Chaco as Altepetl: Secondary States



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

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17 Responses to Chaco as Altepetl: Secondary States

  1. I’m amazed, I must say. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both equally educative and entertaining,
    and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is an issue that too few folks are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy I found this during my hunt for something relating to this.

  2. Pingback: The Supernova of 1054 - My Shot of the Day - March 5, 2014Around the World in Eighty Years

  3. Stephen, it was with great pleasure that I attended your lecture in Santa Fe tonight. You have been my role model since the late 1990s and I am honored to share your thoughts in my new article about potential copper bell smelting in the Mimbres area. If you want to see it, please contact me at I think I’ll make it the feature page of my new website devoted to my copper artifact research. Yes, I am “To Mo,” the autograph you gave tonight.

  4. “Today, I’m convinced that it is impossible to understand Chaco and the Greater Southwest without sustained reference to Mesoamerica.” I have believed this for years, and have followed your work with a great deal of interest. Suffice to say that back in the late 1990s when I tried to demonstrate how the Aztecs could have come from the dissolution of Chacoamerica, I was laughed at. Today I work on developing a copper trade network, and see no reason to slam borders down anywhere. Yes, Mesoamerica and Chacoamerica were connected, just like there were trade connection lines running throughout the U.S. into the Mexico. We have to give up fighting that idea. I read somewhere – was it you? – that today’s Puebloes still guard their secrets and give visitors/tourists only what they want to see. “Oh yes, Kivas were “man places.” They love to laugh at us. I am honored to continue to follow your research. You can see more of what I do on copper at – I’m giving a presentation on Mesoamerican copper this Saturday and making some connections farther north.

  5. Marc Severson says:

    “Vivian saw Chaco as a deviation; I see Chaco as the principal event in Pueblo prehistory . . . ”
    I see no dichotomy or conflict in these views, they are not mutually exclusive and may actually embrace each other. The danger is in continuing to try to apply ‘models’ to human behavior. I have found no prehistoric shoehorn that can accomplish this mechanical leverage in the archaeological record. As in education, it is easier to distinguish process rather than expect product. Whenever we seek to codify behavior into rigid categories, or even virtual traditions I believe we limit our thinking. That is why I enjoy reading authors like you and David Wilcox, (no categorization intended!) as you seem to not be constrained from thinking of archaeology as people and therefore subject to invention, epiphany and/or erratic behavior. As others have said, write on!

  6. John Ware says:


    I agree with you that archaeology is suffused with a vague sense of Pueblo-ness that includes a lot of inaccurate stereotypes, but isn’t that our fault? Leslie White certainly didn’t pander to popular notions of Kumbaya egalitarian Pueblo democracies. He described the often autocratic governance structures of the Eastern Keres for what they are (but how many archaeologists read Leslie White?). Hopi egalitarianism, the last bastion of the Pueblo egalitarian myth, was finally demolished by Peter Whiteley and Jerry Levy, but hints that Hopi communities are deeply ranked were certainly present in the early ethnographies as well—the historical depth and significance of ranking was simply misinterpreted. In fact, most archaeologists just don’t read very deeply in the ethnographies. And I don’t think NAGPRA has altered the depth of recent scholarship all that much. What NAGPRA has done is brought archaeologists and Pueblo people to the table with the effect that Native stories are now being incorporated into archaeological narratives. I see this as a very positive thing because, over and above the need to build new relationships based on mutual trust, there is much to be learned from Pueblo people about their own histories. Where NAGPRA has encouraged a deeper engagement with the ethnographies there is still a heavy bias toward the Western Pueblos in general, and Hopi in particular. The Eastern Pueblos haven’t been on the archaeological radar screen for at least 60s years, and NAGPRA has had little discernable effect on that bias.

    I guess my question is, what does all this have to do with my point about the relevance of the historical ethnographies? Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be saying that since archaeologists have embraced fuzzy stereotypes of the historical Pueblos we should abandon the ethnographies unless they can be shown to be specifically relevant to the past. But how can we judge relevance until we engage the ethnographies? Isn’t the antidote to stereotypes better scholarship?

