Ancient Southwest

“The Southwest in the World” is predicated on my last book, A History of the Ancient Southwest (SAR Press 2009).   If you haven’t read it, please do.   I’m not asking you to buy it; check it out from the library.   But, please, read it.   Otherwise, very little of this blog/book project will make sense.  That’s because I posit a very different history of the ancient Southwest than you’ll see in textbooks or coffee table books, museums or parks.   I highlight some of these differences in a video of a lecture and, for the masochist, a video of a three-and-a-half-hour mini-course (below).   If you want to know more about the data and analyses and arguments supporting my statements in the video: read the book —  and the footnotes, too!

Here’s an abbreviated version, based on the last half of the last chapter of A History of the Ancient Southwest:

The Archaeological Southwest

The Southwest region reflects colonial history perhaps more than Native pre-history.  The ancient Southwest is seen as a cultural “island” related to, but distant from Mesoamerican civilizations – much like colonial New Mexico vis a vis old Mexico.  The ancient Southwest was “simpler” than Mesoamerican civilizations, avoiding their complicated political histories.  In the received view, modern Pueblos tribes of Arizona and New Mexico are essentially unchanging; thus Pueblo practices of the 19th century can be readily transposed on ancient sites.  That view of the Southwest was crafted in large part by American cultural entrepreneurs in early 20th century, building on the work of early archaeologists who sought to link exotic ruins (e.g., cliff dwellings) to modern Pueblos, rather than to vanished Aztecs (the then-popular view).  Continuity in isolation underwrote Southwestern archaeology through most of the 20th century.

It has become clear, however, that the ancient Southwest had diverse and dynamic history, much like human history everywhere.  This essay is based on A History of the Ancient Southwest (Lekson 2009), which presents a recent reading of that history. Detailed citations and extended arguments supporting this essay will be found in that volume.  References here identify recent major synthetic works, some of which propose alternate readings of the ancient Southwest.

Southwestern archaeology has enjoyed remarkable investments of funds, energies, talents and public recognition for a relatively straight-forward archaeology (Fowler 2000).  Many sites remain clearly visible; preservation is generally excellent; and tree-ring dating provides cheap and accurate chronology.  After 1960, large Cultural Resource Management (rescue) archaeology projects in the Hohokam and Anasazi regions far surpassed academic research; CRM data are fundamental to our understanding of these areas (Roberts, Ahlstrom and Roth 2004).

In recent years, archaeology has attempted to work more closely with indigenous Pueblo and other Native groups in the Southwest, with mixed results.   Many collaborations are successful, but Native views of history are sometimes at odds with archaeological data.  That conundrum confronts archaeology globally; the Southwest may be a place where these cultural and intellectual challenges can be usefully explored and, perhaps, resolved.

The Region and Its Nomenclature

Most of the Southwest is too dry for farming.  Yet many areas were farmed, through chancy rainfall farming (aptly termed “dry farming”), or with more reliable canal irrigation from streams and rivers.  The key subsistence crops included maize, beans and squash; cotton was grown at lower elevations.  Large game included elk, deer, pronghorn, mountain sheep and, on region’s eastern boundary with the Great Plains, bison.  Rabbits and small mammals were eaten, especially when large game resources were hunted out; and domesticated turkey substituted for game in some times and areas.  Turkeys and dogs were the only domesticated animals.

Two geographic lines quarter the region.  An escarpment called the “Mogollon Rim” runs roughly from west to east, separating the higher Colorado Plateau (hereafter, Plateau) on the north from the lower Deserts to the south.  A line along old Highway 666 (and roughly approximating the Continental Divide) separates western and eastern Plateau, and western and eastern Deserts.

Archaeological “cultures” correspond roughly to those quarters: Anasazi (or, Ancestral Pueblo) Culture developed on the Plateau, with significant differences east and west.  The Western Desert corresponds to the Sonoran Desert and the Hohokam Culture, with its core in the Phoenix Basin.  The Eastern Desert corresponds to the Chihuahuan Desert and two key Mogollon Culture districts, Mimbres and Casas Grandes.  Upland Mogollon societies occupied the mountainous Rim.

The Early Agricultural Period  (1500 BC to AD 400)

Maize arrived from western Mesoamerica well before 2000 BC (Staller, Tykot and Benz 2006).  Maize spread rapidly through the four quarters of the Southwest, but the relatively small cobs of early maize did not transform the region (Vierra 2005).  Five centuries passed before farming villages took root in the Western Deserts around 1500.  New strains arrived, perhaps together with new people from the south, already committed to agriculture.  It took special knowledge to grow maize – originally a tropical crop – and to adapt it to new settings.  Irrigation was necessary as maize moved from wetter to drier climes.  Desert farmers planted first in naturally wet bottomlands (cienegas) in the Eastern and Western Deserts.  As favored settings filled, farmers created new fields by diverting water from streams through small ditches to terraces above the floodplain.

Knowledge of maize may have been embedded in social structures, ceremonial practices, political relationships, and languages: a Uto-Aztecan mother stock that later became Piman, Hopi, and other Southwestern languages (Hill 2006; see also Merrill and others 2009).  A chain of Uto-Aztecan-speaking groups linked the Western Deserts and West Mexico. Shared histories ensured that desert communities looked south throughout the following centuries.

The Early Agricultural period in the Southwest was part of a much larger, continental phenomenon: from Poverty Point in the lower Mississippi Valley to Olmec in Veracruz, North American was waking up.  Villages in the Western Desert, by 1000 BC, consisted of twenty or more small, shallow pit structures—family homes—around a plaza.  Near the center of some villages stood a single large building, a place for community affairs.  Defensive sites such as Cerro Juanaqueña (1250 BC) —a large village on an impressively terraced and walled mountain in the Eastern Deserts—attest to frictions in the Early Agricultural period.  Its massive terrace walls were the Southwest’s first monumental construction.

Boom times in the Deserts: Uto-Aztecan speakers spilled up over the Mogollon Rim and on to the Plateau. The indigenous peoples of the Plateau—people (presumably) speaking languages that would become Zuni, Keres, and Tanoan—noticed the thriving villages around Tucson and the terraced mountain of Cerro Juanaqueña. Small canals were constructed around Zuni as early as 1000 BC.  But early maize did not prosper on the Plateau.  When maize-based villages finally appeared on the Plateau, they probably owed much to the Western Deserts, perhaps a final push of Uto-Aztecan migrations around 500 BC.  The Western Desert people moved north onto the western Plateau, displacing Plateau natives to the east (LeBlanc 2002).  The divide between the Uto-Aztecan west and the Zuni–Keres–Tanoan east cast long shadows.  Many centuries later, hierarchical governments would rise in the east, among the “locals,” but not among the peoples of the west, who harked back to different, desert ways.

Brownware pottery spread throughout both Deserts and the Plateau between AD 200 and 400. Its initial appearance, in the Deserts, may hark back to the South—there must have been constant comings and goings between the Deserts and West Mexico.  A brownware “foundation” formed across the region, a craft shared among villages with different histories and backgrounds. After mastering the basics, potters invented techniques and created styles increasingly characteristic of each area.  By AD500 different traditions marked the Plateau (graywares), the Western Desert (buffwares), and the Eastern Desert (brownwares).

