Cycles — Their Rise and Fall


The Pecos System, promulgated in 1928, offered a Whiggish account of Pueblo pre-history, every day in every way, better and better.  Stage by Pecos stage, step by step, the people who would become Pueblos acquired first corn, then pit-houses, then pottery, then kivas, then masonry, then massed apartment-like villages, then kachinas, and so forth until all the elements of the modern Pueblos cumulated and crystallized, complete and entire.  And that was, after all, a major archaeological goal: where did the Pueblos come from?

The Pecos System was not adopted without dissent: not every Conferee was satisfied.  Perhaps Pueblo history was not that simple and straightforward.  The “abandonment of the Four Corners,” for example, suggested a speed-bump on the road to the Rio Grande (and other) Pueblos.  And, a few short years after the first Pecos Conference, the Southwest had a whole other half: Hohokam.  Not all roads led to Pecos, or to Pueblos.

While misfits and exceptions appeared early and often, the Pecos System remained the gold standard chronology – even through the iconoclasms of New Archaeology.  Pecos’s steady progression tracked Neo-Evolutionary hopes and dreams.  Pecos was quintessential culture history, but its old plot fit New ideas.  Pecos provided the basic story-line (subject, of course, to correction!), and on that foundation we did science.  By and large, the Pecos System narrative underwrote New and Processual science – and much archaeology, of every stripe, through the end of the last millennium.   We thought the history was sufficiently well known that science (or something like it) was possible.

That’s fair enough, I guess: my present strategy is to write history with one set of procedures (“A History of the Ancient Southwest”), and then pursue science with another set of procedures (“The Southwest in the World”).   New and Processual archaeologies in the Southwest jumped to science without significantly revisiting history; the Pecos System was accepted as a reasonable approximation of history.   What New and Processual archaeologists failed to grasp was that history is and must be malleable; history changes.  What if the Pecos System was wrong?  The past, as some wag said, isn’t what it used to be.

New Archaeology, alas, wasn’t interested in history, and largely accepted the Received Version as a necessary framework for science; Processual archaeology did much the same.  But the Received Version was wrong, in very substantial and significant ways – not just in details.  The Pecos plot-line of steady progress upward and onward to Pueblos has been superseded by a far more turbulent, dynamic, rise & fall history – at least in my book.

Readers may reasonably object that I overvalue the importance of the Pecos System to Processual and recent research.  Not so, I think.  A fine example was (and is) the pit-house-to-pueblo transition, a classic question that launched several influential books, dozens of important articles, and countless exam answers.  And the transition continues to frame research in our post-or-plus era.  The Pecos System pinned the critical transition in Pueblo I or (at latest) early Pueblo II.   New, Processual, and much recent archaeologies accepted the Pecos placement as the right time/place for serious investigation of the question (and the correct answer on the exam).  But, in fact, the “transition” – one form replacing the other – never happened.  The transition required a neat bit of classificatory legerdemain, in which the below-grade chamber fronting every ancient home was redefined by fiat from a “pithouse” to a “kiva.”  If the pit structure was a kiva, then the pithouse no longer existed; and – voila! – absent pithouses, those ancient people must have transitioned into the pueblo.  They had nowhere else to go.

Pueblo I, II and III “kivas” were, in fact, pithouses – increasingly formalized and dandified, to be sure, but still pithouses.  Kiva-pithouses and pueblos mutually co-existed right through Pueblo I, II and III, as two integral elements of every house – a Unit Pueblo.  In a Unit Pueblo, pithouse/”kiva” and pueblo were like parlor and pantry. The pithouse part of the house finally (and quite dramatically) disappeared in Pueblo IV (that is, after 1300), by which time the pueblo element of the ensemble had already been around for centuries.  The loss of the household pit-structure (for many, even today, small or clan “kivas”) at the 1300 watershed is really interesting – and remains largely uninvestigated, because the Pecos System placed the “transition” back around 900.  (I harp on this pithouse-kiva business, I know, but it’s actually rather important.)