    I also have some questions about how you choose to characterize the “Pueblo Space.”
    You lump egalitarian with communal, spiritual, and ritual as if these things are natural allies. You make a parallel assumption in the Chaco capstone volume when you ask whether Chaco was “something political, permanent, and hierarchical or something ritual and ceremonial, spiritual, situational, and evanescent.” For all Pueblos, egalitarian and ritual are rarely equivalent and political and ritual are never in opposition. It is certainly true that some Pueblo ritual reinforces warm and fuzzy communal values, but most Pueblo ritual seems explicitly designed to validate social hierarchies that have deep pan-Pueblo roots. Pueblos may be egalitarian in ideology, but almost never in practice.

    You say that we need to understand the past first in its own terms so that we can appreciate whether the modern Pueblos do or do not reflect the past. But isn’t that how we’ve approached archaeological puzzles for years? We’ve certainly been trying to understand Chaco in its own terms for half a century, but look what we have to show for it: explanations that range from egalitarian villages to city states ruled by kings and almost every organizational option in between, and almost no consensus. The problem is that materiality almost never speaks for itself. From deep prehistory to the present, material expressions can be interpreted only against the backdrop of highly contingent culture histories, and the ethnographic Pueblos are critical parts of those histories because they provide targets toward which prehistoric trajectories must eventually converge (equifinality notwithstanding).

    You say that if the Pueblos had built another Chaco, you’d be more deeply engaged with the ethnographies. Well, perhaps they did. Eastern Pueblo organizations are complex, centralized, deeply political, and extremely unusual (in fact, they may be unique on the indigenous political landscape of North America, in the same way perhaps that Chaco was very different). According to Joe Jorgensen (1980:222), “…the Eastern Keres and Tanoan Pueblos…were more integrated and more centrally controlled in economic, social, ceremonial, and warfare matters than all other political communities in western North America.” Eastern Pueblo community members were expected to contribute to ditch building and cleaning, field preparation, and new house construction, as well as to the maintenance of kivas, plazas, and church. Eastern Pueblo resource areas were controlled by the priesthoods, and villagers could be required to procure food and maintain storehouses for the priests and their assistants. When food ran short, priests had the authority to reallocate food and impose severe sanctions—including eviction of families from their land and the village—if crimes were committed or social norms persistently violated. According to Jorgensen (1980:218), the only other group in western North America that exercised anywhere near the power of Eastern Keres and Tanoan priesthoods were the Tsimshian chiefs of the Northwest Coast. Eastern Pueblo priesthoods are also inter-tribal in scope, so all Eastern Pueblos are linked by ritual exchange networks that run from one end of the Rio Grande to the other—reminiscent of the ritual exchange networks that linked communities throughout the eastern plateau during the height of the Chaco florescence.

    The reason these facts about the Rio Grande Pueblos are not widely appreciated by archaeologists is that Eggan and Dozier convinced us that Eastern Pueblo ritual-political organizations were the result of irrigation management on the Rio Grande and Spanish acculturation, and therefore had nothing to do with prehistoric life on the Plateau. But if the ethnographers were wrong about the causes—and ethnographers are routinely wrong when they address “how” and “why” questions because they don’t have access to historical data—perhaps these unusual organizations have much deeper roots. Needless to say, we don’t have great houses on the Rio Grande, but perhaps the priesthoods of Chaco learned some important lessons about power and its uses after the collapse of Chaco in the 12th Century.

    It would appear that we also disagree about the significance of the 1300 watershed, but that’s a big subject that is perhaps best saved for another exchange.


  7. Cola Vaughan says:

    “I am convinced that Pueblo and Navajo traditions carry rich lodes of history”

    Steve Lekson: The Chaco Meridian, page 144

    I interpret Pages143 through151 to be a very interesting, nuanced defense of the value of ethnographic tradition………but then as an untutored laymen maybe I am completely mistaken.

    PS I am really enjoying this blog! Thanks for the tip from “the Gambler” young Theofilos.

