 1150 the result of survival cannibalism, perhaps of members of the community who had died due to disease or starvation by other members of the community? The excavators of 5MT10010 argued that they were not, but the evidence they gave for this conclusion is not particularly convincing. They basically had two arguments against survival cannibalism:
- If the individuals at Cowboy Wash had died natural deaths, the demographics of the dead should reflect the differing susceptibility to harsh conditions of different age groups, which generally means a higher death rate among infants and a lower one among older children and adolescents. Since the 5MT10010 assemblage contained no infants but a higher than expected number of older children, it is unlikely to have resulted from natural death.
- Unlike in the historically documented cases, the people at Cowboy Wash were not physically trapped. There was nothing preventing them from moving away from the area if there were insufficient resources. The southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain is pretty flat and open, rather than mountainous, and the abandonment of the sites there apparently took place in the spring, when snow would not have been an issue.
Neither of these arguments is very convincing. The assemblage of cannibalized individuals at 5MT10010 looks demographically unusual, sure, but then again it apparently consists of only seven people. That’s a minimum number, of course, but since the whole site was excavated and it wasn’t a large site to begin with it seems likely that the recovered bones represent most or all of the people involved. If the assemblage represents the inhabitants of the site, which the excavators claim and I see no reason to doubt, they likely represent a family or other social unit, and it’s quite possible that they just didn’t happen to have any infants in the group at the time of the event. In any case, with a population this small there is no reason to expect any sort of “normal” demographic profile.
The second argument is better, but still somewhat unconvincing. It’s definitely true that the inhabitants of Cowboy Wash wouldn’t have been snowed in at the time of the abandonment event, which apparently took place in the spring, but it’s not necessarily true that they would have had somewhere else to go. This was a time of drought and resource shortages throughout the northern Southwest, and there is considerable evidence for violence (even leaving aside the alleged cannibalism incidents) throughout the region, including at other sites in the Ute Mountain area, at the time. Indeed, Cowboy Wash is a very marginal area for agriculture to start with, so the fact that they were there in the first place, and that they had not already left when the harvest failed, implies strongly that they had nowhere else to go. Under those circumstances, it is certainly conceivable that some community residents might have begun to succumb to hunger or disease and others in the community may have resorted to eating them. That’s not to say that it’s likely or the best explanation, of course. One piece of evidence arguing against this interpretation, which the excavators mention but don’t go into much detail on, is that all the processing seems to have taken place at the same time, rather than drawn out over a period of weeks or months as might be expected if people were gradually dying and being eaten.
Instead of survival cannibalism, the Cowboy Wash excavators prefer a scenario of intercommunity violence to explain the 5MT10010 assemblage. This implies that the people who ate the residents of 5MT10010 also killed them. This sort of explanation does fit well with the other evidence for violence short of cannibalism in the region during this period, but it is tricky to show any correlation between violent death and cannibalism because the processing of the bodies would likely eliminate any skeletal evidence of violent death. That does seem to be the case in this assemblage, as in most other alleged cases of cannibalism. There’s plenty of evidence of skeletal trauma, of course, but most of it seems to be directly related to the processing of the bodies shortly after death, and much of the rest seems to represent injuries incurred during life that had healed before death. In this case, then, there is no direct evidence linking alleged cannibalism to violent death.
One piece of evidence supporting the “raid by other group” theory is that three other sites in the Cowboy Wash community, contemporary with 5MT10010, have also been excavated and all three show similar signs of cannibalism. Since there are only ten sites in the whole community, the fact that four of them seem to have been rapidly abandoned at the same time that many people in them were eaten seems to imply that the abandonment was the result of a single event. As the authors of the 5MT10010 paper point out there and in more detail in another article, however, there are some differences among the four assemblages and even between the assemblages in the two pitstructures at 5 MT10010 containing large numbers of bones. Although all four sites show evidence of processing for consumption, the specific body parts that are most prevalent and the way they were processed suggest that the processing was done separately at each site and not in accordance with a common technique. For example, at 5MT10010 the bodies found in one pitstructure appeared to have been cut into small pieces and cooked in a pot on the surface, with the bones thrown down the ventilator shaft after consumption. At the other pitstructure, however, the bodies seem to have been cut into fewer pieces and roasted directly on a fire in the hearth inside the structure. All this suggests that if in fact the Cowboy Wash community was destroyed by a raid, the raiders who attacked each part of it seem to have acted fairly autonomously in deciding how to deal with the inhabitants, even though they all apparently had the common goal of eating them.
