Rethinking Chaco


Over the past half-century, Chaco has gone from being a branch (Gladwin 1945) to a phenomenon (Irwin-Williams 1972), to an interaction sphere (Altschul 1978), and finally to a system (Judge 1984:9), as the complexity of Chacoan society became more apparent. Beginning about 1970, there was a flowering of research on Chaco that stands as some of the most exciting work ever done in American Archaeology. My goal in this paper is to examine that research in terms of basic assumptions made about Chaco by the persons most directly involved in Chaco during the past two decades.

I must stress that I approach this issue [in 1993] as an outsider. While I have worked in various parts of the Southwest, none of my prior research been on the Chaco system. My lack of direct exposure to Chaco is a tremendous drawback—except for the purpose of this paper, which is to provide a detached perspective on model building in the Chaco region. I hope to persuade this audience that despite the excellence of Chaco research in the past two decades, those directly involved in the research may have developed a "blind spot" that is more evident to someone who has not lived through the development of current models.

Much of this paper is concerned with the concept of "social complexity." It is therefore important to note that the debate on Chacoan "complexity" has taken place at two levels. In some cases, the overt discussion has been fairly superficial—demonstrating that Chaco was complicated, in terms of material culture and implied behavior patterns. Fewer individuals have dealt directly with evidence on whether Chaco was characterized by a hierarchical social order. The use of the term "complexity" has therefore, at times, made the debate among Chaco scholars less focused than it could be, and I will try to avoid that trap by instead referring to "hierarchy."

I feel no need to argue that Chaco was, in some sense, hierarchical; that task has been much more ably handled by Sebastian (1991:110–119; 1992a:42–48). [1]  Instead, my focus will be on how specific perceptions of Chacoan social organization shaped and to some extent limited our interpretation of the archaeological record.

The "Redistribution" Model of Chacoan Society

Chaco Canyon is a paradox. It's a complex set of archaeological remains in a setting that seems absolutely marginal. Early research was unable to deal with this paradox, because it viewed the Chaco culture as a unitary phenomenon. Since there were no "moving parts," so to speak, it wasn't possible to "explain" Chaco in terms of systematic cause and effect. Instead, scholars had to resort to historical "influences," most notoriously the concept that Chaco was an outpost of Mesoamerican civilization.

The modern era of Chacoan research dates to 1969, when the School of American Research sponsored a seminar "to outline the character of a long-term, multidisciplinary research project in Chaco Canyon" (Judge 1991:13). The outgrowth of this conference was the National Park Service's Chaco Project, dedicated to research at sites at Chaco Canyon National Monument. Actual fieldwork began in 1971; research and report preparation were scaled back in the mid-1980s (Judge 1991:13–14) but continue to the present day. [Note: the work finally ended in the early 2000s.]

During the heyday of the Chaco Project, other institutions carried out Chaco-oriented projects, most notably the Bureau of Land Management's Chaco roads project (Kincaid 1983; Nials et al. 1987), the Public Service Company of New Mexico and New Mexico Historic Preservation Bureau outlier survey (Marshall et al. 1979), and excavations at Salmon Ruin (Irwin-Williams and Shelley 1980) and Bis sa'ani (Breternitz et al. 1982). In addition, various scholars presented their own interpretations of Chacoan prehistory (e.g., Altschul 1978; Schelberg 1982). Close communication among Chaco researchers (and some overlap among staffs) helped ensure that research efforts maintained a fairly unified theoretical focus, as defined primarily by the NPS Chaco Project staff. I will refer to this focus as the "redistribution" model of Chacoan prehistory.

Like all archaeological phenomena, the history of the Chaco Project can be divided into three periods. In the first period, from 1969 through 1979, the research program was designed and mobilized, basic data were collected and synthesized, and former ideas were reviewed and overthrown, culminating in Jim Judge's (1979; Judge et al. 1981) brilliant and original interpretation of Chacoan prehistory. [2] As Toll (1985:17) remarked, "This model became something more than a hypothesis—it was in some sense an article of faith." In the second period, from 1979 until 1990, Chacoan research was characterized by near-universal acceptance of Judge's model, multiple efforts to interpret Chaco project and non-project data in terms of that model, and a series of adaptations of the model in a burst of creative feedback between data and theory. I will mark the beginning of the latest period from 1990, with the publication of Gwinn Vivian's detailed and thoughtful synthesis of Chacoan prehistory. In this period, Chaco Center-inspired models ceased to be at the cutting edge of research, instead serving as the point of departure for alternative perspectives on regional prehistory.

The image of Chacoan society that arose from the NPS Chaco Project (and its sibling projects) was far from monolithic: not only did different workers take different perspectives, many workers substantially changed their points of view over the years. Even so, as for Chaco itself, models arising from the project display certain characteristics that make them an intellectual "system" obviously distinct from other "systems" of thought. The primary reason for this uniformity was, of course, the years of intellectual give and take by the members of the Chaco Project. For the purpose of this paper, I will refer to the bundle of Chaco Project-inspired perspectives in the singular form, but this is not to deny the internal heterogeneity among this group of scholars. [3]

Just as current arguments on Chaco prehistory are structured in reaction to the Chaco Project's "redistribution" model, an important aspect of the model was its reaction to an earlier viewpoint of Chacoan society—one in which Chaco sites were organized as outposts of Mesoamerican economic or even political imperialism (e.g., Ferdon 1954; Di Peso 1974; Frisbie 1978; Reyman 1979). Rejecting this proposition (e.g., Windes 1987:407–409), project members were challenged to explain why Chaco emerged as a primarily or purely local phenomenon. In the synthesis that became the point of departure for numerous project members, Judge (1979) argued that the system emerged to provide mutual security in an unpredictable environment. Judge traced this development as follows:

The argument that the massive architectural developments in Chaco Canyon were associated with a broadly based redistributive network was conceived by a number of us working for the Chaco Project while developing the research design for the excavation of Pueblo Alto. In the mid-1970s, we knew about the road network, and we were beginning to appreciate the magnitude of the Chacoan system. The redistribution hypothesis was based on the argument that Chaco Canyon was deficient in a number of key resources, an assumption with which few should disagree. We argued that, because of its own resource deficiency, Chaco was dependent, at least in part, on the resource-rich areas at the periphery of the San Juan Basin to sustain its economy.

Because rainfall comes in a very patchy and unpredictable fashion in the San Juan Basin, we suggested that the Chacoan systemic response was to disperse its farming resources throughout the Basin in order to maximize the collective potential yield. Higher yield harvests would then be transported into central Chaco via the road system, where they would be stored in the great houses and then redistributed to lower yield areas using the same road systems. As a result of such smoothing of the fluctuations of the production system, the San Juan Basin was able to support a larger population than it could have in the absence of such a redistribution network [Judge 1993:35].

