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Anasazi - some background material

Published:

Last Edited: August 14, 2005, 3:03 pm

 

I promised in an earlier blog entry to re-visit the subject of those ancients in New Mexico.

This is a long and somewhat tedious piece of a manuscript I began several years ago.

I never finished it, so I'll share it with you if you're interested:

 

Visits to Chaco Canyon and other ancient ruins are interesting, but the experience is diminished by the layers of protective bureaucracy and the signs forbidding stepping off the established trails, or threatening punishment for spitting on the ground where the Chacoans spat.  An unprepared, isolated visit to Pueblo Bonito or Hovenweep certainly evokes wonder.  But for the unannointed visitor it leaves a two dimensional impression of the people who lived there.  I’m providing this brief history and a few personal anecdotes to fatten the image of what happened here and hopefully narrow the distance between modern visitors and the Chacoans.

Western New Mexico Zuni traditions say a branch of their tribe migrated south in the distant past.  Occasionally the tribal government discusses a proposal to send a delegation into Central and South America in an attempt to re-locate these lost relatives.

Who were these Zuni-cousins?  Where did they live, and where did they go?

The answer to where they lived seems obvious.  Western New Mexico, Arizona, southern Colorado, and southeastern Utah are pocked with the ruins of a great people; an enormous population which vanished over a relatively short time between 1100 and 1300 CE.  If the Zuni tradition has any basis in fact, these were probably the cousins referred to.  The Chacoans.  The Anasazi.  The Mimbres.  The Mogollons.

Where did they go?  When those countless villages, towns, and cities emptied during the 12th century the populations either died, or migrated.  There’s no forensic evidence to suggest they all died of plague, starvation or warfare.  More likely they migrated.

Some might have settled on the Rio Grande, but there during the 12th Century there was no population explosion there.  Several generations passed between the disappearance of the Chacoans and the Tegua settlements on the Great River.  There are no unambiguous links between the later populations and those that existed prior to 1200 CE. 

When the Chacoans abandoned their great houses the cultural continuity traceable from 500 BC until 1100 – 1200 CE ended.  The enormous population of western New Mexico didn’t simply vanish from the highlands and re-surface along the Rio Grande.

Where did they go?  A combination of Zuni tradition and Spanish records suggest an answer.  At the time the Anasazis ended their 2000 year long stay in New Mexico a numerically strong, socially organized, highly sophisticated people suddenly sprand into being and occupied the Valley of Mexico.  The Aztecs.

Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a conquisidore lieutenant of Cortez, is the only pre-Spanish conquest record that speaks to the origins of the Aztecs.  Neighboring tribes had a good deal to say about them.  Diaz reports that the Aztecs were relatively new to the area, having migrated en mass from the north about a century earlier.  Roughly concurrent with the disappearance of the Anasazi.

Academics who smugly dismiss this coincidence should be asked to explain. Where, in the north of Mexico, other than the Anasazi and Mimbres, could the Aztecs have originated?  Where is there evidence of a large population of culturally developed tribesmen available to migrate to the Valley of Mexico?  Where are the ruins those Aztecs-to-be left behind?

The people who became Chacoans, or Anasazis, and later, I postulate, Aztecs were in New Mexico for more than 2500 years. The pre-Chacoans were a nomadic people when they began leaving signs of their presence,  probably by 2000 – 1500 BC.  They  didn’t arrive as agronomic people.  They gradually came to rely on horticulture and smaller animals, rather than larger game over many centuries. 

Pre-Chacoans are distinguished from their predecessors by their stone tools, which  were markedly different from those of earlier residents who dined almost exclusively on larger game.  Although there were variations regionally in the toolkit traditions of the latecomers, there was an overall general similarity.  This root similarity suggests they probably were of a single language group and of shared origins prior to their migration.

From 1800 BC until 500 BC the pre-Chacoan population increased rapidly.  The residents gradually settled into more permanent campsites, and use of bone tools was supplanted by more wooden tools, indicating that hunting played a diminishing role in their lives.  The use of sub-grade storage bins around 500 BC eventually displaced nomadism and led to the construction of seasonal pit houses. 

