Regional Scales: How Big Was Chaco … and Does It Matter?

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In this essay and the attached chapter fragment, I explore regional scales.   The Southwest is a great place to think about regional (large-scale) distributions, because we have tremendous control on the geography of ancient …  what?  What do large-scale distributions mean?   What are we to make of pottery styles which cover large portions of three states?  How do we understand large scale distributions of more esoteric items, like Hohokam ball courts?

Take, for example, Chaco and its notorious “outliers.”  We know of about 150 Chaco-era Great Houses, scattered across most of the northern Southwest.  (The official outlier count is up around 200, but at least 50 of those are post-Chaco in age.)   Does “Chacoan” mean simply a formal pattern (like “unit pueblo”), or should we understand the term to imply social and political entanglements?  Did 150 “Chacoan” Great Houses constitute a Chacoan regional system centered on Chaco Canyon?  Or something else…

Rephrased: How big was Chaco?  Several scholars have mapped Chaco’s region (e.g. Neitzell 1994; Wilcox 1993); in the accompanying illustration I simply surround the field of Chaco-era Great Houses with a polygon.  If that’s how big it was – or, rather, might have been.  If it’s that big it might have been, how might it have worked?  I will assume that Chaco was the center (leaving that term undefined, for now) and work out from the middle.  How far out from Chaco can we trust the “Chacoaness” of Great Houses?

Let’s begin with Chimney Rock, a far-flung outlier upon which everyone (more or less) agrees: it was Chacoan.  Chimney Rock is small Great House set atop a spectacular, narrow ridge, 300 m above the Piedra River (Eddy 1977; Todd and Lekson 2011).  Called the “ultimate outlier” (Malville 2004), Chimney Rock is probably the clearest, least ambiguous Chacoan “outlier” Great House in the whole catalogue.  Its architecture contrasts remarkably with the local traditions of the Piedra Valley.  And Chimney Rock was demonstrably tied to Chaco through a visual communication system (smoke and mirrors), discovered by (then) high school student Katie Freeman (Freeman et al. 1996).

Chimney Rock was linked to Chaco via a single repeater station at Huerfano Peak.  The Huerfano Peak repeater station and Pueblo Alto were easily intervisible.  The (probable) use of repeater stations suggests that this network a system: that is, a complicated arrangement that required cooperative or directed administration.  I believe, but cannot currently demonstrate, that the visual communication system extended over the entire Chacoan region.  The Chimney Rock-to-Chaco line-of-sight system was part of a much larger visual communication network originally recognized by Tom Windes and Alden Hayes (Hayes and Windes 1975) and currently being researched by Ruth Van Dyke.

Nobody argues about Chimney Rock: it’s an outlier, a Chacoan outlier, and the northeastern-most of that ilk.   At about 140 km distance from Chaco Canyon, Chimney Rock establishes a trial “radius” for Chaco’s eleventh century reach.  (Please note: I am not claiming that Chaco’s region was a perfect circle!  It was, in fact, the awkward polygon shown in the illustration.)   If we arc Chimney Rock’s radius around to the west, it neatly encompassed two other well known Great Houses that I firmly believe were Chacoan: Far View House at Mesa Verde and White House at Canyon de Chelly.  Compared to Chimney Rock, Far View and White House invite archeological demurrals, but the vast majority of Chaco scholars agree – and we hold these truths to be self-evident – that Far View House and White House were slam-dunk, lead-pipe-cinch outliers.  These three sites – all about 140 to 150 km from Chaco – offer a useful, empirically based scale for Chacoan regional dynamics.  It was at least that big.   Extended south, 140-150 km reaches Village of the Great Kivas at Zuni.

My radii have a bit of wobble or eccentricity (for example: 140 to 150 km), because it’s not altogether clear where we should hold Chaco’s end of the tape measure.  For the Chimney Rock radius, I will hereafter use 150 km.

But, of course, there were candidate Great Houses and potential “outliers” far beyond that radius.  How far?  Let’s start in the better known north, and then work south.  In the northern San Juan region, the Great House most distant from Chaco was “Owen’s Great House,” near the head of Grand Gulch in Utah and approximately 240 – 250 km distant from Chaco Canyon (hereafter, 250 km).  Owen’s, AKA 42SA24584, was discovered by Owen Severance and later recorded by Winston Hurst (IMACS 9/5/99) and R.G. Matson (p.c).  It sits near the head of Grand Gulch in southeastern Utah, the  northwestern-most “outlier.”  The site boasts the full suite of Great House features, including Great Kivas and roads, and dates to the late Pueblo II to early Pueblo III periods.  If Owen’s was picked up and dropped anywhere in the San Juan Basin, it would fit right in.