Further elaborations of this model argued that the first great houses in Chaco Canyon were established at the mouths of major side drainages to serve as central storage places for food grown in each drainage. As the system became better established, outliers were placed to control distant resources such as farmland or timber; the roads served as transportation arteries between Chaco Canyon and resource-rich hinterlands. Within the overall system, Chaco Canyon was the central administrative node; great kivas and other ritual structures served to sanction redistributive behavior. In the 1100s, an extended drought exhausted all available food, so the Chacoan leaders were unable to meet their obligations to their followers and the system collapsed.

This initial version of the model was discarded, however. To continue Judge's summary of project history:

When we began the excavation of Pueblo Alto we were surprised to uncover evidence which refuted the redistribution model. Instead of Pueblo Alto serving as a redistribution point, it seems to have served as a collection point for various goods, some of which were consumed at the site and others (ceramics, lithics) purposely destroyed there and deposited in the trash midden. At the Pueblo Alto trash mound, we found evidence of the breaking of some 50 pots per person per year. The overwhelming evidence at Pueblo Alto was for ceremonial consumption of goods, not their redistribution. This evidence led us to develop an alternative hypothesis, informally termed the "Chaco Hilton" model, which envisioned ritual visits or pilgrimages from the outliers to Chaco Canyon via the road systems. While ceremonies were being conducted, the great houses were occupied by pilgrims and their families. Although the exact nature of these rituals is not known (and may never be), the archaeological evidence from Pueblo Alto suggests periodic gatherings involving feasting and ritual destruction of material goods manufactured elsewhere and carried into Chaco Canyon ... At one point we considered renaming this the "Black Hole Hypothesis," since apparently most of the material goods were going into Chaco and few, if any, were coming back out (Judge 1993:35; cf. Toll 1985, 1991:80).

This was, however, another incarnation of the "redistribution" model: public construction and ritual were designed to foster cooperation and sharing at times of increased subsistence stress. In this perspective, great houses, roads, and other features were not directly used in gathering and distributing surplus food, but the social bonds that arose from such communal efforts served this purpose (cf. Schelberg 1982; Judge 1984; Judge and Schelberg 1984; Toll 1985, 1991). Judge (1984) further suggested that actual redistribution was important in the early Chacoan system but not later on. As an alternative, Judge (1993) has suggested that redistribution was important, but more locally organized, and that the apparent uniformity of the Chaco system represents more of an ideological veneer shared by local networks.

If the Chaco Project and its allies saw Chaco as a system, and even as a complicated system (large vs. small sites, roads, shrines, etc.), they were reluctant to describe it as a "complex" system—that is, as a hierarchical society. Despite some internal debate among those involved (e.g., Powers et al. 1983, and Akins and Schelberg 1984, vs. Toll 1985), my sense is that people differed mainly as to how large and complicated Chaco was, and in each case argued for the minimum amount of hierarchy needed to operate the system as they perceived it. For example, Judge et al. (1981:90–91) argued,

We fully agree that status may have been important in Chaco, but until definitive evidence is found, we must continue to consider possible alternatives. As such, we are currently evaluating the possibility that an incipient market system may have developed at Chaco ... Such a system would possess the formal attributes characteristic of redistributive systems, but would not necessarily depend on status differentiation in the central places in order to operate effectively.

A few years later, Lekson et al. (1988:4) argued that building a Chacoan great house "did not require a resident population in the thousands or a large influx of outside laborers." Once such buildings were created, "the buildings [may have] needed little upkeep and so could be maintained without difficulty by a small or intermittent population" (Lekson et al. 1988:2). Another project member, Wolky Toll, found little evidence for craft specialization in ceramics and in his general comments of the Chaco system, affirmed that it was egalitarian (Toll 1985).

The Chaco Project-inspired models are clearly derived from the anthropological theory widely accepted by Southwest archaeologists in the late 1960s through the 1970s. As Sebastian (1991:119) argues, they are grounded in the concepts of "cultural evolution and cultural ecology," but at the time these concepts were grounded, in turn, in the structural-functionalist approach developed by Radcliffe-Brown and Evans-Pritchard. To reduce this approach to its bare minimum, social institutions arise to serve needs, and come to an end when such needs are no longer met. Thus, Chaco emerged to serve the need for a more stable food supply, and (in most scenarios) collapsed when the society, faced with an extended drought, failed to provide food as promised.

The great methodological advance over previous models is that for the first time, we have "moving parts." In presenting Chaco as an "adaptive system," Judge and his colleagues defined a systematic source of historical change—the dynamic relationship between culture and environment. Within this relationship, culture wasn't seen as an important source of change, because systems, by definition, try to maintain themselves as they are. Instead, social change occurred as the system readapted itself to a changing environment.

The Chaco Project "redistribution" model, in its various forms, went further than any other previous model in explaining the specific form of Chacoan society. Chaco roads were for moving goods or people about the landscape in an order to balance resources and population; great houses were for storing excess production and also were administrative sites for the system; features like great kivas served to provide religious sanction for the system as a whole. The system evolved some degree of social hierarchy, but only enough to made redistribution work. It is a sign of the power of this model that from 1979 until 1990, the literature was entirely dominated by that model.

The Dissenters

In the past five years [1988–1993], three scholars have deliberately and openly criticized the "redistribution" model of Chaco society. In series of publications, they present widely differing views of Chacoan prehistory, but together they mark the breakup of general acceptance of that prehistory as defined by the Chaco Project. Significantly, none of the three authors in question—Gwinn Vivian, David Wilcox, and Lynne Sebastian—was a member of the NPS Chaco Project.

R. Gwinn Vivian

The distinction between large and small "Pueblo III" Chacoan sites led Clyde Kluckhohn (1939) to suggest that two cultural traditions were present in the canyon, while Harold Gladwin (1945) argued that the small sites predated the large ones. Given tree-ring evidence that large and small sites were contemporaneous, Gordon Vivian and Tom Mathews (1965) adopted Kluckhohn's reconstruction over Gladwin's. In 1970 Gwinn Vivian (1970a, 1970b) argued that differences in agricultural practices accounted for the apparent existence of two traditions within a single canyon. Vivian has himself criticized the approach, noting that it "could not explain why, much less how, two cultural traditions remained relatively distinct while confined to a narrow canyon environment for almost 250 years" (Vivian 1990:399).

Vivian has attempted to address this issue in his recent synthesis of San Juan Basin prehistory, arguing that two completely separate traditions, with substantially different economic bases, lived side by side within the Chaco system. People of the San Juan tradition, derived from the northern end of the basin, maintained a moiety organization and lived in nucleated villages; people of the Cibola tradition, derived from the southern Basin, maintained individual lineages and lived in dispersed small settlements (Vivian 1990).

In other words, Vivian still pursues the "two traditions" approach he first formulated two decades earlier—but he no longer ascribes social differences to differences in runoff potential within Chaco Canyon. Instead, he argues that coexistence between two traditions occurred at a regional scale, and was based on fundamental economic differences—including different approaches to management of runoff water for farming (Vivian 1992).