The first gardens and small grained corn appeared on the scene during the San Juan period, from 3000 BC to 1800 BC.  Concurrent with this, the stone points decreased in size, indicating the hunts were for smaller game.  And during this time the pre-Chacoan numbers increased far out of proportion to what the population had ever been in previously.

Around 300 CE the first pottery came into use in pre-Chacoan southern New Mexico.  The rapid spread of this innovation throughout Chacoland is evidence of the level of communications between sub-units.  This reinforces the view that they were one people.  Pottery spread, not merely as finished products, but as a skill, a craft.  Craftsmen were exchanging methods of manufacture which were not obvious in finished products.

This spread of craftsmanship was probably embodied in pre-nuptial females moving outside their own villages for husbands, carrying the skills of their village with them.  Assuming these were all one people, marriages between southern pre-Mimbres girls to northern pre-Chacoan  husbands might well have been widespread.  This would explain the (for those times) lightning spread of pottery-making techniques from southern to northern New Mexico.

The social and technological changes were gradual over the centuries until around 700 CE.  The villages remained small, a few dwellings, and life didn’t vary a great deal from village to village.

Between 700-800 CE a fortuitous combination circumstances created a population explosion.  Favorable weather conditions, improved agricultural techniques, bin and pottery grain storage, pottery water storage, and effective winter shelters were a few of the ingredients that jelled to allow the surprising era known as Pueblo II, or Chaco Classic and Mimbres Classic.  Scholars have other names for the period, but I’ll stay with those two for the simplicity.

The most obvious characteristic of Pueblo II is the emergence of large, above ground dwellings.  In northern New Mexico this was concurrent with the disappearance of pit houses by around 900 CE, and constitutes the primary difference between Mimbres and the Chacoans.

In southern, Mimbres, New Mexico, the use of above ground structures didn’t  become widespread until a century later, around 1000 CE, and pit houses continued to be used, concurrently.  But Chacoland was a big place, communications were slower, and it makes sense there’d be minor differences in the outlying areas and that changes on the periphery would come more slowly.  It might even be that all the above-ground houses were constructed by the northern cousins to house migrants.  But more of that later.

For reasons of their own, modern scholars prefer to think of these two groups as distinct cultures or civilizations with an underlying implication that they were politically, socially, spiritually, and culturally autonomous.  Doubtless there is some evidence to support this, though it isn’t necessarily true.  The same evidence and reasoning processes used by archiologists is available to the lay person, and the resulting opinions can differ between reasonable men. 

For the purposes of this book I’m hypothesizing the Mimbres and Anasazi were probably roughly the same people,  though they had some different pottery and building techniques.  The Mimbres were a century behind the Chacoan building innovations to above ground structures, but they lived in an area with deep sedimentation.  The incentive for above ground dwellings might not  have been so strong as in the rocky northern areas characterized by basalt bedrock. 

During the final stages of Chacoan development, the Chacoan Empire for lack of a better term, probably included a thousand or more cities, towns, and villages and widely varying geographical and meteorological conditions.  Variations in building style don’t necessarily indicate anything other than adaptations within a single culture and political structure to local conditions. 

No one would seriously suggest that because New Yorkers live in high rise apartments, Bostoners, in Brownstone 19th century mansions, and New Mexicans in Adobe houses, that we are a different people, culture, or political structure.  To draw the conclusion that Chacoans had too little imagination and creativity to adapt to geography and climate overlooks most of what we know about them.


What scholars do know, and what is obvious from the ruin sites is that the population around the American continental divide exploded between 900CE and 1100.  More than 10,000 building sites from that period have been found in western New Mexico.  Those 10,000 sites probably represent only a fraction of what is actually there.  Most were from the brief period defined as Mimbres Classic or Chacoan Classic. Considering the past, the pace of changes in the way of life went into high gear around 900.  Within a few decades the Chacoan Empire, or Chaco-Mimbres Confederacy, if it didn’t exist before, came into being.

Today, hundreds of  known Chacoan sites have never been documented.  Many others haven’t even been found. It’s anyone’s guess how many people actually lived in this arid region when the Chacoans were doing whatever it was they did and thinking whatever it was they thought to justify that conduct.

Native Americans in the region and archiologists from everywhere are equally puzzled by most aspects of Chacoan behavior the instant they get beyond discussing what they ate and how they came to eat it.  We know a great deal about their building styles, their pottery design, their weapons and tools, and even their toys, if toys are what they were.  These are varied and interesting.