This is actually rather odd, and does seem to undermine the idea that warfare was behind the cannibalism at Cowboy Wash. It is possible, however, that raiding and survival cannibalism aren’t mutually exclusive, and that the raiders of Cowboy Wash may have attacked it specifically in order to eat the people there because they themselves were starving. The excavators do mention that the meat from a cannibalistic attack may have been a valued “spoil of war” during harsh environmental times like this, but they generally downplay this aspect and focus more on the idea that cannibalism would have served as a terroristic tactic to strike fear in the hearts of enemies and perhaps scare them away from the area. (The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, of course.) The fact that the people in the different parts of the Cowboy Wash community were apparently prepared differently does seem more compatible with the idea that the attackers were focused on eating them because they were hungry than with the idea that they were concerned with striking fear into any survivors or other nearby villages. The terroristic theory seems to imply a ritualistic approach to the cannibalism, which is not particularly apparent in this or any other Southwestern cannibalism assemblage. Any type of ritual cannibalism would likely have been more standardized in execution, as in Mesoamerica where ritual cannibalism was widespread. In the Southwest, by contrast, the execution seems rather haphazard.
So, tentatively, I think the best explanation at least for Cowboy Wash specifically, and perhaps for other cases as well, is that certain communities in the Mesa Verde area during the extended drought of the mid-twelfth century AD hit upon the idea of compensating for their poor harvests by attacking other communities, not to take their stored food (since they likely didn’t have any either) but to eat their residents. Which communities these might have been and where they got the idea remain open questions. This idea led to a rash of cannibalism incidents around AD 1150 which subsided soon thereafter, perhaps as climatic conditions improved (or, alternatively, as other communities got better at defending themselves). When the next major drought came, in the late thirteenth century, the idea of cannibalistic raiding does not seem to have been taken up again. The authors of the Cowboy Wash articles take pains to note that there is no evidence of cannibalism in the Mesa Verde area after AD 1200. Although there is plenty of evidence of violence during the late 1200s preceding the total depopulation of the region by 1300, none of this involved cannibalism.
Or did it? There is actually some evidence from at least one site suggesting that the idea of cannibalism did not totally disappear from the Mesa Verde area after 1200. But that’s a matter for another post.
Lambert, P., Billman, B., & Leonard, B. (2000). Explaining variability in mutilated human bone assemblages from the American Southwest: a case study from the southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain, Colorado International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 10 (1), 49-64 DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-1212(200001/02)10:13.0.CO;2-B
Posted in Archaeology, Consequences, Cultural Resource Management, Elsewhere, FAQ, Near, Northern San Juan, Physical Anthropology, Pottery, Research, Salvage, Subsistence on December 25, 2010| 4 Comments »
In their critique of the article reporting evidence for alleged cannibalism at site 5MT10100 near Cowboy Wash on the southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain, Kurt Dongoske, Debra Martin, and T. J. Ferguson challenged many of the conclusions and lines of evidence presented in the article. Among these was the evidence of consumption of human flesh from a coprolite found in a hearth at the site, which could potentially serve as the “smoking gun” offering physical proof of cannibalism, if the analysis is correct. The authors of the critique found the presentation of this evidence in the initial article unconvincing, however, describing the data as “sketchy” and implying a lack of scientific rigor in the analysis. They concluded this section of the critique by saying:
We are not microbiologists, and therefore before accepting the claim that the coprolite contains human myoglobin, we await peer review and publication of the fecal study by Science or another scientific journal specializing in biomolecular research. As presented in the Cowboy Wash study, the fecal evidence is suggestive but not convincing. More work pursuing this line of evidence is warranted in future studies.
In their response to the critique, the authors of the original paper added more detailed information on the coprolite analysis, but they also did as the critique authors recommended and published a short article in Nature (Science‘s main competitor) giving more specific details on the analytical techniques used to detect human myoglobin both in the coprolite and on some potsherds from a cooking vessel found in the same pitstructure. There isn’t actually much in this paper that wasn’t in the response to the critique, aside from the laboratory procedures, which I am not in a position to evaluate. It’s not actually clear to me if this article was peer-reviewed; it doesn’t explicitly mention any reviewers or any details of the review process, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t reviewed. It’s also not clear to me if the authors submitted it in response to the critique or if they had already intended to. Both the original article and the critique were published in January 2000, and this article was received by Nature on March 7, accepted on June 6 (which does seem to imply some sort of review process), and published on September 7. Meanwhile, the response to the critique was published in April. In any case, whether or not the authors of the initial paper were spurred by the critique to submit additional publications (and this is not the only one to appear after the critique was published), they certainly can’t be accused of shrinking from the challenges it set for them.
