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Archive for the ‘Trade’ Category

Display Case at Chaco Museum Showing Cylinder Jar and Canteens

I mentioned earlier that there was a new paper out on chocolate at Chaco that I needed to read.  I read it today, and it’s quite interesting.  One of the most interesting things about it is that it’s by a different group of researchers than the first one and uses somewhat different methods.  As far as I can tell, all the study of chocolate residue in archaeological pottery until this paper has been done by Jeffrey Hurst at Hershey, in collaboration with a variety of archaeologists.  Except for the Chaco paper he did with Patricia Crown, all of Hurst’s work in this area has been on Mesoamerican pottery and in collaboration with Mesoamerican archaeologists.  This makes sense, since Mesoamerica is where chocolate is grown and was used most extensively in antiquity.  Hurst’s methods involve scraping residue from the interior of pots or grinding up potsherds to test them for the presence of theobromine, a chemical compound that serves as a biomarker for chocolate.  They aren’t hugely destructive methods, as analytical methods applied to artifacts go, but there is a certain amount of damage inherent in the scraping (and more in the grinding, of course).

This new paper pioneers a different method, which uses a wash of deionized water on whole vessel interiors (this could presumably be done with sherds too, but these authors used whole vessels) and subsequent analysis of the water with a very sensitive mass spectrometer.  The researchers are not affiliated with Hershey, but instead with Bristol-Myers Squibb, except for the lead author, Dorothy Washburn.  Washburn has for many years now been studying symmetry patterns on pottery and other artifacts and she has come up with a variety of interpretations of social structure and change from the patterns she sees.  The work she has done on Chaco has led her to posit that the “special” vessel forms associated with the Chaco Phenomenon, particularly cylinder jars but also pitchers and shallow bowls, show a very different type of symmetry from that prevailing on Pueblo pottery before and after Chaco.  In publications such as her chapter in the Salmon Ruins synthesis volume, she further contends that this sudden difference indicates an influx of people from elsewhere with a very different social structure, and she points to Mexico as the most likely source given the presence of both similar symmetries and similar vessel forms there.  This puts her in what I’ve called the “hard Mexicanist” camp, not a popular position among Chacoan scholars these days (although this chocolate stuff may start to change that).  I don’t really buy her arguments for physical migration of Mesoamericans to Chaco, and I think she generally goes a bit too far in inferring specific social structures from the abstract symmetries she studies, but her evidence for a big difference between Chacoan and other designs is solid and well-taken.

Cylinder Jar at Chaco Museum from Above

Given Washburn’s theories, it makes sense that she would jump at the chance to look for chocolate residue in Chacoan vessels.  The Crown and Hurst paper that started all this really came out of nowhere; no one in the Southwest was expecting it at all, and it’s likely to end up being one of the major turning points in interpretations of Chaco.  The paper itself, though, was short, and the research behind it was modest in scale.  Crown and Hurst only tested five sherds from the mounds in front of Pueblo Bonito, three of which seemed from their curvature to be from cylinder jars while one of the others was from a pitcher and the final one could have been from either a cylinder jar or a pitcher.  Testing revealed that the three definite cylinder jar sherds showed evidence of chocolate, while the other two didn’t.  This was remarkable, groundbreaking stuff, to be sure, but it was still only five sherds.  The really important thing about that paper was that it opened up the possibility of running tests like this on all sorts of sherds and vessels to determine the extent of chocolate use in the prehistoric Southwest, and it seems Washburn was inspired to take it a step further.