But a wide and deep gulf churns between the Chacoan phenomenon and the sum of it’s parts manifested in artifacts.  Every few years the academic explanations for the Chacoan behaviors change, reverse themselves, or fragment.  The academic zig-zagging of opinion clothed as fact is the result of the dearth of evidence to support conclusions of any sort.  A century ago the Chacoans were widely believed to be pre-Aztecs, as demonstrated by the naming of the Aztec ruin in northern New Mexico.  No physical evidence has surfaced to refute that belief.  All that has changed is academic opinion, which is fluid in any case. 

Differences in potsherds and building techniques of Aztecs and Chacoans as a means of refuting the coincidental connection between the two appears flawed.  This premise relies on the assumption that the builders of Pueblo Bonito were shockingly ignorant and unable to adapt to local conditions.

Such logic further assumes the disruption of historical continuity of 2 millenia involving a mass migration lasting a century, would not result in evolved architecture, art, and tool making.  The Aztecs migrated to an area with a sizeable indiginous population and pre-existing religious, architectural, political, and cultural traditions.  It shouldn’t come as any surprise that they assimilated much from the conquered, as conquerers have done throughout human history.

If most of what we know of Chacoans comes from artifacts, the conclusions we draw from that knowledge depend upon geographical continuity uninterrupted by outside influences.  If the Chacoans had continued to occupy their cities, but had been overrun by another people no one would suggest the nature of the artifacts wouldn’t change abruptly.  However, because there is, to my knowledge, no historical precedent for a powerful people voluntarily displacing itself and moving into a populous area far away, peopled by similarly organized and strong cultures, the results can only be guessed.  Especially if most of the artifacts on which the culture depended were produced by slaves, as I surmise
those of the Chacoans were, and those of the Aztecs certainly were.

Slavery among the Chacoans  can’t be directly proven by artifacts.  The uses for tools, weapons, utensils, and basic structures are generally obvious enough.  More obvious than, say, a primitive man could surmise by examining a can opener or steering wheel.  But the understanding of the segment of society that provided labor to create those tools, weapons, utensils, and basic structures can only be derived indirectly.

With the Chacoans, though the knowledge is indirect, it is no less certain.  In many bedrock ways the Chacoans already resembled the later Aztecs, long before their migration.  They knew how to handle a large population of slaves, and they had a tradition of dedicating massive energy to public works projects of esoteric value.

When the modern observer, layman, scholar, or Native American tries to explain curbed roads 20 feet wide, arrow-straight, leading between Chacoan towns, he’s functioning under the same disadvantages as the primitive puzzling over the can opener.  Those roads are the moral equivalent of modern Interstate Highways in the sense that they go over obstacles, not around them.  They required an enormous amount of energy and resources to create, and evidently to maintain.

Anasazi roads, however, differ from the modern superhighway in some crucial ways.  They were built by a people without the advantage of bulldozers, for traffic that had no wheels, and for a population that probably would have been equally well-served by  dirt tracks.  There is nothing among the surviving artifacts to suggest the size of the Chacoan population required such highways.  An archiologist acquaintance of mine once quipped that the roads were built in anticipation of the invention of the wheel, the gasoline engine, and the automobile.

The modern inclination to venerate the Native American ancients creates a mild taboo surrounding the implications of all this.  We see hints of the explanation in other aspects of the ruins, but here it is most obvious:  the Chacoans had a surplus of cheap labor, on whom they placed such miniscule value as to squander it.  An abundance of slave labor.

No population would hand-build roads they didn’t need over, or through obstacles, rather than around them if they had to do the work themselves. or even pay a reasonable price for the project.  There is cost associated even with maintaining slaves, and if there weren’t a surplus, the labor would probably have been expended on more immediate needs such as farm labor, tool making, building shelters, and pottery and basket making. 

The indications that the Anasazis were slaveholders are everywhere, though these indicators don’t get a lot of notice.  However, acknowledging this aspect of pre-Columbian life is hardly a slur on Native Americans.  Circa 900-1100 CE was a time when slavery was rampant in Europe, Asia, Asia Minor, and Africa.  That the Americas were no exception only confirms that humans everywhere share similar flaws.