Mentioning this paper also allows me to go into a bit more detail about the myoglobin analysis, which I didn’t in the previous post. Basically, to determine if the coprolite resulted from the consumption of human flesh the researchers needed to find something to test for that would be present in parts of a human body likely to be consumed but not in parts of the consumers body likely to end up in the coprolite during the digestion process (e.g., blood or intestinal lining). They decided on myoglobin, which is a protein molecule in the skeletal and cardiac muscles that transports oxygen from the outer membrane of muscle cells to the interior parts of the cells where it is used to generate energy. Importantly, this protein is not found in the smooth muscles of the digestive system or in the blood, so it is unlikely to end up in fecal matter as part of the digestive process. The researchers used a variety of controls to establish this, including coprolites from Salmon Ruin and modern fecal samples from “normal individuals,” people with blood in their stool, and people who had recently eaten beef. None of these ancient or modern samples tested positive for human myoglobin, but the beef ones did test positive for bovine myoglobin, establishing that myoglobin can indeed be found and identified to species in fecal material. These controls were mentioned in the original article, and when I read it I had wondered where they had gotten the modern samples. The Nature article explains that they came from leftover material from clinical samples that was turned over for research use, which makes sense. For the sherd testing, the controls were other sherds from the same site, sherds from another site in Southwestern Colorado dating from the same period but without evidence of cannibalism, and sherds from a Plains site near Denver also dating to roughly the same period. None of these control sherds tested positive for human myoglobin either, although some tested positive for deer or rabbit myoglobin. Thus, since the coprolite from Cowboy Wash and the sherds found near it were the only samples to test positive for human myoglobin, the hypothesis that they were associated with ingestion of human flesh was not disproven, and it remains the most plausible explanation of the Cowboy Wash assemblage.
It’s certainly possible that problems may be found with this analysis that cast doubt on the result, but I haven’t seen any, and until I do I’ll provisionally accept it as indicating very strongly that broken and burned bone assemblages like the one at Cowboy Wash most likely result from cannibalism. What that might mean culturally and historically, of course, is a different and more difficult question.
Marlar RA, Leonard BL, Billman BR, Lambert PM, & Marlar JE (2000). Biochemical evidence of cannibalism at a prehistoric Puebloan site in southwestern Colorado. Nature, 407 (6800), 74-8 PMID: 10993075
Posted in Archaeology, Chaco Canyon, Cultural Resource Management, Elsewhere, FAQ, Near, Northern San Juan, Peñasco Blanco, Physical Anthropology, Pueblo Bonito, Research, Salvage on December 25, 2010| 7 Comments »
The finding of cracked and calcined bones in some of the rooms brings up the question of the eating of human flesh by the people of this pueblo. There was no evidence of human bodies having been buried in rooms above the first floor and only portions of skeletons were in evidence in Rooms 61 and 80 which contained broken and charred bones. During the period of our work in Pueblo Bonito some of our Navajo workmen cleaned out a number of rooms in Penasco Blanco and in one of these a great many human bones were found. Some of these including portions of the skull, were charred, and the majority of the long bones had been cracked open and presented the same appearance as do the animal bones that have been treated in a similar way for the extraction of the marrow. It would therefore seem that these Pueblo Indians, either through stress of hunger or for religious reasons, had occasionally resorted to the eating of human flesh.
The report was published in 1920, and ever since then the question of cannibalism has hung over Chaco Canyon like a giant question mark. In the 1920s Frank Roberts found some additional bones at another site at Chaco that were in a similar condition, but these and the ones mentioned by Pepper constitute the entire sample of bones from Chaco itself that have been proposed as evidence for cannibalism. On its own, this is pretty weak stuff, especially since it comes only from sites that were excavated early in the history of archaeological research at Chaco and information on the context of these bones is very limited. Most archaeologists have therefore generally been content to conclude that whatever these bones represent, they don’t have much relevance to explaining Chaco as a whole.
Over the decades since Pepper wrote his report, however, a growing number of other sites throughout the northern Southwest have revealed human bones that are broken, burned, and otherwise suspiciously unlike typical burials. As archaeological techniques have improved, the amount of information about the context of these finds has increased, and as physical anthropologists have gained experienced and added new techniques more information can be gained from both these new finds and the early ones now in museums. One physical anthropologist in particular, Christy Turner of Arizona State, has put an enormous amount of effort into analyzing evidence for cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest. His overall interpretation of the evidence has led him most recently to propose, particularly in the 1999 book Man Corn, coauthored with his wife, that cannibalism was a core part of the Chaco system, which he sees as a militaristic state led by some sort of sociopathic Toltec leader who came up from Mexico and attempted to institute a Mesoamerican state based on tribute and human sacrifice, or something (I haven’t read the book).
Obviously this theory depends heavily on attempts to equate the evidence for cannibalism across the Southwest with the rise of Chaco, and here it immediately runs into problems. While there is the evidence from Chaco reported by Pepper and Roberts, most of the evidence for cannibalism in the Southwest comes from contexts that are rather distant from Chaco both spatially and temporally. Some are earlier, particularly in the AD 800s and 900s, when the Chaco system may have been gearing up but was certainly not yet in the culturally dominant role it attained by the late 1000s. More are later, mostly in the AD 1100s, after Chaco’s influence declined. Spatially, most of the well-documented examples from recent examples are from southern Colorado, which was certainly under Chacoan influence at one point but probably was not at the times the events apparently occurred. Indeed, most of these well-documented examples are from a strikingly specific time and place: around AD 1150 in the area around Sleeping Ute Mountain, west of the modern town of Cortez, Colorado. There are other examples known from New Mexico and Arizona, but like the Chaco examples they mostly come from poorly documented early excavations and can’t be placed very well temporally.