Room 28 at Pueblo Bonito

She and her coauthors, William Washburn, who I presume is her husband, and Petia Shipkova, both of whom work for Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Pharmaceutical Research Institute in Princeton, NJ, apparently developed this new technique for doing the theobromine testing and they applied it not to sherds but to whole vessels.  Not just any whole vessels, either; they went straight for the important ones: the cylinder jars from Room 28 at Pueblo Bonito, along with cylinder jars, pitchers, and shallow bowls from burial rooms elsewhere in Bonito (including Room 33).  They also tested three cylinder jars from Pueblo del Arroyo, at least two of which are of plain redware rather than the whiteware that characterizes all other known cylinder jars (there is some confusion over whether the other jar is red or white, in that the paper says all three are red but the National Museum of Natural History catalog seems to say that one is white).  In addition, they tested a variety of similar forms from the Hohokam site of Los Muertos.  This is interesting, because the Hohokam in southern Arizona showed a wide variety of Mesoamerican influences to a much greater degree than Chaco ever did, and one of the first things I wondered when I read the Crown and Hurst paper was whether a similar study of Hohokam vessels would also show chocolate use.  They picked Los Muertos specifically because it’s a Classic-period platform-mound complex with what appear to be elite burials.  The platform mounds of the Hohokam Classic are the only other phenomenon except for Chaco in the prehistoric Southwest that show clear evidence of social hierarchy, and the authors of this paper clearly chose this set of vessels to see if chocolate use corresponded to increased hierarchy.  In all they tested 57 vessels from Chaco great houses and 10 from Los Muertos, and as a control they also tested eight vessels from small sites at Chaco, on the Little Colorado River in Arizona, and in southwestern Colorado.

Pitchers at Chaco Museum

What they found was that most of the great-house and Hohokam vessels did indeed test positive for theobromine.  Specifically, 80% of the Los Muertos vessels tested positive, as did 65% of the Chaco cylinder jars, 41% of the Chaco pitchers, and 83% of the shallow bowls from Chaco.  The lower percentage for the pitchers may indicate that they were used for a variety of things, not just chocolate, which might in turn explain why Crown and Hurst’s pitcher sherd tested negative.  The very high number of positives for the shallow bowls is very interesting, and suggests that this class of vessels, largely overlooked because they resemble local forms more than the cylinder jars, may be more important than people have thought.  On the other hand, only 12 bowls were tested (versus 23 cylinder jars and 22 pitchers), so this could just be a fluke of sampling size.  These results seem to confirm the Crown and Hurst results and reinforce the idea that the presence of chocolate, a clear sign of ongoing trade and contact with Mesoamerica as well as acceptance of Mesoamerican ideas and practices, may correlate strongly with the evidence for social hierarchy at both Chaco and the Classic Hohokam platform mounds.

But wait, what about the small-house sites?  Here’s where things get really interesting, in an unexpected way.  All eight vessels from the small houses tested positive for theobromine.  This was totally unexpected, and the authors devote quite a bit of discussion to this result.  Apparently concerned that there might be a problem with the whole theobromine-testing enterprise, they went looking for native plants in the Southwest that might contain theobromine.  If there were any, of course, that would call all of these results into question.  They couldn’t find any, so it does seem (unless there’s something amiss with their experimental protocols) that the results for the small houses really do indicate that chocolate was not just confined to the great houses at Chaco and the platform mounds in Phoenix.  They suggest that commoners might have been paid in chocolate for their work for the great-house elites, a very interesting idea.  In Mesoamerica cacao beans were often used as currency, and if something similar was going on at Chaco that would be cause for some serious rethinking of how the Chacoan economy worked.

Bc 51

One issue that the authors don’t really address is that the small houses they picked are all within areas that could plausibly have been part of the Chaco system, so there isn’t really an independent check here on how widespread chocolate was in the region as a whole.  They preferentially selected vessels from early excavations because early excavators usually didn’t wash the vessels they found, which makes sense for this type of project but also means that provenience information for the small sites is not ideal.  Nevertheless, one of the small houses that produced these vessels was Bc 51 at Chaco, which is right across the canyon from Pueblo Bonito and would obviously have been closely incorporated into the Chaco system.  The others included a cluster of sites in the Montezuma Valley of southwestern Colorado, which is an area with several nearby Chacoan outliers, and a site on the Little Colorado River in eastern Arizona that is not located very precisely but could have been relatively close to the far western edge of the Chacoan system.  There are several major outliers along the Rio Puerco of the West, a major tributary of the Little Colorado, and some evidence for at least a small amount of Chacoan influence as far west as Winslow.

