Archive for the ‘Trade’ Category

Carson Trading Post

In 1918 my great-grandparents built a trading post in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico, between Chaco Canyon and the town of Farmington, which was then and is now the main town in the area.  They had both grown up in Farmington and married in 1908, after which they spent a few years emulating the farming and small-scale ranching lifestyle of their parents and most other local residents, but they were unsatisfied with this and began to look for other opportunities.  Some other members of their families were beginning to go out into the vast rural areas nearby occupied by the Navajos to establish trading posts, and they were curious enough about this to move out to one of these stores to help out for a while.  They found that they liked it and began looking around for a store of their own to buy.  The story goes that my great-grandfather was heading out to look at a store that was being offered for sale and on his way over happened upon two brothers who were building a store at a very promising location at the confluence of a small side wash with the Gallegos Wash, one of the main drainages in the region.  The Navajo name for the area is Hanáádlį́, which means something like “the place where it flows out again,” which presumably refers to something about the confluence of the two washes.  He offered to buy the store from them, but they were not interested in selling, so he continued on to the store he was headed towards.  He found it much less impressive and decided not to buy it, but on his way back he encountered the brothers again at their much better location.  By then they had had a falling out, and according to local lore were even running around shooting at each other, and they were quite happy to sell.  So my great-grandfather bought the store, moved his wife and two daughters to the site, and finished building it.  Their last name was Carson, so the store came to be known as Carson Trading Post and the community surrounding it is often called Carson.  It is very close to Huerfano Mountain, one of the most sacred mountains to the Navajos and the site of many events recounted in the Navajo origin story.

The Carsons ended up having four daughters, all of whom grew up, married, and went on to own trading posts of their own.  These stores were scattered across the Navajo Reservation and the surrounding off-reservation areas inhabited primarily by Navajos in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.  One daughter, my grandmother, stayed at Carson’s, and there she and her husband raised their only child, my father, who was born in 1947.  When my he was old enough for school they bought a house in Farmington and he and my grandmother stayed there during the week and went back out to the store on weekends.  Meanwhile my great-grandparents, having turned Carson’s over to my grandparents and attempted to retire to Farmington, found that retirement was not for them and ended up buying another trading post, this one way out in the western part of the reservation in Arizona at a place called Inscription House, named after a local Anasazi cliff dwelling that is part of Navajo National Monument but that has now been closed to the public for many years.  A little later, my grandfather and his brother-in-law, who owned Two Grey Hills Trading Post and a few other stores in that area, teamed up to buy another store near Inscription House at a place called Shonto.  They were both busy with running their other stores, of course, so Shonto was run by managers for the rest of their lives.

Shonto Trading Post, Shonto, Arizona

One of those managers was my father, whom his parents sent out to Shonto around 1972 after he had graduated from college and moved back to Carson’s, where he apparently just sort of hung out for a couple of years.  When they sent him out to manage Shonto they let him hire an assistant manager, and he hired a friend of his from college named Les.  Les’s girlfriend at the time came out to join him.  I don’t know many of the details about what happened over the next few years, but the eventual result was that Les and his girlfriend broke up, he married one of the Navajo clerks who had worked in the store, and she married my father and in time became my mother.  I was born in 1984 and my sister was born in 1986.  My grandmother and grandfather died in 1985 and 1987 respectively, and two of my grandmother’s three sisters died around that same period.  At the same time the trading business was falling on hard times as social and technological changes were making the Navajos less isolated and more integrated into the mainstream American economy, which eliminated the economic and sociocultural niche the trading posts and traders occupied as cultural intermediaries.  By 1991, my parents had come to believe that there was no real future in the trading business, and they decided to just sell the store, move to Albuquerque, and try to make a new life.  My dad applied to a PhD program in history at the University of New Mexico, and my mom, who had gotten a teaching certification from Northern Arizona University, got a job as a kindergarten teacher in a small, semi-rural school district south of Albuquerque.

This kind of wholesale lifestyle change was one way trading families during this period dealt with the changes that were wreaking havoc with their way of life.  Another option was to try to upgrade and modernize the store to try to actually compete with the businesses in the reservation border towns that were becoming the traders’ competition.  This was a very risky approach, because it was not at all certain that even massive investments could make a store competitive, but some traders felt they had no other real options.  One of them was a second cousin of my dad’s named Al, who had ended up owning Inscription House at this point.  He didn’t have the sort of educational background my parents had that enabled them to go into other careers in town, so he decided to build a laundromat and big modern grocery store as adjuncts to the old one-room trading post, which he turned into a hardware store.

Sign for Inscription House Trading Post

What Al did at Inscription House was mostly just separate the goods carried by a typical trading post into separate buildings.  Trading posts functioned much like old-fashioned general stores, and they carried any and all goods that the community might need, including foodstuffs, dry goods, hardware, and weapons for hunting or for shooting coyotes or stray dogs that got into people’s sheep.  In the early days the stores functioned economically on the basis of a credit system whereby the local Navajos would run up bills of credit for the goods they purchased and pay them off with wool when they sheared their sheep or lambs when they had them.  The trader would then sell the wool and lambs and use the money to buy more goods.  People would also often sell arts and crafts to the stores, and this provided a supplemental income stream for most traders.  A few stores in certain areas where arts and crafts were particularly well developed, in some cases as a result of influence by early traders, bought and sold large amounts of arts and crafts, but for most of my family’s stores this was a minor sideline and the core business was in wool and lambs until the penetration of cash into the Navajo economy reached a point where most stores stopped extending credit to most customers and became effectively cash-only operations.  In most areas this took place sometime in the 1970s or early 1980s.

Some observers consider this the point at which the traditional trading post ceased to exist, but I think that’s an overly narrow way to define the institution.  From the Navajo community’s perspective, certainly, the trading posts still existed after they stopped extending credit, because they still provided the same variety of goods.  The term “trading post” I think leads a lot of Anglo observers to think of them primarily in terms of the system of exchange that supported them admittedly for most of their existence, but in Navajo the word for “trading post” is naalyéhé bá hooghan, which literally means “house for merchandise.”  The word for “trader” is naalyéhé yá sidáhí, literally “the one who sits for the sake of the merchandise.”  This certainly implies, to my mind, that the key element of a trading post from a Navajo perspective was the goods it provided to the community rather than what it took in exchange.

Store Room at Inscription House Trading Post

Be that as it may, by the late 1980s there were few trading posts left by any definition.  Many had closed entirely, and some, especially those that happened to be located on major highways, had converted to simply gas stations and convenience stores, no longer offering the wide range of goods that they had before.  People could now go into town on paved roads to buy those goods at Safeway or Walmart for much less than the traders charged, and there was no way most old stores could compete.

The handful of stores that specialized in high-quality arts and crafts had an option not available to most stores to focus more on that as their business, and some did just that, opening shops in Farmington, Gallup, or even Santa Fe to sell the rugs and jewelry they would buy from their customers.  Two Grey Hills, which by this point was run by my parents’ old friend Les, was able to eke out a living without changing much about its business model just because the rugs it got, widely acknowledged to be the finest Navajo rugs anywhere, brought in enough money on the infrequent occasions when someone stopped by to buy one to keep the business afloat.

Old Store at Inscription House Trading Post from Navajo Highway 16

Al’s gamble at Inscription House paid off because the area was sufficiently isolated that competition from the nearest town, in this case Page, Arizona, was not as intense as in the case of many other stores, and because most of the other stores in the area were no longer vibrant enough to be much competition, if they were open at all.  After we sold Shonto the new owner struggled to find decent managers and eventually lost the lease, which resulted in the property reverting to the ownership of the Navajo Nation, which closed it for a while.  It’s now open again under a new manager working for the tribe, but it’s a shadow of its former self.  It’s not much competition for Inscription House, which is still going relatively strong, although the last time we visited there Al had closed the hardware store and focused all operations on the new store.

While all this was going on, however, during the 1990s, we were in Albuquerque, and my childhood there was pretty typical of the suburban Sunbelt.  We would continue to go out to the reservation frequently to visit family and deal with various hassles in the process of selling Shonto, which took several years, so I remained aware of what it was like out there.  I knew that I hadn’t really experienced the trading lifestyle for myself, however, since I had been six years old when we’d moved and only had vague memories of actually living at the store.  During two summers when I was in high school, therefore, I decided to spend some time out at the remaining trading posts operated by family and friends of the family: Inscription House and Two Grey Hills.

New Store at Inscription House Trading Post

The first summer I spent two weeks at Two Grey Hills, then two weeks at Inscription House.  I don’t remember why the periods were so short; I guess maybe I was trying to ease myself into what was a somewhat unfamiliar experience.  There was very little for me to do at Two Grey Hills, which didn’t get much business, so I spent most of my time taking care of the extensive gardens and cleaning the place up for an annual festival the store had begun putting on in 1997 for its hundredth anniversary and had continued in subsequent years.  I think Les was mostly taking me on as a favor to my parents.  Al, on the other hand, was very enthusiastic about having me come out there, I think in part because he had been somewhat isolated from the family for various reasons for several years and wanted to cultivate closer ties.  There was plenty of work for me to do at Inscription House, which was very busy.  I mostly worked in the new store, ringing up grocery purchases and loading hay into people’s trucks.  That summer was an important experience for me, but I have a hard time explaining exactly how.  The next summer, I went out again, but only to Inscription House and for a longer period of time; I forget exactly how long, but it was a few weeks.  I also spent some time that summer working for some other relatives in Kayenta, but that’s another story.