According to one count, there are 32 sites in the Southwest that have yielded bones that may indicate cannibalism. Of these, 18 are in the greater Mesa Verde region in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah and can be dated with some certainty. Fully half of these sites, 9 out of 18, date to between AD 1125 and 1175. This striking spatial and temporal patterning has led some to suggest that these may reflect a single event of some sort that occurred in the context of the multidecadal drought of that period and the social disruption caused by the decline of the Chaco system at the same time. This idea was proposed in a talk I attended at the 2009 Pecos Conference. Several names were on the talk, including Turner’s (although he didn’t seem to actually be there), but much of the actual talking was done by David Breternitz, an archaeologist with long experience with the region. In addition to proposing that these assemblages indicating cannibalism or at least “folks treated inconsiderately” represented a single event that may have taken place over the course of mere weeks, days, or even hours, Breternitz noted the problematic connotations of using the word “cannibalism,” which has made the study of these sites a lightning rod for controversy as well as an irresistible temptation for sensationalistic treatments in the popular press. He referred to it as the “C word” and analogized it to the “N word,” which is not appropriate to use in talking to the NAACP (or, I would add, most other audiences).
Both the puzzling and the controversial aspects of the cannibalism issue are present in the case of one of the best-documented of these assemblages in the Cortez area. This is that found at site 5MT10010 near Cowboy Wash on the southern piedmont of Ute Mountain, which was excavated as part of a salvage operation in connection with an irrigation project of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, on whose reservation the site is located. This site, which was described in an article in American Antiquity in 2000, was located in an area that was slated to be completely covered by a new irrigated field and was therefore completely excavated. It consisted of three pitstructures, like kivas but of clearly residential function, with associated surface masonry rooms, which do not seem to have been used residentially, outdoor activity areas, and trash middens. Two of these pitstructures contained assemblages of human bones that were heavily damaged and broken into hundreds of small pieces, some of which showed burning, cut marks, and other evidence of cannibalism similar to that found at other sites. These apparently represented the remains of seven individuals: two adult males, one adult female, one adult of uncertain sex but probably male, and three youths of uncertain gender aged approximately 14, 11, and 7. Their bones were strewn all over the two pitstructures and showed no grave goods or evidence of formal burial, in striking contrast to five individuals who had been formally buried in the trash mounds (which is a typical burial location for this area and period).
From the way the bones were broken and burned the authors concluded that all of the individuals in the pitstructures had been killed in a sudden attack at the same time, after which they were cooked and eaten and the site was totally abandoned and not reoccupied. In addition to the cut marks and burning on the bones themselves, two stone tools found in one of the pitstructures tested positive for human blood, implying that they had been used to chop up the bodies. Evidence for the sudden nature of the attack and the resulting abandonment consisted largely of the large number of artifacts left in place in all three pitstructures; normally when a site would be abandoned the people would take most of the usable artifacts with them, but in this case they were left in place.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the third pitstructure, which didn’t contain any bones except two which were heavily weathered and appeared to have been deposited naturally from the surface at some point after abandonment, did contain something even more interesting: a coprolite, unburned, in the hearth. Analysis revealed that the coprolite was human, apparently resulted from a meal consisting entirely of meat, and tested positive for the presence of a human muscle protein. This is about as close to smoking gun as it is possible to get in trying to establish if cannibalism took place in a given instance. Cut marks on bones can be and have been explained in various other ways, which are not generally very convincing but hard to disprove. This coprolite, however, seems to establish clearly that at least in this one instance, cannibalism did take place.
The authors, having established to their satisfaction that this assemblage does in fact represent an episode of cannibalism, went on to situate it in the context of both the local community and the larger region. The regional analysis basically pointed out the rash of likely cannibalism episodes around AD 1150, which may have been associated with the drought of that period, although it also noted the earlier episodes and the likelihood that this behavior constituted a longstanding pattern that for some reason became briefly intense and then subsided. They note that there is no evidence for cannibalism in the Mesa Verde area after AD 1200 (though this may not actually be true; more on that later) and very little evidence anywhere else in the Southwest after that date either. Whatever this event represents, it was clearly pretty temporary.
The community analysis was particularly interesting. This community on Cowboy Wash, which was established around AD 1125 and consisted of 10 sites, four of which have been excavated. Strikingly, all four of the excavated sites showed the same sort of evidence of cannibalism, strongly implying that they were all attacked and destroyed at the same time around AD 1150. This is in contrast to the earlier community at Cowboy Wash, which existed from about AD 1075 to sometime in the 1120s and was abandoned before the new one was established, probably by new people. Another striking characteristic of the newer Cowboy Wash community was the prevalence of ceramics made in the Chuska Mountain area to the south along the Arizona-New Mexico border. Chuska pottery was common at Chaco during its prime and has been found in various other areas as well, but it is extremely rare in the Mesa Verde region and the prevalence of it at Cowboy Wash strongly suggests that the inhabitants were either immigrants from the Chuskas themselves (pretty plausible in the light of the disruptions likely associated with the fall of the Chaco system, with which the Chuska communities were strongly associated) or maintained strong trading ties to Chuska communities rather than other local communities. Either way, the inhabitants of this community would likely have been easily identified as “outsiders” in the area, which may explain why they were targeted by others during this time of scarce resources, extended drought, and increased violence. The Cowboy Wash community was not in a defensive location and does not appear to have had any defensive features such as walls. Its fate may explain why such locations and features became so common not long afterward.