Further testing of vessels and sherds from a wide variety of sites and time periods should help to clarify this picture.  The great thing about this chocolate stuff is that it’s all about analyzing pottery, which is by far the most common type of artifact found at sites in the Southwest.  There are vast numbers of vessels in museums throughout the country that could easily be tested using these techniques, and even vaster numbers of sherds collected from sites throughout the region that could potentially produce an unbelievably huge and detailed database of information on the distribution of chocolate in the prehistoric Southwest.  There are a lot of questions still outstanding at this point, but there is also a huge opportunity to try to answer them.  Hopefully this question will keep a lot of archaeology grad students set for thesis and dissertation topics for years to come, and the rest of us will benefit from the information they find and the patterns they discover.
ResearchBlogging.org
Washburn, D., Washburn, W., & Shipkova, P. (2011). The prehistoric drug trade: widespread consumption of cacao in Ancestral Pueblo and Hohokam communities in the American Southwest Journal of Archaeological Science, 38 (7), 1634-1640 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2011.02.029

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Trash Mound from Pueblo Alto

Many recent interpretations of Chaco Canyon see it as a site of pilgrimage, and this is often specifically seen as taking the form of regular region-wide ritual events involving communal feasting, construction work on the massive buildings in the canyon, trade involving various mundane and exotic items, and ritual breakage of pottery and deposition of it in the mounds accompanying most great houses.  This idea, which has been incorporated into a wide range of models of Chacoan society both hierarchical and egalitarian (although it is especially important to egalitarian models), is heavily dependent on data gathered in the excavation of Pueblo Alto by the Chaco Project in the 1970s.  In addition to excavating about 10% of the great house itself, Project personnel excavated a trench and several stratigraphic columns in the large trash mound to the southeast.  What they found was a series of well-defined layers.  Some of these, toward the bottom, seemed to consist mostly of construction debris, and others, toward the top, consisted mostly of windblown sand and redeposited artifacts, but the ones in between seemed to show a pattern of large, well-defined deposits.  This was interpreted as being quite different from the expected pattern from the regular deposition of domestic trash from a residential site, and the theory developed, particularly by Wolky Toll, explained it as the result of occasional massive depositional events in which large amounts of pottery and other artifacts were deposited all at once.  Toll estimated that the number of layers approximately matched the number of years during which Pueblo Alto was occupied, and that they therefore accumulated as the result of annual events in which numerous people came from throughout the region to attend events at Pueblo Alto (and presumably at other great houses too).  As part of these events, pilgrims would probably have brought offerings of items from their home areas, thus explaining the huge amount of imported goods at Chaco as well as the lack of apparent exports.  These items would have included mundane items like wood, corn, and pottery, as well as more exotic things like turquoise and Narbona Pass chert.  People may have also worked on constructing the great houses as part of some sort of ritual offering of labor, which would explain the massive scale of these buildings despite the small permanent population of the canyon itself.  While there is a certain amount of evidence for residential use at Pueblo Alto and other great houses, it indicates a pretty small population relative to the size of the buildings, and Toll’s model interprets this as a small “caretaker” population of what were primarily non-residential, public structures with large plazas that could serve as the sites of ritual feasting and other activities during these festivals.

Furthermore, the composition of the artifact assemblage found during the excavations of the Pueblo Alto mound seemed to offer an interesting possibility for another ritual activity.  Basically, there was a huge amount of pottery in it, especially gray utility ware, much of it imported from the Chuska Mountains to the west.  Based on the number of rim sherds in the excavated portion and an estimate of the size of the whole mound, Toll calculated that 150,000 vessels were used during the 60-year period (AD 1040 to 1100) during which Gallup Black-on-white was the predominant decorated type, a period that roughly corresponds to the height of the Chaco system.  This works out to 2500 vessels a year, or 125 for each of the 20 households estimated to have lived at Pueblo Alto at any one time.  This is a huge number compared to ethnographically documented rates of pottery usage and breakage or ratios seen at small sites, and to Toll it suggested that the pottery deposited in the mound was probably not broken in the course of everyday life at Pueblo Alto but was instead broken deliberately in rituals associated with the annual pilgrimage fairs.  Ritual breakage and deposition of pottery is a known Pueblo practice, but this would be on a scale not seen at any other known site.  Nevertheless, this is the model of the formation of the Pueblo Alto mound that has been widely accepted and incorporated into a wide variety of interpretations of the Chaco system that differ wildly in many respects but all have some sort of pilgrimage function for the canyon as part of its regional role.  It’s important to note that this is the only direct evidence for a pilgrimage function known from excavations at Chaco.