The early archaeologists – Bandelier, Kidder, Cummings, Hewett – did remarkable work, but they left much juice in the orange of Southwestern prehistory.  With the discovery of Hohokam, it was clear that the Pecos System worked only in certain times and places – specifically the Four Corners.  (Pecos was never welcome on the Rio Grande.)  The biggest challenge was internal to the Four Corners: with the tree-ring dating of Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl at Chaco Canyon, the Pecos System became suspect in its own region.  The Great Houses of Chaco should have been Pueblo III (aka “Great Pueblo”), but instead they were firmly dated to Pueblo II (and we now know, even as early as Pueblo I).  This was not a minor detail: Chaco was recognizably a key event in the prehistory of the Four Corners, and the new chronology undercut the old notion of paced progress from Archaic to Pueblo.

The Whig view of prehistory should evaporate with most recent changings of the theoretical guard, from Processual-plus to whatever mess we’re in now.  The Pecos System surely registers as a minor-meta-narrative, and Post-processualism never met a meta-narrative it liked.  Neo-Evolution’s sturdy linearity – a pillar for my generation – paralleled and propped the sagging framework of the old Pecos System.  The Pecos System bent and Neo-evolution broke beneath the weight of post-Processualism – even as that foreign brew was thinned down to Southwestern tastes.  Sometime around the turn of the millennium, the old order shattered into micro-historical pick-up-sticks.  New ways of archaeological thinking (coincident with 1990’s NAGPRA) emphasize, instead, local histories.  Large-scale history smacks of meta-narrative; we don’t go there.

Absent large-scale history, the Pecos System is Hobson’s choice.  It’s still used, largely as a basic chronology, with entanglements intact.  It is  the Received Version, an inherited story too deeply embedded in our thought-structures for excision.  For  many archaeologists, for example, it remains a bed-rock fact that the pithouse-to-pueblo transition happened in Pueblo I.   Oh well.

But Pecos as meta-narrative is surely gone.  If we’ve lost the Pecos System’s simple story, no one in the new school(s) misses it much.  I miss the old Pecos System – or, rather, I miss attempts to meta-narrate the Southwest – Kidder & Co’s (1927) Pecos stages or McGregor’s (1965) pan-Southwestern periods, or Cordell and Gumerman’s (1989) hinge-points.   Those schemes are little used today.  Each valley or district marches happily to its own drummer.   Many things – important things, I think – happened on larger, regional scales; and regional systematics and regional rhythms are required to discover and understand those big things.  My partialities are explained elsewhere (Lekson 2009), and need not detain us here.

If we’ve lost Pecos’s linear structure, does that mean Southwestern prehistory had no structure(s)?   Can we see that structure(s)?   Depends on how we view things.  If we were thinking historically, we wouldn’t want to assume or impose a structure a priori.  If we were thinking scientifically, we’d suspect that maybe there was a structure, or structures defined (of course) posteriori.  History is necessarily post facto. (I’ve heard Southwestern archaeologists [and Lewis Binford] dismiss historical approaches as “post hoc” – an inexact use of that term, I think, although it might apply as a logical critique of bad history.)

Absent a linear, progressive structure, an obvious alternative is cycles.  If things didn’t always go up, maybe they went up and down and up again.  Cycles have history within history, and that history is not happy.  Professional historians rejected Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, published between the Wars, as ill-informed mysticism.  Arnold Tonynbee’s Study of History, published primarily after World War II, fared no better.  Yet both were influential best-sellers: themes of cyclic rises-and-falls fit their times.  Cycles, similarly understood, formed a minor but important theme in early Sociology, through the work of founding fathers Vilfredo Pareto and Pitirim Sorokin.  In archaeology, K.R Dark’s The Waves of Time (1998) has had more influence in Political Science than in its home discipline.  Other cyclic studies, such as Joyce Marcus’s “The Peaks and Valley of Ancient States: An Extension of the Dynamic Model” in The Archaic State (1998), seem to have little impact on other studies of comparative civilizations: Norman Yoffee’s (2005) Myths of the Archaic State and Bruce Trigger’s (2003) Understanding Early Civilizations limit “cycling” to chiefdoms, in a very particular Henry Wright-David Anderson usage.  We all have to deal with the collapse of social systems and civilizations (the topic of a future post) but, these days, we prefer historical or evolutionary frameworks for rises and falls over seemingly mysterious “cycles” – too muddled, too mystical.