If Diaz’ eyewitness Toltec sources are to be believed, the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico in overwhelming numbers as a strong, cohesive force.  Upon arrival they immediately manifested behavior that was not entirely unlike the mysterious behavior of the Chacoans.  If those Aztecs didn’t originate in Chacoland, where?  Why, when Cozzens visited the Zunis in 1857, did he observe an elaborate parade celebrating over the eventual return of Montezuma? 

For that matter, why do so many of the puebloan tribes along the Rio Grande have similar traditions tied directly to the desired return of Aztec power?  No colateral dreams existed within the neighboring peoples in Mexico the day after the last Aztec surrendered his past to the combined Indian and Spanish Cortez forces.  The Aztec mystique is venerated centuries after their demise, but only in the 2000 year homeland vacated by the Chacoans.

Modern archiologists and other scholars don’t give much weight to Native American traditions for some good reasons.  The Rio Grande puebloans don’t have a tradition tying them to the Chacoans through ancestry, whereas scholars believe such a tradition would be appropriate.  The Navajos, however, have strong tribal memories of Anasazi ancestry, although when the first Din’e arrived in Chacoland the ruins of Canyon de Chelle, Aztec, Salmon, Hovenweep, Mesa Verde, and Gila had echoed hollow and vacant for three centuries.  The wild tribes who probably comprised the majority of the slave population of the Chacoans allowed plenty of time to pass before they took their first cautious footsteps in to make certain they were really gone.

One of the earliest Spanish explorers in Arizona and New Mexico, Cabeza de Baca or Frey Marcos de something-or-other reported that when he visited a people to the west, probably Hohokam, they gestured along his back-trail with some animation and trepidation.  They were adamant that the area he’d been through, Chacoland, was the home of some terrible, ugly people.  The Spaniard was surprised enough by this to comment on it later. 

The Spaniard hadn’t seen anyone in that country who was markedly different from the Hohokam.  The identity of the nasty people the Hohokams on the edge of Chaco country were referring to is a thing to ponder.  The Hohokam view bears a striking similarity to the feelings Aztec neighbors had at the time of the arrival of Cortez with his European forces.  That the Toltecs, themselves no daisies by all reports, were willing to take their chances siding with the unknown European evil over the known Aztec says a great deal about the pleasures of having Aztecs for neighbors.

Standing almost anywhere in Chaco Canyon, looking at the butte that dominates the valley, it’s easy to imagine a pyramid in the Valley of Mexico as a stylized replica of that sacred tribal monument.  I’ve never seen this anywhere in print, but once, years ago I was poking around Pueblo Bonito.  A Din’e workman was doing some digging near me, and when he took a break, knowing the Navajo proscriptions about corpse contact, I asked him if they ever accidently dug into graves during their upkeep activities. 

“Not here.”  He puckered his lips and gestured with his nose toward the butte.  “The bodies are all over there.”
 
“There?”  I squinted down the valley.

“At the base of the butte.  All over the place.  Hundreds of them.  They dropped them off from the top.”

I’d been through the evening lectures about Chacoan astronomy artifacts on the butte, but this one took me by complete surprise.  I’d never heard the slightest mention of Chacoan activities there that weren’t entirely  benign.  In retrospect, I realize I’d been distracted by the bloody similarities of purpose between the one in the Valley of Mexico and those Mayan pyramids further south in Yucatan and Guatamala.  In view of the reported practices atop the Aztec pyramid in the Valley of Mexico reported by Diaz, I should have guessed the butte would somehow echo the behavior.  The suspicion verging on conviction that the Chacoans and the Aztecs were the same people was as real to me then
as it is now.

The Chacoan phenomenon had deep roots in the soil of 20 centuries.  It flourished and bloomed between 900 CE and 1100 CE.  There don’t appear to have been any false starts, changes of direction, or serious threats.  But around 1100 CE something happened to change all of that.  The Chacoans began to formulate a plan to get the hell out of Dodge. 

Maybe it has no connection, but they made that decision to find greener pastures at almost the exact moment of the most cataclysmic geological event in human memory in northern New Mexico.  The eruption of the McCarty volcano, dead center in the heart of Chacoland spread lava 35 miles long, 7+ miles wide, and 40 feet deep through the valley floor east of the Zuni Mountains.  If there’s no connection between that and the decision of the Chacoans to leave, it’s still quite a coincidence. 

