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If you were directed to this essay from American Archaeology, you may be interested in “Chaco Through the Looking Glass.”
In recent publications and presentations, I advocate new ways of thinking about, and new sources for understanding the ancient Southwest. Conventionally, Southwestern archaeology refers constantly (explicitly or implicitly) to modern Native groups – most often Pueblos. Even in the heady, sciency, ahistorical days of New Archaeology, archaeology was still anthropology…or it was nothing. And anthropological New Archaeology projected modern (i.e. ethnographic) Pueblo kinship systems back to 14th century Mogollon sites (Broken K and Carter Ranch). Pueblos have always been our principal frame of reference for thinking about the ancient Southwest, at least the north half.
Ethnography may be a valuable resource for archaeology – if used critically. The obvious pitfall, into which we leap like lemmings, is prochronism: projecting the ethnographic present back into the back. Prochronism is an obvious logical flaw, but it’s taught as a method: “direct historic approach” in days past, and today’s “up-streaming.” Time does not work that way; time does not flow from present to past, it runs from past to present.
Consider the remarkable changes in the five centuries between Basketmaker III and Pueblo III – so different that early archaeologists (very reasonably) thought they were two different cultures. Then consider the changes in the five centuries between the end of Pueblo III at 1300 – a watershed year – and the 1800s, when systematic ethnography began. Differences were profound, between what ethnographers saw in the 19th century and what Native peoples did in the 9th or 10th or 11th centuries. For the ancient past, Pueblo ethnography is not sufficient and indeed may not even be necessary – for some questions, ethnography does more harm than good.
Up-streaming pushes elements of the Pueblo present far back into the past, and renders the whole processes almost unbearably teleological. Our job is not to chase kivas as far back into prehistory as possible; our job is to figure out what a pit structure actually was in the 10th century, in its contemporary context, and then follow that form forward. In the process we should see if — or if not — 10th century pitstructures have anything useful to say about the history of modern kivas. (They don’t, actually.)
Instead of Puebloan frames of reference, I suggest that we look at what was happening in ancient North America in those times – the Southwest’s actual context. For example: Chaco. Leading interpretations view Chaco through the lens of Pueblo ethnology. I argue that Pueblo societies developed, historically, in reaction to and rejection of Chaco, after 1300. If that is true (and it is), then we need other, independent, non-Puebloan “triangulation points” to define, delimit, and understand Chaco’s (and the Southwest’s) ancient past. Chaco, I think, should be contextualized by its contemporaries, specifically Mesoamerica in the 9th through 13th centuries (Early and Middle Postclassic periods).
Urging (past) contemporary contexts is all very well and good, but where has it gotten us? I make a lot of noise about this stuff: where’s the beef? In A History of the Ancient Southwest (2009), I tried to build histories and to develop continental contexts – constructing new frames of reference, so to speak. I suggested “kings” at Chaco, based on generalized Mesoamerican forms. But I did not present a detailed account of Southwest and Mesoamerica, nor (apparently) did I paint a convincing picture of Chaco in its time and place. Chaco remains everyone’s favorite mystery, with a truly staggering range of mutually exclusive interpretations.
The mystery of Chaco: we have plenty of data, so we should be able to solve that mystery. By properly contextualizing Chaco and by casting our interpretive nets beyond the Pueblo space – into Mesoamerica – I think we can indeed “solve” Chaco. I am now confident that Mesoamerican models more accurately and effectively represents ancient Chaco than any current, competing model. Chaco was an altepetl.
In brief: the ubiquitous local polity in Postclassic Mesoamerica was a small unit termed, in Nahua, altepetl (plural altepeme; and hereafter not italicized).* This political formation was also common among many non-Nahua groups. The altepetl form probably began in the Classic period, and perhaps even earlier. Thus, the altepetl political form was wide spread across Mesoamerica, and it was antecedent and contemporary with Chaco. And (I assert) it would have been known to Chaco and pre-Chaco societies in the Southwest. (Fuller descriptions with references will be found in the chapter fragment.)
The altepetl was NOT a great empire like those of the Aztecs and Tarascans. Those empires encompassed hundreds of altepeme. An altepetl was, in fact, rather small. The population of known altepeme averaged about 12,000 people, and ranged from to as few as 2,000 to as many as 40,000 people. Altepetl territory was also small; typically about 75 sq km. We will return to the matter of size – size matters! – at the end of this essay.