Maize fueled southwestern civilizations, but in fact the Southwest was a tough place to grow maize.  Maize’s failures were as important as its successes. The mismatch between maize and the Southwest played out in unequal production, agrarian tensions, droughts, famines, and—above all—the many measures, social and political, taken to support maize-based societies in blistering deserts.  Most importantly: canal irrigation systems in the Western Desert.  It is not so much that maize worked in the Southwest; it’s that they made it work—most of the time.

Early Villages (AD 400 to 750)

By about AD 400, more than a millennium after farming villages first appeared in the Deserts, a few hundred small settlements flanked small steams, irrigating crops with small, simple ditches. Three short centuries later, the western deserts were crossed by a dozen massive canals systems—main canals 10 meters wide and up to 30 kilometers long,  hundreds of distribution canals, intakes, drains, etc.—taking water from major rivers, the Salt and the Gila.  Western Desert irrigation was the largest canal system in North America.  Small farming villages grew to become very large towns. The remarkable increase in scale probably demanded newpolitical structures; or perhaps new political structures allowed larger village sizes; or a bit of both.  New political practices replaced the older, inclusive village-council level of governance.

New ways of living in the Southwest reflected, distantly, a new idea in North America: urbanism at Teotihuacán, far to the south. It was not the first Mesoamerican city but Teotihuacán was by far the greatest. Teotihuacán redefined the possible. No one in the Southwest had to “invent” villages, towns, or cities. Every wandering hunter-gatherer, far into the northern tundra, was at least dimly aware that people could live in densely packed, permanent cities.

The Desert farming villages succeeded and grew.  Small, simple ditches got deeper and longer, bringing water out to upper terraces to meet the need for new farmlands. Irrigation—even on these modest levels—demanded centralized decision making, a few making decisions for the many.  Around AD 500 at larger villages, a few prominent families with more lands, more wealth, and more power built notably larger residences (“Big Houses”) which incorporated ritual features.   A ring of multiple Big Houses were built around and immediately adjacent to the central plaza.  Other families built their smaller houses behind the inner circle of Big Houses, farther away from the plaza. The council houses of earlier times disappeared, their governance functions evidently shifting to Big House families.   Importantly, the half-dozen Big Houses in each village appear to be equals: no one Big House bigger than the others.

Big House political power was modest, scaled to small, early ditches—insignificant by Mesoamerican measures. When irrigation tapped larger rivers—the Gila and the Salt rivers in the Phoenix Basin—the scope of decision-making expanded exponentially. Canals got big and Big Houses got bigger, at towns/sites today called Snaketown, Grewe, and a score of others in the Phoenix Basin. Their spheres of interest and control surely expanded beyond farming and irrigation.

At Snaketown and Grewe, leaders legitimized themselves with exotic objects, badges of office: copper bells and other Mesoamerica regalia.  Big House leaders may have travelled to the source, to western Mexico and Mesoamerica, returning with these impressive objects.  It seems likely that people to the far south knew of the fertile farmlands, impressively irrigated, of the Western Deserts.  People on the Plateau doubtless noticed too.  Plateau villages of any size were few and far between and relatively impermanent—short-lived and semi-sedentary.  Plateau farmers discovered that, unlike the Deserts, it was possible to farm away from streams, relying on precipitation: rainfall farming.  Rainfall farming was risky, but it reshaped life on the Plateau, for both the Uto-Aztecans of the west and the local populations of the east.  The two groups were increasingly difficult to tell apart, but the old divisions remained in language and history.

Plateau peoples had not yet developed centralized political institutions.  Decisions were probably made in a large community or council house: the “Great Kiva.” Great Kivas were round chambers, often roofed but sometimes not, and big enough for representatives of families or clans to meet and make decisions, presumably in the context of ritual.

Unlike Desert farming, tied to canal systems, rainfall farming required no investment in infrastructure and therefore no commitment to any particular place. Rainfall varied from year to year and place to place. Groups moved often, on cycles of a generation or less—a fluidity that discouraged political leadership.

Yet, in the end, leaders put themselves forward. Perhaps inspired by desert Big House elites, ambitious Plateau families apparently decided to try it too.  In the Deserts, political leaders lived in Big Houses prestigiously near the plaza. And at a few Plateau villages around 500—such as the remarkably large Shabik’eschee site in Chaco Canyon— the first attempts at political leadership appeared as exceptionally large pit houses, built near the village center and the Great Kiva – much like Desert Big Houses.

Big House-manqué elites at Shabik’eschee and other Plateau villages weren’t needed to control and coordinate canal systems. Indeed, they may not have been needed for any economic or agricultural reasons. Tensions between the eastern and western Plateau may have promoted political leadership. Remarkable things – perhaps alarming things — were happening in Western Deserts, marked by Big House elites.  Western Plateau villages had historical and linguistic ties to the deserts.  But the East did not.  Eastern Plateau societies might have needed (or accepted) tighter organization, but political leadership did not “take” on the Plateau.  Unlike canal communities of the deserts, Plateau families—if annoyed by would-be leaders—could simply leave, move to a better or at least different place. Rainfall was equally spotty everywhere. If a leader became obnoxious, the led could leave.

It was different in the Deserts.  People were tied to canals—the investment in infrastructure created true sedentism.  Canals were essential for farming, so leaving was not an option.  Consequently, Desert towns got bigger and bigger; towns in both Western and Eastern Deserts spanned centuries, compared to a generation or two on the Plateau.

Canals on the Salt and Gila rivers created a breadbasket, the richest farming economy in the Southwest.  The confluence of those two rivers was the setting, a thousand years later, of the modern city of Phoenix – which “rose from the ashes” of the ruins of the earlier Desert civilization.  Phoenix had maize adapted to irrigation; long growing seasons; abundant water from the rivers; canal technologies to capture that water; and a Big House political system to make it all work. Deserts farming economies needed leadership.  Phoenix at 700 was a civilization waiting to happen. The region was primed to produce the food surpluses needed to fuel great things: kings, empires, whatever. But Big House rulers did not become kings.  Desert civilizations took a different path.

Hohokam AD 750 to 900

Hohokam, as a set of practices, began around 700 perhaps with another wave of people, or a new wave of ideas from western Mesoamerica, drawn by the thriving irrigated farmlands of Phoenix.  The ideology united many groups—newcomers, long-settled migrants, and converted locals.  It was a supra-governmental or anti-governmental or instead-of-governmental ideology that united large areas and many (perhaps ethnically distinct) people, and got big things done – all without kings.

In the Phoenix core of the Western Deserts, Hohokam presented new ways of life manifested as oval, earthen ball courts, elaborate (but largely democratic) cremation burial rituals, bold new styles of art, and, apparently, decision-making structures that disguised or diffused political power (Gumerman 1991; Fish and Fish 2008).  As at Teotihuacán (but on a far smaller scale), individual political leaders in Big Houses were replaced by a government of bureaus and committees—in the guise, perhaps, of priesthoods and councils. For a few brilliant centuries, Hohokam ideologies allowed an enormous, elaborate irrigation economy without evident centralized political power—and propelled a remarkable cultural explosion out from Phoenix and across the deserts.