Later, when I was in college, I went back out to Inscription House for part of one winter break.  This time, Al had me working in the old store, with the hardware.  This was more of a challenge, since I was often the only one working there, and the customers who came into the old store were often older men who didn’t speak any English.  I had taken a little Navajo at UNM when I was a senior in high school, but my knowledge was very rudimentary, and on multiple occasions I would try to use it and realize that I was soon in way over my head.  One time, a guy walked in and I asked him what he wanted (that was one thing I could say), so he told me (uh oh).  The only part I recognized was dibé, which means “sheep.”  We sold lots of stuff that had something to do with sheep, though, since they’re the mainstay of the traditional Navajo economy.  Eventually, after failing to get me to understand with words or gestures, he went out and got a younger guy, probably his son or nephew, to explain that what he wanted was a package of rubber bands used to castrate sheep by wrapping around their testicles.  There were other incidents like this, but this one was typical and I remember it particularly clearly.

Old Store at Inscription House Trading Post

One other incident also shows something of what it was like at Inscription House in a more unusual way.  Trading posts had traditionally sold guns and ammunition, which were necessary tools for life early on.  One of the most infamous events involving the sale of a gun at a trading post was of course the murder of Richard Wetherill in 1910.  By the time I was at Inscription House, however, relatively few stores did much business in guns, although they often sold ammunition and I sold quite a bit.  Al, being a rabid rightwinger, however, made a point of putting guns on display in a prominent location behind the counter but easily visible to customers walking in.  Most of these were standard hunting rifles, which is what the few people who might want to buy a gun at Inscription House were likely to need, but as a pointed jab at the liberal establishment or whatever Al had an AK-47 in the gun rack next to them.  I’m sure he didn’t expect anyone to buy it, but I think he just wanted to flaunt his constitutional right to sell it or something.

Anyway, one day an old guy came in and asked in Navajo for “the little gun.”  I pointed to one of the smaller rifles, but no, he made it clear that it was the AK-47 he wanted to see.  So I took it out of the rack and handed it to him.  He looked it over and asked how much it was; it was $475, surely well beyond his means, and in any case there’s no way this old guy who didn’t speak any English would have any idea what to do with a weapon like that.  After examining it for a while he handed it back to me and went on his way.

Icicles on New Store at Inscription House Trading Post

I mention this experience not because it was typical of life at Inscription House or in the Southwest but because it wasn’t.  This was an exceptional event.  People would often come in to buy bullets, but no one ever bought a gun while I was there.  Similarly, they often bought chainsaw parts but never a whole chainsaw, which we often sold.  We did some chainsaw repairs too (which I didn’t do personally).  There was a lot of demand for those because it was winter and a lot of people in that area, which gets very cold, heat their hogans with wood.  Nevertheless, the AK-47 story sticks with me.  So does the whole experience, however brief, of working at two of the few remaining trading posts on the Navajo Reservation.

It’s hard to express what this background and these experiences mean to me.  Thinking about them often casts my current lifestyle, here in New Jersey, in bold relief.  It’s not so much that I don’t enjoy it here or that I feel homesick; I do enjoy being a grad student, and I like New Jersey, and what I feel is not so much homesickness as maybe nostalgia or something similar.  It’s not that I want to go back to the trading lifestyle, because I can’t, really.  The lifestyle no longer exists, and what I experienced of it was but a pale shadow of what my great-grandparents and grandparents spent almost their whole lives doing, and even what my parents spent large portions of theirs doing.  I don’t speak nearly as much Navajo as my dad did or my grandfather did, and I probably never will, because they learned Navajo because they had to, at a time when few Navajos spoke English.  Now most Navajos speak English, and learning Navajo is not something anyone really needs to do.  It’s really hard, too, so it’s not something most people want to do either, and while I do want to do it I doubt I’ll ever really find the time or the motivation.

Gas Pumps at Inscription House Trading Post

I rarely tell people I meet about this trading stuff.  I feel like it belongs to my background and it’s very important to me, but precisely because of that I don’t feel like I can really explain it to people.  I don’t feel like I can make people understand the way I feel about it.  Even if I were to bring them out to the Navajo country and try to at least show it to them, they wouldn’t see what I see.  It’s not about what you see in a landscape, after all, but what you know about it and how you feel about it that gives it significance.

This applies equally well to the urban and suburban settings in which I find myself now, of course, and to the people who come from these backgrounds, whether in the Northeast, the Southwest, or elsewhere.  We can connect on a certain level, of course, since growing up in most parts of the US is pretty much the same these days, and my experiences in Albuquerque are fairly comparable in a lot of ways to the experiences of people in New York or New Jersey or wherever.  But there is always something more, something you experience personally about the places you have lived and been and had important, life-changing experiences, that you can never really explain to anyone else.  For me the most significant of those places are the trading posts, the places where for a few brief moments I, like my ancestors before me, sat for the sake of the merchandise.

House behind Old Store at Inscription House Trading Post

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Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

In 1527 an expedition led by the Spanish nobleman Pánfilo de Narváez left Spain with the intention of conquering and colonizing Florida.  Accompanying the expedition as treasurer was Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who ended up being one of a handful of survivors of the disastrous expedition.  Cabeza de Vaca later wrote an account of the expedition and the years it took for him and the other survivors to make their way from Galveston Island, where they had been shipwrecked after a series of disasters in Florida itself, to Culiacán in what is now the state of Sinaloa in western Mexico, where in 1536 they finally encountered other Spaniards who were busy conquering that area.  This account has become a classic of the ethnohistoric literature, both because Cabeza de Vaca was an unusually perceptive observer of the various native peoples he encountered during his travels and because very little other information is available about those peoples, whose numbers and cultures were later devastated by permanent European settlement so quickly and thoroughly that few observations about them were published.

One of the interesting episodes described by Cabeza de Vaca occurred when the small group of Spaniards arrived at a village where the inhabitants gave one of his companions a large copper bell decorated with a face.  When the Spanish, who were always very interested in any metals they could find, asked where it had come from the people told them they had acquired it from a neighboring group and that it had come originally from the north, where there was abundant copper.  At the next village the group visited they showed the people the bell, and were told that there was indeed much more copper where it had come from, in the form of both bells and plates, and that there were permanent dwellings in that area.  Cabeza de Vaca apparently concluded that the copper had come from the Pacific coast, which was indeed a major area of copper production in Mesoamerica.  This particular bell, however, and the other copper objects mentioned by the people he spoke to in the villages he visited probably did not come from West Mexico.

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

This episode has been of considerable interest to archaeologists, as copper bells were among the most important items of trade between Mesoamerica, especially West Mexico, and the Greater Southwest.  They have been found in considerable numbers at Chaco Canyon, as well as at Hohokam and Sinagua sites in Arizona and various other parts of the Southwest.  One archaeologist, Jeremiah Epstein of the University of Texas, published an article in 1991 looking carefully at Cabeza de Vaca’s account and correlating it with known archaeological evidence and other ethnohistorical sources from later Spanish expeditions.  He concluded that it the likely source of the bell mentioned by Cabeza de Vaca, as well as other copper objects mentioned by the Ibarra expedition in 1565 and the Rodríguez-Chamuscado expedition in 1581, was the well-known site of Casas Grandes in northern Chihuahua.

The exact route of Cabeza de Vaca’s travels has been a matter of considerable debate.  Epstein’s article relied on a reconstruction of the route that placed the copper bell episode near the modern city of Monclova, in the state of Coahuila in northeastern Mexico.  This is about 500 miles southeast of Casas Grandes, which fits well with the claim that the bell Cabeza de Vaca mentions came from the north.  In addition, the Ibarra expedition visited the immediate area of Casas Grandes and reported copper ornaments among the local population there, and the Rodríguez-Chamuscado expedition encountered copper objects among groups in the Rio Grande valley east of Casas Grandes who reported that they came from the west.  Epstein concluded from these reports that Casas Grandes is the most likely source for the copper objects of the archaeological sites in the Greater Southwest known to have had large numbers of copper bells.  Furthermore, Epstein noted that while many Southwestern archaeological sites had copper bells, very few had bells in decorated with human faces, which Cabeza de Vaca clearly stated to be a characteristic of the bell he described.  Casas Grandes did have this type of bell, and it also had a variety of flat copper artifacts that could be plausibly described as the “plates” mentioned by the second village Cabeza de Vaca described.  (Interestingly, such “plates” seem to be virtually restricted to Casas Grandes in the Southwest, although copper bells are pretty common.  The only possible example of a flat copper artifact like this at another site was found in Room 2 of Pueblo Bonito.)  I find his specific reasoning about each line of evidence a bit less solid than he did, but all together I think he was probably right to point to Casas Grandes as the most likely source for the copper artifacts described by the sixteenth-century Spanish sources.

Doorway into Room 2 from Room 36, Pueblo Bonito

The most interesting thing about this, as Epstein noted in his article, is that Casas Grandes had been abandoned for about a century when Cabeza de Vaca came through the area and saw the bell that apparently came from there.  When it was occupied, Casas Grandes was one of the largest and most important sites in the whole region, and excavations there have shown that it was a major center for a variety of Mesoamerican-derived activities, including macaw breeding and copper working.  The bells and other copper artifacts found there were apparently made there, in contrast to those found at Chaco, which was occupied significantly earlier and imported its copper bells from West Mexico, which at that time was the only part of Mesoamerica to practice copper working.  By the late Postclassic period, however, when Casas Grandes flourished, copper metallurgy had become a standard practice at major centers throughout the Mesoamerican culture area.