Owen’s Great House is as far out as anyone has ever claimed a Chacoan outlier – about 250 km from Chaco.  Striking a 250 km arc around the northern Southwest encompasses all would-be Great Houses, and – intriguingly – very nearly cuts through a  ruin near Reserve, NM, 245 km from Chaco, which may be the southernmost candidate Great House: Aragon, near Reserve, NM.  Aragon was first described by Hough (1907).  Hough’s photos show massive (core and veneer?), carefully-coursed walls at the pueblo and a nearby round, masonry Great Kiva.  A later, brief description in Wendorf (1954) noted a “[“-shaped pueblo of three stories with eleventh- and twelfth-century ceramics, near a deep, round, masonry-walled Great Kiva.  The site was bulldozed in the 1970s.  From Hough’s and Wendorf’s description, Aragon was identified as a candidate “outlier,” independently by Lekson (during outlier hunts of the 1980s, but not published in 1999b) and, more importantly, by Steven LeBlanc (1989b).

Those two concentric circles or, rather, partial arcs are based, more-or-less, on data.  I’ve come to think of 150 km as Chaco’s inner circle, and 250 km as the outer limits of Chaco’s region.  What do those terms mean – if anything?  The inner circle radius of 150 km was a minimum, archaeologically warranted: Chimney Rock and other Great House sites are our surety that Chaco got at least that far, it was at least that big.  The outer limits at 250 km could be dismissed as the twisted projections of a fevered imagination, yet Owen’s Site is in almost every respect identical to outliers well within the 150 km inner circle: Owen’s is a cookie cutter outlier, much like a hundred others in and around the San Juan Basin.   I think the 150 km and 250 km territorial limits are real, with real implications.

Tumpline Economies

What might 150 km and 250 km mean, when sandals hit the pavement?  I think 150 km was the practical maximum for bulk economies, and 250 km was the outer limits of Chaco’s political economies and political control.

Corn probably was moving in, through, and around Chaco (Benson et al. 2003; Benson et al. 2006).  On what scale?  Kent Lightfoot (1979) suggested a 50 km limit for “prehistoric food redistribution” at Chaco; beyond that limit, he thought, transport became uneconomical – the porter ate his portage.  Lightfoot’s 50 km limit became a rule of thumb – and another nail in the coffin of Chaco’s “complex cultural ecosystems” and chiefly “redistribution” (e.g., Sebastian 1992:88).  But 50 km is far too tight a leash around Chaco.  That radius gets you only the stinking deserts of the interior San Juan Basin, and fails to reach the relatively richer farm lands around the Basin’s edge, where it seems likely that at least some of the corn found in Chaco was grown.  Lightfoot’s limit is too small, probably far too small.  Robert Drennan (1984), looking at food transport in Mesoamerica, set a much longer limit for regular bulk commerce: an absolute (and extreme) maximum distance of 275 km.  “Ordinarily, we should expect transport of such staples to be restricted to substantially shorter distances” (Drennan 1984:110).  And, more recently, Nancy Malville (who studies porters world-wide) concluded that “foot transport of food stuffs and durable goods would have been feasible in the pre-Hispanic American Southwest on a regular basis over distances of at least 100 to 150 km and on an occasional basis over much longer distances” (Malville 2001:230; see also Santley and Alexander 1992:44, who independently estimate an outer limit of 150 km for Postclassic “trafficking in bulky goods”).  The limit for regular bulk goods transportation was on the order of 150 km – that is, Malville’s 150 km “regular basis” bulk goods distance – and my empirical radius for undisputed Chaco.