Some elements of what became Hohokam already existed in the deserts, part of the continuous interchange from the deserts to western coastal Mexico and back again. Some parts of Hohokam were endemic, local developments. But the key elements were new to the Deserts, introduced almost certainly from the south.  Hohokam ideologies replaced and overshadowed conventional Big House leadership (which remained for few more centuries at the village level).

It seems fair to say that people became Hohokam. Perhaps the most conspicuous and widespread markers of Hohokam were bracelets or more likely armlets of Glycimeris shell.  Bivalve shells from the Gulf of California were carefully shaped into armlets and sometimes carved with symbols—birds carrying snakes, desert toads, and the like.  They had once been rarities, but after 700 they were ubiquitous. People in every sizable settlement had this badge of membership prominently displayed on an upper arm.

Inward-facing clusters of three or four shallow pit houses, around a small courtyard, formed the typical home—in both the Western Deserts and in northern Mesoamerica.  A dozen or two dozen courtyard clusters were grouped into small neighborhoods or “village segments.”  Multiple neighborhoods encircled a large plaza which, as in earlier periods, marked the center or core of the villages. Ball courts displaced Big Houses as the iconic architecture, the key monument.  Not replaced: Big Houses and their elite families continued, but their leadership functions were transferred, apparently, to another arena. The whole village could witness the ball “game” that (as in Mesoamerica) probably played out political issues, territorial dilemmas, and difficult decisions.  Each village of sufficient size had a ball court; large villages had two, usually at the edge of town, away from the old central plaza (Wilcox 1991).

Around the central plaza was a ring of low earthen mounds, usually round or oval. Mounds were architecture: a site was selected, fill was brought in and sculpted to shape, and a smooth plaster surface applied.   Might these be Big Houses, elevated?   No evidence has been found of houses atop these mounds, but most have been trenched as “trash mounds,” not excavated as architecture.   But, on the evidence, these mounds were not residential.   They were relatively low—waist-high, well below the peaked roofs of surrounding houses. These low mounds supported ceremonies and small presentations, presumably performed for comparatively large audiences.  The village could view actions or performances atop the mound’s elevation, like a stage.  Mounds were inclusive; events that would be restricted in the old community house or private in Big Houses were now public.

Hohokam did not emphasize elite individuals or families. Not a return to village councils—Hohokam society was probably far too large and complex for that—but rather a decentralized, inclusive stew of ritual, power, and decision-making. Individuals surely had power, but they did not flaunt it with Big Houses, palaces, or tombs.  Whatever Hohokam was, it controlled individual political ambitions and curtailed social stratification and hierarchy.

To the south, it was a time of kings and nobles – the Epi-Classic, and the beginning of an age of city-state polities (altepetl, in Nahua) and, later, empires.  The fall of Teotihuacán (about 550/600) sent ripples — tsunamis — of political power outward, ruling houses looking for places to rule (Nelson 2000).  Displaced noble families transformed towns throughout Mesoamerica into small city-states. The aftershocks of Teotihuacán’s fall reached the Pacific Coast with the temple-towns of the Aztatlan horizon and reached the very northernmost frontiers of Mesoamerica at La Quemada.

Petty chiefs and Big House leaders must have been tempted to emulate southern kings. As Mesoamerican polities popped up nearer and nearer to home, they provided models of hierarchy.  Hohokam apparently rejected seventh- and eighth-century Mesoamerican political models — while using a wide range of Mesoamerican forms and symbols.

For almost three centuries, Hohokam worked. More than worked: Hohokam prospered and expanded – exploded – out from Phoenix in one of the most remarkable events in the history of the ancient Southwest.   Ball courts, distinctive pottery, and burial rituals pushed rapidly upstream, up to the very edges of the Plateau.  Surprisingly, Hohokam did not go far downstream, stopping at Gila Bend a short distance west of Phoenix.

By 900 there were hints of hierarchy not within but between and among towns, with the largest occupying positions of control at the heads of canal systems.  A geographic pecking order emerged. The very largest towns, such as Snaketown, Grewe, and Aztatlan, had the very largest ball courts.

One of the largest ball courts was built at Pueblo Viejo, high up the Gila River, 250 kilometers east of Phoenix.  Beyond Pueblo Viejo, Hohokam elements reached deep into the Mimbres region of the Eastern Deserts, where mountain streams flowed out of the Mogollon highlands into the Chihuahuan Desert (Nelson and Hegmon 2010). Mimbres settlements were initially less permanent than the villages of Western Deserts.  Pit house groups moved from one valley to the next, allowing depleted soils, hunted-out game, and gallery forests to replenish and re-grow. It was a successful way of life—so successful that rising numbers filled the valleys.

Like the Hohokam societies of the Western Desert, Mimbres farmers dug ditches to water their fields.  They almost certainly learned the tricks of irrigation from Hohokam, but Mimbres canals were modest compared to the huge Phoenix systems. Mimbres accepted, selectively, Hohokam beliefs: cremation burial (for some), ideologically charged naturalistic designs on pottery, and—conspicuously—Hohokam Glycimeris armlets. Not every Mimbres person wore them, but some were buried with dozens.

Canals pinned Mimbres villages in place.  Pit houses, which had a fairly short use-life, stacked up (insofar as pit structures can stack). Newer houses cut into older abandoned structures. Some villages grew large, with several scores of houses—untroubled, it seems, by hierarchy (Hegmon 2002). Much like Hohokam, Mimbres ideologies discouraged conspicuous leadership. Mimbres, however, did not accept the whole Hohokam package; ball courts, essential to Hohokam, were absent. Instead, Great Kivas (a form shared with Plateau pithouse villages) held communities together, serving some of the purposes that ball courts played for Hohokam.

Hohokam reached as far north as east.  Western Plateau peoples and Phoenix shared linguistic and historical connections—so deep (by this time) to perhaps be mythical.  Hohokam ball courts were built far north in the western Plateau, in the dormant volcanic fields west of Hopi.

With increasingly sophisticated knowledge of land and maize (and decades of favorable weather), Plateau populations grew and villages got larger (Reed 2000).  Over generations people became accustomed to the structures and strictures of village life. They had to: there were fewer open valleys, fewer places to start over – and, thus, more possibilities for hierarchical leadership.  Inter-village squabbles escalated after 700, reaching levels approaching warfare by 850. Increasing violence called for leaders, to lead or to avoid war.

Over the short term, shifting rainfall favored some areas over others. In the ninth century, rains fell on the great Sage Plains, northwest of Mesa Verde and population concentrated there. Towns expanded, and lasted longer (Lipe, Varien and Wilshusen 1999; Noble 2006).  There, ambitious families built the first Big Houses on the Plateau since the false start at Shabik’eschee, three centuries before.

Basic house forms had changed, somewhat, since the pit houses of Shabik’eschee. Plateau peoples now used more stone masonry in their architectural repertoire. Behind the pit structure (which remained the primary living space), they added a small masonry building of a half-dozen low rooms used mainly for storage. With food and gear housed safely above, the pit structure itself could be smaller and easier to heat. That combination—six rooms and a pit structure—became the standard for Plateau housing (and a clear contrast to the courtyard homes of the Western Deserts). The new, ninth- and tenth-century Big Houses used that same form: six rooms and a pit house modules, built really big: Great Houses.