Of course, with something like this there will always be objections, and a critique of the claim of cannibalism by two archaeologists who have been closely identified with the interests of the modern Pueblos, Kurt Dongoske and T. J. Ferguson, along with physical anthropologist Debra Martin, accompanied this article when it was first published. The three of them basically criticized everything they could about the presentation of data and argumentation in the article on the Cowboy Wash site. Some of the criticisms were reasonable, including a caution about being too quick to talk about cannibalism and to keep in mind the likely effect of this in the popular press and on modern Native Americans. Others basically amounted to nitpicking about the presentation of data, often appearing to demand a level of information more appropriate for a full site report than a journal article. In a response, the authors gave more information on the analysis and tried to counter accusations that the blood residue and coprolite analyses in particular may have been contaminated or otherwise problematic. They also conceded some of the points raised in the critique, especially about the importance of thinking about the effect of this kind of research and the way it is presented in public discourse. This response seemed pretty convincing to me. I’ve heard that the coprolite evidence in particular has been challenged, but I’m not sure if any more substantial objections than the easily defused ones in the initial critique have been raised.
Another interesting thing about the critique and response, to me, is the way the critique basically accuses the authors of the initial article of being insufficiently “scientific” in not rigorously testing alternative hypotheses. This is interesting largely because it clearly falls on the “anthropology is and should be a science” side of the “is anthropology a science?” debate, even though these particular anthropologists are coming from a perspective that is usually associated with the other side in their close association with the modern Pueblos and appreciation of their viewpoints. In this context they seem to be mostly raising the science issue as a club with which to (rather ineffectively) attack the initial article, but the use of this approach is still noteworthy. The response basically runs with this assumption and argues that, no, the analysis really was very scientific and they didn’t include all the data and hypotheses because of the space constraints of the journal article, but it’s all in the full report. Both seem to think of “science” mostly as a methodology, particularly associated with hypothesis testing, rather than a body of knowledge, which is also interesting.
Another thing the critique mentions is the desirability of more comprehensive approaches to the issues of violence, migration, warfare, and so on. The critique authors say this in the context of criticizing the initial report for focusing too narrowly on cannibalism specifically, which sits oddly with their criticisms of it for not being specific enough in describing the physical evidence, but this is one of their better points. They specifically mention the possible role of ethnicity in structuring some of these dynamics, and cite the paper on ethnicity at Wupatki by Glenn Davis Stone and Christian Downum that I recently discussed. I know of at least one recent paper that has done just that; I’ll have more on it later.
So what does all of this imply for Chaco? Not much, really. The authors of the initial Cowboy Wash paper note that to the extent that the Cortez-area spate of cannibalism episodes around AD 1150 has anything to do with Chaco, it is most likely in representing one aspect of the social chaos that may have followed the decline of the Chaco system after AD 1130 or so. They also note that Cowboy Wash is about as far from a Chacoan outlier as it was possible to get in the region during this period. The closest proposed outlier is Yucca House, on the other side of Sleeping Ute Mountain toward Cortez, the outlier status of which is rather questionable since it is unexcavated and also has a large later occupation that makes it difficult to identify any Chacoan parts. And speaking of the location of Cowboy Wash, it is important to note that the southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain is remarkably desolate even by Southwestern standards and would have been very marginal for agriculture. It doesn’t get enough rain for dry farming, so any farming the people at 5MT10100 would have done would have to have been floodwater farming using the wash itself, which would be very vulnerable to fluctuations in rainfall and other climatic conditions. This probably explains why the area was colonized and abandoned several times during prehistory. The time of the attack appears to have particularly bad for the inhabitants, as there was minimal evidence of domestic plants and most of the plant remains found at the site were of wild plants that would have been gathered in the spring to compensate for a poor harvest in the fall.
And what about the bones mentioned by Pepper at Chaco itself? Hard to say. Turner has reexamined some of them and concluded that they do in fact represent evidence of cannibalism, but then again he would conclude that. The fact that we don’t really have any more detailed information about their contexts within the site than the minimal information given by Pepper makes it very difficult to place them within the context of Chacoan prehistory as we know it today. Judging from the better information we now have from Colorado, I think one possibility is that the Chaco bones represent something similar that happened around the same time. The canyon was not totally abandoned after it declined in regional importance around 1130, and it might have participated in some way in the cannibalistic warfare that apparently took place after that, though whether as victim or perpetrator is hard to say. Whether or not this is the actual explanation, it is important to remember that the fact at a big, complex site like Pueblo Bonito not everything found somewhere in the is necessarily closely connected to the original purposes for which the site was built. Things change, after all. Furthermore, Pueblo Bonito has hundreds of rooms, almost all of which have been thoroughly excavated, and possible evidence of cannibalism has been found in two. That’s a pretty thin reed on which to hang a theory postulating that Chaco was all about cannibalism. Some cannibalism may well have taken place at Chaco, but there is really no reason to think that it was a major part, or indeed any part, of the reason Chaco was built or became so influential. At least, that’s the way I see it. Merry Christmas.
