MESOAMERICAN THEMES
AND CHACO CANYON

F. J. Mathien


  Since the late nineteenth century, archaeologists have acknowledged the presence of items of Mexican origin in Chaco Canyon; the explanations of how these items were transported and their implications for social organization, however, have differed over time. The initial excavations in Pueblo Bonito uncovered macaws, human effigy forms on pottery, and sandstone cloisonné items that were similar to those found in Mexican cultures; Pepper (1906, 1909, 1920) did not attribute great significance to them. He realized that such imports imply some type of communication, but he did not discuss how they moved from various places in Mesoamerica to Chaco Canyon.

  The earliest explanations of how items moved between areas relied on ethnographic analogy and inferred prehistoric depth. Judd (1954:265) assumed that parrot and macaw feathers were introduced as a medium of exchange in the eleventh century by Mexican buyers of Pueblo turquoise and buffalo hides, but he thought this trade was not novel since there was evidence it had begun in Basketmaker times or earlier. Judd noted the Spanish explorers followed well-known routes that were used by inhabitants of the Rio Sonora area who bartered feathers for semi-precious stones (see also Riley 1980). Tozzer (1927) also stressed the importance of trade, but realized a need for improved chronological control over data from all sites to understand the migration of objects and stylistic concepts that linked people making cloisonné in Zacatecas (Chalchituites and La Quemada) to the inhabitants of Pueblo Bonito.

  To explain architectural parallels Ferdon (1955) invoked the concept of diffusion 1) through widespread traders from Mexico, 2) through small trading groups from the Southwest to Mexico that could have returned with ideas, or 3) through a small organized force from Mexico that could have entered the Southwest. Prior to about A.D. 1050 he accepted interaction among small groups, often operating in a hand-to-hand manner, but after that date he favored the concept of a pochteca-like group from the Toltec area entering the Southwest. As more data accumulated, specific traits were temporally and spatially correlated with changes in mesoamerican culture areas (e.g., Dutton 1966; Kelley 1966); several studies evaluated items relevant to Chaco; e.g., Holien (1975) for cloisonné; Frisbie (1980), Lekson (1983), Reyman (1971:262, 1985:305-309), and Wills (1977) for architecture; Reyman (1971) for ceremonialism; Washburn (1980) and Toll (1990) for cylinder jars; Washburn (1978) for sandal last styles on ceramics, among others. Lister (1978) pointed out that there are many objects and ideas that went north, but the data were inconclusive regarding the effect these contacts had on Chacoan culture growth.

  A pochteca-like organization includes disguised merchants entering a new area in search of rare resources, actual families migrating to new lands, or military and religious conquests after which new leaders took over the organization of conquered areas. Di Peso (1968a, 1968b, 1974) and Kelley and Kelley (1975) provided detailed models that specified the time frames during which specific types of pochteca operated. They correlated the introduction of specific items and uses of buildings in northern areas with events in mesoamerican societies. Chaco was considered the northernmost node in this system. Kivas were suggested as trading posts. Prior to about A.D. 900, this contact was slight but it introduced concepts such as agriculture and use of turquoise, a commodity which then became the major rare resource exported into southern cultures (e.g., Di Peso 1968; Frisbie 1980; Riley 1980:15). Between A.D. 900 and 1050, architectural styles were introduced as merchants settled in Chaco; after A.D. 1050 a major cultural implosion (due to the presence of families and missionaries) brought numerous artifacts (macaws, copper bells, etc.) from the south.

  The three types of diffusion cited in the pochteca model provide distinct expectations in the archaeological record. Migration means actual foreigners living in Chaco. Frisbie (1978, 1980) and Reyman (1978) attempted to identify pochteca among the Southwestern burials; their investigations indicated the presence of high-status individuals, some of whom were buried with unusual items, but these could not be distinguished from local elite (McGuire 1980). Religious proselytization, on the other hand, would provide only a few unusual buildings and few artifacts to indicate the presence of political or missionary expansionists (Frisbie 1985). Vivian (1970:227-247) and McGuire (1980, 1989) found no evidence for direct contact by any Mesoamerican group. Mathien (1981, 1983) evaluated the pochteca within the framework of economic theory to specify which roles would have been appropriate for traders in Chaco and concluded that only an itinerant explorer or mobile merchant would have contacted the Chacoans but not established merchants from a Mesoamerican heartland.

  A world-system model was also proposed to explain long-distance interaction among various cultures located between Mesoamerica and Chaco (Pailes and Whitecotton 1979). Mathien (1986) tested this model and concluded a down-the-line trade model better fit Chaco data; McGuire (1986) prefered prestige-goods exchange. These authors suggest various intermediary agents transferred goods and ideas among culture areas. Kelley (1986) has identified possible links among groups in West Mexico through the Chalchihuites, Loma San Gabriel, Mogollon, and Anasazi areas.

  Wilcox (1986) proposed long-term continuity of Uto-Aztecan speakers in northwestern Mexico and the Southwest; this model indicates the ease in which information would have travelled long distances. Riley (1986) showed how the Spanish were able to easily move along established routes linking the Valley of Mexico and the Southwest. If such continuity existed, Schroeder's (1981) proposal that the Hohokam were the last culture area within the Mesoamerican sphere, with Chaco external to that system, may be correct.

  Archaeological data showing interactions among several cultures in northwestern Mexico has been reported by Kelley (1986) at the site of Cerro de Molino. This evidence indicates how an interchange of ideas and objects could have easily passed among three cultures and improves our knowledge about the temporal and spatial framework of such interaction. Studies of turquoise, the major southwestern export, are underway. Chaco was a major procurement and production center for turquoise (Mathien 1981, 1986, 1993; Windes 1992). Whether this material was exported or remained part of the Chaco culture is under investigation. Weigand and Harbottle (Harbottle and Weigand 1992; Weigand 1992, 1994; Weigand and Harbottle 1993; Weigand et al. 1977) are investigating sources of turquoise, the role of mining in social organization, and the relationships between turquoise artifacts and source areas in order to identify major trade networks that operated within this long- distance trade system. Reyman (1995) pointed out that it is the value of the object traded, especially turquoise and macaw feathers, and not the weight or amount that determines their importance. If elite could pay the price, they would find a way around disruptions in the trading system through time. The question still remains, however, how much importance should be placed on these exchanges of ideas, information, and trade items. Although investigators working in northwest Mexico accepted more influence on Chacoan development (Di Peso 1968, Frisbie 1983; Kelley 1966, 1986, 1993; Kelley and Kelley 1975; Reyman 1971, 1976), with the exception of Hayes (1981), most of those working in Chaco Canyon attributed development to local trade and economic networks (Judge et al. 1981; Mathien 1993; Windes 1987, 1992). We still need to learn how much change trade for turquoise would have had on the inhabitants of Chaco.


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