Great Houses—Big Houses by another name—were essentially residences, built on the same ground plan as other houses, but larger, more substantial, and built with greater craft and care.  Just like the early Big Houses of the Western Deserts, Plateau Great Houses combined secular and ritual architecture in conspicuous, even (modestly)  monumental elite residences.  Both Desert Big Houses and Plateau Great Houses were, importantly, houses – not public facilities like ball courts or Great Kivas.

Great Kivas—the people’s council chambers—continued to be built, especially in villages evidently lacking Great House elites. One village might have a Great Kiva but no Great House. Another might have a notable Great House but no Great Kiva. Often both were present but at some distance apart. It seems likely that Great Kivas were buildings of the people, while Great Houses were buildings of elites.

Great Houses eventually appeared over much of the Eastern Plateau. The Western Plateau stayed out of it, for a while.  In western villages, homes were often jammed together in long rows. Each home was essentially identical to the next. Those villages often (usually?) had Great Kivas.  Eastern villages were more dispersed, with clusters of freestanding homes or scattered short segments of three or four conjoined homes. Large settlements had scores of these separate housing segments and one or more Great Houses—and no Great Kiva. The people were architecturally fragmented, without a common hall or communal center.  Looming over them, the Great House offered the coherence and regulation needed, perhaps, for village life.

Plateau peoples still moved, shifting villages as they had for centuries, but in larger groups and longer cycles than in earlier times. Rising violence urged safety in numbers. Elite lineages – noble families – probably emerged as important families maintained their status from old village to new village, from one generation to the next.  They may have begun to think it was their right, or their duty, to rule.

Chaco AD 900 to 1150

The decades from 900 to 1150 were momentous in North America. Three centuries of uncertainty and reorganization that followed Teotihuacán’s fall ended with the rise of Tula and the beginning of Mesoamerica’s Post-Classic Period (950 to 1500; Smith and Berdan 2003), an era of small polities and long-distance interactions.  Mesoamerica was dotted with hundreds of city-states.  Short lived “empires” encompassed multiple city-states, but not until the Aztecs (in the Late Post-Classic) was empire-building truly successful.  Yet the Early Post-Classic was notable for long-distance trade and interaction – ideologically-charged “international” styles of pottery and architecture that linked cities a thousand km distant.  In eastern North America, the great city of Cahokia urbanized the middle Mississippi Valley and set the course for subsequent political history, much as Teotihuacán had set the agenda for Mesoamerican urbanism five centuries before.  Cahokia was larger than most Post-Classic Mesoamerican cities.

On the Plateau, Great Houses families had several generations to become accustomed to their status and duties – not unlike Mesoamerican noble families. Great House families moved south of the San Juan River and into Chaco Canyon. Perhaps Chaco was simply the last empty, isolated valley.  Perhaps Great House leaders saw themselves as the heirs of Shabik’eschee.  At any rate, the people who promoted Great Houses at Dolores and Blue Mesa—their direct descendants or their spiritual heirs— built three Great Houses in Chaco Canyon by 900. Unlike earlier, short-lived Great Houses, these lasted.  After a century-long germination, Chaco burst forth to dominate the Plateau from 1020 to 1125 (Lekson 2006; Noble 2004).

Pueblo Bonito was the largest Chaco Great House, a giant “D”-shaped building with massive sandstone masonry walls standing up to five stories tall.  Its 600-plus rooms and enclosed plaza covered almost one hectare.  It appears that perhaps a dozen or so families (presumably extended families) lived at Pueblo Bonito.  They were very important families: elite or noble families.  And much of the building was not residential, as was the case at most Great Houses.  Chaco’s Great Houses were in part elite residences and in part monuments. Eventually, eight major Great Houses were built at Chaco, presumably representing eight elite or noble lineages.  Planning, coordination, and labor rivaled Phoenix canals. There was an important difference between Desert canals and Plateau Great Houses: canals delineated an economy; Great Houses manifested an ideology of power.

Great House families lived privileged lives. They probably did not farm or hunt—maize and meat were brought into Chaco. They probably did not make pottery or chip arrowheads or grind maize.  Those too were imported into the canyon.  They probably traveled far to the south (almost certainly to Mimbres and very likely to western Mexico and Mesoamerica) and brought back macaws, metals, cacao, and other wonders (e.g., Crown and Hurst 2009).  When they died, they were buried with pomp and ritual in the oldest parts of the building (Akins 1986; Plog and Heitman 2010), becoming part of its history.  Great Houses were the houses of generations of elites—noble families of the Plateau.  Or so they might have seen themselves, modeling their polity on the Mesoamerican altepetl – or city-state, the ubiquitous political formation in Mesoamerica during Chaco’s era, translated into Plateau idioms, architectures, and cosmologies.

With the rise of noble families at Chaco, the people found themselves redefined as commoners. Villages with dozens of separate individual homes – six-rooms and a pit house — dotted the landscape. Set on a low hill or prominence above the village stood a small, secondary Great House, and off among the commoners’ homes a Great Kiva—the traditional community center of the people. The two forms coexisted, perhaps uneasily, throughout Chaco’s reign.

Chaco created a degree of political integration over most of the Plateau, offering economic and political security. Escalating inter-village violence ended with Chaco’s rise (LeBlanc 1999). And there was the fact of the Hohokam.  Plateau peoples must have known of the remarkable Hohokam expansion of 750 to 900.  Western Plateau peoples shared (distantly) a language with the Desert civilization.  Eastern Plateau peoples remembered the earlier Uto-Aztecan expansion onto the Western Plateau.  On some level, Chaco itself may have been a geopolitical response to Hohokam.

Chaco’s success was in part a gift of geography and climate. Chaco Canyon itself was a dry and cheerless place, unfit for extensive agriculture, but it was central to a ring of villages, 80 to 150 kilometers from the capital, around the better-watered margins of what would become Chaco’s interior region. Chaco, from its beginnings, served as a center for the interior region, evening out the short-term agricultural problems of surrounding villages. Bulk goods—building timbers, pottery, maize—moved freely within that 150-kilometer radius. Many things came to Chaco and stayed there, in the service of the elites.  Maize moved into and through the canyon, perhaps from places that had plenty to places that had none.

Chaco’s influence soon reached far beyond that original region.  Colony or copy Great Houses popped up, up to 250 kilometers away. Local leaders almost everywhere on the Plateau joined with or deferred to Chaco. And it worked – ultimately, about 150 second-tier Great Houses marked Chaco’s greater region (Kanter 2003). They represented local, second-tier elites or noble families who undoubredly acknowledged and visited Chaco, perhaps regularly, on a network of “roads” radiating out from, and in to Chaco Canyon.

Chaco Canyon itself was decidedly top-heavy—a city of palaces—but the tip of the social pyramid was in fact rather small: perhaps a thousand or fifteen hundred elites. And the pyramid had a broad base: tens of thousands of commoners across the wide Plateau.  At a guess, commoners numbered perhaps 40- or 50,000, about the same size as a Mesoamerican city-state, but spread over a much larger region.