  8. John Ware says:


    I like your idea of an interactive book. I’ve been thinking of starting an Amerind “working papers” series that posts draft copies of papers destined for edited volumes so that authors and readers alike might benefit from critical reviews long before the ink dries on the book. Your blog inspires me to make this happen sooner than later. But how did you get your publisher to agree to it?

    Now for a critical comment or two (always more useful than pats on the back, don’t you think?). You trot out the strawman of Pueblo-centric views of Pueblo prehistory every time you propose a new hypothesis about the past. Haven’t you noticed that most SW archaeologists haven’t paid a wit of attention to the ethnographic Pueblos since at least 1979 when Cordell and Plog told us they were a distraction? (And Fred Eggan banished the Rio Grande Pueblos from archaeological narratives thirty years before that). There are some exceptions, of course, but by and large the current crop of SW archaeologists–and most of their professors–know so little about the ethnographic Pueblos that there’s little threat of projecting a deep understanding of the Pueblo present into the past.

    Needless to say, I wish it was otherwise. As reformed Plog student Kent Lightfoot once said, the question is not WHETHER archaeologists should read or use ethnographic and ethnohistorical accounts, but rather HOW those accounts are used. In Lightfoot’s words, “Rather than viewing the ethnohistorical and ethnographic sources as simple analogs for directly reconstructiong the past, they should be viewed as revealing of the time when they were recorded, as end sequences of long-term developments in Native societies” (1995:205). The ethnographic Pueblos are more than just a source of speculative analogies about the past; they are end points on historical trajectories that can preserve important information about contingent events and processes in the past.

    I wish archaeologists would put aside their biases about the Pueblo ethnographies and become, once again, serious students of all parts of the Pueblo historical trajectory: prehistoric, historic, and contemporary. But it’s an uphill battle when one of our most prolific scholars insists on pounding away on the carcass of a long-dead horse every time he launches a new writing project. Scholarly comparisons between Chaco and Mesoamerica are useful–anything and any apporoach that may shed light on deep prehistory should be encouraged. But let’s hope that historical research within the various Pueblo cultural traditions is always permitted as well.

    John Ware

    • Steve Lekson says:


      Thanks for your Oct 28 comments on “Chaco as Altepetl”! I think this quote from your comments fairly summarizes your main point: “The ethnographic Pueblos are more than just a source of speculative analogies about the past; they are end points on historical trajectories that can preserve important information about contingent events and processes in the past.” I’d say that ethnographic Pueblos can best tell us about the past if we understand the past first on its own terms, and then appreciate how modern Pueblos do or do not follow or reflect that past – more on this below!

      I agree that archaeologists (me included) should be better versed in Southwestern ethnography and linguistics. I also agree that, until recently, Southwestern archaeology pretty much ignored the depth and details of Pueblo ethnography. Now, post-NAGPRA, it’s back with a vengeance. Dissertations cleave close to ethnography and win the SAA prize. And that’s fine and proper, as long as Pueblo models aren’t pushed back to times and places that evidently were NOT “pueblos.” More on this below, too.

      While I agree that archaeology (until recently) largely ignored ethnography, I firmly believe that a sense of Pueblo culture has long suffused – and now suffuses – Southwestern archaeology: a vague, fuzzy stereotype of Pueblo-ness that we carry in our heads. Egalitarian, communal, spiritual, ritual uber alles: those are expected, default values for our interpretations of ANY time or place in the ancient Southwest. They define a kind of “Pueblo Space” in which archaeologists seem comfortable. For example: Chaco as pilgrimage center – a truly extraordinary claim, if you think about it! Chaco as pilgrimage center fits into our Pueblo Space because pilgrimage entails ritual and communalism etc. So we seem comfortable with pilgrimage. Call Chaco a city, however – on the evidence, a very reasonable suggestion – and people get uncomfortable. There’s no place in Pueblo Space for cities.

