Monday, May 21, 2012


Yesterday I watched all six parts of Steve Lekson's "A New History for the Ancient Southwest" and it was fascinating.  I knew a lot of this stuff, but there was a lot I didn't know, and it was nice to hear Lekson talk about it.  He comes off more confident in his ideas in this presentation than he did in his book, The Chaco Meridian, which has a "I know this is crazy, but hear me out" tone to it.

I'm not sold on the meridian idea, per se, but Lekson has convinced me on various other notions that most southwest archaeology considers absurd.

Among them:

A)  The "Chaco Phenomenon" was mostly political.  The Great Houses in the canyon and in the surrounding areas weren't "villages" like modern day Pueblos;  they were the palaces of elite ruling familes (ie, kings).  When they first excavated Pueblo Bonito, the largest Great House in Chaco, they were shocked to find very few burials, very little evidence that the 650+ rooms were actually occupied, and were left trying to explain what it was and why it was built.

Once the "domestic residence" theory was thrown out, it was replaced with the "center of religious activity" theory, which is not really incompatible with the idea that a ruling elite lived there.  As Lekson points out, there was no separation of church and state in the ancient world.

Whatever the Great Houses were, I've lost the notion that they were villages.  These buildings were erected for the few (the elite) by the many (the commoners).  This goes counter to the many ideas we have about egalitarian Native societies, but you have to follow the evidence not the angels of your better nature.

B)  "Kivas" were residences, not underground chambers of religious ritual.  And hey, I get it.  Modern Pueblo people use their kivas as chambers of religious ritual, so it must have always been the case...even though Modern Pueblo people deliberately abandoned their "old" way of life to the point of abandoning the geographic area where they lived it.  They're going to ditch their kings, ditch their religion (for the new Kachina faith they practice now), ditch their buildings, ditch everything....but they're going to keep the concept that kivas are for ritual?

Consider the history.  The earliest culture in the region, the Basketmakers, lived in underground pithouses.  A pithouse is just like a Pueblo-era kiva, except the later "kivas" were made of stone.  Same round shape (although in the southern Mogollon region they were square), same hole in the floor, same roof-entrance, same hearth under the ladder, same venting system.

And yet we have to believe they stopped living in them just as their society was becoming more advanced?

The key indicator of a room where people once lived is the presence of a hearth.  It's vital for keeping warm on cold nights and necessary for food preparation.  You want to know where the people slept and cooked?  Look for the hearth.  Not every roomblock in an Anasazi building has a hearth, but every "kiva" does.  Pithouse + hearth - ceremonial purposes = Anasazi home.

When I went down to Mesa Verde, we heard so much about "ceremonial purposes," it became a sort of running joke.  A gnarled piece of wood on the ground?  It was used for ceremonial purposes.  A feather blowing in the wind...ceremonial purposes.  It was absurd.  You started to wonder how these Indians can do so much construction (multi-story buildings, reservoirs, irrigation channels) if they're in their holes doing ceremonies all the time.  "Ceremonial purposes" almost became shorthand for, "I don't know what that is, but it was probably used for (everybody now) ceremonial purposes."

Gimme a break.  They were religious and ceremonial, but they were also practical human beings.

C)  Mesoamerican influence was a wee bit more influential than we thought.  The Anasazi grew a lot of maize, which originated in Mexico, as well as squash, which originated in the Andes and made it up to the Southwest through Mexico.  We also know they traded with Mexicans for copper bells, macaw feathers (as well as live macaws), and cacao.  Similarities in architecture and pottery styles have been noted, as well as language.  (Both Hopi and Nahaua, the language of the Aztecs, belong to the same language family, Uto-Aztecan.)

So the Anasazi can borrow Mexican crops, Mexican luxury items, pieces of Mexican mythology (ie, the progression of worlds and the emergence into this one from a lower one), but they can't borrow Mexican ideas on political structure?

Now I'm not saying that the Anasazi are Aztecs or should be considered a Mesoamerican people.  I'm just saying that they knew about Mesoamerican civilizations and Mesoamerican civilizations knew about them.  That border fence Joe Arpaio loves so much didn't exist back then.  Goods, people, and ideas flowed freely.  I think one of those ideas was the concept of class.  To people of the time, it would have been as natural as growing corn.

At any rate, I think I'm going to bite the bullet and buy Lekson's book to learn more. Everyone else seems content to parrot the conventional wisdom which, hate to say it, seems wrong.

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