In the sixteenth century, however, Casas Grandes was very clearly no longer occupied.  The Ibarra expedition, which came through the area in 1565, found the site already a ruin, and the only local people were hunter-gatherers living in simple, impermanent dwellings quite different from the imposing multi-story adobe edifices at Casas Grandes.  These hunter-gatherers, however, did have some copper “plates” which parallel the ones reported by Cabeza de Vaca’s sources.  The expedition also noted evidence of metalworking at the ruins of Casas Grandes, but did not mention any evidence that the current inhabitants had made their copper plates themselves.

So how did the hunter-gatherers who lived around Casas Grandes in 1565 get their copper plates, and how did the people in Coahuila in the 1530s and the people living along the Rio Grande in 1581 get their copper bells?  Epstein’s answer, which I find quite convincing, is that the local hunter-gatherers dug into the ruins to get the copper artifacts in them, then traded them to various other groups in northern Mexico.  That is to say, they “looted” the site for economic gain much the way modern pothunters in the Southwest and elsewhere do.  Indeed, according to Epstein, the extensive excavations at Casas Grandes conducted by Charles Di Peso for the Amerind Foundation in the 1970s uncovered “evidence of Precolumbian vandalism” (in Epstein’s words) in some areas of the site.  So it seems looting of archaeological sites has a long history in the Southwest.

Jerome, Arizona from Tuzigoot National Monument

What I find most interesting about this is the parallel to the situation in modern cities, which now contain such huge amounts of certain materials, especially copper, that they are becoming a major source for materials that have traditionally been mined from nonrenewable natural deposits such as those that spurred the settlement of Western mining towns like Jerome, ArizonaJohn Fernandez of MIT discusses this issue, drawing on the work of Tom Graedel at Yale, in this video from 2007 (starting at about 21:29).

Fernandez quotes Jane Jacobs as saying that “our cities are the mines of the future.”  And, at least as Fernandez presents it, that does indeed seem like a prescient statement.  Epstein’s article, however, demonstrates that digging for copper in abandoned homes is hardly a new phenomenon.  Like so much else that humans do today, it has a very long history.  The cities of today may be the mines of the future, but the cities of yesterday have already become the mines of the past.
Epstein, J. (1991). Cabeza de Vaca and the Sixteenth-Century Copper Trade in Northern Mexico American Antiquity, 56 (3) DOI: 10.2307/280896

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turquoise-Covered Pottery, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Probably no single material is more closely associated with Chaco than turquoise.  The vast amounts found in Room 33 at Pueblo Bonito alone suggest its importance, but it has been found in considerable quantities at many different sites, both small houses and great houses and both inside and outside of the canyon.  There is considerable evidence that manufacture of turquoise jewelry became a major activity in Chaco and some of the outlier communities during the period when the Chacoan system was beginning to form, and probable ornament manufacturing areas have been found at both great houses and small houses.  It’s not clear what precise role turquoise may have played in the system (though there are some intriguing possibilities suggested by other lines of evidence), but it is apparent that it was an important one.  It’s also important to note that unlike some rare artifacts, such as shell trumpets, turquoise seems to have been associated with the system as a whole rather than with Chaco Canyon or Pueblo Bonito specifically.  Both finished artifacts and manufacturing debris are found in significant quantities at many outliers, especially to the south in the Red Mesa Valley.

Turquoise Display at Visitor Center Museum

What’s really remarkable about this apparent centrality of turquoise is that there are no turquoise deposits anywhere near Chaco, or indeed within the area covered by the Chaco system as a whole.  All of this turquoise had to be imported from somewhere, and this importation was clearly occurring on a vast scale and over a relatively long period of time.  The closest source of turquoise to Chaco is in the Cerrillos Hills south of Santa Fe, which have extensive turquoise deposits that show much evidence of being mined in antiquity (as well as in modern times), including some apparent campsites with material culture suggestive of a connection to the San Juan Basin.  For a long time most researchers assumed that most or all of the turquoise at Chaco came from Cerrillos, and for a while it was fashionable to come up with theories explaining the rise of Chaco as being based on control of the Cerrillos mines and the trade routes connecting them with the vast market for turquoise in Mesoamerica.  These theories have more recently fallen out of favor for a number of reasons, one being the general trend away from emphasizing Mesoamerican influence on the Chaco system and another being the inconvenient fact that many of the most productive turquoise deposits in the Southwest are in southern Arizona and New Mexico, considerably closer to Mexico than Chaco, which makes it difficult to explain how the  Chacoans could have sustained a monopoly on the turquoise trade.

Turquoise Display at Chaco Museum

This whole issue would benefit greatly from more precise information on the actual source of Chaco’s turquoise.  The idea that it came from Cerrillos is basically just an assumption based on geographical proximity, and while it’s a reasonable enough assumption there have been many attempts to use chemical properties of the turquoise to determine its precise origin and either confirm or deny the Cerrillos hypothesis.  Most of the early attempts to do this using trace element analysis were unsuccessful, due mainly to the complicated internal structure of turquoise as a material.  One recent  paper, however, reports on a remarkably successful attempt to use a new technique based on isotope ratios to characterize sources and assign artifacts to them.  The technique uses two isotope ratios: hydrogen to deuterium and copper-63 to copper-65.  The combination of the two ratios can be used to define a two-dimensional space within which individual samples can be placed to determine if samples from the same source cluster together.

Anthill at Pueblo Bonito with Piece of Turquoise

It turns out they do.  The researchers used samples from a variety of Southwestern turquoise sources, most of which show clear evidence of having been used in antiquity, including three in the Cerrillos area, one in southern New Mexico, two each in Colorado and Arizona, and four in Nevada.  They analyzed several samples from one of the Arizona mines to test internal variation within a single source.  There turned out to be little variation, suggesting that individual sources generally have homogeneous isotope ratios, and the three Cerrillos sources also clustered close to each other, suggesting that this similarity in ratios operates at a regional as well as local scale.

Sign at Santuario de Guadalupe, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The researchers also tested several pieces of turquoise found at several small houses in Chaco Canyon and one at the Guadalupe outlier community, which marks the far eastern edge of the Chacoan system and is the closest Chacoan community to Cerrillos.  Guadalupe plays a key role in models of Chaco that posit Chacoan control of the Cerrillos mines, since any transport of turquoise from Cerrillos to Chaco would almost certainly have to have involved Guadalupe as an intermediate stop.  Guadalupe is thus probably the outlying community most relevant to an investigation of Chacoan turquoise sources.

Santuario de Guadalupe, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The results were interesting.  Several of the artifacts seem to have come from Cerrillos, with a much higher proportion at Guadalupe than at Chaco, but a few other sources were present as well, including one of the Colorado sources at Guadalupe and the southern New Mexico source and two Nevada sources at Chaco.  Four artifacts matched none of the sources tested, implying that they came from some other, as yet unidentified, source.  The Chaco artifacts came from a wide range of chronological contexts, with earlier periods more strongly represented than later ones.  The Guadalupe artifacts unfortunately didn’t come from a securely dated context, so nothing much can be said about their relative or absolute chronology.  In general, the Chaco artifacts seem to have come from a wide range of sources in all time periods, but the sample size is so small that it is hard to come to any more specific conclusions.

Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

This paper is really just a pilot project, intended primarily to demonstrate the methodology used, and the conclusion mentions that continued research using more sources and artifacts is underway.  The main conclusion that can be drawn at this point is that assuming all the Chaco turquoise came from Cerrillos is no longer warranted, and it seems the trade networks in the prehistoric Southwest were much more elaborate and far-flung, at least for valuable, portable materials like turquoise, than such an assumption would suggest.  Chaco may or may not have been primarily about turquoise, but it certainly wasn’t about Cerrillos turquoise.
HULL, S., FAYEK, M., MATHIEN, F., SHELLEY, P., & DURAND, K. (2007). A new approach to determining the geological provenance of turquoise artifacts using hydrogen and copper stable isotopes Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2007.10.001

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Wild Turkey

So, turkeys.  I mentioned in an earlier post that there’s been an important new paper about turkeys published in PNAS.  It’s been mentioned in two good media accounts linked by Southwestern Archaeology Today in two separate posts.  Unlike most PNAS articles, this one is Open Access, so both the article itself and its supplement are available freely as pdf files on the PNAS website.

"Crescent-Shaped Village" Sign at Mesa Verde

Like so many of the most interesting and important articles in Southwestern archaeology these days, this one is based on the application of laboratory techniques to archaeological material to take advantage of advances in scientific understanding that allow new revelations about the human past.  In this case, the techniques come from genetics and involve the analysis of DNA from archaeological turkey remains to determine the breed of turkey kept by people in the ancient Southwest, which in turn could potentially reveal when and where these turkeys were first domesticated.  The techniques are similar to those used in a study from a while back on an artifact in the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding made with macaw feathers and squirrel pelt.  That study analyzed the squirrel pelt and determined that it likely came from a local species, implying that the artifact was made in the Southwest rather than being imported from Mexico, with interesting further implications for the origin of the macaw feathers.

