Thursday, October 25, 2012

Inconvenient Arrogance, Part 6 – The Collapse of the Chaco Phenomenon

Great Kiva - Pueblo Bonito
“It is not hard to imagine one of these ancient villages—the adults going about their tasks, the children playing or learning at their side.  We can almost smell the rabbit stew cooking in the earthen pot and the aroma of corn roasting over the coals of the cookfire;  we can almost see the freshmade paper-thin piki bread—all this in anticipation of the day’s-endmeal after the men have returned from attending to the fields or building a new village structure.” – Kendrick Frazier, “People of Chaco”.

Life among the Anasazi was hard but they were a rugged and industrious people who by the twelfth century had created great stone houses and temples and created governments that organized and distributed their commodities and coordinated trade.  Although the most prominent and powerful, the Chaco culture was not alone in the Southwest.  In Arizona, the Hohokam society built smaller stone houses and made extensive use of canals for farming.   East of the Hohokam, the Mogollon society had a similar culture.  In between Chaco and Hohokam and Mogollon, a hybrid society that borrowed canal technology  from the hohokum and architecture from Chaco were called the Mimbres.  During the classic period, trade was pervasive among these different cultures.

Penaco Blanco -- Chaco Canyon
Road that defines Chaco Meridian

So, what happened to Chaco Canyon?  Why was it vacated by A.D. 1170?  Evidence shows that climate change resulting in long periods of drought is at the root of the cause.  Long before, Chaco Canyon had become over populated and unable to sustain itself without the aid of the outliers.  The luxury of being the central storehouse for the region and in control of distribution allowed them to skim off the extra they needed.  Since corn could only be stored for three years, however, any drought lasting longer than three years depleted the store houses and left Chaco Canyon unable to sustain itself or redistribute to outliers needing help.  This made the outliers unwilling to share their surpluses with Chaco Canyon and hoard their crops for themselves.  The collapse was amazingly swift.

Where did they go?  Jared Diamond proposes, “By analogy with historically witnessed abandonments of other pueblos during a drought in the 1670-‘s, probably many people starved to death, some people killed each other, and survivors fled to other settled areas in the Southwest.”

But, unlike the Maya and the Moche, the rulers of Chaco did not resort to human sacrifice to stave off their demise.  There are several reasons that they never rose to this level of cruelty.  The lace of a large centrally controlled military made enforcement from Chaco impossible.  There are signs that there were violent skirmishes at outlier sites, but not on the scale that would suggest a large military invasion.

Stephen Lekson offers a unique  alternative.  In his book, “The Chaco Meridian”, Lekson suggests, “The end of Chaco was a major event over the entire Pueblo world.  Far to the south, for example, the Mimbres achievement ended at the same time. … The Chaco capital moved to the north …”  The Chaco elite, according to Lekson, re-established the Chaco system along the Las Animas river at the site called Aztec.  Again from Lekson, “Aztec continued the traditions and forms of Chaco, but ruled a diminished realm …”

What is unique about the Lekson hypothesis is that Aztec lies along the meridian that intersects with Chaco and a road follows that meridian from Chaco to Aztec.  Even more remarkable, after the fall of Aztec in A.D. 1275, “The Elite moved completely off the Plateau, through the vacant despoiled Mimbres country and into an empty niche, ripe for major canal irrigation.  They built their new city, Paquime, on the Rio Casas Grandes.” 
Which, remarkably, lies along the same meridian!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Inconvenient Arrogance, Part 5: The Chaco Phenomenon

Pueblo Bonito -- Chaco Canyon
from the rim
When the current Southwestern cultures reach back in their lore to their origins and refer to the “White House”-- “places of wonder and tragedy”, they are probably referring to the great pueblo houses at Chaco Canyon.  Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the “Great Houses” was five-stories high, covered over two acres, contained over 650 rooms, 45 small kivas and two “Great Kivas”.  Kivas were large, round pits or chambers used for religious and ceremonial events.

Stephen Lekson, who has studied the Anasazi phenomenon for over twenty years, described Chaco Canyon this way in a recent article for National Geographic, "Imagine that you're a teenage kid in the 11th century, coming from the boondocks to Chaco for the first time.  You've walked four days from the north across that desolate plain to get here and you look over the edge . . . what would you think?  It would scare the hell out of you … They planned it that way—as theater."
Great Kiva at Chetro Ketl
Note: hidden chamber in back enabled underground
passage to center of kiva for theatrical entrances

Within its thirty-two square miles, there were thirteen of these great houses!  If you have ever driven through the heart of New Mexico, which is where Chaco Canyon resides, you have to admire the raw beauty of the arid lands.  But it is hard to imagine that anyone could etch out a living there.  Even today, houses are few and far between.  But in its heyday, it was estimated that over 5,000 lived in Chaco Canyon.