As Chaco waxed, Hohokam waned.  The high water mark in the deserts came between 900 and 1050; on the Plateau between 1020 and 1250. In the decades after 1000, Hohokam’s remarkable expansion reversed and shrank back in on the Phoenix Basin. The hallmarks of Hohokam civilization—ball courts, shell insignia, elaborate cremation burials, low mounds, and (most importantly) polity without kings — continued into the early 1100s, but the energy was gone. Most ball courts fell out of use. Hohokam fragmented into multiple local polities. Phoenix and Tucson went separate and unequal ways.

Even in decline, Hohokam remained far more impressive as an economic landscape than Chaco—or anything else, then or thereafter, on the Plateau or the Rio Grande. The canal systems continued to expand, bringing more of the desert under cultivation.  Each canal system was apparently independent, with key social dynamics among multiple settlements strung along the same canal.  A dozen independent “irrigation communities” emerged within the Phoenix Basin, and the Hohokam ideology ensured that power was diffused within those communities. Hohokam political life—and social life—was relentlessly modular (Abbott 2000).

Population in the Phoenix towns increased, less from local growth than from in-migration into Phoenix. Thousands of people retreated from the edges of the Hohokam world back into the heartland. The demographic implosion accelerated through AD 1300 (Abbott 2003). With all those new people, the farmlands of Phoenix were perhaps reaching their limits.

Mimbres, in the Eastern Deserts, registered the shift from Desert to the Plateau, like a weather vane swinging to the winds. Mimbres pit house villages once looked west to Hohokam; after 1000 they looked north to Chaco. Pit houses were quickly replaced by small masonry homes of a half dozen rooms, not unlike the Plateau house form, and spectacular black-on-white pottery (Hegmon 2002; Shafer 2003). Something like Great Houses, 400 kilometers from Chaco, were built at a few villages, with much larger rooms, more formal layouts, and more massive masonry than was customary in Mimbres pueblos.

Would-be Great House elites never took hold. Through a remarkable combination of old Hohokam ideologies, new Plateau forms, an influx of Mesoamerican ideas, and their own local genius, Mimbres people developed new ways of living that allowed for large towns, complicated canal systems, and interactions with the Chaco world—but that avoided Chaco’s hierarchies and political complications.

Going around Hohokam, Mimbres villages evidently established direct trade relations, over the Sierra Madre, with western Mexico and perhaps even the Aztatlan cities of Mexico’s Pacific Coast.  Mimbres had a straight shot down the east flanks of the mountains to the Post-Classic states of central Mexico.

Mimbres middlemen supplied Plateau rulers. Long-distance trade shifted, from the Pacific side of the Sierra Madre to the inland side. Inland routes pioneered by Mimbres reached their fullest expression with the rise, two centuries later, of Paquimé.

Chaco prospered. Then, 300 kilometers west of Chaco Canyon in the western Plateau, a wonderful awful thing happened. A volcano erupted, at the northernmost edge of the Hohokam world and westernmost reaches of Chaco.  Sunset Crater was a small volcano, but it was spectacular (Downum 2012; Elson 2003).  Its plume of fire was visible from highpoints on the Eastern Plateau—possibly from Chaco—and from Phoenix.  The volcano became an important place, perhaps more important than Chaco Canyon.

An extraordinary collection of structures and monuments converged at the volcano’s flank, at a safe distance: Wupatki. The place was known to Chaco; a small Great House there preceded the eruption by perhaps a decade. After the eruption, a larger Great House rose after 1135.  (By then Chaco was gone and Aztec Ruins was ascendant on the Plateau.)   Wupatki had elaborate turquoise artifacts, macaws, and Mesoamerican objects that rivaled Chaco and eclipsed Aztec.  And more: at Wupatki, a Great Kiva was built next to a large masonry-walled Hohokam ball court, perhaps the last ball courts ever built.  Chaco and Hohokam met, at last, under the volcano.  But by 1135, when Wupatki was built, Hohokam was greatly diminished and Chaco Canyon was at its end.

Chaco ended with political strife.  The orientations of major Great Houses marked two competing cosmologies. The old, original worldview (of 850 and perhaps even earlier) was represented by a loose southeastern (solstitial?) alignment.  A newer, tighter north-south (cardinal?) cosmology was introduced at several Great Houses around 1020.  A crisis may have come around 1070, with the construction of a new capital far to the north at Aztec Ruins.   The location of the new Chaco was fixed by cardinal direction: due north, up the Great North Road, to the San Juan River.  About 1110 construction began at Aztec Ruins.  Its plan was profoundly solstitial.  It seems that the cardinal party prevailed in the location of the new capital, but the solstitial bloc determined the new capital’s form and cosmic vision. The cardinal noble families quite possibly turned away from Aztec, and reversed directions, going south (Lekson 1999).

Retrenchment & Reorganization  AD 1150 to 1300

The cosmological schism—manifest as solstitial versus cardinal—had real political consequences. Aztec was, literally, only half the capital that Chaco had been (Lekson 1999). And its region was reduced to less than half of Chaco’s.  Aztec’s polity, however, included Mesa Verde and, more importantly, the densely settled Great Sage Plains of southwestern Colorado (Noble 2006; Lipe, Varien and Wilshusen 1999; Varien and Wilshusen 2002).

Things that worked at Chaco failed at Aztec. The new capital was unable to keep the peace or to bring the rain, as Chaco had done. A major drought hit from 1135 to 1180—a drought, while Wupatki flourished!  A second burst of monumental construction at Aztec marked a brief rebound. But about 1250 rainfall became erratic and unpredictable. Violence spun out of control. Farmsteads—previously scattered freely among their fields —clustered into large, walled towns or huddled together in alcoves high on the cliffs of Mesa Verde, defensive patterns seen across the Plateau (Adler 1996)

To enforce its failing rule, Aztec unleashed lethal force (Turner and Turner 1999). At farmsteads, squads of warriors fell upon families failing in their tributary duties. Men, women, and children were brutally and publicly killed and left to rot, unburied, in the ruins of their homes.  But even terror could not hold together.

It was a classic case of unintended consequences.  Aztec’s use of force apparently drove away already-wavering groups. Beginning as early as 1220 (decades before the “Great Drought” of 1275-1300), villages began leaving Aztec’s troubled region.  Movement and re-location had always been typical, but within the confines of the Plateau.  Now, people moved farther, setting off cascades that rippled out from the Plateau into the Deserts.

Aztec and its region were abandoned, an exodus of tens of thousands of people, complete and permanent, seldom paralleled in human history.  A final “Great Drought” from 1275 to 1300 was merely the final punctuation on a story already told – most people were already gone.  Only a few of their descendants returned as pilgrims praying over ancestors, never to reestablish villages or farms.

Most who left the Plateau went to the southern fringes of Chaco, the regions of modern pueblos: Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and the many towns of the Rio Grande, spiking Pueblo populations around 1325 (Adams and Duff 2004).  Some went farther: whole villages relocated far to the south in the East and West Deserts.  In the west, Mogollon pueblos and Hohokam towns grudgingly accepted newcomers.  Migrants sometimes settled atop defensive buttes and mesas.  A generation later they were joined by more people from the north, following paths into the upper Gila and the Salt drainages. These newcomers integrated into fading Hohokam societies—on their own terms.