Cycles come and cycles go.  The most recent champion of cycles is biologist Peter Turchin.  Turchin is not mystical; he is steadfastly scientific.  In his 2008 manifesto in Nature, “Arise ‘Cliodyamics'”, Turchin announces his program: “Let history continue to focus on the particular.  Cliodynamics, meanwhile, will develop unifying theories and test them with data generated by history [and] archaeology … To truly learn from history, we must transform it into a science” (pp 34-35).  Heady stuff: reminiscent of New Archaeology in its youthful folly.  New Archaeology failed to launch; Turchin seems to be getting results or at least gaining ground.  One of Turchin’s more conspicuous contributions has been the renewed study of cycles (“secular cycles,” aka Turchin cycles) most accessibly in three recent book:  Secular Cycles (with S.A. Nefedov, 2009); War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations (2006) and Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall (2003). For shorter but more technical introduction: Turchin’s 2009 “Long-Term Population Cycles in Human Societies.”

Turchin attributes the cyclic successes of polities to a quality he calls “asabiya” (following 14th century Ibn Khaldun): the cohesiveness and solidarity of a group, and hence its ability to succeed in collective actions.  Asabiya is a positive property of meta-ethnic identity, which often develops on frontiers: “it is hard to imagine how large groups arise and maintain themselves in a homogeneous environment populated by many small groups, with an ethnic distance separating each pair of groups of roughly the same order of magnitude.  But what if there is a major ethnic boundary? … A small group near such a boundary will be confronted with very different others, dwarfing in their ‘otherness’ neighboring groups that are on the same side of the metaethnic line.  … This should lead to enhanced alliance formation among groups on the same side of the boundary.” (Turchin 2003:53).  Thus formed, political units (polities) thereafter follow formal, predictable, secular cycles.  (Turchin’s penchant for neologisms and borrowed argot – “asabiya” –make it possible to dismiss his work as pop-political science; but his ideas, logic, and data, to me, seem sound.)

Here is a summary of secular cycles, “oscillations in demographic, economic, and social structures of agrarian societies” (Turchin 2006:8):  a secular cycle begins with a “benign integrative phase” population grows and elites prosper.  Continued population growth benefits elites and nobles – up to a point.  When population size exceeds carrying capacity (Truchin’s term, to be understood loosely), the polity enters a “troubled disintegrative phase”.   Elites accustomed to plenty must do with less, and turn on each other over diminishing resources; that is, “instability.”  Political disorder drives population decrease and societal collapse.  According to Turchin, “the typical period of a complete cycle … is around two or three centuries.  I call these majestic oscillations in demographic, economic, and social structures of agrarian societies secular cycles.  (Turchin 2006:8, original emphasis).  Note that Turchin’s cycle are inherently political.

Turchin’s cycles have been explored in the ancient Southwest by Timothy Kohler, Sarah Cole and Stanca Cuipe (2009; responding to Turchin’s 2003 use of Mesa Verde data) and in the Southeast by Gravilets, Anderson and Turchin (2010).  These treatments are highly quantitative, somewhat ambiguous, and – in the end – very intriguing.

Cycling in the ancient Southeast is understood as inherently political – “Cycling in the Complexity of Early Societies,” building on cycling in Southeastern chiefdoms (Anderson 1994, drawing on the earlier work of Henry Wright).   Turchin’s cycles require political structure – elites, nobles, rulers; Southeastern chiefdom had those.