Billman, B., Lambert, P., & Leonard, B. (2000). Cannibalism, Warfare, and Drought in the Mesa Verde Region during the Twelfth Century A.D. American Antiquity, 65 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694812
Dongoske, K., Martin, D., & Ferguson, T. (2000). Critique of the Claim of Cannibalism at Cowboy Wash American Antiquity, 65 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694813
Lambert, P., Leonard, B., Billman, B., Marlar, R., Newman, M., & Reinhard, K. (2000). Response to Critique of the Claim of Cannibalism at Cowboy Wash American Antiquity, 65 (2) DOI: 10.2307/2694066
My main area of expertise when it comes to archaeology is the Southwest, but I currently live in New Jersey, and while I don’t know a whole lot about the archaeology of this part of the country I feel like I should probably weigh in on those rare occasions when an archaeological issue makes it into the news. We seem to be in the midst of one of those occasions now, with the State Capitol Joint Management Commission having recently approved an order by Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno to rebury the Petty’s Run archaeological site, which is immediately adjacent to the Statehouse in Trenton. This site, which was uncovered in 2008, contains a variety of buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that shed considerable light on the early history of Trenton. The site lies right between the Statehouse and the Old Barracks Museum, and the administration of then-governor John Corzine planned to make it a key part of a new state park. The plan for establishing the park called for the site to be enclosed in glass, presumably to protect it while leaving it visible.
When Chris Christie defeated Corzine last year, however, plans for the new park came to a halt and the site has just been sitting there, exposed but visible behind a fence. Indeed, Guadagno’s problem appears to have been that the site is all too visible. She can see it from her office in the Statehouse and she apparently considers it an “eyesore,” which is why she wants it reburied. Many people, including political opponents of the Christie administration and Old Barracks Museum director Richard Patterson, are outraged by this move. (The archaeologist who excavated the site, Richard Hunter, has declined to comment on the issue.) Guadagno’s apparent motivation in having the site reburied does seem rather petty, but a lot of the outrage seems to be directed at the very idea of reburying the site. I think this outrage is misplaced. This may be a silly reason to rebury a site, but reburying (or “backfilling”) sites is a standard and very effective way of preserving them.
One of the major problems with excavation, and one of the reasons it is often avoided when possible, is that once a site is excavated it is no longer protected by the dirt that covered and preserved whatever was in it. If left open a site will rapidly begin to deteriorate, so whatever organization is responsible for the site has a choice. It can leave the site open and let it fall apart (not a popular option), or it can do something to preserve it. In places like Chaco Canyon, where the visual impact of sites is considered a high priority, preservation involves an elaborate and very expensive effort at stabilizing standing walls and preventing further deterioration. Since the main sources of impacts are weather and visitation, and these are ongoing year after year, preservation through stabilization means continual work.
Another option is to build some sort of structure over the site to protect it from impacts while still leaving it visible to visitors. In the Southwest this is rarely done for major sites because it makes them look “inauthentic,” with some exceptions such as Casa Grande and some of the especially well-preserved rooms at Pueblo Bonito. For smaller sites and particularly fragile ones, however, this is a popular option, as it is much cheaper and less labor-intensive than constantly struggling to prop up the walls and generally provides better protection as well. Many of the mesa-top sites at Mesa Verde and other parts of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah have this kind of protection. It sounds like this is the kind of thing the Corzine administration was planning to do with Petty’s Run, although it’s not totally clear to me exactly how the glass enclosure concept would have worked.
The final option, which is generally both cheaper and more protective than the other two, is backfilling. This takes most or all of the site out of public view, of course, which makes it problematic for sites that are intended to be developed as tourist attractions. For sites that are not publicly accessible, however, this is the standard means of preservation. It can be done in a way that makes it relatively easy to open up the site again later for further excavation, and in many cases archaeologists will refill sites at the end of each excavation season with the intent of returning to them later. This can be done with tarps, for example, as the Arizona State Museum has done in its multi-year research project at the now-closed Homol’ovi Ruins State Park in Winslow. In some cases responsible organizations start out trying to stabilize excavated sites and end up backfilling them when they can no longer afford to. This is what has happened at Casa Malpais, which is owned by the town of Springerville, Arizona. Some rooms that had been left open after excavation were recently backfilled because the town could no longer afford to stabilize them.