Of the three dissenting positions described in this paper, Vivian's is the least satisfying to me. Sebastian (1991:112; 1992a) has pointed out basic objections to the "two traditions" model. First, in the known ethnographic examples of side-by-side residence by two different Pueblo groups, the differences have to do with ethnic identity rather than actual differences in behavior, and are "invisible archaeologically" (Sebastian 1991:112; 1992a:91). In contrast, physical differences between great houses and small sites are dramatic. Second, the relative distribution of great and small houses is systematic—great houses occur as a feature within communities of smaller dwellings—implying that the relationship is also systematic (Sebastian 1991:112).

I would add a few other objections: Vivian's (1990) model does not explain the extravagance of labor inherent in great house construction, nor the unusual concentration of goods sometimes associated with those structures. It assumes that contemporary "San Juan" Anasazi built great houses in some places but not in others (Vivian 1990:477)—indicating that great houses are more than an ethnic style. It assumes that ethnic differences were dramatic enough to be revealed in construction, but does not show that such differences carried over to any other aspect of material culture. And it does not explain why, if subsistence stress was such a driving force in the prehistory of the San Juan Basin, the San Juan and Cibola residents did not try to drive each other out of the area.

I am awed by Gwinn Vivian's knowledge of Chaco. As someone who has had to deal with the vast Chacoan literature on short notice, I highly recommend his book as the best starting point available. All the same, I am unable to buy into his concept of joint land use by independent ethnic groups, and I will not pursue the concept in the rest of this paper. Vivian's model does serve, however, as a constant warning that the Chaco data can be interpreted in more than one way.[4]

David R. Wilcox

Of the three dissenters I cite, David Wilcox has aroused the greatest controversy. In several papers, Wilcox argues that Chaco was a "class" society in which "elite rulers" backed by "military forces" organized into "squads and larger divisions," engaged in "conquest" and the extraction of "agricultural tribute" and "pillage" from "commoners." Like feudal castles, Chacoan great houses served as residences for "elite ... groups and possibly their retainers" (i.e., as "barracks"), and as "central storerooms" for goods "taken from neighbors"; great houses could serve as a "fortress" or incorporate "defensive features." At one point, Chaco Canyon became the "administrative center, or capital" of a "polity," and began to "undergo the processes of urbanization." Chacoan roads, built by "corvée," served as military highways. The Chacoan elites, who "thought they were gods," went so far as to practice "human sacrifice" and possibly "cannibalism" (Wilcox 1992, 1993a, 1993b; Wilcox and Weigand 1993). Lest I be accused of putting words in Wilcox's mouth, all of the words in quotation marks can be found in one or more of the papers cited.

While I disagree with points in Wilcox's arguments, I find enormous value in his approach as a whole—and I would like to stress as much, because established Chaco scholars, in a reaction to Wilcox's terminology and rhetorical flourishes, [5] seem to have rejected his arguments out of hand. This is especially unfortunate given Wilcox's open admission that his primary concern is to stimulate debate (Wilcox 1993:76).

First off, it is important to consider Wilcox's arguments that Chaco was a hierarchical society—or as he puts it, a "state." The use of this word is unfortunate because most Southwesternists were trained to view "states" as intensely hierarchical societies that emerge only after "interim" stages like those described by Service (1962) and Fried (1967). What does Wilcox mean by calling Chaco a state? In a brief subsection of "The Evolution of the Chacoan Polity," Wilcox (1993a:84) explicitly addresses this issue by offering a definition, by Henry Wright (1977), which I will present in abridged form: "A state [is] a cultural development which is both externally specialized with regard to the local processes which it regulates, and internally specialized in that the central process is divisible into separate activities which can be performed at different places at different times." Wilcox argues that architectural differences in "downtown Chaco" great houses is evidence of the "internal specialization" called for by Wright.

To be honest, I find Wright's definition to be meaningless.By citing Wright, Wilcox turns attention from his own straightforward use of "state" to mean "a tribute-demanding polity" (Wilcox 1993a:81). In "The Wupatki Nexus," Wilcox uses similar terminology, describing Chaco as "a tribute-driven system of unequal exchange." In other words, what Wilcox means by a "state" is not what his detractors assume he means; he is merely asserting that Chaco involved a strong social hierarchy, involving (at least in part) the involuntary redistribution of goods. [6]

As for the notion that force was employed to maintain the Chaco system (Wilcox 1992a; Wilcox and Haas 1992): I have trouble with Wilcox's vision image of warriors marching from Chaco in serried ranks, to wring the last bit of tribute from local farmers, but not with the concept that violence was at least sometimes used to maintain or extend the system. Warfare is a universal phenomenon, and all hierarchies resort to violence in the last measure (if not before). What Wilcox is up against here is the myth of the peaceful, egalitarian Pueblos—which, despite its falseness, remains the image from which many archaeologists construct their models of Anasazi social interaction. On this issue, I feel that it is his detractors, not Wilcox, who bear the burden of proof. [7]

If one strips away words that raise the hackles of mainstream Southwesternists, we are left with a coherent model of Chacoan prehistory: a dynamic, strongly hierarchical society based at least in part on involuntary tribute and maintained, when necessary, by force. I am not sure I agree with this interpretation of Chaco, but I find it at least as persuasive an approach as the Chaco Project model of happy resource sharers in times of stress.

Perhaps more important than what Wilcox thinks about Chaco is how he is thinking about Chaco. Unlike almost everyone else in the Southwest, Wilcox eschews the "adaptationalist" model of prehistory for an implicitly "historical" one. Society is inherently dynamic; Anasazi society could change independently of the environment. [8]  I happen to believe that without an encompassing theory of social change, the search for correlations between specific social developments and specific environmental changes invites false solutions. Both environment and society are always changing, so correlations will always be possible—and developing arguments as to why one led to the other quickly degenerates into a series of "just-so" stories.

Furthermore, Wilcox makes no attempt at a simplified model of Chacoan society; the dynamic nature of society is reflected in changing social configurations. For the priod prior to A.D. 919, Wilcox sees Chaco as being on the edge of the "Cibola White Ware social network," centered on the upper Puerco drainage. From 919 to 1039, Chaco became part of a larger, tightly integrated network of communities. In the early 11th century, this network developed into a polity centered on Pueblo Bonito. By the early 12th century, however, other polities had emerged and competed with Chaco; as a consequence, even though Chaco Canyon maintained its religious dominance, the massive expansion of facilities in Chaco Canyon itself came to a halt (Wilcox 1993a, 1993b). [9]  This is a far more complex perspective on Chaco than the Chaco Project ever proposed—but more consistent, I believe, with the complexity of real social processes.