The old order passed.  Chacoan nobles, perhaps, and Chacoan ideas of hierarchy survived Chaco and Aztec’s fall.  Chaco lineages in the deepest south (beyond Acoma and Zuni) maintained their status decades after Chaco removed to distant Aztec. Perhaps, to commoners, Chaco was always a remote, near-mythical place—Rome to an ancient Pict, Jerusalem to a medieval serf. In any event, southern elites kept up appearances, brooding in their Great Houses on hills above their towns. The second wave of immigrants—who knew what was really happening up north and wanted no more Great Houses—drove those relic elites out, and south.

Authority vanished, refugees arrived, and violence ensued. Two centuries of Chacoan peace ended after 1175.  Fighting quickly escalated to village-on-village warfare. As in the Mesa Verde region, scattered farmsteads clustered into larger and larger villages.  But unlike those in the north, southern villages were not hodgepodge affairs. They were carefully planned, with the organizing principles of Chacoan architecture applied to thousand-room pueblos, with tall perimeter walls laid out as precise squares and circles.  Homes in-filled those geometric spaces in a jumble; but within those impressive walls, no single house was “great.”  From the Rio Grande on the east to the mountains of central Arizona on the west, aggregated towns employed elements of Chacoan planning but rejected Chaco-style ruling elites.

We do not know the fates of the northernmost elites—the lords of Aztec and their allies.  Not all who died in the violence of the thirteenth century were commoners.  What of the southern Great House leaders, elites and noble families around Zuni and Acoma? Their lives were disrupted first by the end of Chaco, then by the fall of distant Aztec, and finally by a popular movement—literally a migration—away from hierarchy and toward a new social order. Some elites surely converted; many moved. North—a region and direction of ill omen—was no longer possible. There was no one left to rule. To the south, Hohokam beckoned from the deserts—a civilization without kings.

The causes of warfare on the Plateau did not obtain in the Deserts, but refugees from the violence brought the means and perhaps the disposition.  The revival of defensive trincheras communities (massively terraced hills) in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries reflect cracks in the tottering Hohokam edifice. For many generations, Hohokam ideologies supported diffuse governance, collaboration, cooperation – at least, no obvious rulers.  Desert dwellers lacked clear leaders who could react quickly and decisively. Hohokam institutions could not turn the violence spilling out of the Plateau—or displaced Plateau noble families looking for someplace to rule.

Architecture tells the tale. For centuries, Hohokam homes were loosely clustered in small courtyard groups, and those groups into open neighborhoods. The pervasive modularity of these units reflected the nonhierarchical nature of Hohokam society.  About 1150 the modular house clusters were replaced by adobe walled “compounds”: enclosing pueblo-like houses built of puddled adobe.  In marked contrast to the open house clusters, compounds were closed, rigid, exclusive spaces. That architectural development (inspired at least in part by Plateau building traditions) marked the breakdown of the old Hohokam way of life (Fish and Fish 2008).  .

Ball courts—the sine qua non of Hohokam—were replaced, around 1150, by platform mounds. The old courts were not leveled or razed; they were simply forsaken, left open and unused. The contrast between the sunken surfaces of ball courts and the raised surfaces of platforms was a clear indication of new ways of doing business.

Nor could platforms be confused, architecturally, with the earlier Hohokam mounds. In contrast to the low, rounded mounds—which had served as stages for public viewing of ceremonies and rituals—the new platform mounds were large, tall, sheer-sided, and sharply rectangular structures. Some platforms—square, massive, controlling—were built directly over earlier low mounds, making a statement. The height of the platforms lifted their upper surfaces (and the buildings and activities they supported) far above the people. People below could see figures only at the platform’s edge—criers, priests, those who reported, ordered, and communicated.  Events at the center of the platform were effectively screened from public view. Priests and leaders did their work above and beyond ordinary people’s reach. Platforms were the architectural antithesis of both earlier low mounds and ball courts – both of which allowed many to see the activity or performance.  Platforms paralleled the shift from open courtyard groups to closed compounds. Something had changed in Hohokam thinking. Indeed, “Hohokam,” as a suite of beliefs and practices, effectively ended.

Hohokam fell apart just as Plateau populations spilled into the deserts, into the upper reaches of the Gila River and Salt River.  On the upper Salt River (and perhaps elsewhere), massively walled, small, rectangular masonry buildings were built in existing towns. They had no precedent in the deserts – perhaps distant variations on the Great House theme?  But the desert peoples did not want Great Houses. Tonto Basin quasi–Great Houses were quickly converted into rectangular platform mounds—filled with rocks and capped with a flat adobe surface. The old Hohokam world, for at least a few decades, fended off Plateau adventurers and displaced nobility.

While Hohokam shifted shape, Mimbres went through parallel changes.  It was probably no coincidence that when Chaco’s move to Aztec was complete and construction at the old center ceased around 1130, Mimbres societies rejected, completely, the ideological and political forms that had held them together for a century. The change was sudden and complete—as if someone had thrown a switch. Once-bustling Mimbres towns emptied.  Mimbres pottery—for a century the focus of intense artistic energies, depicting scenes of myth and history—became anti-designs: black, burnished interiors, dimly reflecting the viewer’s eyes and nothing more. The people formerly known as Mimbres changed how they built their homes—from stone masonry to puddle adobe, usually at new towns some distance removed from the old pueblos. Many Mimbres people moved up into the hills and declined; others probably moved north and joined the big towns around Zuni and Acoma (see also Gregory and Wilcox 2007).  But most Mimbres apparently moved south, out of their valleys and into the desert.

New adobe towns with black burnished pottery were built where there were no permanent streams—just dry desert channels. With no streams, there were no canals.  It is not entirely clear how people supported themselves—at small cienegas, perhaps, a throwback to the very earliest farming villages. These short-lived post-Mimbres settlements skipped from valley to valley in a fast-tempo dance.  When the music stopped, around 1250, many probably came to rest in the valley of the Rio Casas Grandes, 100 km south of the Mimbres Valley. They apparently became part of the base population, the commoners of the Southwest’s last and greatest city, Paquimé.

Not only a push from the north, but a draw to the south: the Middle Post-Classic of Mesoamerica (Smith and Berdan 2003). Tula fell about 1150. The implications of that fall are a matter of debate: truly momentous or merely legendary? In any event, with Tula’s end, the Post-Classic pattern came into focus in vibrant clarity: expansive politics, long-distance dynamics, power plays and upheavals, and a swirling world of migrations, invasions, expulsions, and fragmentation into even more small city-states. That was the

Paquimé AD 1250 to 1450

The influx of migrants fleeing the troubled north strained the existing Pueblo communities at Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and the Rio Grande. Violence flared. Wars broke out, with villages sacking other villages. Larger towns were safer but – without rulers – inherently unstable and often split apart.  How to hold together big towns?  Native histories suggest that no one wanted the kind of leaders who had created cities like Chaco and Aztec.  New ideologies rose and old ideologies were revived to replace political power with ritual authority.  The explosion of ideas is reflected in art.  The older, Chaco-era, grimly geometric black-on-white pottery gave way to a polychrome revolution.  Unprecedented pigments, dynamic symmetries, and new icons mirrored changes in worldview and cosmology.  Images of kachinas and new supernaturals bloomed on pottery and rock art like flowers after rain (Schaafsma 1994, 2007; VanPool, VanPool and Phillips 2006).  After several centuries of experiments – competing cults and cures – the foundations of modern Puebloan society emerged from the crucible of post-Chaco chaos: communal, egalitarian, ritually-based, purposefully anti-hierarchical.