"Crescent-Shaped Village" at Mesa Verde

Before going into the details of the turkey study, it will be useful to give a little background on the presence of turkeys in the prehistoric Southwest.  Visitors to Chaco often ask about domesticated animals, especially in the context of the enormous amount of labor involved in the construction of the great houses, which would have been much easier with the use of draft animals than it actually was with only human labor available.  They are often surprised to hear the answer, which is that the only domesticated animals the Chacoans had were dogs and turkeys.  I, in turn, was surprised by how many people didn’t seem to know that horses were introduced by the Spanish.  (I think there’s a deeper significance to this particular belief, but that’s a matter for another post.)  Dogs were domesticated way, way back in the prehistory of humanity, before the crossing of the Bering Strait, but turkeys only appear in the archaeological record pretty recently.  They seem to appear sporadically in Mesoamerica in the last few centuries BC, but only appear regularly in domestic contexts there around AD 200, and the same rough chronology is true in the Southwest.  This implies that they were first domesticated sometime in the late centuries BC or very early centuries AD, either separately in Mesoamerica and the Southwest or once in one, from which they spread through trade, migration, or some other form of cultural contact to the other.  Given the large number of Mesoamerican traits that are known to have spread into the Southwest, if there was a single domestication event it’s generally thought that it must have been in Mexico.  The search for the origin of turkey domestication is considerably aided by the fact that wild turkeys in North America fall into a handful of distinct subspecies with mostly non-overlapping ranges.  These are the ones of interest in this context, with their known (historic) ranges:

  • South Mexican turkey (Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo): South-central Mexico, roughly the states of Jalisco, Colima, Guanajuato, Querétaro, Hidalgo, Michoacán, Guerrero, México, Morelos, Puebla, and Tlaxcala, along with northern Veracruz.
  • Gould’s wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana): Northwestern Mexico, roughly the states of Nayarit, Aguascalientes, Sinaloa, and Durango, along with eastern Sonora and western Chihuahua as far north as the US border.
  • Rio Grande wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia): From the southern Great Plains south into northeastern Mexico, roughly from the southwest corner of Kansas south through western Oklahoma and Texas to the Mexican states of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas.
  • Merriam’s wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami): Most of New Mexico, extending into eastern Arizona and southern Colorado, but, importantly, not in the easternmost part of New Mexico along the Texas border.
  • Florida wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo osceola): Central and southern Florida.
  • Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris): Most of the eastern US, from the eastern parts of South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas on the west to the Atlantic coast from southern Maine to northern Florida on the east and from the Gulf coast on the south to the Great Lakes on the north.

The pdf of the article has a helpful map that might be more understandable than these geographic descriptions.

"Pitroom" of "Crescent-Shaped Village" at Mesa Verde

Looking over the range of the various subspecies of wild turkeys, it seems pretty obvious that any domestication of turkeys in central Mexico, where the earliest archaeological specimens are found, must have been from the South Mexican subspecies.  If domesticated turkeys were introduced from Mexico into the Southwest, presumably this would have been the same breed and its DNA would be similar to Mexican examples.  If, on the other hand, turkeys were independently domesticated in the Southwest, the most obvious source would be Merriam’s turkey, and archaeological examples would presumably show more genetic resemblances to modern examples of that subspecies than to Mexican varieties.  These are the two most plausible a priori predictions for an analysis of the genetics of archaeological turkeys.  An additional wrinkle, however, in doing this kind of study is that the distribution of these subspecies has changed over time in very drastic ways.  The South Mexican turkey is apparently extinct in the wild, but the domesticated variety used by the Aztecs was imported to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors and quickly became very popular there, eventually being selectively bred into the various modern domestic breeds and reintroduced to the New World by English colonists on the Atlantic seaboard.  From there it spread across the continent with their descendants, displacing indigenous turkeys left and right.  There are still some relic populations of the North American turkey subspecies that have been genetically sampled, however, and there are museum specimens of wild South Mexican turkeys that are also available for DNA sampling, so these difficulties can be largely overcome.

Sign Describing "Pitroom" of "Crescent-Shaped Village" at Mesa Verde

For this paper, the authors compared the DNA of a wide variety of archaeological turkey bones and coprolites from the Southwest to museum samples of wild South Mexican turkeys from the Smithsonian and samples of modern domesticated turkeys from supermarkets.  The Southwestern bones came from a variety of sites, including Pueblo Bonito and other Chacoan great houses (specifically Aztec, Bluff, Escalante, Ida Jean, and Albert Porter) as well as other sites both earlier and later.  The coprolites all came from the well-preserved midden deposits at the aptly named Turkey Pen Ruin in Grand Gulch, Utah; most are from the Basketmaker II occupation, but one dates to the later Pueblo II/III reoccupation.

T-Shaped Doorways at Escalante Pueblo, a Great House in Colorado

The results were pretty surprising.  As expected, the modern supermarket examples closely matched the archival Smithsonian examples, but the Southwestern examples didn’t match either.  This would seem to argue for domestication within the Southwest from Merriam’s turkeys, but while a few of the archaeological examples do match modern Merriam’s examples and seem to be examples of either hunting or domestication of local wild turkeys, over 85% of the archaeological specimens that could be successfully sequenced belonged to a different group that didn’t match either the Merriam’s or South Mexican examples.  This group didn’t exactly match any of the other modern subspecies either, but it was closest to the Rio Grande and Eastern types.  There’s always some doubt inherent in the results of these sorts of studies, but as these things go this one is pretty clear-cut, and what it says is that the Southwestern examples, which were remarkably homogeneous over the more than 1000 years represented by the samples, came from a carefully managed domestic breed of turkeys descending from ancestors domesticated outside the Southwest and later introduced by people, but not from central or northwestern Mexico.

T-Shaped Doorway at Aztec Ruins National Monument

So what does this mean?  For one thing, it means that turkeys did not accompany the spread of agriculture north from Mexico into the Southwest.  Those farmers who may or may not have migrated north from Mexico and may or may not have spoken one or more Uto-Aztecan languages didn’t have turkeys with them.  This finding is reinforced by the notable absence of turkey remains from the earliest agricultural sites in the southern Southwest.  It also means that while people in various parts of the Southwest at various points in its prehistory did use local wild turkeys, though whether they were actually domesticated and kept in captivity or just captured by hunters is unclear, the vast majority of turkeys kept in prehistoric communities came from a specific breed with a single origin.  This breed seems to have gone extinct in captivity sometime in the eighteenth or nineteenth century under pressure from the domestic animals, including but not limited to Mexican-descended turkeys, introduced by the Spanish.  A few modern Merriam’s turkeys do seem to match the ancient specimens, however, probably the result of domestic turkeys joining wild populations at some point or other.  The authors of the article suggest that this may have occurred in part as part of the abandonment of most of the Colorado Plateau around AD 1300, when people quickly leaving their villages and leaving the region may have left their turkeys behind.  No way to tell about that, really, but it’s as plausible as anything.

Interior T-Shaped Doorway, Pueblo Bonito

The results of this study are surprising and intriguing.  They definitely need a lot more data, especially about the genetics of the Rio Grande and Eastern wild turkeys, to be useful in understanding cultural processes.  I find the preliminary implications fascinating, though.  The idea that turkeys entered the Southwest from the east or southeast, rather than from the south, is kind of mind-blowing, since so little other evidence of contact between the Southwest and the Plains or Gulf coast is known for this early period.  The only possible evidence for such contact I can think of offhand is the trade in certain types of shell which seem to have come from the Gulf, unlike most trade shells which came from the Pacific.  Seems like this turkey evidence might prompt a new look at some of those shells.  Beyond that, it’s hard to know what to think about this finding.  Like so much else in Southwestern archaeology, it answers some questions and poses many more.
Speller, C., Kemp, B., Wyatt, S., Monroe, C., Lipe, W., Arndt, U., & Yang, D. (2010). Ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis reveals complexity of indigenous North American turkey domestication Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0909724107

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Fajada Butte and Yucca from Visitor Center Courtyard

In between a bunch of depressing news about budget cuts, the latest edition of Southwestern Archaeology Today links to a couple of interesting articles with considerable relevance to ChacoOne is about turkeys; I’ll do a post on it later.  The other is a column by Marc Simmons in the Santa Fe New Mexican on Pueblo clothing and how it has changed over time.

Diorama at Chaco Museum

Interestingly, in my experience visitors to Chaco don’t actually ask about clothing very often.  This may be due to the influence of a diorama in the visitor center museum which seems to answer any questions they might have, since it shows people in the course of various daily activities attired in loincloths and little else, which is pretty common for “Indians” in museum dioramas.  This “all loincloths all the time” interpretation is also common in artists’ renditions of “what life was like” on interpretive signs at many parks.  There aren’t many of these signs at Chaco, but they are quite common at some other parks such as Mesa Verde.  This all has a powerful effect on people’s perceptions, I think, because visual impressions are both stronger and more vivid than anything that can be explained in words.  Indeed, a woman once asked me, referring to the diorama, why the Chacoans had worn anything at all.  To this day I’m not sure what preconceptions she was bringing to the diorama, but clearly its implication that “the Indians” didn’t wear much had led her down that cognitive path.  This strong effect of the visual image is unfortunate, however, because quite a bit is known about how the Chacoans probably dressed, and all the evidence available strongly indicates that the diorama is totally wrong.

"Pithouse Life" Sign at Mesa Verde

But back to Simmons.  He’s one of the most renowned historians of New Mexico, and I’ve mentioned him before for his excellent book on the history of Albuquerque.  His specialty is the Spanish colonial era, so his column on Pueblo clothing draws most of its information from Spanish documents.  Those documents begin with the earliest exploratory expeditions in the sixteenth century, and they are generally thought to be pretty reliable in their descriptions of the people the explorers encountered.   The main thing that impressed those explorers about the Pueblos was how “civilized” they seemed in comparison to the hunter-gatherer groups they had seen further south.  Indeed, the name “Pueblo” itself, deriving originally from these reports, refers to the people’s settlement pattern based on large, permanent towns.