      The Pueblo Space shapes almost every article, thesis, dissertation that’s appeared since the smoke cleared from Grasshopper-Chavez Pass. That’s the dead past for today’s graduate students, but the “debate” made the ancient Southwest safe for theocracy and communalism and egalitarianism – and re-affirmed the Pueblo Space. Grasshopper and Chavez Pass were the wrong sites, at the wrong time. Why debate complexity at a couple of 14th century Mogollon farming villages, when there was Chaco Canyon? If we want to see if the past was really different, consider Chaco, on its own terms. That, in fact, had been done two decades before the “debate,” by Gordon Vivian in his conclusions to Kin Kletso: “The developments in the Chaco in the 11th and the early part of the 12th centuries were not in the direct line of the Northern Pueblo continuum as it was exposed at the beginning of the historic period [i.e., ethnography]. The continuation of the direction taken by the Chaco group would have carried it even farther out of the stream of development that culminated in the Rio Grande. … In this light then, the highest developments in the Chaco were cultural experiments or deviations that failed as the strayed from the main course of Northern Pueblo history.” (Vivian and Matthews 1964:114) Vivian saw Chaco as a deviation; I see Chaco as the principal event in Pueblo prehistory; we both agree Chaco was exceptional and NOT a step or stage in the development of ethnographic Pueblos.

      If the Pueblos had built another Chaco, I’d be more deeply engaged with ethnographies. But they didn’t and that’s my point. I’m skeptical that 19th and 20th century ethnographies can help much with events prior to 1300 CE – at least directly. A great deal of evidence suggests that Pueblo lifeways, philosophies, cosmologies, and so forth developed or formalized largely after 1300, in reaction to and rejection of strong political systems centered on Chaco & Aztec. Something big happened right around 1300, demonstrated by the remarkable explosion of new, ideologically-charged imagery in post-1300 pottery, murals, and other media. 1300 was a great divide; the Southwest was different before and after.

      Pueblo Space – an idealized vision of Pueblo-ness in the deep past – pervades academic and popular and commercial and political and literary and artistic thinking about the Southwest – literally, the context of our daily lives and research. My next project (“Heritage and History in Southwestern Archaeology”) will look at how archaeology co-conspired with a bunch of White people in Santa Fe in the 1920s to create this mythology about the ancient Southwest. It happened long ago, but that mythology still colors our understanding of the ancient Southwest – the Pueblo Space is alive, kicking, and rightly flog-able.

      While I find much use for the classic ethnographies in my work, I think archaeology’s job is to understand the past in its own terms, and then follow that past forward into, or away from an undetermined ethnographic present – the past’s future.

  9. Connie V says:

    I like the MesoAmerian models you are using. They make a lot of sense especially in terms of Chaco which, as you stated, the information is there, it’s up to us (archaeologists) to figure it all out. I am wondering how these models would fit what have been termed (by Dr. Lyneis) the “fringe” groups living in northern Arizona, southern Utah and southern Nevada. I have always thought of these groups in terms of the Pueblo models, but perhaps a fresh look would explain some of the “unexplainable” here as well.

  10. Dave in NM says:

    General comment – no need to post or even reply:

    I hope there will be an opportunity for greater public exposure of your information. The book and the academic discourse are fine and both are necessary of course. But this deserves a “PBS” or “NOVA”-type program, so that the wider public can benefit. Chaco is too important. It does not belong to the archeologists alone. I have always assumed that the truth about Chaco – whatever it turned out to be – would never emerge. I relegated the entire Chaco question to the severe inadequacies of archeology, and let it go at that. Now, for the first time, there appears to be a real chance that the Chaco mystery can be solved. Never thought I’d see it ! The greater public should get to see it now, because the archeologists will only dither with it indefinitely, or simply ignore anything that challenges their life’s work. So far, the replies have been substantive, but there are not nearly enough of them. This story needs to be told. The archeologists are incapable of that.

  11. Kellam Throgmorton says:


    I am glad that you are comfortable dispensing with the notion that the ethnographic Pueblo is the only place to look for evidence of Chaco’s socio-political organization. When you consider that social and political systems are in a constant state of becoming, it seems a little absurd to expect that things have stayed the same for 900 years. That kind of uniformitarian thinking is what has given upstreaming a bad name. That said, I think it would be interesting to see an expanded discussion of some of the other methods ethnohistorians are currently using to access the past using ethnography as an entry point. Mesoamerican scholars are having some success with this; why is it not as prevalent in the Southwest? How does the current political climate for SW archaeology play into decisions to make Chaco look a lot like a modern pueblo (or not)? There are people who have problematized the depiction of political formations in Pueblo ethnography, too; I’m thinking about Upham 1982, Whiteley 1988, McGuire and Saitta 1996.