Recent sourcing research suggests that foodstuffs moved about within Chaco’s inner circle (Benson et al. 2003; Benson et al. 2006).  Those analyses are somewhat controversial, but we cannot question that long distance bulk transport took place: very large quantities of ceramics (Toll 2006) and astonishing numbers of large construction timbers (Betancourt et al. 1986).   I believe that the “empirical” radii – inner circle of 150 km for inarguable “outliers” and outer limits of 250 km for more dicey Great Houses – actually may represent real scale thresholds or limits of ancient economies.  150 km radius contained the bulk-goods, subsistence economy; 250 km was the outer edge of the region Chaco could claim to control or directly influence.  Bulk goods shipped via Chaco might occasionally have reached as far as 250 km (Drennan’s 275 km limit) – around the outer limits of Chaco’s sphere of influence.  Precious prestige goods – macaw feather artifacts, copper bells, cacao beans, and so forth – could easily reach out and touch someone at 250 km.

Certainly bulk transport moving between and among Great Houses and NOT passing through Chaco could have created local subsistence economies, even market economies (Kohler, Van Pelt and Yap 2000), paralleling markets in the contemporary Hohokam world (Abbot 2000).   But that is another question.

 A Detour: Export and Emulation

Whatever it was, beyond that 250 km radius lie sites with which to define the subtle, indefinite quality of “emulation.”  Much of the recent chatter about outliers revolves around “export” vs. “emulation:” were distant Great Houses Chaco colonies (“export”) or were they local yokels buying in (“emulation”).  How to tell?  If we seek really obvious potential emulators, I’d look for exceptional Chaco-era sites well beyond the limits of the most expansive interpretation of the Chacoan world (i.e., more than 250 km from Chaco)—sites that have large, massive, formal buildings, central to a community of relatively smaller, less formal domestic structures (i.e., the “big bump” pattern of a Great House surrounded by a community of unit pueblos; Lekson 1991). That is, emulations might be seen most clearly at sites clearly beyond Chaco’s political or economic reach — but which resemble conventional Great Houses in function, if not in architectural details.  In such places, local leaders took on the appearance, but perhaps not the obligations and entanglements, of Chacoan society.

Beyond the 250 km radius, such sites occur – I think – in the Mimbres and Fremont regions, at opposite ends of the Anasazi world.  In the Mimbres, I long ago suggested that the massive central room block at the huge Woodrow Site was, perhaps, a Mimbres emulation of northern Great Houses (Lekson 1992).  And in the Fremont region, with structures such as “Heartbreak Hotel” at Nawthis Village in east central Utah, an unusually large, formal structure built of massive puddled adobe (Madsen 1989; Talbot 2000:220-221; Jones and O’Connell 1981) that is remarkable in its Fremont context—a “big bump”?  Another candidate, far to the south, is Tla Kii (Haury 1985; contra Herr 2001 and Mills 2002): not enormous, but notably different from contemporary settlements in its area.  And attached to an odd (and oddly out of place) round Great Kiva.  Unlike Woodrow Ruin (built of river cobbles) and Nawthis Village (adobe), Tla Kii has a few Chacoan details in wall construction.  But, regardless of construction fabric, all three represent “big bumps” among unit-pueblo-sized structures and, I suggest, all three are good places to think about “export” and “emulation.”  Here’s Lekson’s postulate: “If you can argue about whether or not a site is a Great House, it just might be an ’emulation’.”  Chimney Rock was an “export;” Woodrow Ruin was an “emulation.”

States, Secondary States, and Ethno-genesis

It has been suggested that “tribalization” (an unfortunate term) was the predicable response of indigeneous, undifferentiated populations to intrusive states (Fried 1975; see also Barth 1969; Ferguson and Whitehead 1992; Jones 1997; Levine and Campbell 1972; Voss 2008).  “Tribe,” in this context, does not mean a stage on the evolutionary escalator between “bands” and “chiefdoms”; rather, a tribe was (and is) an ethnically self-identified group which (I add) encompassed multiple communities (see Chapter 3.A.).  Thus “tribalization” equals ethno-genesis.  In most anthropological studies, the process is or was spurred by modern colonial state intrusions.  I suggest that the same or similar processes should characterize reactions of un- or less differentiated peoples at any time, when confronted by the formality and power of a state.

Chaco was a secondary state (Chapter 4B) – not a great and powerful empire, but still a state in a place previously free from the dubious pleasures of political organization.   Chaco transformed the Pueblo Southwest – or, it certainly could have.  Chaco’s 250 km wing-span stretched from Hopi on the west, to Pecos on the east; from the limits of agricultural society on the north to the Mogollon Rim and Hohokam on the south.  In effect, the northern Southwest.  Chaco may not have “controlled” the Rio Grande, but every decision made by Developmental and Classic period Rio Grande leaders was framed and constrained by Chaco, and by memories of Chaco.  So too, for Kayenta and Tusayan to the west.