Pueblo Display at Chaco Visitor Center

Similarly, the main comments the chroniclers had about Pueblo clothing were about how substantial it was.  Men typically wore kilts, and women wore a type of dress known as a manta, made out of large square pieces of cloth.  The main material used was cotton, which was grown in the low-lying river valleys, especially in the Rio Abajo region at the southern end of the Pueblo domain, and traded to the villages in areas where cotton can’t be grown.  This cotton was woven into cloth, always by men, and often in ceremonial contexts in kivas or other important spaces.  The Spanish also remarked on the use of tanned buckskin or gamuza as an alternative material for clothes, especially nice during the cold winters.  Another item useful for keeping warm was the rabbit-fur coat, made of strips of rabbit hide woven together by women.  Footwear consisted primarily of leather moccasins known as teguas.

"Ceremonial Chamber" Sign at Mesa Verde Showing Men Weaving in Kiva

This information comes from a few hundred years after the fall of Chaco, of course.  A lot had changed in Pueblo culture during that period, so it would definitely be a mistake to simply project the Spanish reports back in time.  Luckily, we don’t have to.  Due to the good preservation at Chacoan sites, and the even better preservation at the cliff dwellings occupied slightly later, many examples of clothing have survived, though generally only in fragmentary condition.  These materials largely substantiate the Spanish accounts: Cloth is typically made out of cotton (probably underrepresented in the archaeological record because it doesn’t preserve very well), and cloaks made of woven rabbit fur and turkey feathers are common.

Sandals at Chaco Museum

The moccasins and leather garments are not generally found, however.  There is no shortage of footwear, but it takes the form of sandals made of yucca fibers.  These are very common and there are some indications that they may have had ritual importance in addition to their everyday use.  Leather moccasins during this period are rare to nonexistent in the Chacoan area, but common among the Fremont to the north in Utah, and they are even considered a diagnostic feature of the Fremont culture.

Bison Statue in Downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado

At some point between the fall of Chaco and the Spanish entradas, then, leather clothing and footwear seem to have been adopted by the Pueblos.  One theory to explain this, along with various other changes in Pueblo society during this period, links it to increased contact with Plains groups starting in the fourteenth century.  Another theory sees the adoption of leather clothing as associated with a prolonged period of climatic cooling, perhaps associated with the beginning of the Little Ice Age.  These two theories are not mutually exclusive, of course, and I think they actually complement each other nicely.  One proposed way of tying them together is a model in which cooling weather on the southern Plains leads to bison beginning to venture further south than they had before, which leads bison-hunting Plains people to follow them and come into contact with the Pueblos, whose increasingly efficient irrigation agriculture gives them surpluses of crops that they can exchange for meat, hides, and other bison products.  It’s notable that trade networks during this period seem to be oriented along an east-west axis connecting the Pueblos to the Plains, whereas trade during earlier periods seems to have been more north-south and connected to Mesoamerica.

Looking East toward the Great Plains from Las Vegas, New Mexico

Of course, this theory is by no means universally accepted, and there are other ways to interpret the changes in Pueblo material culture during this time.  Still, coming back to clothing specifically, I think all of this shows that the “Diorama Indian” loincloth-based attire has more to do with the preconceptions of the people who made the dioramas than with what people at Chaco and elsewhere actually wore.

Close-Up of Diorama at Chaco Museum

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Exterior of Reconstructed Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument

One of the most interesting and potentially productive lines of research in Southwestern archaeology these days involves the use of chemical analyses of various archaeological materials to extract more information about the societies that used them than is apparent just from looking at them.  The oldest and most established type of research like this is radiocarbon dating, which has historically been used less in the Southwest than elsewhere because it’s both expensive and less precise than tree-ring dating, which was invented in the Southwest and has been extremely important in the study of its prehistory.  Lately, however, archaeologists in the Southwest have been using radiocarbon more and more, since it can be used on anything organic (useful for sites which produce no datable wood but plenty of other organic material) and it’s been around for so long that the dates are considered very reliable.  They’ve also begun to use some other techniques that are newer but have enormous potential, which is already starting to be realized, to illuminate aspects of the past that have been the cause of much debate.

Intact Roof at Aztec Ruins National Monument

The most important of these is strontium isotope analysis, which we’ve seen before in the analysis of the wood brought to Chaco for architectural use.  Like radiocarbon dating, strontium analysis is based on looking at the ratio of two isotopes of an element, one of which is stable and the other of which is produced by the radioactive decay of another element and therefore varies.  Unlike radiocarbon, however, strontium cannot be used for dating on archaeological timeframes, since the half-life of the radioactive decay process involved (the conversion of rubidium-87 to strontium-87) is 48.8 billion years.  It can, however, be used to identify locations, since the amounts of strontium and rubidium in different areas vary a lot and strontium is absorbed unchanged by organisms from their environment.  Thus, in theory, one could test an organic artifact for its strontium ratio, then compare that to the strontium ratios of the water or soil in various places where the artifact may have originated and figure out where it came from.  This would then allow all sorts of archaeological conclusions.

Intact Roof at Pueblo Bonito

Of course, it’s never quite that simple, as the case of the wood shows.  It was relatively easy to use this analysis for the high-elevation types of wood that occur in relatively few places in the Southwest, but when the technique was extended to the very common ponderosa pine beams the number of possible origins increased so much that few definite conclusions could be reached.  There is also the problem of making sure that the strontium ratios found in the archaeological material actually resulted from growth processes rather than contamination by later mineral deposits.  Since this technique is relatively new, the methodology for it is not yet totally worked out, and not every attempt to use it ends up working.

Row of Metates, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Both the promise and the pitfalls of strontium analysis are shown clearly by a new paper by Larry Benson of the United States Geological Survey.  Benson has made something of a name for himself as the main player in the increasingly important analysis of corncobs found in Southwestern archaeological sites.  Corn is a useful plant to use for this sort of thing for a number of reasons:

  • It’s pretty common, especially in sites like cliff dwellings and Chacoan great houses with especially good preservation of organic material.  The Anasazi depended heavily on corn for their diet, so there are corncobs all over the place.
  • It grows quickly.  This is not important from the perspective of strontium analysis, but it means that radiocarbon dating can provide a very accurate range of dates within which the corn was grown and eaten.  This is in contrast to slow-growing plants, such as trees, which have the problem that the part tested may happen to be much older than the date of use.  The combination of accurate dating with strontium-based source determination makes corn a very powerful source of information.
  • It bears directly on a variety of important cultural questions.  Since corn was the main source of food for the Anasazi, finding out if they were growing it themselves or importing it from elsewhere has major implications for models of cultural systems and their means of support.  This is a longstanding issue in the study of Chaco specifically.

This particular paper addresses several issues, both substantive and methodological.  Substantively, Benson analyzes a set of corncobs excavated from the Gallo dwelling in the Chaco campground in the 1950s and adds the data derived from them to the data from earlier studies of cobs from this site as well as from Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.  He also reports on strontium isotope ratios from several agriculturally productive areas of the Zuni Reservation and adds them to the previously reported data from other parts of the Colorado Plateau.  He then combines this new information with the previously reported data to draw some specific conclusions about the sources of some of the cobs.  Importantly, however, he does not come to any conclusions about the sources of the newly analyzed Gallo cobs.

Metate at Pueblo Bonito

The reason for this lies in the methodological side of the paper, which may be the most important in the context of overall research on this topic.  The cobs Benson reports for the first time here, unlike the previously analyzed cobs, were not burned, and part of the purpose of this research was to see if the procedures used to prepare and analyze the burned cobs could be used for unburned cobs as well.  As it turns out, they can’t, and the strontium ratios from the unburned cobs appear to come from post-depositional mineral contamination rather than growth conditions.  This seems to be because the act of burning effectively “seals in” the trace minerals in the cobs, protecting them from contamination.  While this result is somewhat disappointing, in that it means that the strontium data from the new cobs can’t be used to draw any conclusions, it is important in informing others that if they want to do this kind of research on unburned corn cobs they need to come up with new procedures.  In the course of doing this analysis Benson also uses some data on recent experimental growing of Pueblo varieties of corn in Farmington that provides valuable reference material on just how closely strontium ratios in corncobs can be expected to correspond to the ratios in the soil and water in the area.  The answer is closely, but not perfectly, which is also useful information for future researchers.

Keyhole-Shaped Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Despite those issues, however, this paper does include some important substantive conclusions.  Although the new cobs couldn’t be used for strontium analysis, they did produce radiocarbon dates, which correspond very closely to the dates on the earlier Gallo cobs as well as some of the ones from Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.  Interestingly, these dates all cluster tightly around the AD 1180s.  As Benson points out, this is after the major drought of the mid-twelfth-century, which is generally interpreted as marking the “collapse” of the Chaco system and the possible depopulation of Chaco Canyon.  It has long been known that the canyon was occupied later, from the late twelfth century until the total abandonment of the region during the “Great Drought” of AD 1276 to 1299, but it’s unclear if the population at that time consisted of a remnant from the earlier Chacoan occupation or a reoccupation by people from elsewhere who may or may not have been descended from the earlier Chacoans.  In any case, whoever the people were who lived in the canyon in the 1180s, these are their corn cobs.