    It might not be a bad idea to include Van Dyke (2007) somewhere in the discussion of either pilgrimage or polity. I suppose she falls somewhere in the rituality camp (“economics is the veneer over power actually based in ritual”, paraphrasing 2007:251), with some adjustments. However, she emphasizes the long-term effects of interaction with the built environment of Chaco Canyon on its visitors and inhabitants. This certainly alludes to the fact that Chaco may have become a central place that attracted large numbers of people for specific events on a repeating calendar. Physical movement into the canyon via purposefully designed and constructed routes is a big part of her argument.

    Turning to the Mesoamerican Altepetl model:

    If I recall, the tecpan also serves as the storehouse of the altepetl or the calpulli. This is where goods would be kept until moving further up the chain through tribute obligations, or where food was stored to supply work groups giving tribute through labor. Even accounting for rooms permanently sealed off in great houses, just think of the frightening amounts of storage space in the 11th century Southwest.

    The key components of the Mesoamerican altepetl as far as I can tell are the relationships binding together the inhabitants. This is largely governed by a system of tribute and obligation. What evidence is there of this in the Southwest? In this light, I suppose you could consider Chuskan pottery as a tribute item. I can’t recall what the labor estimates are on great houses off the top of my head (maybe you can, I think you came up with them), but I know that Sebastian (1992?) has said that scheduling was the bigger issue in great house construction. A big role of Aztec tribute collectors (calpixque) was to be sure that food given as tribute arrived at the exact time when labor groups performing tribute needed them. Scheduling was their job, in a sense. I have no idea if the calpixque is a creation of the Aztec bureaucracy, or if it has older antecedents.

    I guess where I am going with this last paragraph is suggesting that the argument would be strengthened by linking the socio-political organization characteristic of an altepetl more firmly to the archaeology of Chaco canyon–beyond the striking parallels found in the settlement patterns (e.g. 8-10 big “palaces” in a central place that can’t quite be defined as urban, but certainly is more urban than anything else in the Southwest by comparison; outlying smaller great houses organized by similar principles–and ostensibly tied into one or another of the central “palaces” by alliance, tribute, or marriage). I’m increasingly pessimistic about the correlation of material culture items such ceramics and lithics to bigger political structures. Their exchange seems to cross boundaries pretty regularly. Is it even possible to look for an altepetl through material culture? The seeming absence of this kind of movement of goods around was one of the failures of the redistribution model. Will it be a problem for altepetls too?

    When does the altepetl moment occur? As I see it, prior to Chaco the closest thing to political centralization that occurs in the northern Southwest is during late PI up in the Dolores region, where you’ve got potentially quite powerful leaders emerging by around 870-880. Apparently, this didn’t work. I suppose that you could argue that the bodies found on the floors of some oversized pitstructures could be sacrifices of “less important people”, although I think Rich Wilshusen and others are of the opinion that these dead folks might be the leaders themselves, and represent the reaction against centralized power. What sort of sea-change happens during the AD 900s that people forget about this early experiment-gone-wrong, and allow themselves to become part of a hierarchical political system imported from a foreign land? On page 16 you imply continuity of the elites from the 9th-11th centuries, and suggest that they borrowed the altepetl political form and adapted it to pre-existing southwestern structures. What sort of demographic and social changes does this require? Are Chacoan elites resettling people to more effectively mirror the layout of an altepetl? It seems that the AD 900s might be an important century to describe in terms of Meso-Southwest interaction. I guess I want to know more about how you think Chaco as an altepetl started. Did the idea filter through Hohokam or the Mogollon region? or hop-scotch its way past them?