I think that the harsh conditions may have contributed to the extraordinary achievements because in order to survive they had to be extraordinarily creative and resolute.   But why build there in the first place?  Initially, it was a favorable location for that part of New Mexico since the narrow canyon caught rain runoff from the upland areas surrounding it.  This enabled the farmers in the canyon to capture water even when it didn’t rain directly on the canyon.  The soil was also quite fertile from the runoff.  The inventive residents learned to build dams and channels to capture, hold, and direct the water and, as a result, the “Chaco Wash” was able to support a much larger population than surrounding areas.

I have saved the Anasazi for last not only because the great Anasazi culture rose up after the Moche and Maya empires collapsed, but also because it seems to have avoided the extremes of the previous two cultures.  The cataclysmic event of 536 A.D. and the harsh climate that followed had begun its swing back when the Chaco Culture began to flourish and start building their unique version of large stone buildings around A.D. 700.  As the population grew, there developed a need for organization and government.

Again quoting Stephen H. Lekson, from his book “The Chaco Meridian”, “Chaco had begun about 900 [A.D.] as three villages competing, in a circumscribed canyon, for agricultural land and labor.  Those local energies spilled out of the canyon, engaging and entangling allies from around the agriculturally rich rim of the Chaco Basin.  By 1020 [A.D.] Chaco had emerged as a small but important central place.  Variable rainfall meant that a good year in the north might be a disaster in the south; Chaco’s serendipitous middle place promoted its rise as a kind of regional “capital” – a place to store and exchange commodities and a “corn bank” to even out the agricultural variability of the Chaco Basin.  Canyon leaders administered redistribution and real political power, based on garnered surpluses, developed within the canyon.  Population centers around the Chaco Basin became Chocoan “outliers”.”

And although the population within the canyon had long since outgrown the canyon’s agricultural capabilities, it was subsidized by the outliers pouring their surpluses into the “capital” across regional networks of roads visible from the air even today stretching from over 200 miles to the south, 200 miles to the north, 200 miles to the west, and over 100 miles to the east. 
Note: in picture [above] the scar from the road that connected Chaco Canyon to northern outliers can still be seen (left and abovef the ruin).

But, the empire proved to be very fragile.  Due to the nature of corn, it can only be stored for three years before it becomes too rotten or infested to eat.  Therefore, a severe drought lasting longer than three years could deplete corn supplies.  That fatal event happened around A.D. 1130 according to tree ring dating.   Unable to support itself and reliant on the outliers for food, the empire began to collapse as, according to Jared Diamond in his book “Collapse”, “… the outlying settlements that had formerly supplied the Chaco political and religious centers with food lost faith in the Chacoan priests whose prayers for rain remained unanswered, and they refused to make more food deliveries.”

There is evidence of intense warfare throughout the Chacoan empire.  But, unlike the desperate measures taken by the Mayan and Moche leaders and priests, there is no evidence that the Chaco elite resorted to human sacrifices.  Construction in Chaco had completely ceased by A.D. 1170 and the great houses were empty.  What happened to the people of Chaco Canyon?  More on that in the next installment of “Inconvenient Arrogance”.

-- Courtney Miller

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Inconvenient Arrogance, Part 4 -- The Maya

For all his learning or sophistication, man still instinctively reaches towards that force beyond. Only arrogance can deny its existence, and the denial falters in the face of evidence on every hand. In every tuft of grass, in every bird, in every opening bud, there it is.”
-- Hal Borland
Mayan City of Tikal
The Mayan culture of Central America was arguably one the most advanced civilizations in the world.  The architecture was magnificent; the Mayan calendar is still the most accurate and complex ever invented;  their knowledge of astronomy still astounds us; and their sophisticated written language is still being deciphered today.  There is good evidence that the Maya or their predecessors the Olmec had an advanced understanding of the cosmos and a written language as early as 3000 B.C.  I point to the dates on their monuments that originate from 3113 B.C.
But unlike the Moche culture that I described in Part 3 of this series, the Mayan culture did not fail all at once because of a single climatic event.  There are a number of reasons and I shall touch on some of them, but I still see evidence of the devastating role that arrogance played on each of the collapses.
Frederick Catherwood lithograph of Tulum, 1844
Unlike the Moche empire, the Maya never unified the many grand empires under a single rule.  Probably the biggest factor was that the terrain forced the different cities to be isolated and were separated by great distances.  The difficulty of agriculture to provide for the huge populations needed to support the massive cities required ever expanding cultivation of land surrounding the cities.  There is evidence of terraced hill slopes to retain soil and moisture, irrigation systems, and complex canal systems to enhance production and extend the fertility of the soil beyond what was possible with slash and burn techniques, but, because of the low protein crops, lack of domesticated animals, high humidity that curtailed storage, and difficulty of transporting crops (again no domesticated animals) a typical farmer could only produce twice what he needed for himself and his family.  A paltry surplus compared to other advanced cultures.
It is easy to see the affect that climate change had on the Mayan empires.   The pre-classic rise of El Mirador coincides with the wet climate that prevailed from 250 B.C.  to 125 A.D.  Then El Mirado collapsed during the drought from 125 A.D. to 250 A.D.  The rise of the classic period coincided with the return of a wetter period from 250 A.D. to 500 A.D.  The momentous event that started the collapse of the Moche culture in 536 A.D. also appears to have affected the Maya. This event coincides with the so-called “Mayan Hiatus” in 6th and 7th centuries when no monuments were erected at the well-studied site of Tikal.  There is no doubt that turmoil and confusion gave the cultures reason to pause during the several years when the sun was blocked by acidic particles in the atmosphere (refer to Part 3) and temperatures cooled.  Following the cooling period, the worst drought in the last 7,000 years peaking around 800 A.D. coincides with the collapse of the classic period.  End dates on monuments for clusters of Maya centers fall into three clusters – 810, 860, and 910 which match the severe droughts that occurred around those three dates.
Time and time again, the cities would expand and grow during periods of favorable weather until they were vulnerable to periods of drought and failed.  And, as we saw with the Moche, the Kings and nobles who had taken credit for prosperity were blamed for the climate change.  And, like the Moche, cruel ritual ceremonies of human sacrifice developed and increased as each empire went into collapse.
As Jared Diamond wrote in his Pullitzer Prize winning book “Collapse”, “In Maya society the king also functioned  as high priest carrying the responsibility  to attend to  astronomical and calendrical rituals, and thereby to bring rain and prosperity, which the king claimed to have the supernatural power to deliver because of his asserted family relationship to the gods.  That is, there was a tacitly understood quid pro quo: the reason why the peasants supported the luxurious lifestyle of the king and his court, fed him corn and venison, and built his palaces was because he had made implicit big promises to the peasants.  … [the] kings got into trouble with their peasants if a drought came, because that was tantamount to the breaking of a royal promise.”
Once again, the “inconvenient arrogance” that man can influence or control climate most likely brought down the magnificent Mayan culture as it did the incredible Moche. 