Keyhole-Shaped Kiva at Pueblo Bonito

They didn’t grow them, though.  In what is probably the most interesting conclusion of Benson’s paper, and certainly the most surprising, he goes through a careful analysis of the strontium data, excluding the data from the unburned cobs, and finds that the values from the cobs do not overlap with any of the locations in the Chaco area, either in the canyon or around it, that have been tested.  It’s certainly possible that they come from somewhere nearby that hasn’t been tested, but at this point a lot of potential growing locations in and around the canyon have been analyzed, so there aren’t a whole lot of additional options.  It’s not a very promising area for agriculture, after all, and pretty much all of the obvious places have now been tested for strontium ratios.

Hubbard Tri-Wall Structure at Aztec Ruins National Monument

So if these cobs didn’t come from Chaco, where were they grown?  Benson compares their strontium ratios to data from several areas in and around the San Juan Basin: in addition to the newly reported Zuni sites, these include Lobo Mesa, the Red Mesa Valley, the Rio Puerco of the West, the Defiance Plateau, Chinle Wash, the Four Corners area, Mesa Verde, the Totah, and the Dinetah.  This covers almost the whole area once occupied by Chacoan outliers, and several places beyond.  The cob ratios turn out to overlap considerably with one of the Zuni areas, the Mesa Verde/McElmo Dome area, the Totah, the Defiance Plateau, Lobo Mesa, and the Rio Puerco valley.  For some reason Benson doesn’t mention the Puerco in the text of the article, but in the figure showing the boxplots of the values for the various regions it clearly overlaps a bit with the cob values.

Tri-Wall Structure at Pueblo del Arroyo

Unfortunately, the strontium analysis itself doesn’t provide any way to choose which of these areas is the most likely source of the corn.  Any of them is consistent with the evidence.  Benson therefore turns to other lines of evidence to narrow down the choice.  He eliminates Lobo Mesa and the Defiance Plateau because of evidence that they were not occupied during this period; he doesn’t go into a whole lot of detail on what this evidence is, which is unfortunate.  As I mentioned above, he doesn’t discuss the Puerco at all, which is also unfortunate.  This leaves Zuni, the Totah, and Mesa Verde as the remaining options.  These are all areas that had Chacoan outliers during the height of the Chaco system and probably experienced immigration of people from Chaco after the system’s collapse, and they were all home to significant populations during this relatively wet period, so they are all plausible sources of corn imported to Chaco.  Benson concludes that the Totah is the most likely source based on the fact that it is the closest of the three areas and the one that seems to have had the strongest connections to Chaco, and while he acknowledges that this is little more than a guess, it sounds plausible enough to me.  Certainly Aztec, which is often interpreted as a successor to Chaco in some sense, was a major center in the late twelfth century, as was Salmon, and the material culture of the people living in Chaco at the time shows considerable influence from areas to the north (although it’s not entirely clear how to interpret this).

Aztec West Great House, Aztec Ruins National Monument

This paper is part of a growing corpus of data, much of it contributed by Benson, showing that the inhabitants of Chaco at various times did in fact import corn to the canyon.  This seems to largely settle one of the longstanding disputes in Chacoan archaeology, and it further points out the pointlessness of trying to estimate the population of the canyon by first estimating its agricultural potential.  What remains puzzling is how this system would have worked, and why.  Beyond the obvious question of who was supplying the corn, which is partially addressed in this paper, the question of what leverage the canyon inhabitants would have had to get those people to supply them remains open.  This paper, in fact, seems to raise more questions than it answers in this respect.  While during the height of the Chacoan system it is relatively easy to come up with theories for how the canyon inhabitants could have acquired supplies from the surrounding area, in the post-collapse period, when the canyon population was tiny and regional importance had clearly shifted elsewhere, explaining how the few people left at Chaco managed to get others to grow food for them becomes a daunting task.  It’s this sort of challenge, however, that I think makes Chaco so fascinating and ensures that it will continue to be a place worth studying for a long time to come.
Benson, L. (2010). Who provided maize to Chaco Canyon after the mid-12th-century drought? Journal of Archaeological Science, 37 (3), 621-629 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.10.027

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Type I and Type II Masonry Abutting at Peñasco Blanco

One of the most distinctive things about Chaco, compared to other prehistoric settlements in the northern Southwest, is its stability and longevity.  While most earlier (and, for that matter, later) villages were apparently only occupied for one or two generations, Chaco was a major center for at least 300 years, and may have been occupied at a lower level of population for another hundred or so years after the end of its regional centrality.  Despite the apparent importance of this fact, however, it has received curiously little explicit attention in the scholarly literature on Chaco.  This is probably because the stability of Chaco is easy to see but very difficult to explain.  Any explanation will necessarily have to exist within a particular interpretation of what Chaco was, and given the enormous amount of dispute over that and the number of competing theories it’s hardly surprising that Chaco specialists have spent most of their time coming up with theories and arguing with each other, which has left little time for using those theories to specifically address the issue of stability.  That is, all theories that have been proposed to explain Chaco contain implicit explanations for its stability, but explications of those theories very rarely address stability explicitly.

Bonito-Style Masonry atop McElmo-Style Masonry, Pueblo del Arroyo

To some extent the explanation for Chaco’s stability depends on the exact nature of the Chaco system and the role of Chaco itself within it, which is a topic of considerable dispute among archaeologists, but there are also some more general factors that probably played a role in the unusual stability of Chaco.

Mealing Room with Row of Metates, Pueblo del Arroyo

The most important is probably the environment.  The details are still a bit unclear, but it does seem from extensive research on the ancient climate that the rise of Chaco coincided with a period of unusually wet conditions that made farming more productive and reliable than it had been before in the arid Southwest.  This would have made the accumulation of agricultural surplus easier than it had been before, which would in turn have increased the power and prestige of areas that were able to accumulate surpluses.  This still doesn’t explain why Chaco specifically became so large and important for so long, since it’s not in a very productive agricultural area even by southwestern standards, but it may in part have just been a matter of fortuitous circumstance: Chaco happened to be where people were starting to gather, after leaving their earlier settlements elsewhere, when conditions improved and they were able to stay there longer than had been possible in other places before.

Type I Masonry in Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

Another important factor was probably trade.  Chaco isn’t in a very good place to farm, but it is located in a strategic position between the productive agricultural areas further north and the mountainous areas further south, each of which may have produced things the other may have needed.  It’s not clear how much trade there was in things like agricultural products, which are rather difficult to transport over long distances without pack animals, but there was certainly a considerable amount of trade in pottery and valuable goods like turquoise, and Chaco is particularly known for the amount of material found there that originated elsewhere.  Some theories have posited that Chaco was a center for redistribution of goods, but there isn’t much direct evidence for this and it’s hard to determine how much stuff passed through Chaco on the way to somewhere else (because that stuff wouldn’t have left any evidence of ever having been at Chaco).  What is clear, though, is that whether or not substantial amounts of trade goods passed through Chaco, an enormous amount of important material came into Chaco and stayed there.  Turquoise is the best known example, but there were a lot of other things too, including exotic goods like copper bells and macaws brought up from Mexico.

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

Whether from agricultural surplus or from trade, then, or possibly from both, Chaco was clearly a very wealthy place at its height, and it was probably that wealth that allowed it to last so long when other settlements had been so transient.  Favorable environmental conditions probably played a role in the ability of Chaco to accrue that wealth, but not necessarily in a straightforward way.  There may also have been other political, cultural, or religious factors that contributed to Chaco’s staying power.  One thing that’s interesting to note is that while Chaco did last a long time, its end seems to have come pretty rapidly.  Large-scale construction seems to have ended abruptly around AD 1130, and while a reduced population does seem to have remained in (or possibly returned to) the canyon until 1250 or so, the bulk of the population seems to have left for other settlements that ended up being occupied for much shorter periods.  That is, Chaco was occupied much longer than earlier settlements, but also much longer than most later settlements.  The fact that environmental conditions seem to have deteriorated as much at the end of the Chacoan era as they had improved at the beginning reinforces the impression that there’s some sort of relationship there.

McElmo-Style South Addition to Pueblo del Arroyo

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West Plaza of Pueblo Bonito from Room 28

West Plaza of Pueblo Bonito from Room 28

It’s been a few months now since the announcement of the discovery of chocolate residue on sherds from cylinder jars found at Chaco Canyon.  While there will certainly be a considerable amount of research into the implications of this discovery over the course of the next few years, and much of it is likely going on already, given the glacial pace of archaeological publishing it’s probably going to be quite some time before any such research reaches a publicly accessible form.  This is probably a good time, then, to take a preliminary look at what this discovery may mean in the context of previous theories about and interpretations of the Chaco Phenomenon.

Picture of Cylinder Jars on Plaque at Fajada Butte View

Picture of Cylinder Jars on Plaque at Fajada Butte View

The first thing to note is that this discovery contains a lot of information.  In addition to being remarkably clear-cut and unambiguous in its determination that the cylinder jar sherds contain chocolate residue, it also implies some surprisingly straightforward conclusions about the nature of the process that resulted in the chocolate arriving at Chaco.  Since the core area of Mesoamerican cacao production, then and now, is in southern Mexico along the Gulf and Pacific coasts in Tabasco, Chiapas, and further south along the Pacific coast into Guatemala and El Salvador, it’s likely that the chocolate coming to Chaco originated somewhere in that area (although this is certainly something that people are likely to be studying in detail).  That means it would have to travel over a distance of roughly 2000 miles.