    I think I am with Jakob on better understanding the origins of altepetls in Mesoamerica. I was unsure whether on page 14 you were suggesting that west Mexico be the prime candidate for inspiring a Chacoan elite, or if we rather have to look to central Mexico. I gather that it is possible that 11th century west Mexico was familiar with this socio-political system, despite the later turn towards centralization taken by the Tarascan empire. This is probably the point where we have to turn to our colleagues working south of the border for answers.

    I like your justification for the altepetl model at the end, where you insist that its value is in the fact that it is a real political system from the same time period and generally the same region as Chaco. Overall, this is a really cool idea. I’m interested to see where you take this. The more I think about it, I am drawn to the notion that this is not an abstract, anthropological model, but a real, living and breathing political system.

    Kellam Throgmorton

  12. Jakob Sedig says:

    I am interested in which sources you are using for your comparison of Chaco to an altepetl. I think the route you are following is the correct one– using prehistorically contemporaneous examples as analogs to Chaco, and avoiding “upstreaming”. While we know much about alteptls from codices and archaeology (as you state), I wonder how much of our knowledge on is derived from more recent research. Altepetls were still in existence when the Spanish, and we know the Spanish tried to develop methods to make Altepetls fit into the Empire (James Lockhart, 1992). Were the altepetls the Spanish encountered in the 1520’s the same culturally and socially as those occupied 400 years prior (when Chaco was booming). Undoubtedly there were substantial changes in Nahua and Mesoamerican society during those 400 years, just as there were in the 5 centuries between the end of the PIII period and the commencement of pueblo ethnography. I wonder to what extent Spanish ethnohistorical accounts of altepetls have influenced archaeological interpretations of them. And when were the codices written? During Chaco’s florescence in the 10-12th centuries, or later (14th century)? I bring up these concerns because to me it seems possible that you may be falling into the same traps you are trying to avoid. How do we know the data we have on altepetls is derived strictly from the AD 900’s-1100’s (or even 1200-1300’s), and has not been influenced by later, different altepetls? Overall, these questions/concerns are probably minor and will likely be cleared up when we can see your sources/citations.

  13. Vern Hensler says:

    Steve: Kudos for closing in on a model that seems appropriate for what we see at Chaco. A little off the subject but I feel a need to defend some of your introduction comments since I am presently re-working my previous pit structure study, meaning my job includes chasing kivas back to pit structures of yore and going the other direction in time with that troublesome PIV and early historic between. Outside the relatively brief period of Chaco inspired elitism in the southwest there is a more humble theme of traditionalism reflected in the perseverance of certain pit structure styles. Once we get done deciding whether pit structures are habitations, kivas or corn silos and can move on we might find other aspects to be just as intriguing. Not to dismiss the functional aspect. PIII sites like Yellowjacket with conglomerations of Prudden units are certainly easier to explain numerically as habitations. Ignoring function temporarily however, with a large enough sample, parallel trends of contemporary pit structure types appear. Whether tied to ethnicity, religion or some other social identity some of these appear to be competing through time clear up to the present. With pit structure and kiva morphology at the front line of change several questions come up in looking at architecture. Were religions ever pushed on each other between the pueblo groups? Obviously the Catholic church pushed the hardest in recent times since they now have the biggest religious structure within most Pueblos. And was there a hierarchy between the Pueblos, say a remnant of Chaco days?
    Back to the subject at hand, the Mesoamerican houses you describe often had in some areas courtyards that traditionally included a shrine dedicated to the ancestors. This (sipapu like) feature when combined with the fact that these courts were occasionally sunken in some areas makes it seem that there could be conceptual overlaps with Salado layouts with their plaza sipapus. On a larger scale, Salado pueblos with enclosed courts sometimes turned into square kivas.
    The magic number of eight noble families to a altepetl reminds me of the pre-occupation among Pueblos of seven this and that, including the seven cites of Cibola, seven kivas at Acoma and Taos, seven directions, corn types etc. That seven towns were an ideal for several of the Puebloan groups seems apparent but drops in population historically made that ideal impossible for them. -Vern

  14. Marc Thompson says:

    What a clever idea. Send out drafts of your book chapters for pre-reviews to avoid gaffs such as those in your previous book and acknowledge and deal with legitimate critiques. OK; I’ll bite.