Continue to Part 5

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Clans of the Cherokee, part 8 -- The Wolf Clan

The Aniwaya (people of the Wolf), representing war, is the largest and most prominent clan. They provided most of the war chiefs throughout history and just as the wolf was regarded as a protector, the clan is known as protectors of the people.  In ancient times, they hunted like wolves, running after game and attacking in packs.  They are the keeper and tracker of the wolf. They loved wolves and sometimes raised them in captivity, training wolf pups like dogs.  It was bad luck to kill a wolf, except for the professional wolf killer who knew the proper way to use medicine, magic and conjures to avoid the curse.  They are the only clan who could kill a wolf through their special ceremonies and wolf medicines.

It is their responsibility to develop, maintain and teach the knowledge of loyalty, protection and security as part of achieving the seventh level of personal development.
Shaman painted on ancient shell cup

They were responsible for keeping up to date intelligence for their village or tribe.  They could function as part of the group while maintaining their own individuality.  The clan color if the Aniwaya is red, their wood is hickory and their flag is red with white stars.  At some Oklahoma Cherokee ceremonial grounds the Wolf arbor is to the left of the Blue arbor and they get to drink the black drink first during Stomp dances.

The Black Drink custom dates back to antiquity.  Originally drank from whelk shell cups,  the drink was part of many Cherokee ceremonies including council meetings, preparations for war, and purification.  Made from Youpon Holly leaves and branches, the drink had emetic properties and was sometimes used for purification through ritual vomiting.  The drink was roasted to bring out its caffeine properties and the dark color.  Colonists would later use the leaves for a tea or coffee substitute.  Ceremonies required the drink be served from a communal cup in the order of importance starting with most important visitors and down the ranks.  The wolf clan also used the drink in ceremonial preparations for war.

Notable Surnames: A: Abercrombie, Action, Adams, Allen, Atkins, Atkinson B: Badger, Beaver, Bell, Black Fox, Blades, Bledsol, Bloom, Bloomfield, Boodinaugh, Bowles, Boxturtle, Bradberry, Broom (Nancy), Brown (Sarah), Bugg C: Canoe, Caudle, Chandler, Cloudy Parks, Coateney, Coin, Coseen, Coughmann, Coxs, Cupp, Custalow D: Doekiller, Dragging Canoe, Dull Knife E: Easton, English F: Fall, Fire Carrier, Foose, Forbush G: Grite, Grundy H: Hand, Highpine, Hilderbrand, Hill, Huganen I: Inlow J: James, Justice (Lena) K: Keener, Kicks, Kickupp, Kitch L: Linser, Little Fellow, Little Owl, Littlefield, Long, Long Fellow, Long Limper, Lowery M: Mackey, Mills (Elvis) N: Neal, Neil, Nionee, Nution O: Oldham, Ooneeghdeehee R: Raiper, Riddle, Rider, Ridge S: Sain, Samson, Sharp, Sheepkiller, Starr, Straw T: Tame Doe, Thimble, Todd, Towie, Tranquatti, Tsiyugigaghy, Tucker, Turkey at Home, Turtle U: Uhlery W: Wade, Waite, Walker, Ward, Ward (Nancy), Watie, White, White Dog, White Horn, White Mankiller, Wise, Wolfe, Wood(s)