Dean Saitta

  In one way or another Gledhill (1978), McGuire (1986) and Saitta (1997) all contribute to a Marxist interpretation of Chacoan prehistory. The contributions of these authors broadly track changing emphases in Marxist theory over the last couple of decades: from world systems, to modes of production, to class relations. All of these contributions attempt to capture "causal powers" in social life that are neglected or underemphasized in mainstream theory.

I.  Writing in a volume of BRITISH ARCHAEOLOGICAL REPORTS, John Gledhill uses world systems theory--from which he develops an early version of prestige good model--to interpret Chaco. Gledhill emphasizes social rather than environmental or climatic causality in explaining the Chacoan development. Although he recognizes Chaco as special development, Gledhill does not see Chacoan development as requiring the operation of social structures radically different from those we are used to theorizing for Pueblo societies.

  For Gledhill, the key factor in Chacoan development is long distance trade with Mexico, specifically the Toltec Empire. Chaco is seen as heavily integrated into an "internationl" economic system. But, Gledhill is clear to point out that he does not see Chaco as a Toltec colony. His model is one that emphasizes "local processes of change in structures of sociopolitical relations which take place in an areal system". Thus, Chaco is neither a wholly autonomous development nor one caused by "external" factors.

  Central to Gledhill's model is trade in "prestige goods" such as turquoise, shell beads, and copper bells. These objects function as status markers or "instruments of power" (my phrase) in Chaco society. Turquoise is the main commodity moving south to Mesoamerica. Gledhill's prestige goods circulate among elites (i.e., lineage elders). Within Chaco Canyon proper, long distance trade in prestige goods generated agricultural intensification, social hierarchies, and differential wealth between towns and "hamlets". Social control over labor and products in Chaco was, in Gledhill's terms, "theocratically-coded". The strongly discontinuous distribution of exotics between hamlets and towns (among other patterns) suggest that hamlets supplied corvee labor to the towns, in return for ritual services. The dependence of hamlet populations was reinforced by the elite's ability to accumulate foreign prestige goods.

  Intense status rivalry among elites from different town groups is another aspect of Gledhill's model. Competition is about securing rank at the top of the social hierarchy. But, for Gledhill, effective centralization of power was never achieved in the Chaco. For Gledhill, historic pueblo social organization "echoes" this complex past.

  In Gledhill's model, the "end" of Chaco is a function of long distance trade creating local political competition, hierarchization, and expansion. This process drives up the level of agrarian production, which comes increasingly to be used for political purposes. Over the long run, production increased to unviable, "crisis" levels. Gledhill argues that stress in Chaco stemmed partly from climate change/overexploitation of resources, but mostly from the political economy. Disruption of the Mesoamerican demand for turquoise and other prestige goods also contributed to the Chacoan collapse. For Gledhill, Chaco lacked the economic base that "would have allowed independent reproduction in the absence of active intervention by a stronger political centre" (cf. Casaes Grandes, a political entity that could reproduce itself independently of strong linkages to Mesoamerican civilization).

  In short, for Gledhill developments at Chaco represent the "culmination of a process of sociopolitical development originating among pueblo communities outside the canyon, a dynamic that was canalized by world system linkages".

II.  Randy McGuire, in a paper in the RIPPLES IN THE CHICHIMEC SEA volume and later reprised in the One World Archaeology CENTRE AND PERIPHERY volume, uses a "mode of production "approach (specifically, Eric Wolf's notion of kin-ordered mode of production) and the notion of a "prestige good economy" to characterize Chaco development. However, McGuire's work is not about Chaco per se, but rather the late PIII abandonment of the northern Southwest.

  For McGuire a kin-ordered mode of production is one in which kinship relations define the relations of production. Individuals achieve power through the manipulation of their lineage's productive power and by establishing, through marriage, alliances with other lineages. These kinship relations place an upper limit on the acquisition of power. The kin mode is thus different from the tributary mode where surplus is extracted from producers via political or military means that are independent of kinship.

  For McGuire a prestige good economy is one in which political power is associated with control over access to foreign goods. This control can be used to extract labor from subordinate kinsfolk. McGuire's model is broadly similar in its structural details to the one outlined by Gledhill.

  McGuire argues that a kin-ordered mode of production and a prestige good economy "clearly existed at Chaco by AD 950". McGuire endorses the idea that ranked lineages occupied the main towns in the canyon, and that status competition between elites governed political and economic processes. Mesoamerican goods (as well as local goods like turquoise) are conceptualized as high value goods that served as instruments of power and legitimizing symbols for Chacoan elites.

  McGuire is not directly concerned with collapse of Chaco; he only briefy alludes to the Chacoan "collapse" and the social reorganization that followed it. However, McGuire does talk about the "instability" that characterizes prestige goods economies. This instability stems from the fact that the reproduction of these economies depends on external sources of supply for important valuables. For McGuire, environmental, political, or social perturbations occuring many miles away can disrupt the flow of valuables to lineage heads and thereby destabilize the economy. He seems to imply that this was the case with Chaco.

III.  Dean Saitta, in a recent AMERICAN ANTIQUITY article, attempts to offer a more nuanced interpretation of Chacoan prehistory that builds on these earlier accounts but also moves in some new directions. He does so by taking a class-theoretical approach to Chaco, one that inquires more closely into relations of surplus flow and how they relate to social power. Saitta conceptualizes Chaco as a communal social formation, i.e., one where "class" relations of surplus flow are collective in nature. But, this is a formulation that allows for political hierarchy, inequalities of access to productive means, various forms of productive specialization, etc. His formulation also allows for the possibility that tributary class relations could have existed at least for short periods in the Chacoan past, perhaps in uneasy articulation/coexistence with communal class relations. Saitta's Chacoan political hierarchies/elites are what he calls "communal and subsumed", meaning that they existed to serve the aims of community. In contrast to Gledhill and McGuire, Saitta's prestige goods function not as instruments of power, but rather as "communal social entitlements". His Chacoan elites receive cuts of communal surpluses by providing foreign valuables for life-transition events and by doing other things that maintain communalism.

  Like Gledhill, Saitta sees social crisis as lying at the heart of Chacoan social change. But, this is a more complicated one than the usual Marxist crisis that pits dominant elites against subordinate producers in a great oppositional struggle. Saitta's crisis of communalism has subsumed classes struggling among themselves as well as with primary producers over distributed shares of communal surplus and the myriad social conditions that sustain communalism. These struggles emerge only very late in the Chacoan sequence rather than relatively early. Triggering the crisis, in part, are the well-documented productive downturns of the 1080s and 1090s that, on Saitta's view, led some subsumed classes (specifically, ritual specialists) to spearhead the development of tributary relations of production as a way to compensate for diminishing sources of communal support (i.e., declining subsumed class incomes). Architectural changes of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries in the canyon may reflect such strategies to build a class-divided, tribute-based social order. These tributary relationships were, however, short-lived and truncated by popular resistance that included, among other things, the movement of primary producers out of the San Juan Basin. The constraints on Chacoan development were both environmental and social. And, on Saitta's view Chaco didn't "collapse" as much as reorganize in different forms in new social circumstances--what we identify as the PIII period in the northern southwest.

Return to main conference page

Comments and more information E-Mail us.