Our knowledge of altepeme comes from both codices and archaeology (reviewed in the Chapter 4 Fragment). In brief, an altepetl consisted of a hierarchy of multiple noble families and their associated commoners, within a defined agricultural territory. It was a tributary system, in which commoners owed goods or labor to their noble families, and minor nobles to major nobles, and so forth. But tribute was not oppressive: a few bushels of corn, a few weeks labor, occasional military service, and so forth. Nobles ruled their own commoners, who might (or might not) be localized within a spatial segment of the altepetl. Rulership of the altepetl itself revolved through the leading noble families. There was a king, but the office was not strong nor did it descend in a kingly line. By the time of the codices, numerological and cosmological rules defined the ideal altepetl form. Theoretically, an ideal altepetl would have eight major noble families; but of course this varied in practice. If the numerological rules codified an older, existing reality, eight could be considered a reasonable “median” (if ideal) number of major noble families,
Noble families were distinguished (in life and in archaeology) by their palaces: noble houses, elite residences. Noble houses (palaces) could be located in the countryside among commoner farmsteads, but palaces of the major noble families clustered within a tight central zone, often at a place notable in the altepetl’s history. (Noble families might also have another palace in the countryside.) This “central cluster” might be considered urban. Some archaeologists call them city-states; others deny that the central cluster was fully urban. The central cluster – most notably boasting multiple noble houses – certainly had urban aspects, but typically it was rather small: median population was about 4,750 people (with a range of 600 to 23,000 people). One third of Aztec altepeme central clusters, for example, had less than 3,000 people. Minor nobility and officials resided in smaller palaces in the central cluster and throughout the altepetl.
What does all this have to do with Chaco? Decades ago, I noted that Chaco Canyon was perhaps one of the most obvious examples of “stratified housing” in all of archaeology. It was almost Cretan in its clarity. The major Great Houses were markedly different from normal houses, the ubiquitous unit pueblo. This was not subtle or nuanced: the archaeology gods pitched us a softball to hit. Great Houses and unit pueblos almost certainly demonstrated two social divisions, two strata, two classes. The passing years have added more and more data supporting that conclusion. The evidence as it now stands seems, to me, overwhelming. Great Houses were NOT pueblos; nor were they temples; nor were they hotels. Great Houses were noble houses, elite residences, or – gasp! – palaces.
If one accepts that Chaco Great Houses were palaces or noble houses, the similarities to the altepetl form become (almost) obvious. The cluster of major Great Houses in Chaco Canyon is remarkably similar to the central cluster of an altepetl. The Chaco central cluster was there, I think, because Chaco Canyon itself was historically important — much like an altepetl central cluster. Centuries before the first Great House, Chaco Canyon had seen remarkable developments in Basketmaker III (huge sites, unique in the northern Southwest). That recalls foundation myths of altepetl central clusters, built at significant places. The seven or eight major Great Houses in Chaco, in this model, represent the altepetl’s seven or eight major noble families. Other buildings represent cadet branches, minor nobility, priesthoods, and so forth. Chaco Canyon itself presents a remarkably parallel form to the altepetl central cluster, as diagrammed by Aztec scholars and archaeologists . Even the ambiguities and arguments about Chaco’s urban status mirror similar debates about Aztec central clusters.
The radial divisions of Chaco’s region, marked by scores of secondary Great Houses and above all by roads, parallel the (idealized) radial spatial sub-divisions of many altepetl, with each noble family controlling its piece of the pie. As with the altepetl, commoner residences were built within the central cluster and (of course) throughout the region, with secondary Great Houses (i.e., “outliers”) taking care of business out in the boonies. Like the altepetl, there is no useful separation of center and countryside: the ensemble constitutes the polity, presciently termed as the Chaco regional system.
“Downtown” Chaco was comparable in population to altepetl central clusters: the architectural evidence suggests that Chaco had two to three thousand permanent residents. We do not know the population of Chaco’s larger region, but it was surely several tens of thousands (at a guess: thirty to forty thousand people) – at the upper end of altepetl size, but a demographic scale that perhaps could be handled administratively by altepetl political structure. That is, the demographic scale of Chaco seems appropriate for altepetl organization – or vice versa. (Spatial scale was decidedly different – an issue discussed shortly.)