Kohler, Cole and Cuipe work on less certain ground.  We are not prepared, as a field of study, to welcome nobles and elites into Pueblo prehistory.  We can perhaps allow elites at Chaco – accepted grudgingly, with the insistence that Chacoan political complications were a short-lived aberration.  But surely NOT at Mesa Verde!   Since the days of Fewkes and Nusbaum, we have interpreted Mesa Verde and its region as pleasantly proto-Pueblo, with all that entails and excludes.  One of the most important exclusions are political structures.  Political power seldom appears in prehistories of the Mesa Verde region.  Here is Kohler, Cole and Cuipe’s précis of the Village Ecodynamics Project (VEP) culture history for later periods:

“A major population influx in the mid- to late 1000s brought with it the earliest structures reminiscent of the great houses of Chaco Canyon and its surrounding area, some 170 kilometers south-southeast of our study area. A few archaeologists (e.g., Wilcox 1999) interpret Chaco’s fluorescence following an internal reorganization around 1030 as that of an expansionist, tributary state, though many others are more cautious; see contributions to Lekson (2006) and Kohler and Kramer-Turner (2006) for the state of the debate. The polity centered on Chaco Canyon went into decline in the mid-1100s, causing turmoil in our study area, though study area populations continued to grow. In the mid-1200s, many community centers in our area relocated to canyon head locations, and many of these are walled. Local populations began to decline by about 1260, and the area was completely depopulated by farmers sometime in the 1280s.”  (Kohler and others 2009:280)

Chaco is recognized as force to be reckoned with – then and now – but it was an exterior factor, messing with Mesa Verde.  Chaco-style politics were not native to the region; it was exogenous (a term we will meet again below).  Kohler, Cole and Cuipe reformulate the Turchin’s model, absent political structures, thus: “population growth eventually causes an increase in instability, with a lag, whereas increased instability, with a lag, eventually leads to decreases in population size” (Kohler and others 2009: 277, working with Turchin and Krortayev (2006)).   Kohler’s neutral term “instability” glosses Turchin’s explicitly political triggers.

So: population peaks should precede peaks in violence (“with a lag”).  When were those respective peaks?  The VEP data answer that question in admirable detail (Kohler and others 2009: Fig.19.3).  For population: a first, minor population peak followed by decline at about 850; a major peak with steady, relatively high growth began in the very late 900s or 1000 CE, accelerated markedly about 1080 CE, and peaked about 1225 CE, and crashing thereafter with almost complete depopulation by 1300 CE.  For violence: increased violence followed the first population peak (850), as predicted by the model; but for the second population peak,, violence peaked in the mid- to late-1100s – before the population peak.  (The importance and implications of Kohler, Cole and Cuipe’s work for understanding violence in the Southwest will be explored in a future post.)

Thus, “we find relative strong support for the Turchin-Korotayev model …during the first population cycle, when exogenous factors appear to have been weak. … The apparent failures of the model during the second population cycle may be due to the relative strengths of exogenous factors in our area …” (p. 287-288).

They identify the exogenous factor: Chaco.  Indeed, Chaco may trump Turchin.  As noted, the first peak in violence lagged behind the first peak in population and therefore was congruent with Turchin’s model, but perhaps Chaco played a role: “The [first] increases in violence in the late 900s and early 1000s [were] well before the earliest structures in our area that look ‘Chacoan’…this anomaly pointed up by the model suggests that we need to look for external [exogenous] influences before they become obvious as Chacoan-style architecture …Perhaps [defensive sites] dating to the early 1000s … represent resistance (ultimately unsuccessful) to Chacoan expansion.” (p. 289).

Kohler and colleagues continue: “The circa 1080s immigration (spanning the period from 1060 to 1100) represents the first successful Chacoan intrusions into the area.  … The slight decrease in violence in the early 1100s, if real, represents as close to a ‘Pax Chacoensis’ as our area ever experiences” (p. 289)   “The collapse of the Chacoan system in the mid-1100s brought violence to unprecedented levels…as old (but apparently resented) power structures fell apart.” (p. 289) followed by relative peace in the early 1200s.  Things really fell apart in the late 1200s.