Now, this is all based on my experience of preservation techniques at sites in the Southwest, and it’s certainly possible that archaeologists in the Northeast don’t do things the same way. For one thing, Northeastern archaeology seems to be much more focused on the historic than the prehistoric period, presumably because there has been so much historic development overlying whatever prehistoric sites remain. Since historic sites are often built of sturdier materials than those that were available to prehistoric people, it might not be as problematic to leave a typical historic site exposed as it would be to do the same with a typical prehistoric site. On the other hand, preservation conditions are much worse in this humid environment than in the arid Southwest. Water is one of the biggest threats to preservation of exposed sites, and with the amount of precipitation that is typical of this area I’m sure even the best-constructed historic sites are at considerable risk. The fact that the Corzine administration’s park plan called for enclosing the Petty’s Run site in glass makes me think this is indeed a major concern in Northeastern archaeology.
The upshot of all this is that to the extent that the Christie administration is showing a lack of respect for the state’s heritage in its treatment of the Petty’s Run site, that’s being manifested in the decision not to pursue the park plan rather than the decision to backfill the site. Guadagno may be motivated by superficial aesthetic considerations in wanting the site reburied, but whether or not the site is an eyesore leaving it exposed is not the way to preserve it.
I’ve been many times in 20 years to chaco and read much and I’ve been forming a blasphemous opinion; what makes pueblo bonito the greatest of the great houses? Assuming all the other great houses were controlled by different entities even while sharing the same religion, why should there have been no successful challenges for bonitos status or position?
I responded, but I think this issue is actually important enough for a post. I think john is quite possibly on to something, for reasons explained in my response, but here I want to talk about a slightly different way to look at the question of Pueblo Bonito’s uniqueness. In my response I said that in my view the main thing that makes Bonito the greatest of the great houses is that it’s the best known and most thoroughly excavated. There are really two parts to this. On the one hand, the fact that so much is known about Bonito from the extensive excavations there and so little is known about other great houses means that all interpretations of Chaco are necessarily skewed by an overemphasis on Bonito and an underemphasis on the other sites. The importance of this skew is impossible to tell, of course, because it depends on what the actual nature of the Chaco system was and what the roles of the different great houses were within it, which are basically unknowable with the information we have now. So in that sense, Bonito is the “greatest” of the great houses just because we know more about it than we know about any of the others, and it quite possibly was not actually the greatest at the time. In other words, the Bonito-centric nature of current models of the Chaco system could just be due to the historical accident of choices about where to excavate first, and Bonito may not actually have been the greatest of the great houses at the time.
In another sense, though, Bonito really is the greatest of the great houses regardless of whether or not it was the greatest when it was in use. This is precisely because it has been so extensively excavated and left open for visitors to see. It’s really a very impressive site, and the visual impact of seeing it and wandering through its huge maze of rooms is one of the highlights of a visit to Chaco. Because none of the other great houses have been been excavated and left open to that extent, they can’t possibly have the same effect on visitors despite. They’re all impressive, of course, but the unexcavated and less-excavated ones are not impressive in the same way as Bonito. The only other great house that can be experienced in anything like the same way is Aztec West, which was also extensively excavated and left open. It’s bigger than any other great house except Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, but it is smaller than those two, and less of it is open to the public than is the case at Bonito. It’s also somewhat less impressive just because the setting of the Aztec complex is much less striking than Chaco Canyon.
Back when I was giving tours of Pueblo Bonito, I began to get tired of it after a while, and I would think it was a bit overrated and that the other sites should get more attention. I, of course, had been reading about all these sites and was interested in them based on that, and it took me a while to realize that for most visitors they’re just not going to have the same effect as Bonito. All the sites at Chaco are worth seeing, but once I realized just how different Bonito is from all the rest I began to heavily emphasize it when advising people about what to see during their time in the park. Places like Una Vida and Pueblo del Arroyo are definitely interesting, but I think for most visitors they’re a lesser priority, and rightly so. Pueblo Bonito is what people come to Chaco to see.
When you look at it that way, it doesn’t actually matter if Bonito was the most important of the great houses in the eleventh century (or the tenth, or the ninth). It’s the most important of the great houses now, because it’s the one that impresses people enough to draw them to the canyon from all over the world. It’s the most impressive not because it’s the biggest, although it is, nor because it was at the center of the Chaco system, although it probably was, at least at the height of the system in the late eleventh century. It’s the most impressive because it’s the only one you can actually walk through and experience personally. It is of course largely because it’s the biggest of the great houses that it was excavated early on and left open as an exhibit for visitors to see, so in that sense it is the greatest of the sites because it (probably) was the greatest of them originally. Even if a new, bigger, more important great house were somehow discovered tomorrow, however, it would not displace Pueblo Bonito as the most important of the great houses to visitors today, because there’s no way it would be excavated and left open the way Bonito has been. Archaeology has changed over the past century, as has Park Service policy. Pueblo Bonito is still there, though, open and accessible, and it will remain so for at least the near future.