Niche at Pueblo Alto

I think it’s pretty plausible that pilgrimage and communal feasting took place at Chaco, but I’ve increasingly come to think that the evidence from the Pueblo Alto mound is extremely weak.  There are a few different reasons I don’t buy it, and a couple of the most important ones are well illustrated by two articles published in American Antiquity in 2001.

One of these, by Toll himself, is part of the same special issue on the organization of production at Chaco that included Colin Renfrew‘s model of Chaco as a “Location of High Devotional Expression” or pilgrimage center.  Toll likes this idea, obviously, and his article, in addition to summarizing the known data on the production and use of pottery at Chaco, attempts to take a closer look at the Alto data to evaluate Renfrew’s model.  This basically involves looking at each of the “event layers” (as distinguished from the construction and post-occupational layers) and calculating the proportions of local and non-local ceramics and lithics (as well as the different types of pottery forms and wares) in each.  These were then compared to the proportions in the mound as a whole, other Chaco Project excavations dating from the same period, and excavations dating earlier and later.  If Renfrew’s theory works, the event layers should show higher proportions of imported ceramics and lithics, as well as possibly higher proportions of ceramic types likely to have been used in feasting, compared to these other data sets.

Flake of Narbona Pass Chert with Ant at Pueblo Alto

Toll does his best to spin the results to be consistent with Renfrew’s model, but looking at the actual numbers in his tables, there’s just nothing there.  The event layers are virtually identical to the whole mound, which isn’t really surprising given that they comprise a large portion of it, and both are very similar to contemporary non-mound contexts in most ways.  Earlier and later contexts are different in interesting ways, but that’s neither here nor there in terms of evaluating Renfrew’s model.  Chuska ceramics are a case in point: they comprise 33.4% of the event layers, 30.8% of the whole mound, and 33.1% of the contemporary non-mound contexts.  That doesn’t look like a meaningful difference to me.  In the cases where the mound layers do differ from other contemporary contexts, they generally have fewer exotic materials.  For example ceramics from the Red Mesa Valley comprise 3.3% of the event layers, 3.8% of the whole mound, and 4.6% of the contemporary non-mound contexts.  The presence of Narbona Pass chert is something of an exception, with the proportions for the event layers, the whole mound, and other contemporary contexts being 26.1%, 26.4%, and 19.5% respectively, but stone from the Zuni Mountains has proportions of 2.2%, 2.4%, and 10.9% (!) respectively, which suggests that there’s just no pattern here in which the event layers or the mound as a whole contain higher proportions of imported material.  Basically, Chaco was awash in all sorts of imported stuff during this period, and it was not particularly concentrated in the mound more than anywhere else.  The mound has lots of imports because there were lots of imports all over the place, not because it was formed as the result of annual pilgrimage feasts.

The biggest difference between the mound and other contemporary contexts comes with the forms of pottery.  Generally, the forms of pottery found at sites in this area at this time are whiteware bowls, whiteware jars, grayware jars, and redware and brownware bowls.  Red and brown bowls were long-distance imports and are found in small numbers at most sites.  The other wares were local, at least in a general sense, and while there was surely some variation, the standard idea about functions is that gray jars were used for cooking food, white bowls were used for serving food, and white jars were used for storage.  Thus, for feasting contexts an unusually high number of white bowls, and possibly gray jars, would be expected.  Since red and brown bowls are likely to have had symbolic or ritual importance, given the distances from which they were imported, they may occur in higher frequencies in feasting or ritual contexts too.

Shell Bead at Pueblo Alto

The pattern in the Pueblo Alto mound, while distinct from other contemporary sites, didn’t really match these expectations.  The most obvious difference was a much lower proportion of white bowls: 27.0% for the event layers versus 32.7% for the whole mound and 33.4% for other contexts.  This was balanced by a higher proportion of gray jars, which Toll interprets as still giving evidence for feasting, but this is mighty weak evidence for pilgrimage and feasting, even though the high proportion of grayware that came from the Chuskas during this period means that the high proportion of gray jars in the mound contributed to a higher level of Chuskan imports.  Red and brown bowls were also much rarer in the mound (both in the event layers and in the whole thing) than in other sites.

