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!

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