As I explained in my response to john, I suspect that Pueblo Bonito may well not have always been the most important of the great houses, although I find it most plausible that any shift of influence would have been to increase rather than diminish Bonito’s role over time, at least up until the decline of the canyon and the probable shift of the system to Aztec. Understanding the changing dynamics of the Chaco system over time is, I think, a very important part of understanding the system in general, and one that has been largely neglected by most research, although this is starting to change. None of that matters much for the average park visitor, though, who will remain most impressed by the stunning remains of Pueblo Bonito from the period of its height. Whether there were other great houses that were even more impressive at that time is a rather abstract question when the grandeur of Bonito is right there, and whether earlier versions of Bonito were less important than other sites at some earlier time is even more abstract and immaterial. It’s Bonito that people see, and they are impressed by it. That’s a core reality that I think those of us who tend to delve deeper into the world of Chaco research can easily forget. It’s important, though, and an occasional reminder of it is a useful reality check.
I often end my tour of Pueblo Bonito by describing it as “a place of majesty and a place of mystery.” I’ve recently been thinking about what exactly that means, and what makes Pueblo Bonito, and Chaco Canyon more generally, so mysterious. It’s not really difficult to figure out, but I think the implications are more important than I had realized before.
In a nutshell, Chaco is interesting largely because it’s mysterious, and it’s mysterious because it’s in such a harsh environment. It’s clearly a major center of some kind, although it remains unclear exactly what it was the center of, in a place where you would never expect to find anything on so grand a scale. Indeed, the startling contrast between the grandeur of the sites in Chaco and the barrenness of their setting has led some archaeologists, and many visitors, to assume that the climate must have been different when the sites were built. A considerable amount of research has therefore been put into reconstructing the paleoclimate of Chaco, with the surprising result that it hasn’t changed much in the past few thousand years. There have been small variations on the scale of decades in the amount of rainfall, and in such a marginal environment for agriculture even small variations like that could easily make or break a societal system, but they’re really just on the order of the changes seen in recorded history (i.e., over the past hundred years or so), and the place has definitely been more or less like it is today for a long time.
And yet, the great houses are there, as are all the other aspects of the Chaco system that inspire so much wonder and awe today, including the road system, the astronomical alignments, and everything else. In some ways I think the current (somewhat artificial) isolation of the park maintained by the lack of a paved road to it is appropriate in giving a sense of just how much effort it would take to make this an accessible location, let alone a major cultural center. There’s a tradeoff, of course, in that making it easier to get to would probably make it more obvious just how central it was once the required infrastructure was put in. Still, though, there’s no denying that this is a hard place to live, and it’s by no means an obvious location for the scale of construction necessary to create such a center. That’s one of the abiding mysteries of Chaco, perhaps the most fundamental one. Visitors ask about it all the time; “why here?” is one of the most frequent questions we get. I always just say that it remains a mystery.
It’s not the mere presence of a major cultural center in the prehistoric Southwest that comprises the mystery, however. There have been others that have not elicited nearly the interest accorded to Chaco. Aztec, for example, which seems likely to have succeeded Chaco as the center of a somewhat reduced regional system in the twelfth century, is a major center on the same scale, but there’s nothing all that mysterious about it. It’s located right on a major river in a fertile valley well-suited for agriculture, which is exactly where you would expect to find a major population center capable of serving as the center of a widespread system. Other Southwestern archaeological sites are even less mysterious. Mesa Verde is a very good agricultural area by regional standards, as is Bandelier, and it is no surprise that they attracted large prehistoric populations. Canyon de Chelly is a bit of an oasis in a generally harsh area. The Hohokam sites in southern Arizona are along major rivers well-suited for irrigation agriculture. There are also sites in marginal areas, of course, but they tend to be small and unimpressive, which is unsurprising given their surroundings. All of these sorts of sites can be easily explained by reference to fairly simple ecological determinist models of human settlement patterns.
Not so with Chaco, however. While many archaeologists have made valiant attempts to fit the rise of Chaco into models based on local and/or regional environmental conditions, they have been generally unsuccessful in finding a model that convincingly explains the astonishing florescence of the Chaco system in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. This has inspired some other archaeologists more recently to try a different tack involving less environmental determinism and more historical contingency. This seems promising, but finding sufficient evidence for this sort of approach is difficult when it comes to prehistoric societies like Chaco. The various camps of archaeologists will likely continue to argue about the nature of Chaco for a long time, I think. Meanwhile, the mystery remains.
I doubt this mystery will ever be totally solved. There’s just too much information that is no longer available for various reasons. That’s not necessarily a problem, though. At this point the mysteries of Chaco are among its most noteworthy characteristics. Sometimes not knowing everything, and accepting that lack of knowledge, is useful in coming to terms with something as impressive, even overwhelming, as Chaco. One way to deal with it all is to stop trying to figure out every detail and to just observe. The experience that results from this approach may have nothing to do with the original intent of the builders of the great houses of Chaco, but then again it may have everything to do with that intent. There’s no way to be sure, and there likely never will be. But that’s okay. Sometimes mysteries are better left unsolved.