Display Case at Visitor Center Showing Cylinder Jar and Canteens

Display Case at Visitor Center Showing Cylinder Jar and Canteens

That’s a long way.  Since the chocolate in Chaco would have to arrive in usable form, it would presumably have been transported in the most durable form possible, which would probably be the dried cacao beans.  Interestingly, these were used as currency in some parts of Mesoamerica during at least some portions of the prehispanic era.  However, since the residue on the Chaco sherds had soaked into the sherd and was not even visible on the surface, it seems the chocolate in the cylinder jars was in liquid form.  This is not really surprising, since the Mesoamericans generally consumed chocolate as a liquid, but it suggests that along with the dry cacao beans was coming the knowledge of how to prepare them by grinding them into a powder to be mixed with various additives to produce a beverage.  It’s not at all obvious from just looking at the cacao beans how to do this, or even that it would be a reasonable thing to do, so it’s pretty clear that whoever was bringing the beans up knew what to do with them and how.  That is, they weren’t just being passed from group to group as curiosities or being borne on the wind.

Cylinder Jar at Visitor Center Museum from Above

Cylinder Jar at Visitor Center Museum from Above

In addition, the fact that the residue was found on sherds that seem to have come from cylinder jars and (importantly) not on sherds from other types of vessels suggests that knowledge of a different sort was coming up with the beans as well.  This would be knowledge of the role of chocolate in society: how it was to be consumed, by whom, and when and where.  This is suggested by the fact that the form of the cylinder jar, which was often used by Mesoamerican groups for chocolate consumption, was apparently being transmitted along with the cacao beans and the knowledge of how to prepare them.  It’s crucial to note that the jars themselves don’t seem to have been brought up physically; the Mayan examples, the best known, look very different from the Chacoan ones in decoration, although they are strikingly similar in size and shape, and no examples of anything resembling a Mesoamerican cylinder jar have ever been found in the southwest to my knowledge.  Rather, the idea of using a cylindrical vessel, an exotic and very rare form in the southwest, to drink this exotic beverage seems to have been transmitted by whoever was bringing the beans from which the beverage was to be made.

Sealed Doorway, Room 28, Pueblo Bonito

Sealed Doorway, Room 28, Pueblo Bonito

This suggests that more information and knowledge from cultures to the south may have been transmitted to Chaco as well.  Much of this, however, may have been of an abstract nature that has not survived in the physical archaeological record.  The chocolate knowledge, note, very nearly didn’t survive either, and it’s only because we now have the ability to analyze the pottery chemically that we know about it.  What else may have been coming up from Mexico that left even less of a trace?  It’s hard to know, but this is an area of study that may deserve renewed attention and that could, conceivably, result in some answers to the enduring mysteries of Chaco.

Puchteca Indian Art, Flagstaff, Arizona

Puchteca Indian Art, Flagstaff, Arizona

This idea of Mesoamerican influence on Chaco is hardly new, of course.  While the similarity between the Chacoan cylinder jars and the Mayan ones has been noted ever since the Chacoan ones were discovered in the 1890s, it’s generally been considered coincidental or at least not strong evidence for contact or influence, given the extreme distance in both space and time between Chaco and the Classic Maya.  Other aspects of the Chaco Phenomenon, however, have been taken by some as evidence of substantial influence from civilizations to the south.  This tendency was particularly marked among the so-called “Mexicanists” of the 1960s and 1970s, who proposed that Chaco was more or less entirely a creation of Mesoamerican influence, perhaps by Toltec merchants organized along the lines of the later Aztec class of elite long-distance merchants known as pochteca (or puchteca).  The motivation usually cited for this interference was the acquisition of turquoise, which became a highly valued commodity in Postclassic Mesoamerica, where it was used in all sorts of ceremonial contexts.  The very large quantities of turquoise found at Chaco intrigued these scholars, who were generally specialists in Mesoamerica rather than the southwest.  They proposed that Chaco was either a turquoise acquisition center founded and controlled by Mesoamerican merchants or an indigenous center with a monopoly over the supply of turquoise that was exploited and supported by those same merchants.  As evidence of this influence they cited the Mexican trade goods such as copper bells from western Mexico, scarlet macaws (which seem to have been kept alive, presumably for their feathers, at Chaco), and shells from the Gulf of California, along with architectural influences such as the Colonnade at Chetro Ketl and t-shaped doorways at many of the Chacoan sites, often in significant locations such as in plaza-facing rooms.

T-Shaped Doorway with Step at Pueblo Bonito

T-Shaped Doorway with Step at Pueblo Bonito

Most southwestern archaeologists, especially Chaco specialists, didn’t take these theories very seriously.  An “Indigenist” school of Chacoan interpretation developed which proposed that, while there may have been some minor contact with Mesoamerica, Chaco was fundamentally a local development best understood in an indigenous context.  They noted that the Mexican trade goods were very scarce and not necessarily associated with Chaco specifically more than other southwestern sites, and as for the architectural influences, they were awfully subtle and not necessarily evidence of influence rather than coincidental parallel development.  In general, the signs of possible Mexican influence at Chaco pale in comparison to the many ways in which Chacoan developments clearly echo local precedents.  The great houses are large and impressive in scale, certainly, but they clearly belong to the same tradition as the much more rudimentary small houses around them.

Macaw Feathers on Display at Visitor Center Museum

Macaw Feathers on Display at Visitor Center Museum

But what about the turquoise?  Certainly there’s an enormous amount of it at Chaco, and many theories, both Mexicanist and Indigenist, have given it a prominent role in explaining Chaco’s dominance.  There are some problems with seeing Chaco as all about turquoise, however.

Turquoise Display at Visitor Center Museum

Turquoise Display at Visitor Center Museum

The biggest problem, which really only affects “strong” Mexicanist accounts that see Chaco as completely a Mesoamerican creation, is that there are no turquoise sources at all close to Chaco.  This is not an example, then, of a group with fortuitous access to a rare, desired commodity leveraging their control over that commodity into economic and political power on a regional scale.  The closest known source of turquoise to Chaco is in the Cerrillos Hills south of Santa Fe.  This source is known to have been worked prehistorically, and while most of the archaeological evidence for prehistoric use indicates a later date there is a bit of evidence of use during Chacoan times, perhaps involving ties to the Mt. Taylor area.  The turquoise-centric theories have therefore often argued that the Chacoans somehow had control over the Cerrillos mines, and used that control and the resulting monopoly on processed turquoise to gain regional power, whether by exporting the turquoise to Mexico or by distributing it throughout the southwest.

Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Turquoise-Encrusted Cow Skull, Santa Fe, New Mexico

This is reasonable enough in theory, and only problematic for the strongest of the Mexicanist explanations (if the Toltec merchants were establishing a turquoise-procurement center, why would they put it at Chaco rather than at, say, Cerrillos?), but it becomes rather dubious in the context of what is known about the extent of Chacoan influence and the proposed limits of the Chacoan system.  The system seems to extend quite far to the south, west, and north, with new great houses being suggested ever further in each of these directions.  There seems to be a general shift over time from south to west to north in the emphasis of the system and the locations of material sources for the canyon, but certainly all three of these directions included many communities that were closely integrated into the Chaco Phenomenon.

Rio Puerco of the East, Cuba, New Mexico

Rio Puerco of the East, Cuba, New Mexico

Not so to the east.  This is the direction in which we see by far the least Chacoan influence and interaction.  There are really only two outliers at any significant distance to the east of the canyon (i.e., past Pueblo Pintado): Guadalupe and Chimney Rock.  Guadalupe, near the Rio Puerco of the East, seems to have been among the earliest great houses anywhere, and it was apparently an important part of the Chacoan system from its early beginnings.  Chimney Rock, on the other hand, was a much later foundation, and its odd location and astronomical alignments suggest that there were specific, idosyncratic local reasons for it to become part of the system.  Both of these are very isolated, however, with the nearest other outliers lying rather far.  They are unusual places, and worthy of study, but aside from them there’s really just nothing suggestive of any Chacoan influence at all.  No wood came from the Jemez Mountains for construction in Chaco, and while some obsidian does seem to have come to Chaco from the Jemez, the period when the Chaco system was at its height was also the time when there was the least Jemez obsidian coming in.  A lot of this probably has to do with the fact that the Jemez area was occupied at the time by the Gallina people, who don’t seem to have been receptive to Chacoan influence or friendly to outsiders in general.  They would have formed a formidable obstacle to basing a major distribution system on regular supplies of turquoise from Cerrillos.  This probably explains why direct evidence for such a system is scanty at best.

Shell Display at Visitor Center Museum

Shell Display at Visitor Center Museum

One thing that I think often gets overlooked in these discussions is that Cerrillos is not the only turquoise source in the southwest, and while it’s the closest one to Chaco there are others that aren’t much further.  There’s one source in southern Colorado that never seems to get mentioned, possibly because there’s no evidence of prehistoric mining there, but there are also somewhat more distant sources in southern New Mexico, Arizona, and California (not to mention the many sources in Nevada) that could also have provided turquoise for Chaco.  It’s true that the further away these sources are the less likely it is that Chaco could have controlled them, but Chaco didn’t need to control a place to get things from it.  There’s an awful lot of shell from the Pacific coast at Chaco, for instance, and no one proposes that the Chacoans controlled southern California, although Cibola series pottery from Chacoan times has actually been found in Los Angeles County.  Surely if that much shell could come across the Mojave Desert at least some turquoise could as well.  In addition, Tom Windes has proposed that there may have even been a turquoise source in the Zuni area, which is an interesting idea in light of the long association of that area with turquoise working, up to the present day.  While no such source has been identified, Zuni traditions hold that turquoise was mined prehistorically in the Zuni Mountains, and there are known copper deposits, which are often associated with turquoise deposits, in that area.  If there were a Zuni turquoise source, it would be by far the closest to Chaco, much closer than Cerrillos, and it would make turquoise-based models for Chaco a lot more plausible.  As Windes notes, however, it would also mean that the role of the numerous local communities in that area in managing turquoise supply and distribution would be important to consider.  In any case, I think turquoise discussions tend to be a bit Cerrillos-centric, and there are plenty of other places the turquoise could have come from.