I doubt that every assertion that Wilcox has made will be substantiated, but I doubt that Wilcox himself believes that to be possible. Instead, by looking beyond the words and phrases that Wilcox uses, to the substance of his argument, I find his ideas to be highly stimulating and instructive. In attempting to consider Chaco independently of environmental fluctuations, and in acknowledging the inherent complexity of historical patterns, Wilcox is making points about Chaco that are simply too important to ignore. Finally, if Wilcox can help demolish the myth of the peaceful, egalitarian Anasazi, he will have done us all a tremendous service. [10]

Lynne Sebastian

Up to this point, I have presented one person (Vivian) who has criticized the "standard model" while assuming that Chaco was an egalitarian society (or, to be precise, two egalitarian societies), and another (Wilcox) who has done so on the basis that Chaco was a hierarchical, tribute-based, and militaristic society. My third example of a Chaco critic, Lynne Sebastian (1988, 1991, 1992a, 1992b), has taken an intermediate position which is, I believe, the most plausible alternative to simple acceptance of the Chaco Project-derived model of Chacoan prehistory. This is not to say that I agree with every detail of her reconstruction. [11] Rather, I feel that her overall approach is the one most likely to be useful in future theory building.

At the outset, Sebastian eschews the somewhat implicit logic of Chaco Project-inspired approaches, which (as I have argued above) was to look for the minimum amount of social hierarchy needed to make the system work. Sebastian (1991, 1992a) defines "proxy measures" of complexity (that is, hierarchy) and applies these to the Chacoan data base; she concludes by doubting that the Chacoan archaeological record could result from a decentralized, situational leadership structure.

Sebastian's arguments for the existence of a Chacoan social hierarchy are effective, and central to this paper, but from my outsider's perspective they are not earth-shaking. What is exciting is the way she goes about defining the nature of the Chacoan social hierarchy. Sebastian rejects the two standard archaeological approaches to defining prehistoric hierarchies, which are (1) drawing specific ethnographic analogies and (2) using Service's (1962) or Fried's (1967) abstract classifications of levels of social hierarchy.Instead she uses the anthropological literature to construct a model for interpreting Chacoan data. Sebastian proposes that deliberate surplus production of food was practiced at the local, non-systemic level to buffer against crop failures, and that would-be local leaders manipulated this surplus to gain power over more marginal groups of San Juan Basin Anasazi.

Having established her model of Chacoan leadership, Sebastian evaluated the timing and intensity of construction episodes at Chaco Canyon against tree-ring based evidence for fluctuations in agricultural productivity; she concluded that prior to A.D. 1020, episodes of great-house construction occurred during times of decreased agricultural productivity, but that later great-house construction correlated with a period of general agricultural prosperity (Sebastian 1992a:114–132). This led her to reject static models of leader-follower interaction through time; instead, she postulated a series of "patterns" to reflect the changing nature of social interaction.

Pattern I dates from about 900 to 1040. Prior to A.D. 990, the first bursts of construction took place at Pueblo Bonito, Peñasco Blanco, and Una Vida. However, "Each great-house site experienced a burst of activity, and presumably of power, and then sank into 100 years or more of zero growth" (Sebastian 1991:130). Between A.D. 990 and 1040, further limited bursts of construction were seen at Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, and Pueblo Alto. It appears that during the life of this pattern, assertions of power were limited to brief periods of unusual opportunity.

Pattern II dates from 1040 to 1100. During this period, a program of heavy and sustained construction characterized the previously established Chaco Canyon great house sites and the addition of Pueblo del Arroyo. It appears that during this period, Chacoan leaders were able to mobilize large amounts of labor on a consistent basis, in contrast to the limited expressions of power seen in Pattern I (Sebastian 1991:128, 130–131).

Pattern III dates from 1100 to 1130 or slightly later. Despite "some of the best years for [San Juan Basin] agriculture," great house construction ends and the emphasis shifts to "McElmo" structures such as Kin Kletso, New Alto, and Casa Chiquita (Sebastian 1991:128–129; cf. Lekson 1991:35, Fig. 3.2). The meaning of this shift is unclear, due to a lack of work in the McElmo structures, but it is possible that the change reflects the disintegration of traditional (Pattern II) power in the canyon.

To me, Sebastian's willingness to propose a model that changes with time is an extremely important contribution. If Chacoan society transformed itself from an egalitarian society to a hierarchical one within two centuries, the dynamics of society must have been radically different at the end of that trajectory, compared to its beginning. Yet as Southwesternists, we have a curious tendency to explain historical dynamics in terms of models that are atemporal and static—as in the Chaco Project's tendency to view all of Chacoan prehistory as a single approach to security in a marginal environment. After reading Sebastian's treatment of Chaco, I am convinced that models of prehistory need to be as dynamic as prehistory itself. [12]

Whither Chaco?

It is my sense [as of 1993] that after many years of intellectual dominance, the "redistribution" model is rapidly being abandoned. Functionalist arguments still appear in recent publications (e.g., Schelberg 1992), but the arguments of Vivian, Wilcox, and Sebastian seem to be sinking in among scholars active in the area. Former proponents of the "redistribution" model now tend to distance themselves from that model, to various degrees, and in some cases are willing to admit the presence of Chacoan elites (e.g., Mathien 1992; Windes and Ford n.d.).

The theoretical onslaught has been assisted by expansions in our empirical knowledge. First, there has been a growing awareness of how extensive the Chaco phenomena truly was (Lekson et al. 1988:11; Lekson 1991; Doyel and Lekson 1992), which makes it seem less and less likely that the entire "Chaco" area could be a single economic unit dominated by Chaco Canyon. At the same time, it is now appears that the Chaco roads, which were once seen as physically connecting the parts of the system, consist largely of short segments whose primary use may have been in local ceremonies (cf. Roney 1992; Fowler and Stein 1992). In other words, Chaco looks a little too large and a little too loosely organized to be a "system." Only last month [October 1993], Wolky Toll (1993) publicly questioned the notion of a Chaco system. Given his long-standing support of some form of the "redistribution" model, I see Toll's new position as a sign that, for all intents and purposes, the Chaco Project-inspired models have come to the end of their useful life cycle.

This is not, however, a case of one paradigm replacing another. As adherence to the "redistribution" models evaporates, none of the alternatives has gained anywhere near the same degree of acceptance. Sebastian (1992b:23) has commented on this fact, labeling it aa "failure to agree." To use only examples already cited, Chaco is currently [1993] being interpreted as a non-systemic egalitarian society (Vivian), a weakly hierarchical system (the "redistribution" model), a fairly hierarchical system (Sebastian), and an extremely hierarchical system (Wilcox).

I take such broad disagreement as a clear sign that what has been exhausted is not just a model, but an overall approach to studying Chacoan society. This approach was based, I believe, on the implicit assumption that great-house inhabitants were the active agents of all meaningful social change in Chaco, while small-site inhabitants were the passive objects of that change—what I term the "top-down" approach to Chacoan society. The effects of the approach on the Chaco Project are quite clear: though the NPS made a determined effort to obtain small-site data, it really didn't have anything to do with those data, except to note what small-site inhabitants weren't, relative to great-house inhabitants. At theory time, all attention turned to great houses—because there, and only there, was social history being made.