Chaco faded to a (bad) memory.  For many Pueblos, Chaco and Aztec became White House, remembered as a great city led by rulers who, improperly, had power over other people. White House was a lesson: it came to a bad end, with violence, famine, and forced migration.  For Navajo people who lived later in those same lands, Chaco was remembered as a place where a kinglike ruler—neither Navajo nor Pueblo—enslaved all the peoples of the region and forced them to build palatial homes for his family. In this history, the people rose up and overthrew the tyrannical rule.

New town plans and new iconography reflected new ways of living.  But the larger picture remained grim. Regionally, population began to fall sharply after 1300 and continued to fall for several centuries.  Paradoxically, fewer and fewer people jammed into bigger and bigger towns (Adams and Duff 2004).  Several towns might group into a defensive alliance or cluster. Clustering put safe distances between battered populations—de facto demilitarized zones. The frequency of violent incidents declined, but not their severity.  Wars still raged between villages, between clusters.

The Plateau’s trouble accelerated Hohokam’s transformation, but on the opposite tack—away from faceless bureaucracies and toward more visible hierarchy (Fish and Fish 2008).  Large areas within the old Hohokam sphere emptied as people retreated back into Phoenix, taxing the diminishing productivity of those long-farmed lands (Abbott 2003).  At the largest Phoenix towns, health suffered.  Most babies died; those who survived died young.  The old Hohokam way of life was gone, the intricate web of beliefs abandoned or discredited. New forms of governance were needed to stem the downward spiral.

Out on the margins of the old Hohokam world, there were out-of-work rulers: Great House nobles pushed off the Plateau. In the upper Gila and the Tonto Basin, local people had earlier rejected Great Houses, filling their rooms with rocks and rubble and converting them to platform mounds. Would-be rulers, either from the north or inspired by the north, riposted by building new houses – Great Houses – atop those same platforms. Great Houses rose from platform mounds along the Desert–Plateau borderlands, and soon after in the Phoenix heartland and the Tucson Basin.  Elites had come to the deserts.

Just as platform mounds were built over earlier low mounds, Great Houses atop platform mounds were a blunt architectural statement, a stratigraphy of power. Pima people who live today amid the empty ball courts and eroding mounds of Phoenix and Tucson recall in their histories the elites who lived atop platforms. They were foreigners, even supernatural—certainly not Piman. They came into the heartlands and imposed their rule, tyrannical and oppressive. But the new regime could not reverse the social and economic decline. The people suffered under these rulers for a time and then rose in revolt. They went from platform mound to platform mound, killing the kings. The Pima stories ring true. Something like a class revolt toppled the new governments.

The drought of 1135 to 1180 marked the end of Chaco. The Great Drought of 1275 to 1300 closed the book on Aztec. The Phoenix Basin’s bitter end was punctuated by huge floods on the Salt River in 1357–1359 and again in 1381–1384 (Graybill and others 2006). Equally disastrous floods hit the Gila River in 1420. These floods destroyed the canal systems. After centuries of decline, the heartlands were unlivable.

Plateau and Pueblo peoples took themselves out of the Post-Classic world.  One Eastern Desert society more closely engaged the south.  Paquimé rose on the Rio Casas Grandes, in the southern Eastern Deserts, while Pueblos jelled and Hohokam fell.  Prior to Paquimé, the Casas Grandes Valley had been a quiet backwater with a scattering of pit house villages (for another view, see Whalen and Minnis 2001, 2009) — the southern margin of the densely populated Mimbres region.

A century later, by 1250, the Mimbres valleys were empty and the Rio Casas Grandes teemed with people—in large part Mimbres peoples, shifted south through a string of short-lived desert town.  They knew the Casas Grandes Valley and would have recognized that it was perfect for irrigation, but in their desert hegira they probably lost the technical skills to tap the large river.  The remarkable ideologies that had united Mimbres villages for major public works, such as canals, had been left behind, dramatically rejected a century before. If large populations were to live on the Rio Casas Grandes, major irrigation would have to be grafted into the valley—lock, stock, and barrel.

New towns on the Rio Casas Grandes surely sought help from the West, perhaps from experts fleeing Phoenix.  But Hohokam canal irrigation was an intricate balance of enormous public works administered by deliberately diffuse governance, fine-tuned to Phoenix Basin societies.  It might be possible to transfer technology, but not that administrative culture (even then on the skids in its homelands).  Neither Hohokam nor Mimbres had traditions and institutions of strong central leadership.  In the Southwest, Chaco (and its successor, Aztec) had those skills. Chacoan elites knew how to get big things built.  They dug canals at Aztec Ruins, their final Plateau capital.  And the heirs of Chaco and Aztec Ruins nobility—or at least its cardinal factions—were conveniently available.

Pueblo histories tell us that, after the fall of White House, the people were instructed to go south, (in part) to find macaws.  Most stopped at Acoma, Zuni, and other pueblos. But others continued straight south beyond the arc of modern pueblos, in search of macaws (we are told).  If they continued south, they probably proceeded through the empty Mimbres Valley, once Chaco’s source for macaws and other regalia (Lekson 1999).

Native peoples in southern Chihuahua told Spanish conquistadors of two large groups coming into the region from the north, led by two brothers. The brothers found an old hag perched on a huge iron boulder. At this omen, one brother stopped to found a city. The second brother and his people continued south. An exceptionally large, boulder-sized iron meteorite was found at Paquimé. Was that the omen?  Paquimé became a famous breeder of macaws, on commercial scales.

The people who became the modern Pueblos voted with their feet against hierarchy—by moving away from Aztec and by not moving on to Paquimé. But many northerners joined the journey to the south.  The late thirteenth/early fourteenth century saw extraordinary population increase in Chihuahua, — a combination of local populations, Mimbres migrants, Plateau northerners, and other peoples attracted to the new city from south and west.  The region became one of the most densely settled areas in the Southwest.

Paquimé was a new and brilliant city (Di Peso 1974). Many architectural and organizational details—for example, the verticality of multistoried Great Houses—recalled Chaco, Aztec, and the now fabled cities of the north. Paquimé was constructed of poured adobe, a desert technology adopted by Mimbres people in their wanderings after they had ceased being Mimbres.  Adobe was a poor fabric for Paquimé’s towering five-story walls. Form trumped function—or, rather, symbolism trumped compressive strength. The city was an aggregate of separate, multistoried compounds, each the scale of a old Chaco Great House. The compounds were palatial—expansive and expensive and filled with treasures. Around the urban core were platform mounds and masonry pyramids; at least three I-shaped masonry ball courts (direct copies of Mesoamerican models, not the peculiarly Hohokam earthen ovals); and, most remarkably, monumental effigy mounds, unique in the Southwest. At least two of these, a four-armed cross and a long north-south snake, commemorated cardinality.

Paquimé was more closely tied to Mesoamerica—both west and central—than any previous southwestern polity.  Architectural forms—colonnades, ball courts, and (modest) pyramids—and astonishing quantities of ideologically charged Mesoamerican objects far surpassed Chaco, Mimbres, and Hohokam. While all three southwestern traditions played parts in Paquimé, the city’s leaders redefined (or refined) themselves as truly Mesoamerican nobility – not Chaco’s wannabe’s.  Southern objects and architecture were no longer simply props or window dressing, reinterpreted in local contexts for local politics.