The scholars don’t agree on how they left, or why, or where they went.  Nobody knows what happened to them.  From this point forward everything I write is unadulterated supposition, as thin as the theories of the scholards.  It’s strictly my own theory, and so far as I’m aware, no one else on the planet considered it.  But the theory explains certain mysteries found in the ruins, and I’m not aware of anything that contradicts it.

I don’t recall the name of her, but there’s a supposedly true story of ship in modern times found at rest in the open sea in sound condition.  The coal fires were dead, but the throttle was open to cruise speed, and there were meals set in the galley that were long cold.  No sign of violence, mishap, or weather hinted at what happened on that ship, but there was no sign of the crew, and they were never found.  The only thing out of place, as I recall, was that one of the lifeboats was missing.  Otherwise it’s as though Scottie came down unexpectedly and beamed them all up.

Similarly, there used to be a ghost town up near Red River called Anchor, or Midnight.  As late as the 1950s the buildings were mostly sound and the cabins were still partially furnished.  During the 1930s the old timers claimed there were still dishes and cutlery on some of the tables. The only way a person could visit there was by horseback, and it was a long ride.  The population of that town vanished, I was told, during a 24 hour period during the 1880s.  But unlike the ship in the previous anecdote, there’s no mystery about what happened in Midnight, or Anchor, New Mexico.  The mine was running out, and word reached town about a silver strike on the other side of the mountains.
 
The crucial difference in these two stories rests in the fact that people from Midnight survived to account for the way they behaved, whereas the crew of the ship didn’t.  If someone had survived, you can trust that those crew members conducted themselves in way that made sense to them at the time, and it turned out to be the wrong decision.  In a similar situation, any of us might have made the same choices they did. 

On the other hand, if some disaster had killed all the miners from that town without leaving a trace of the carcasses and what had happened, the story of Midnight would be one of those mysteries on television documentaries.  Someone surviving to explain is the key.

I believe the same is true of the Anasazis.  Within the context of their lives and experience, whatever they did made perfect sense to them.  This is probably true despite the evidence of social or political turmoil of their last half century in New Mexico.  Evidently there wasn’t universal agreement on the matter.  A lot of people during that time attempted to influence the activities of other people by force of arms.  These upheavals reveal themselves in ruins that were burned so quickly as to leave charred
corncobs with the kernals intact alongside human remains.

The Chacoans were more in tune with celestial, meteorical, and geological events than most of us are today.  They went to pains to record and observe the solstice and the equinox.  About the time of their decision to leave they made petroglyphs archiologists believe commemorates the observation of a super-nova.  They noted, and recorded the passage of comets.  When the earth spoke, the Anasazi leaders listened.

Based upon this sketchy evidence, I believe the migration decision was adopted, carefully planned, and executed in a manner worthy of the administrative being Chacoan society had become.  Within a relatively short time the earth and heavens spoke.  Humans in Chacoland attempted to interprete those momentous messages and apply them to their own lives, as humans everywhere have always done. 

A strange star appeared in the heavens.  The earth shook and spewed out liquid, glowing rock, and ash and smoke filled the sky.  Someone in authority made the decision to go south. 

They sent explorers to find a likely destination.  When those explorers returned with descriptions of the Valley of Mexico, it somehow satisfied whatever requirements they expected, but they had to prepare for the journey.

As befits a complex social organization, they sent builders along the route of march to build way stations, and grain bins to house and feed the weary travellers. They imposed a heavy tax burden all over Chacoland to fill those bins.  And as men everywhere have always done, some villages resisted or attempted to evade those taxes.

Way stations were only briefly occupied except, probably, by caretakers.  The remains of some of these sites, such as the Gila Cliff Dwellings, still had bins half full of stored corn several hundred years later when they were discovered by white men.

When the preparations were all in place they began to empty Chacoland and trickle southward.  Slowly village after village was abandoned until half a century later nothing remained of the Anasazis except vacant dwellings and half-filled grain-bins along the route for stragglers and rear-guards. 

Meanwhile, the Toltecs and other tribes around the Valley of Mexico discovered a problem had settled into the neighborhood. 

 

Jack

Entry #178

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