Ironically, both Wilcox and Sebastian have maintained the same "top-down" perspective in their critiques of Chaco Project-inspired models. Wilcox's arguments are founded almost exclusively on the distribution of great houses and roads, and on remains (such as rich burials) from great houses. Sebastian's arguments are based on great-house construction sequences, regional data on paleoclimate, and on archaeological remains from great houses.

Chaco from the Top Down: A Critique

Like most non-Chaco Southwesternists, for years I had an interest in Chaco research but was content to follow the literature rather than form opinions of my own. This changed in March [1993], when I began preparing a technical proposal that covered northwest New Mexico. As a contract archaeologist, I assumed that any CRM work would most likely avoid "system level" sites such as great houses and roads, but might well affect "small" sites such as the living quarters of the farmers who made up most of the system's population. I began to search the literature on the Chaco system for concepts that would help me understand and explain patterns of uniformity and variability in Chacoan small sites. Such concepts had not been formulated. For that matter, it was difficult to locate synthetic studies that mentioned small sites at all, except as a foil in arguments on the nature and function of great houses.

The problem is not a lack of data. Peter McKenna (1984:363) identified "small-site related studies" as one of three traditional concerns of Chaco research. The Chaco Project excavations emphasized just one great house, Pueblo Alto, but a number of smaller sites (McKenna and Truell 1986). Small sites were recorded during surveys of outlier communities (Marshall et al. 1979; Powers et al. 1983) and excavated at Bis Sa'ani (Breternitz et al. 1982). In addition, the past four decades of economic development of the San Juan Basin have resulted in the excavation of scores if not hundreds of additional small sites located within—and contemporary with—the Chacoan system.

However, neither proponents nor critics of the "redistribution" model seem to have been able to use these data in an effective fashion. There seems to be little interest what was going on in the sites where the vast majority of Chacoans—who were not in charge of the system—were living. Thus, while the "top-down" approach was historically necessary, and still is to some degree (for example, there are still differences of opinion as to the spatial extent of the system), it has also created an undeniable blind spot in interpretations of Chacoan prehistory.

This is not a new idea:

Studies of small sites in Chaco have largely been limited to descriptions and empirical generalizations from site to site.... The broader question of their role in the cultural system has not been addressed. ...

[Two] trends seem to characterize research in the San Juan Basin: (a) descriptive and particularistic studies, usually in the form of site reports; and (b) general, systems-oriented models that focus on the smallest segment of the system and then project, without examination, the function and form of other system components. In some respects, the fixation on examining the apical portion of the Chacoan adaptation has frustrated satisfactory assessment of the postulated system.

Empirically, verifiable characteristics of small sites ... are largely unstated ... They are usually taken as being the opposite of those conditions cited for the Great Houses. The characteristics most commonly mentioned for small sites include a lack of status burials ... a lack of site planning and organization, the absence of exotic and status goods, relatively fewer storage facilities, and no evidence for craft specialization. ...

Great Houses may captivate and stimulate the imagination because of their size and complexity, but observations concerning the small-site contributions are necessary to a complete analysis and understanding of the system (McKenna 1984:371, 374–375, 391).

Vivian has also identified the same blind spot:

Because the models assume that Chacoan great houses, such as Pueblo Bonito, controlled and benefitted from redistribution, the role of contemporaneous small sites and communities in the larger regional system is too often slighted or not treated at all (Vivian 1990:xv).

Although the problem of interpreting relationships between large and small populations was acknowledged as important, Judge incorporated small sites in his explanatory models only in the most general way (Vivian 1990:72).

Tom Windes has made the same point:

Emphasis on the role and development of the great houses had received inordinate attention for explaining the development of the Chacoan system, although great houses were clearly major components of a larger system. Less work was attempted to examine the small houses within the broader context of a community or regional system linking small and large sites (Windes 1993).

In summary, the emphasis on Chaco as a system, and on great houses as the agents of social change within that system, led to a blind spot in research that a number of scholars have identified. In fact, small-site data may be critical to resolving the current debates as to the nature and extent of the Chaco system. Whether based on voluntarism (as espoused by Judge and others), hegemony (Sebastian), or coercion (Wilcox), the system rested on a large population of hamlet and village agriculturalists, not the few individuals who organized and directed the system. In this sense, a "bottom-up" approach, which views Chaco through the lens daily life in small sites, would go far to counterbalance the bias that has characterized Chacoan research for more than a decade. This is, however, only part of the solution. What we need is not just a greater emphasis on small-site data, but a conceptual framework that gives those data a specific role in models of social change.

Rethinking Chaco: Beyond Top-down or Bottom-up

Arguing for more work at small sites is not the solution to the current impasse. As long as we assume that small sites played no part in the course of Chacoan history, but responded passively to the social dynamics involved in the rise and fall of great houses, there is really no reason to spend more time on small sites than we have already. After all, we know what they ate and all that; what else could we learn?

I term this perspective the "functionalist fallacy" within Chacoan theory. By this I mean that in describing Chaco as a system, scholars have assumed that it functioned much on the order of a biological system—a legacy of the "systems theory" once so popular in archaeology (cf. Judge 1979), and which still pervades much of the thinking about Chaco. [13] If great houses and small sites were part of the same society, they must have been as functionally integrated as they were functionally differentiated—in systems theory, those are two sides of the same coin. And, since great houses clearly functioned as decision-making loci, small sites did not. Indeed, the more importance ascribed to great houses under "systems" thinking, the less importance that can be attributed to their small-site counterparts. [14]

The need, therefore, is not just a new model—it is for a new way of thinking. To some extent, Sebastian and Wilcox provide us with glimpses of that thinking, inasmuch as they both move away from ecological functionalism, towards what I term a "historical" approach. By this I mean that neither critique assumes that the environment is the sole source of historical change. Instead, both Wilcox and Sebastian look towards the internal workings of Chaco society as an important source of variability.

It was not until I read Randy McGuire's new book, however, that I fully appreciated the implications of Sebastian and Wilcox's critiques. When I started this paper, I assumed that the solution to the impasse in current theory was to place more emphasis on small sites. I now realize that the issue in Chaco research is not whether people should focus on roads and great houses, or instead on small sites—rather, the issue is the need to focus on the relationships between groups within prehistoric societies (cf. McGuire 1992)—in this case on the relationship between great house dwellers and small site dwellers.

I believe that the Chaco Project's ecological-functionalist definition of society as a system, itself composed of integrated subsystems, is false. Society is not a system—at best it is a loose collection of groups, and its present form, far from being fixed through systemic adaptation, is the momentary sum of the actions of all the groups involved. This statement has important implications: if society is made up of multiple parts, each of them acting with some degree of functional independence, we suddenly have many more sources of historical change. Interaction with the environment is one source of change, but a great deal of change can be traced to the changing internal relations between social units. Under this theoretical approach, relationships between social subgroups, rather than being a given, become the central concern of analysis.