In my understanding of pre-history (Lekson 2009), Chaco directly affected Mesa Verde (both the park and the larger region) right through the 11th century.  The center of government then shifted north to Aztec Ruins (Lekson 1999), probably about 1110 CE.  If Aztec’s region was marked by bi-wall and tri-wall structures, Aztec’s sphere of influence encompassed most of the VEP.   How would the direct inclusion of Chaco and Aztec affect our understanding of Turchin cycles in the Mesa Verde area?

To begin at the beginning: recall Turchin’s early emphasis on meta-ethnic identities.  Chaco was probably a meta-ethnic polity, encompassing almost certainly polyglot and disparate groups within its region.  I argued that Chaco itself rose in part as a geopolitical reaction to the explosive growth of the Hohokam Colonial period.  The boundary between Chaco and Hohokam certainly constituted a “major ethnic boundary” – however that term is understood.  The homogeneous superstructure of Great Houses, roads, ceramic styles (Dogozshi), and so forth that spread over the northern Southwest stood in sharp contrast to the powerful, homogenous, highly stylized Hohokam region of ball courts, palettes, and buffwares.  If Turchin is correct, then Chaco’s region – which included all of the Mesa Verde region – could have had a high degree of “asabiya” – coherence in collective actions.

Kohler and his colleagues indeed suggest an early role for Chaco in their area: Mesa Verde populations resisted Chacoan incursions in the early 1000s.  Their evidence is indirect: they see no “structures in our area that look ‘Chacoan'” at this time, but they suggest that elevated violence might reflect resistance to Chaco.  Independently, I arrived at the tenuous conclusion that Chacoan buildings may have appeared north of the San Juan River, including the Mesa Verde region, as early as 1000 CE (see “The Sites”, Chimney Rock & Chaco).  Our two interpretations converge, perhaps.

Recall that the first, ca 900 CE peak of violence in the VEP followed peak population, as Turchin predicts; that is, the violence occurred during a time of population decline.  Indeed, violence may have contributed to that decline.  From a nadir at about 950 CE, population rose remarkably to a peak at about 1250, three times the size of the first, 10th century peak.  Kohler and his colleagues call for in-migration around 1080 of large numbers of people, presumably bearing Chacoan credentials.  But the situation evident in the VEP and Mesa Verde area was not unique.  All round Chaco’s region, the 11th century saw both marked increases in population and the appearance of Anasazi hallmarks: corn agriculture, masonry pueblos, black-on-white and corrugated pottery.  To the west, Virgin Anasazi; to the east, the population jump of Late Developmental Rio Grande, and the conspicuous shift from pithouse to pueblo; to the south, Mimbres populations doubled (or tripled?), and switched from Hohokam-inspired pithouse to Anasazi-like pueblos and pottery; and to the north, Mesa Verde was re-populated, with a corona that reached the Great Salt Lake in Fremont.   Everywhere around Chaco, people who had formerly minded their own business suddenly chose to look like Pueblos; and everywhere around Chaco, population skyrocketed.  This used to be called the “Pueblo II Expansion” – to return to an antique use of the Pecos System.   The Pueblo II Expansion is no longer a popular concept, but the empirical pattern it described remains.

In Turchin’s terms, this was the “integrative phase” in which population grew and elites prospered.  Population growth benefited Chaco and local elites and nobles – up to a point.  All went well through the 12th century; Chaco had sufficient power to build a new capital at Aztec Ruins.  The “carrying capacity” of Chaco’s immediate hinterlands took a big hit with a severe drought of 1130-1180.  Perhaps Chaco entered Turchin’s “troubled disintegrative phase”.   Elites at Chaco itself – to repeat the summary presented earlier in this post — accustomed to plenty perhaps did with less, and turned on each other over diminishing resources; that is, “instability.”  I think we see early signs of inter-elite competition with the conversion of Pueblo Bonito from a solsticial/lunar cosmology to a solar/cardinal cosmology in the early 12th century; these two cosmologies had co-existed from at least 1020 CE at Chaco (Lekson 2009).  The shift to Aztec may well have been spurred by elite competitions within Chaco itself.