So, despite Toll’s efforts to show the data from the Pueblo Alto mound supporting his and Renfrew’s pilgrimage theories, I don’t buy it.  That’s not to say that there was no pilgrimage or feasting at Pueblo Alto, of course, just that this evidence doesn’t show that there was any.  And, remember, this is the only evidence out there for feasting and pilgrimage at Chaco.

Plaza at Pueblo Alto

But what about those unusually large, distinct layers in the mound?  Don’t those indicate unusual depositional events consistent with annual feasting and the deliberate breaking of huge numbers of pots?

Well, no.  To understand why not, we turn to the second paper published in 2001 on this topic, written by Chip Wills.  Wills is a Chaco Project alum who worked on the Pueblo Alto mound excavations, so he knows what he’s talking about here, and what he says is that the layers in the mound aren’t at all necessarily evidence for annual feasts.  Basically, what he says is that there’s nothing special about the layers in the mound.  They’re not really bigger or richer in artifacts than deposits found elsewhere.  He has a lot of specific criticisms of Toll’s interpretations and methodology, but that’s the gist of it.  He says that the unusually well-defined nature of the layers could well be the result of natural processes on layers deposited in various ways, so that it doesn’t necessarily indicate occasional large deposits rather than steady trash accumulation.  Most importantly, he finds that there isn’t actually a clear distinction between the “construction” and “event” layers, and that it’s quite plausible that the whole mound, or at least the vast majority of it, resulted from the deposition of construction debris from the various stages of construction and remodeling at Pueblo Alto.  There would have been other “depositional streams” as well, including the dismantling of earlier architecture below the present site (which is known to have been present from the excavations).  Wills doesn’t deny that ritual may have played a role in the creation of the mound, since the construction of the great house itself may well have been a ritual act, but he does deny that there is any sign that the actual contents of the mound indicate that it resulted from occasional ritual deposits rather than a combination of construction debris and regular trash dumping.

Rim Sherd at Pueblo Alto

Okay, but what about all those smashed vessels?  Basically, Wills doesn’t find Toll’s calculations convincing.  He says that Toll calculated the number of vessels based on the number of rim sherds found, then extrapolated that number to the whole mound based on the excavated portion.  The assumptions here are that each pot is represented in the mound by a single rim sherd, and that sherd density throughout the mound is constant.  Neither of these is really reasonable, although the “one rim sherd per vessel” one is particularly problematic.  It was apparently based on the fact that few rim sherds from the same vessel were found, but what are the odds that only one rim sherd from each pot made it into the mound?  Extrapolating the number of vessels is tricky, of course, and obviously the raw sherd counts can’t be a reliable way to do it (since vessels varied in size), but this rim sherd idea is questionable at best.  The idea of uniform density is really just an example of a reasonable assumption given an unknowable reality, but it’s still not necessarily right.  Wills mentions another estimate of 30,000 vessels for the whole mound, which he also attributes to Toll, and this produces much more reasonable per year and per household numbers suggesting that the observed sherd density could easily reflect regular domestic trash.  He also notes that it was the number of households, based on architectural data, that was held constant when this seemed to conflict with the number of vessels deposited, but he doesn’t elaborate on the implications of this beyond noting the privileged place architecture tends to hold in population estimates at Chacoan sites.

I originally read both of these articles a couple years ago when I was first starting to work at Chaco, and at the time I found Toll’s more convincing.  Rereading them now, though, I find Wills more convincing, and his arguments have never really been squarely addressed by Toll or anyone else associated with the pilgrimage/feasting theory (although they are occasionally mentioned in passing).  Chaco may well have been a pilgrimage site and the location of communal feasts, but it’s important to note that the Pueblo Alto trash mound doesn’t provide evidence for this idea, and neither does anything else.
ResearchBlogging.org
Toll, H. (2001). Making and Breaking Pots in the Chaco World American Antiquity, 66 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694318

Wills, W. (2001). Ritual and Mound Formation during the Bonito Phase in Chaco Canyon American Antiquity, 66 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2694243

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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.
ResearchBlogging.org
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.
ResearchBlogging.org
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.
ResearchBlogging.org
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.
ResearchBlogging.org
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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