I also want to stress that as relationships between status groups play themselves out, and the society as a whole is changed, the same thing happens to the status groups themselves. A Chacoan small site in early Pueblo I is not the same as a Chacoan small site in late Pueblo II, because the latter involves a dynamic relationship with great houses and the former does not.

The theoretical approach just described is especially appealing for Chacoan research because we have such an obvious dichotomy between great houses and small sites. In order to explore the utility of this approach, I decided to test two competing hypotheses about the relationship between inhabitants of the two site types. Under the "redistribution" model, the relationship was seen as fundamentally egalitarian. In contrast, both Wilcox and Sebastian assume that the relationship was fundamentally unequal. Specifically, I wished to determine whether the relationship was an exploitive one, in the sense that great-house inhabitants used economic processes to divert an unequal share of material wealth to their own use. Assuming that Chaco was not a stratified society, and therefore lacked unambiguous markers of status difference, I did not expect absolute distinctions between great-house and small-site material culture. Instead, I looked at relative differences in the rates of consumption of goods.

Consumption has actually received surprisingly little attention in the development of models about redistribution and social status in Chaco. For example:

In my own arguments, I will attempt to measure actual consumption (removal from systemic context) of both prestige and ordinary goods, drawing heavily on a summary of Chaco Project data by Wolky Toll (1991). Scholar that he is, Wolky has pulled together and presented a vast amount of information in a format accessible to those of us who are not Chaco specialists. I may disagree with his interpretations, but I am also extremely grateful for the work he put into his paper.

Also, I admit that the following analysis is superficial. Its only purpose is to stimulate more conclusive studies in consumption patterns as they relate to Chacoan social structure.

Prestige Commodities

Turquoise. One clear example of the effects of a "top-down" perspective can be seen in Toll's discussion of turquoise production in the canyon. He states (1991:83):

Especially if one includes the material from Pueblo Bonito, the quantity of turquoise in Chaco is considerable. In terms of volume, however, there is little doubt that the population would have been quite capable of acquiring and transporting all the turquoise in Chaco themselves ... Combining both transport of turquoise, then, it seems likely that any specialization in turquoise production was part-time (Drennan 1984a; Mathien 1984).

It is also true, however, that if one spreads the amount of labor involved in the acquisition, transport, and preparation of diamonds across our own society, they could easily be handled as a minor and part-time aspect of the gross productive effort (Weigand and Harbottle 1992). With turquoise, as with diamonds, the real question is not "how complex a system is needed to produce these items?"—as Toll implies, but "Does the distribution of the items indicate equal or unequal access to wealth?" The social scarcity of commodities such as diamonds is what makes them important, not the demands they place on the system as a whole.

When one examines the known distribution of turquoise in Chaco Canyon, the results are instructive. In Table 1 and Table 2, I have divided turquoise into "Large Site/Public" and "Small Site" categories, because I believe that the turquoise from the 29SJ423 cache is an example of group ritual behavior even though found at an abandoned small site. Using potsherds as a control for the relative amount of excavation effort at each type of site, the Chaco Project data (Table 1) give a sense that total turquoise consumption was both limited and uniform—and therefore indicative of few social differences in consumption. However, when non-Chaco Project turquoise is factored in, the numbers change dramatically (Table 2). A hundred times more finished turquoise is known from Large Site/Public contexts than from Small Site contexts.

Of course, some of this difference is due to sample bias—a great deal of effort was devoted, in early years, to the clearing of great houses—but not all of it. Using the Table 2 data: for the turquoise-sherd ratios of large and small sites to reach parity, the total number of sherds cleared by early and Chaco Project excavations would need to be 15.7 million. It is therefore possible to suggest that Chacoan elites consumed somewhere between 10 and 100 times as much turquoise as their non-elite counterparts. [15]

The published data make it difficult to interpret this distribution in temporal terms, but I will go out on a limb because of the potential importance of such trends. In this case, given Toll's (1991) temporal and functional breakdown of sherds, it is necessary to use flaked stone as the control on relative excavation emphasis.

Shell. The same pattern noted for turquoise holds for shell. Toll (1991:84) asserts that "Shell materials were concentrated at Pueblo Bonito, but they are present in other types of sites, and access to them does not appear to be restricted." Indeed, the Chaco Project data (Table 1) indicate that shell was both rare and uniformly distributed between Large Site/Public and Small Site contexts. However, when non-project shell is factored in, the pattern is again quite different. About 17 times as much shell is known from elite contexts as from non-elite contexts (Table 2); for the shell-sherd ratios of large and small sites to reach parity, the number of sherds cleared by early and Chaco Project excavations would need to be 2.6 million. Thus, while shell shows a less dramatic distribution than turquoise, it was apparently consumed much more frequently by leaders than by followers.

The temporal patterns in shell (and the limitations of the data set) parallel those for turquoise (Table 3 and Table 4). The Chaco Project data suggest that while shell was rare in Chaco, during A.D. 920–1040 (cf. Pattern I) it was more commonly consumed at large sites than small ones. The same data set suggests that during A.D. 1040–1120 (cf. Pattern II), consumption rates reached parity, but here again it is important to consider the early, non-Project shell finds, most of which probably date to this period. When the non-Project finds are factored in, it is again possible to suggest that the gap between elite and non-elite consumption of shell grew wider through time.

Copper. The Chaco Project recovered only three items of copper (Toll 1991); it is interesting that during A.D. 920–1040 (cf. Pattern I), the only find was an unmodified piece of copper from a small site; during A.D. 1040–1120, the only two copper items found were from a large site.

The pattern is much clearer when non-project copper is factored in: out of about 50 Chacoan copper bells, 32 bells are known from Pueblo Bonito (Reyman 1971; cited in Toll 1991:84). While Toll stresses how few bells have been found in Chacoan sites, their extreme rarity indicates their extreme value as status markers—and the distribution suggests that consumption of copper items was largely a privilege of Chacoan leaders.

Macaws and Parrots. Toll (1991:84), citing Akins (1985:327–328) and Judd (1954), notes that of 36 macaws and three to six parrots known from Chaco Canyon sites, 31 macaws and all of the parrots come from Pueblo Bonito, four macaws come from other Great Houses, and only one macaw comes from a small site (29SJ1360). From this pattern, Toll (1991:85) concludes, rather surprisingly, that the numbers of macaws and parrots involved "would have necessitated very few trips by very few people over a span of a number of years to have delivered them."

What is more evident, at least to me, is that macaws were the almost exclusive property of persons living at Great Houses. There is a further implication, because it was probably macaw and parrot feathers, not the birds themselves, that were the actual consumption item in Greater Southwestern societies. This being the case, the distribution of the birds shows that Chacoan leaders were controlling the means of production of a material that was, in all likelihood, extremely important to prehistoric Puebloan ritual. [16].