How would we see “tribalization” and ethno-genesis in the Southwest?  At a very broad – but not, I think, crude – level, we could look at ceramic decoration.  Consider the remarkably broad, homogeneous distribution of Red Mesa-style designs just prior to Chaco; and the splintering and specialization of design systems immediately after Chaco.   Does that marked change reflect tribalization, ethno-genesis sparked by a state-level polity appearing amid an undifferentiated regional population?

Of course, it was more complicated than that…or was it?   To be sure, the history was more complicated (Lekson 2009): prior to A.D. 500, the northern Southwest was split, east-west, into two populations with a very similar common materials culture (LeBlanc et al 2007) – notably, in ceramic design.  Beginning about A.D. 500, the northern Southwest saw a series of “start up” secondary secondary states, which failed in sequence but which finally “took” around A.D. 850 with Chaco (Lekson 2009).  Chaco was a successful secondary state.  Chaco thereafter dominated the northern Southwest, first from a capital at Chaco Canyon until about A.D. 1090, and then (less successfully) from a second capital at Aztec Ruins from A.D. 1090 to 1300.  After 1300, the Pueblo region balkanized and – after tumult and shouting, Sturm und Drang – “settled out” in the modern, ethnically-separate Pueblos.  Reactions to (and against) a secondary state at Chaco was the catalyst for ethnogenesis – the creation of relatively small, ethnic or “tribal” units, from a previously culturally homogeneous regional population.  I will argue (in Chapter 6 B) that ethnic diversity within the Pueblo region resulted from the experiences of polyglot or multi-lingual but broadly similar local populations (i.e., “culture areas”) – into tightly defined “ethnicities” defined by mono-lingual “us-them” identities.

The history was more complicated, but I suggest that the dynamic may have been (relatively) straightforward: just as the intrusion of European states sparked ethno-genesis, causing indigenous populations to tribalize and develop ethnic identities we see today in the several Pueblos.

This suggestion is much at odds with conventional views of Pueblo prehistory, which map ethnicity directly on (or under) linguistics.   Indeed, a state in the Southwest (with consequent ethnogenesis) probably requires a close re-evaluation of historical linguistics!  And it makes a mess of NAGPRA.  NAGPRA wants us to identify an ethnic group in the past and affiliate it with a group in the present.  What if, before A.D. 1300, there were no ethnic groups?   At least, as we use that term today.

Chapter fragment: 4.A. Regional Scales

Video (sorry: rough audio!): Regional Scales

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3 Responses to Regional Scales: How Big Was Chaco … and Does It Matter?

  1. Pingback: It’s right under your nose… | Viking

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  3. T. J. Ferguson says:

    In an important aside to the main thrust of his argument, Lekson asserts that “NAGPRA wants us to identify an ethnic group in the past and affiliate it with a group in the present.” Actually, NAGPRA requires us to establish a historically traceable shared identity between a present-day Indian tribe and a past identifiable group. Present-day Indian tribes are political bodies, not ethnic or racial groups. Evidence of identifiable earlier groups may include (1) establishing the identify and cultural characteristics of the earlier group, (2) documenting distinct patterns of material culture manufacture and distribution methods for the earlier group, or (3) establishing the existence of the earlier group as a biologically distinct population (43 CFR 10.4). A few scholars may try to identify past groups in terms of ethnicity. Other scholars, however, investigate NAGPRA remains or objects (especially from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries) to seek a shared identity with the political groups antecedent to federally recognized tribes. Still other scholars seek a shared identity with past groups conceptualized as archaeological cultures defined by the distribution of material culture. Many bioarchaeologists seek to establish shared identity between present day tribes and earlier biologically distinct populations. Several tribes in the Southwest identify the past groups they claim affiliation with to be kinship groups such as clans, religious groups such as esoteric sodalities, or quasi-political groups such as named, ancestral villages. The complex concepts of identity implicit in NAGPRA cannot be reduced to a simple concept of ethnicity, especially if ethnicity requires interaction with a political state that Lekson himself argues did not exist until Chaco. The anthropological theories and political process underlying NAGPRA research are more sophisticated than Lekson implies.

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