Paquimé and Phoenix were “peer polities”—one on the way up, the other on the way down.  Paquimé undercut Hohokam’s commerce. The Plateau’s demographic center of gravity shifted dramatically east to the Rio Grande (Adams and Duff 2004; Kohler 2004; Powers 2005; Schaafsma 2007), well away from Hohokam’s established trading circuits, but a straight shot north for Paquimé. Phoenix’s western sphere was reduced to Hopi—its linguistic cousin—and a dozen large but short-lived towns in the Mogollon uplands that soon were abandoned, one after the other.  Paquimé had an up market and Phoenix did not.  By 1450 little was left of Hohokam’s earlier glories, save stories and histories.

Pueblos and Others  AD 1450 to 1600

Paquimé fell, sacked by unknown parties shortly after 1450, the last episode in the political history of the Southwest.  The densely populated Casas Grandes region emptied.  Some may have gone to Hopi or other Pueblos, but many survivors did not return to the north. They probably went west over the mountains to the Rio Sonora, or followed factions gone south centuries earlier. The people who came out of Casas Grandes could not have been the Mexica Aztecs, who founded their empire in 1427.  Rather, southwestern peoples were sub-currents in a vast swirl of migrations, mostly north to south, which created a complex patchwork of northern and western Mesoamerican societies later conquered by Spain.

Population continued to plummet over the entire Southwest. The number of towns decreased.  Whole districts were depopulated. Scores of towns—big towns!—in the Western Deserts, in the Mogollon uplands, and along the southern Rio Grande were abandoned a century before Spanish conquistadors entered the region in 1540.

The Pueblos from Hopi to Taos absorbed new peoples, not always of the same language or history. The unsettled social conditions must have tempted Pueblos (and Pueblo individuals) to reassert a degree of political authority, to bring order out of chaos. There are hints, even today, of that kind of authority in Rio Grande Pueblos.  But the bitter lessons of Chaco and Aztec were still fresh. After 1300, Pueblos avoided political hierarchy and suppressed would-be leaders through a complex mesh of ritual and social practices.  In one researcher’s words, they “defeated hierarchy” (Mills 2004).

The fifteenth century saw renewed trade with Mexico, almost certainly tied to the fall of Paquimé, which had controlled inland trade routes. Turquoise was still much in demand in Late Post-Classic Mesoamerica. The eastern Pueblos also forged economic connections to and across southern Plains groups (Adams and Duff 2004).

The people who would become Navajos and Apaches arrived from the north, after the fall of Chaco and probably after the end of Aztec—but not long after. Athabaskan speakers may well have been on the Plateau during Aztec’s reign. Navajo clans have detailed knowledge of the times and places of the ancient Plateau cities.

Piman peoples recovered slowly from the final, tumultuous centuries of Hohokam and their rebellion against the platform mound rulers. It would take deserts many years to rebound from centuries of intense canal irrigation, overhunting and -gathering, and the depletion of firewood and other resources. Before they could revive completely, Europe arrived.

Coronado’s army entered the deserts in 1540, looking for cities of gold. The memory of a rich, urban Southwest lived on in the stories of Mesoamerican traders. Traders guided conquistadors into what should have been the new Mexico. The stories were true: there had been cities, rich cities.  But the Spaniards came a century too late for Paquimé and the Phoenix Basin, two centuries too late for Aztec and Chaco. The pueblos they found were nothing like cities: no gold, no wealth, no commerce, no kings. Discouraged, the conquistadors returned to Old Mexico.   Sixty years later, Don Juan de Oñate returned with colonists seeking not cities but farmlands and metals. They stayed.  Not without incident of course: Native revolts, political revolutions, Yankee invasions, and all the alarms and excursions of modern history.

The history of the ancient Southwest ends at 1600. After 1600 the Southwest was no longer Native, no longer aboriginal, no longer “ancient.” Native people remained, of course, and their stories continued in the face of crushing colonization.

Key Issues in Southwestern Archaeology

Recent research has greatly clarified Chaco (e.g., Lekson 2006) and Hohokam (e.g., Fish and Fish 2008) – two key episodes in Southwestern archaeology.   The nature of Hohokam governance pre-1150 remains enigmatic; indeed, what was “Hohokam,” as a cluster of beliefs and practices?  A horizon of great importance recently emerged with the Early Agricultural Period (Vierra 2005).  Agricultural societies (we once thought) began around AD 200 in the Deserts and AD 500 on the Plateau, but now we know that farming towns began a millennium earlier in the Deserts.  Equally important are new research and new understandings of the Casas Grandes region in the Chihuahua Desert.  In an under-studied area, interpretations vary remarkably.  One school sees Paquime (Casas Grandes) as relatively small and local (e.g., Whalen and Minnis 2001, 2009); another school follows the site’s original excavator (Di Peso 1974), emphasizing Paquime’s role in the larger Post-Classic world (Lekson 2006; Rilely 2005).  Early Agriculture and Paquimé “book-end” Southwestern prehistory: the first farming villages and the last great city.  While many other key questions remain in the Southwest, Early Agriculture and Paquimé stand out as epochal events – as yet, far from fully understood.


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Lekson, Stephen H.  2009.   A History of the Ancient Southwest.  Santa Fe: SAR Press.

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Merrill, Willialm L., Robert J. Hard, Jonathan B. Mabry, Gayle J. Fritz, Karen R. Adams, John R. Roney, and A.C. MacWilliams.  2009.  The Diffusion of Maize to the Southwestern United States and Its Impact.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 106(50):21019-21026.

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Cordell, Linda S.  1997.  Archaeology of the Southwest.  Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

Cordell, Linda S. and Maxine E. McBrinn.  2012.  Archaeology of the Southwest.  (Third edition).  Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

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Ortiz, Alfsonso (ed).  1979.  SouthwestHandbook of North American Indians, vols 9 & 10.  Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Plog, Stephen.  1997.  Ancient Peoples of the American Southwest.  London: Thames and Hudson.

Reid, J. Jefferson and Stephanie Whittlesey.  1997.  The Archaeology of Ancient Arizona.  Tucson:  University of Arizona Press.

Stuart, David E. and Rory P. Gauthier.  1988.  Prehistoric New Mexico.   Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.


Video (one hour): A Short History of the Ancient Southwest

Video (three and a half hours): A LONG History of the Ancient Southwest

Part One  Hohokam (38 min)

Part Two  Anasazi/Chaco (23 min)

Part Three  Millennium on the Meridian (19 min)

Part Four  Mimbres Mogollon  (41 min)

Part Five  Pueblo IV  (37 min)

Part Six  Paquime; SW & Mesoamerica (38 min)

2 Responses to Ancient Southwest

  1. Dan Starkey says:

    After a hundred years of archeological failure you have finally put to rest the normal response from any Archeologists…..Quen sabe…Thank you for the long awaited answers..

  2. JOHN HAYES says:

    EXCELLENT!!!!!!!!!!!!! The way you put this together helped me tie so many loose ends in my thinking. THANK YOU!!!!!

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