Ordinary Commodities

Although it is not possible to draw a sharp line between prestige goods and ordinary commodities, the items listed previously were clearly the former—they represent items of exotic origin that have no direct role in the day-to-day production of food and other necessities. One might be tempted to dismiss the inequalities I have outlined as merely reflecting the existence of non-elite interaction spheres (i.e, a purely ritual interaction sphere) that stood apart from daily productive processes. Such specialized interaction spheres might well be expected to have their own paraphernalia, in which the exotic stood for the sacred. The Chaco Project data suggest, however, that unequal access to commodities extended to mundane items as well.

Food. Based on studies by Nancy Akins and Mollie Toll, it appears that food was imported to Chaco Canyon and that to at least some degree, more of the imported food was consumed at Great Houses than at small sites. Great houses show a greater diversity of faunal remains than small sites (Akins 1985; see Vivian 1970b); the imported meat may have included large game (Akins 1982). Great houses also included more imported plant foods such as pinyon nuts and cactus seeds, along with larger maize cobs which may also have been imports (Toll 1985). Unfortunately, Wolky Toll does not provide a tabular breakdown by period in his 1991 summary of these remains.

Pottery. Among Chaco scholars, there seems to be a consensus on one matter, at least: pottery consumption was fairly uniform within the system. In her role as a "dissenter," Lynne Sebastian notes differences in great house/small site ceramic patterns, but concludes,

None of these trends are overwhelming, however, and with the exception of cylinder jar distribution, may be largely attributable to functional differences or fine-grained temporal differences rather than to any status differences between occupants of the two site types [Sebastian 1992:46].

I would argue that while differences in ceramic consumption are not marked, they are present at a measurable level. In his summary article, Toll (1991) does not break down pottery by large and small sites as he does for other materials, but it is possible to obtain a glimpse of the differences from his dissertation (Toll 1985). In Table 5, the frequency of imports from Pueblo Alto is contrasted with that from small sites within the canyon. For even as mundane an item as pottery, the inhabitants of Pueblo Alto were consuming more imports than their neighbors in smaller sites: 40 percent of the Alto sherds are identifiable imports, while only 33 percent of the small site sherds fit this description.

Viewed through time, the difference becomes more striking. From A.D. 920 to 1040 (cf. Pattern 1), the Alto imports are 30 percent of the total, while small site imports are 24 percent of the total—a difference of six percentage points. From A.D. 1040 to 1100 (cf. Pattern 2), Alto imports are 43 percent of the total, while small site imports are 31 percent of the total—a difference of 12 percentage points. Thus, the percentage difference in consumption of imported ceramic vessels, while not great to begin with, doubled within the span of about one century.

Flaked Stone. Toll's summary of flaked stone data draws heavily on work by Cathy Cameron (e.g., Cameron 1984; Cameron and Young 1986), which found that consumption of exotic materials was fairly uniform. Here again, there appears to be little dissent (e.g., Sebastian 1992:46). However, based on Toll's (1991) summary of Cameron's data (Table 6), between A.D. 920 and 1120 the overall pattern at Chaco Canyon was one of unequal access to imported flaked stone: about one-third of great house flaked stone was derived from imported material, while less than one-twentieth of small site flaked stone was derived from such material.

When viewed through time, the same data are even more dramatic. For A.D. 920–1040 (cf. Pattern I), overall consumption of imported flaked stone is low (about one piece in 25), but at large sites the consumption rate is three times that for small sites. By A.D. 1040–1120 (cf. Pattern II), a completely different pattern emerges. At small sites, the consumption of imported stone has roughly doubled but is still well under one piece in ten. In contrast, at large sites every third piece of flaked stone was struck from an imported core.

Similar disparities apparently existed outside Chaco Canyon itself. In the following paragraph by Toll, the reader can appreciate the fact that such differences have been noted before, but have been downplayed:

Imported materials constitute 17.5 percent of the Bis sa'ani Pueblo total chipped stone, but only 1.7 percent of the lithics from the smaller structural sites in its community (Simmons 1982:1001) ... Simmons (1982:1012) points out, however, that the assemblages from the several types of sites in the community are basically similar, reflecting mostly functional differences. The results of survey in the Kin Bineola and Kin Klizhin areas also show a higher percentage of nonlocal materials at the great houses, but indicate that the difference from other sites in the area is not of great magnitude (Cameron and Young 1986:24–25)[Toll 1991:90].

It would appear, in fact, that as Chacoan leaders developed mechanisms for importing flaked stone, the inhabitants of great houses gained far more from the practice than the ordinary inhabitants of canyon villages.


Despite the shortcomings in the data used, and the superficiality of my analysis, a pattern is evident: the leaders of Chacoan society were not only living in much more glamorous structures than their followers, and probably controlling community-level ritual, they were engaging in patterns of consumption that can only be described as socially invidious. [17]

And far from being the "repository" for the system (Toll 1990), Pueblo Bonito stands out as the structure whose elite residents, most likely, controlled the most critical prestige commodities within the society: turquoise, shell, macaw feathers, and copper bells. It is not surprising, then, that the Bonitans were extravagant consumers of these goods in their funerary rites (Akins 1986).

Seen from this perspective, Chaco does not look like a quasi-egalitarian device for ensuring the welfare of its participants, but as an effort to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of relatively few people. In previous years, Toll's point that resources were going into Chaco, and that nothing was coming back out was merely taken to mean that Chaco was not a redistribution center for the San Juan Basin. I would argue, instead, that the pattern reflects a social order in which ordinary people were net producers of resources and leaders were net consumers.

The argument needs to be taken one step further, however. As Sebastian has made clear, the temporal dynamic of Chacoan leadership is crucial. Given the need to limit this paper, I have concentrated on the periods of Pattern I and Pattern II leadership. My superficial analysis suggests that the shift from the former to the latter entailed not just an upswing in Great House construction, but increases in invidious differences in consumption—both in prestige goods and ordinary ones.

Concluding Remarks

The "case study" just presented is superficial, and the contrast between large-site and small-site distributions of material goods is one that has already been discussed many times in the literature. What I have tried to show, however, is that if one explores the social relationships between great houses and small sites, and not just treat these relationships as a given, the existing data achieve new meaning. Based on my cursory analysis, the distribution of many goods was uneven and tied to invidious differences in consumption. This is not at all what one might expect from a system based on voluntary sharing and an attendant minimum of administrative specialization. Instead, my analysis supports the contention, advanced by Sebastian and Wilcox, that Chaco was characterized by a hierarchical social order.

It is important to consider that Chacoan society involved critical relationships besides those between Great House and small site inhabitants. At the least, these included (1) interactions between small site inhabitants in a given community; (2) interactions between small site inhabitants in different communities (the exclusive regional-level pattern prior to the emergence of great houses); and (3) interactions between great houses in different communities. Careful examination of any one of these sets of interactions is likely to yield new insights into regional prehistory. However, this will require Chaco research to move beyond the limits of ecological functionalism, and to adopt a "historical" approach in which internal social relationships are examined as a critical source of historical change.