    When you wrote “fits like a glove,” I thought of two things: 1) the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and 2) the misappropriation of the terms Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl for rock art figures with large eyes and horned serpents, respectively, in the Southwest. Reading your “Argument in Brief” and the introduction with “This analysis ‘solves’ Chaco…maybe” and “Case closed. Mystery solved?” seemed to me to be at least a bit boastful. The mystery to me has always been why was Chaco Canyon settled in the first place, and why haven’t Southwestern archaeologists looked at Mesoamerican models for equivalents.

    The argument presented in the chapter has merit and sufficient detail to warrant consideration. You seem impatient in the presentation and you might want to reconsider the use of “importantly” (important) and “less” (fewer). That said, I’ll offer some commentary on the meaning and concept of altepetl.

    Although you provide a literal translation (water-hill) and practical definition, it may be worth mentioning that altepetl is also a polyvalent metaphor like many Nahuatl words. Consider Quetzalcoatl, literally “feathered serpent,” but metaphorically, “divine duality” a reference to Venus, and other twins. Mountains full of water are illustrated in Late Postclassic codices as toponyms for various altepetlme. Teotihuacan had Cerro Gordo, an extinct volcano with a lake in its crater which may have been the prototype from the Early Classic period. I’ll also mention that the original use of the Spanish term Pueblo refers to both a place, such as a community, and to “people” as in El Pueblo. You mention Cholula, where I received my MA in anthropology (UDLA) and “natural features.” I assumed you refer to Postclassic Cholula and the volcanoes. During the Early Classic period there was Tlachihualtepetl, literally “hill made by hand” in veneration of the volcano Popocatepetl (Smoking Mountain).

    Altepetl is the embodiment of complex metaphors and dualities with highly nuanced meanings. Literally, Chaco Canyon had no mountain and no (permanent) water, but your use of the concept seems valid. There is some risk in applying a Nahual term used more than 300 years after Chaco. Another problem is the presence of kings or even nobles and a stratified social organization at Chaco Canyon. These seem to be essential to your argument, but most Southwestern archaeologists refuse to consider the possibility, as you note. You deal well with the other components missing from Chaco Canyon, to your great credit, and I agree that neither the “pueblo” nor “pilgrimage” models work. I’ve always been curious about where the term “Chaco phenomenon” came from as it explained nothing. I recall that Linda Cordell used the term “truncated urbanism” Which seemed somewhat apropos. As I suggested in your book review “pilgrimage center” is as meaningful as “ceremonial center.” I’m also surprised that Freidel used or defended the term as late as 1981. The concept of the empty ceremonial center had been around long before Vogt (Morley and JES Thompson), and by the mid-1970s when I first worked in the Maya area, no one ascribed to it.

    Calpulli have been compared to conical clans and again, these include highly stratified social organizations. You may be right on the contrast between “big houses” and pit structures. I like the architectural data in that light. I also agree with your characterization of your and others arguments as “naïve, simple, and essentializing.” Reminds me of the terms “nasty, brutish, and short” taken from elsewhere to describe Neanderthal life. Have you considered Paquimé as a candidate for altepetl as well?

    Marc Thompson

    • Linda Cordell says:

      For Marc Thompson (and others). I believe Cynthia Irwin-Williams first used the term “Chaco Phenomenon” at the Pecos Conference that she hosted at Salmon Ruins, in the 1970s, and I am sure Steve and others will remember the date. I suspect that I am reaching senility but I really do not remember using the phrase “truncated urbanism.” Maybe somebody can remind me.
      I appreciate your concern with the (mis)-appropriation of Nahual terms, but I generally applaud efforts to understand built environments and socionatural environments as tangible metaphors for social structures.

  15. Peter Jimenez says:

    I really like this interpretation for Chaco. The data fares nicely with the proposed model. The
    -Alteptl- model will probably likewise be well applied for sites like La Quemada, Ferreria, and El Cerro del Teul in Northern Mesoamerica in the near future. I never cease to admire your endless thinking about Chaco. As I once asked you: WRITE on….

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