Anthill at a Small House near Casa Rinconada with Piece of Turquoise

Anthill at a Small House near Casa Rinconada with Piece of Turquoise

Speaking of Tom Windes, in that same paper on Chacoan turquoise he discusses evidence of widespread turquoise manufacturing in small sites during the tenth and early eleventh centuries both in Chaco Canyon itself and at other communities in the San Juan Basin.  From looking at the pieces of turquoise collected by harvester ants and added to their anthills, he determined that small sites had plenty of debitage from bead manufacture but very few finished beads, while at great house sites it’s well known that there were large amounts of finished turquoise.  This suggests that turquoise was indeed important in Chaco during the early part of the Chacoan era, and while for some reason evidence is meager for the late eleventh century, by the early twelfth turquoise is vanishingly rare at both great houses and small sites.  Crucially, however, this data applies not just to Chaco itself but to the San Juan Basin in general, which goes along with Windes’s argument elsewhere in the same volume that great house construction was not originally limited to Chaco but was quite widespread from the beginning.  Given this information, then, it appears that Chaco did not have a monopoly on turquoise processing, at least in the local context, and that the rise of Chaco in the region is unlikely to have had much to do with control of turquoise, whether or not there was a vast demand for the stuff in Mexico.

Anthill at Pueblo Bonito with Piece of Turquoise

Anthill at Pueblo Bonito with Piece of Turquoise

Overall, for these reasons and more, Indigenism basically won out, and most recent theories about Chaco, although they conflict with each other quite a bit, are Indigenist in nature.  Which is not to say that no one has incorporated Mesoamerican influence into the theories at all; Steve Lekson certainly has, and, going a bit further into the fringes, Christy Turner’s cannibalism theory relies heavily on the prevalence of cannibalism in Mexico.  Still, most of the theories treat Mexican contact as an afterthought, and devote more energy to explaining away the evidence for such contact than to incorporating it into their interpretations.

Colonnade at Chetro Ketl

Colonnade at Chetro Ketl

Because of this tendency, it’s easy to get a skewed idea of what Mexicanism is all about from reading recent summaries of Chacoan research.  Phil Weigand, one of the most prominent of the handful of remaining Mexicanists, has an elegant essay in the same volume as Windes’s turquoise paper in which he makes the case for considering Chaco in a larger context.  Focusing again on turquoise, he talks about how the presence of valuable, scarce resources in areas with large imbalances of societal complexity leads to various processes of influence and contact.  As a Mesoamericanist, he has insight into the demand for turquoise in Mesoamerica during Chacoan times, and he emphasizes how important it was and how a “trade structure” to acquire it was nearly inevitable given the circumstances.  While he doesn’t go into detail about how Chaco would fit into the larger trade structure, he clearly sees Chaco as having had a monopoly on turquoise and as having therefore been the obvious trade partner for the Mexicans.  Once Chaco was gone, for whatever reason, the trade continued, just with different partners and, perhaps, different sources.  While not everything Weigand says here will necessarily stand up to careful scrutiny, I think he’s definitely right that Chaco must be interpreted in a larger context including Mesoamerica and its demand for turquoise, even if that doesn’t explain everything (or even anything) about Chaco.

T-Shaped Doorway at Pueblo del Arroyo

T-Shaped Doorway at Pueblo del Arroyo

The final paper in that same volume is also interesting in this context.  It’s by Gary Feinman, a Mesoamericanist but not a “Mexicanist” in the sense of having a theory about Chaco based on Mesoamerican contact.  Indeed, he has no theory about Chaco at all, but is writing here as a discussant of the other papers, giving an outside view.  He makes some very good points that deserve to be noted.  For one thing, he finds it odd how many recent theories about Chaco have adapted theories about Mesoamerican societies (such as the “empty ceremonial center” theory of Classic Maya cities) that have been thoroughly debunked within Mesoamerican archaeology.  He also notes that demography is an important issue that has not been discussed with regard to Chaco in ways that seem worthwhile from an outside perspective.  Much discussion of Chacoan population estimates has revolved around agricultural productivity, but as Feinman notes, this is remarkably circular, and when looking at major population centers elsewhere it is quite common to see them being supported by quite large hinterlands.  The population of a large center is not necessarily related at all to the productivity of its immediate surroundings.  And he sees Chaco as definitely a large center; he finds it hard to believe the very low population estimates given in certain theories, given the sheer amount of construction effort in the canyon.  Whether or not it was a “city” is a matter of debate.  Weigand, for instance, definitely considers it equivalent to Mesoamerican cities, not all of which were nucleated or “urban” in a modern sense.  Feinman avoids making such definite pronouncements, but the context of what he says clearly indicates that he is thinking of Chaco as something comparable to a Mesoamerican city.

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

Another more recent effort to interpret contact between Chaco and Mesoamerica without explicitly endorsing Mexicanism comes in the Chaco Project synthesis volume.  Here Ben Nelson, a Mesoamericanist and specialist in northern Mexico, looks at the evidence for the contacts and argues that the best way to think of it is as a local elite at Chaco selectively incorporating aspects of Mesoamerican culture that suited their (presumably local) purposes.  Nelson has looked at Chaco before, particularly as part of a comparison with a northern Mexican regional center called La Quemada.  In that paper he argued that Chaco was less hierarchical than La Quemada, but much bigger in scale.  Here he notes the various things about Chaco that have been adduced as evidence of Mexican influence: colonnades, copper bells, cylinder jars.  He also adds some others, which southwestern archaeologists, who are not generally very familiar with Mesoamerica, have overlooked: shell bracelets, thong-foot pots, and roads.  In looking at these in the context of the rise and fall of several regional centers in northern Mexico in the Postclassic period, he finds evidence for the sort of selective appropriation of Mesoamerican items and motifs that implies a largely local origin for Chaco.  He is quite forceful in concluding that Chaco was not founded by Mesoamericans.  He notes, however, that developments at Chaco were clearly related to synchronous developments in Mexico in a complex way.  Although most of the markers of contact point to western Mexico as the most likely source, there is no apparent link to any particular center as the origin of the influence.

Ballcourt at Wupatki National Monument

Ballcourt at Wupatki National Monument

One very important thing that Nelson points out about Chaco and Mesoamerica is that it’s just as important to look at what wasn’t adopted.  There are a whole host of important Mesoamerican objects and ideas that we don’t find at Chaco: ballcourts, pyramids, plaques, mirrors, etc.  Interestingly, some of these (particularly ballcourts) were adopted by the Hohokam, whose position between Chaco and western Mexico makes them natural candidates for intermediaries in the process of contact and influence.  It seems, then, that both the Chacoans and the Hohokam were selectively appropriating Mesoamerican ideas for their own purposes, but they appropriated different ideas and thus seem to have had different purposes.  What those purposes were is difficult, perhaps impossible, to say at this point, but there are some tantalizing clues.

T-Shaped Doorways at Escalante Pueblo, a Great House in Colorado

T-Shaped Doorways at Escalante Pueblo, a Great House in Colorado

One of which, of course, is the chocolate.  This could imply all sorts of things about the motives of the Chacoans, but one thing it definitely shows is that they had access to a great deal of knowledge about Mesoamerican society.  This wasn’t a matter of some vague ideas gradually floating up along the coast, through the Hohokam, and further north.  There must have been a quite direct pipeline between Chaco and somewhere in Mexico for this chocolate idea to come up in such a detailed form.  I think this discovery definitely vindicates Nelson’s approach to Chaco and Mesoamerica.  If the Chacoans could get chocolate, they certainly could have decided to build pyramids and ballcourts or adopt other major aspects of Mesoamerican society, but they clearly didn’t.  Their society remained southwestern in most respects, with just a few key features from Mexico incorporated into it.  But why?

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

Partly Walled-Up T-Shaped Doorway at Chetro Ketl

Well, perhaps to justify some changes in Chacoan society.  There’s quite a bit of evidence that the Chacoan system was much more hierarchical than other southwestern societies, and many theories have posited an emerging elite in the canyon that probably capitalized on some sort of ceremonial knowledge (perhaps astronomical) to gain a greater share of political and economic power.  If the prehistoric Pueblo people were as egalitarian as is generally assumed, which is not really a trivial assumption, this may have caused some friction among other people in society, and the rising elites may have wanted to associate themselves with the spectacular societies to the south, with their huge cities, exotic goods, and strongly hierarchical political structures.  Things like chocolate, and perhaps copper bells, macaws, and roads too, would be tangible symbols of the connection to that far-off land of mystery that would give these upstarts a way to solidify their position.  It’s even possible that the ritual knowledge they are generally thought to have wielded was of Mexican origin too, although they themselves presumably were not.

Plaque at Fajada Butte View Describing the "Sun Dagger" Petroglyph

Plaque at Fajada Butte View Describing the "Sun Dagger" Petroglyph

This is all pretty speculative, of course.  Many aspects of it will necessarily remain so, but others are amenable to testing and will presumably be tested as people recover from the shock of the chocolate discovery and set out to explore its implications.  In any event, it’s an exciting time to be at Chaco.  There’s a lot to think about, and a lot of shifting ideas and possibilities in the air.

Room 28 at Pueblo Bonito

Room 28 at Pueblo Bonito

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