It is conventionally believed (and often stated as fact) that Chaco “collapsed” around 1130; but if we understand that Chaco continued at Aztec Ruins, that’s hard to see.  Monumental construction continued through the 12th century at Aztec Ruins and, in the VEP and elsewhere in the Mesa Verde region, population continued to climb, peaking about 1250.  The VEP area (the Great Sage Plains around Cortez CO) stood in much the same relation to Aztec as had the Chuska Valley to Chaco: both Chuska and the VEP were bread-baskets, the prime agricultural lands within Chaco and Aztec’s regions.

The politically driven disintegrative phase came ultimately from Aztec, in a climate of violence inherited from the “Pueblo II expansion” of the late 11th century and the 1130-1180 drought (the impact of prior violence on levels of warfare will be explored in a future post).  Noble consumption (in a mildly tributary altepetl) overshot production of commoners; nobles turned on nobles; and the result was the elevated, appalling violence of the 12th century – Turchin’s disintegrative phase.  From Chaco rise to Aztec’s end spanned two or three centuries (depending on when you start Chaco’s clock) –  Turchin notes: “the typical period of a complete cycle … is around two or three centuries.”

Then the nobles left (Lekson 1999) – went south – and peace returned (Kohler and colleagues 2009).  Briefly: beginning in the mid-1200s, whole towns left the Mesa Verde area, voting with their feet for a system not subject to the political instability of Turchin’s secular cycles.   They built their new regime instead on the sacred, constructing the Pueblo lifestyle of Pueblo IV and V in the old Pecos System.  Thus the archaeologists’ goal – whence Pueblos? – was reached, but not by a linear progress; more accurately, by the cyclic rise and fall of polities.  And far to the south, the cycle began again, perhaps, at Paquime.

Chapter fragment 6.A.: Under Construction

Video: Cycles

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2 Responses to Cycles — Their Rise and Fall

  1. Jeff Gill says:

    You make Pueblo Bonito sound like Camp Victory in the middle of Baghdad . . . a large non-native structure built in the midst of a still active local culture, built to make a statement as much as to administer an expansionist impulse, which relatively speaking didn’t last that long, changing the region but not transforming all elements of the regional culture.

  2. Kelley Hays-Gilpin says:

    just a quick note on kivas, pithouses, and mealing rooms even though I think we already had this conversation. The Hopi word “kiva” translates as house (ki, which is the morpheme for house in most Uto-Aztecan languages, I think), and “below”. My Hopi language teacher, the late Prof. Emory Sekaquaptewa said “you could say it means basement.” So when contemporary Hopi consultants ID those round, subterranean rooms as kivas, it means “house below,” a kind of house. So that term, kiva, works for me, but my accepting the term kiva doesn’t mean I think a PI or PII kiva is the same thing as a PIV kiva (forgive the stage-level-Pecos-shorthand). PIV kivas are much more specialized. Of course lots of activities took place in PI-III round rooms, and D-shaped rooms. And don’t forget that mealing rooms, also subterranean, were the most specialized and also did not survive into PIV times as subterranean specialized spaces. What I think is important from my POV as somebody interested in ritual, is that the PI-III round rooms were already cosmograms–models of the layered universe that referred to Emergence and the sedimentation of space and time. Whatever other kinds of houses they might have been, they were houses that materialized the structure of the world. Sipapus, benches, early kiva murals, and ladders are evidence for that. Navajo hogans do this double-duty today (from our outsider perspective. Insider, it’s home and it’s a model of the world and it’s sacred and it’s domestic). So why do we need to say this is a ritual structure, and that is a domestic structure? It’s a false dichotomy for that time/culture interval you are talking about (unless proven otherwise, which you probably can for PIV and PV kivas). Before that, yes, it’s a domestic structure, and yes, it’s a ritual structure. Both/and.

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