Although this paper has been about Chaco, there is a broader lesson to be learned. I sense a malaise in our profession, as a growing number of people find less and less satisfaction in "processual" models of prehistoric change. What is happening with Chacoan research may provide guidance to North American archaeology as a whole; if you want to see what the future holds, no matter where you work, keep an eye on Chaco.

End Notes

1. As Vivian (1990:400–401) points out, Paul Grebinger (1973, 1978) deserves the credit for the first coherent arguments for a Chacoan social hierarchy. Nancy Akins (1986) also deserves credit for her work with burial and mortuary data.

2. Judge's 1979 paper was first written in 1976 (Toll 1985:15). It appears that circulation of unpublished manuscripts was an important factor in building consensus among archaeologists involved in (or influenced by) the NPS Chaco Project.

3. The reader is referred to Sebastian's (1988, 1991, 1992) critical reviews of Chaco Project-inspired models, as her reviews cover the same ground in much greater detail than is possible here.

4. The "redistribution" models also share an acceptance of Pueblo egalitarianism in historical and modern times, as the ethnological baseline for the region (cf. Judge et al. 1981:90), and see the more complicated aspects of Chacoan society as deviations from that baseline, rather than as evidence of a social order that needs to be interpreted in its own right. I am not sure why the hoary doctrine of peaceful, egalitarian Pueblos continues to find such acceptance, when it is so obviously a romantic invention.

5. For example (Wilcox 1993a:84): "Is it too much to postulate Pueblo Bonito or Chetro Ketl as a royal palace, the capital of a simple state, with the Chacoan Outliers the seats of territorial chiefs tributary to the great families in the canyon?"

6. Although I may be misrepresenting him, in my attempt to defend him. Wilcox (1993a:83) asserts, for example, that great houses "constitute monumental architecture comparable to that in early states."

7. What Wilcox may be overlooking is that on most occasions, elite control is based on hegemony, not the constant threat of violence. By this, I mean that in exploiting commoners, elites "give back" something other than the choice between submission or punishment. The "something" may include intervention with secular or divine powers, protection against hostile groups, settlement of disputes, food from the central stores, and access to goods not produced by most households. In situations where continuous force is necessary to maintain the system, the likely result is social collapse (in the\case of states, into feudal anarchy). Moreover, it is day-to-day production, exchange, and consumption, not the occasional instances of actual violence, that determine the character of a society. Thus, acknowledgment of the role of violent force in Chacoan society does not relieve scholars from the need to explain the ordinary processes that gave rise to that society. This is one reason that I prefer Sebastian's model of leader-follower dynamics over Wilcox's model of forced tribute.

8. Wilcox is quite conscious of this difference, as is clear in his recent papers. He comments, for example, that

Organized efforts to coordinate the development of Southwestern archaeology in the last two decades emphasized the environment as a causative factor ... The resulting models treat the humans who occupied the prehistoric cultural landscapes of the Southwest as animals helplessly subject to the forces of environment or [demography] ... The possibility that ... prehistoric people had social organizations, economic organizations, political organizations, or ideas that affected what they did, or that they [largely] explain human successes and failures, is not seriously considered [Wilcox 1992:2].

In "The Wupatki Nexus," Wilcox describes his own approach as follows:

Unlike the static correlations that so often pass for archaeological "models," ... this model is simultaneously processual, historical, and ecological, envisioning the actions of people who attempted to adapt to a complex cultural landscape of natural, social, and political forces [Wilcox 1993b:16].

9. Unlike many scholars (e.g., Windes 1987; Sebastian 1988, 1992), Wilcox does not believe that Chaco was disrupted by an extended drought in the middle 12th century; instead, he asserts that the end of massive building in the Canyon reflects a purely historical shift from a single, Chaco Canyon-centered polity to a peer polity network (cf. Renfrew and Cherry 1986). While I side with the proposition that a drought did take place, and had lasting effects, Wilcox's (1993b:10) "late Chacoan great-house network" is not that far removed from other scholars' "post-Chaco" period; the only difference is whether Chaco continued as an important (but not exclusive) center, or had been knocked out of its leadership role by the long drought.

10. Based on my own understanding of early societies in the Southwest and elsewhere, I find much to disagree with in Wilcox's specific interpretations and arguments. In particular, I am disturbed the analogies he uses; while Wilcox disavows the historic Pueblos as direct analogies for Chacoan society, and considers alternatives from around the world, his models for "Chaco-like" behavior are derive primarily from state-level, feudal (state decay), or secondary-state polities—imposing social forms that were unlikely in regions with no history of states.

11. In particular, I question her argument (1991:123), based on Lightfoot (1979), that food could not be moved economically through the range of the Chaco system. The central canyon and the Chuska outlier communities are only about 75 km apart, for example, and a traveler could carry at least 20 kg of shelled maize that distance in two to three days. This may not entirely economical, but one of the hallmarks of hierarchical societies is their ability to sustain "unlikely" economic behaviors through labor subsidies. Chaco is, after all, characterized by such "uneconomical" behavior as the construction of great houses and roads. I stress this point because I do feel that the movement of food may have been the underpinning of the Chaco system.

12. Ironically, the perceived pattern that led Sebastian to take a dynamic approach may be incorrect: most or all great house construction episodes, including those during Pattern I, may be correlated with periods of high agricultural potential (Windes and Ford n.d.). If so, this was a fortunate mistake.

13. I don't think there is a single system in nonstate societies. Perhaps a better way of visualizing such societies would be as the intersection of overlapping interaction spheres. That is, the boundaries of the system would be different depending on whether we were looking at trade and exchange, shared language, shared religious beliefs, or ties of marriage and alliance. In nonstate societies, in other words, definitions of "us" and "them" are even more situational than they are in states.

14. Not surprisingly, the most obvious exception is Gwinn Vivian (1990)—who does not believe that great houses and small sites were parts of the same society.

15. I am using Mathien's (1985:783) estimate, repeated by Toll (1991:85), that more than 56,000 pieces of non-Project turquoise was recovered from Pueblo Bonito alone. The actual amount of non-Project turquoise from Chaco Canyon may exceed 200,000 (J. Judge, personal communication, 1993).

16. Under the circumstance, Chacoan leaders would have no reason to keep vast numbers of birds—they would maintain greater control by carefully doling out feathers to loyal followers, than by flooding the region with feathers and thus undercutting their own monopoly. In this sense, the actual numbers of birds found is more consistent with a "hegemony" model of Chacoan society than with a "redistribution" or "trade" model.

17. Toll's (1985:464) argument that "exotic goods and ornaments are not absent from smaller sites" is not the point; every American slum has its Cadillac. Rather, it is the difference in rates of consumption that we must measure, in order to measure what Sebastian (1992:47) calls "differential access."

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

Page last revised on May 9, 2008.
Please report problems to