There were, of course, differences: Chaco translated Mesoamerican forms into local idioms of architecture, ideology, and cosmology. Most altepeme central clusters had a pyramid and many had markets. Chaco lacked pyramids and, perhaps, lacked markets. John Stein and his colleagues argue for pyramids at Chaco; the jury is out. Others argue that Chaco indeed had markets; and it is worth noting that half of the Aztec atlepeme central clusters also lacked markets. Markets, it seems, were not essential.
Chaco, of course, had features and building types not seen in altepeme; for example, Great Kivas – although Great Kivas may represent, at least in part, “schools” sometimes found in altepetl central clusters. Domestic architecture (a cultural bedrock!) differed enormously: north and west Mesoamerican houses generally comprised three or four free-standing small buildings centered tightly around a patio; Chaco people lived in nicely-built pithouses (often called kivas) with a suite of above-ground rooms to the rear. Chaco palaces do not look like Mesoamerican palaces – Chaco palaces are a much bigger! But they shared other, emblematic elements.
Material culture, social systems, and (presumably) ideologies of Chaco and Mesoamerican societies were quite distinct. But altepetl and Chacoan political structures were very similar because Chaco elites could import or impose that sort of thing, top down. Or – to make things more palatable – Chaco could have co-evolved an altepetl structure with significant knowledge of Mesoamerican systems.
The biggest difference between Chaco and altepeme is spatial scale. While the probable population of Chaco’s region falls in altepetl ranges (at the high end), Chaco’s region (perhaps 100,000 sq km) is quite a bit larger than the altepetl average, 75 sq km. The alarming difference in spatial scale, I think, may reflect differences in productivity between Chaco and Mesoamerica. Mesoamerican altepeme enjoyed happy environments for corn, and high productivity supported dense populations in relatively small areas. Chaco’s region, in stark contrast, was bleak. Arable lands were scarce, minimally productive, scattered far and wide. Overall population density was consequently quite low — pockets of settlement separated by large stretches of desert. Chaco, I think, represents the altepetl political form stretched to its elastic limits, covering very difficult terrain. Chaco tried to solve its scale problems with technology and ideology: roads and line-of-sight signaling systems held its over-large domain together.
In the end, Chaco failed. Perhaps the altepetl political form was ill-suited for Chaco’s difficult environment and inflated spatial scale. Just as likely, Chaco’s altepetl failed because it stood alone. Mesoamerican altepeme were peer-polities, city-states (in the view of some archaeologists) jammed into central Mesoamerica. Altepeme thrived on competition. That was the altepetl’s proper context, the social and political environment in which it evolved. While the political form could be copied, transplanted, or co-evolved in the Southwest, the altepetl’s larger context – highly productive agriculture and scores of peer-polities – could not.
Chaco was an altepetl – or purposefully altepetl-like. Is this an outrageous interpretation? Perhaps, if one holds a Pueblo-centric, teleological view of the ancient Southwest. Or if one is committed to a largely autochthonous Southwest, removed from its larger world. But in this brave new century, Chaco as altepetl should not alarm us. Indeed, the altepetl has much to recommend it, above competing interpretations of Chaco. The altepetl is not a sodality or curing society or kachina cult, plucked from enthographic Pueblos and pasted on the distant past. Nor is it a novel construct, something we invent – ritualities, pilgrimage centers, etc – papering over an ancient polity which was clearly non- or un-Puebloan. Nor is it an anthropological theory (like chiefdom) or an anthropological case-study, abstracted from societies distant in time and space (like sub-Saharan chiefdoms without chiefs). The atlepetl was a real (and really common) Native form, of Chaco’s time and place (i.e, North America). There are demonstrable, direct historical connections between Chaco and altepetl societies. The altepetl form must have known to the northern Southwest and presumably well known indeed by Southwestern elites. If Chaco wanted to create or evolve into a (secondary) state, the altelpetl would be the obvious way to go: not too big, not too small, just right. Altepetl fits Chaco like a glove.
Case closed. Mystery solved?
*After much fruitless flailing in codices and accounts of Aztec and Tarascan empires, I despaired of finding Mesoamerican models appropriate to the Southwest. I was introduced to the altepetl by my worthy and greatly esteemed colleague at CU, Dr. Gerardo Gutierrez, who knows much about the subject. We are together working on another paper on this subject. Dr. Gutierrez is not responsible for my mistakes and errors in this essay.
Chapter 4.B.(2) fragment: Chaco atepetl
Video: Verde Valley Chapter, Arizona Archaeological Society, April 28, 2011