J. McKim Malville

  A strong pilgrimage tradition may be transformed into an emergent segmentary state, in which "the spheres of ritual suzerainty and political sovereignty do not coincide." (Southall 1988, 52; 1993). Southall suggests that emergent segmentary states start initially as pilgrimage centers, which involve the acquisition of ideological power. Pilgrims gradually become accustomed to obeying the orders of priests and to accepting ritual authority of leaders. Building upon such ideological authority, ambitious individuals may seize power, and before they realize a state has been born, ideology has become politics, and pilgrims have become transformed into subjects.

  Southall initially applied his model of segmentary states to the Alurs of Africa, but the model has also been convincingly developed for the Vijayanagara empire of south India (Stein 1977). Fritz (1988) has persuasively demonstrated the meaningfulness of a comparison of the symbolic geometries of Vijayanagara and Chaco, and there may also have been a common segmentary structure of the two societies, although Chaco would have been highly embryonic compared to the Vijayanagara empire. In the latter case, dispersed semi-autonomous lordships recognized the ritual sovereignty of the king while maintaining a degree of political, economic, and military authority. Such locally based lordships may have counterparts as Chaco outliers.

  The segmentary model is especially appropriate to socio-political systems that assert cosmic relevance, e. g., those in which leaders obtain power and legitimacy by claiming strong links to the gods and powers resident in sky. Lacking extensive political power or pervasive military control, leaders in segmentary systems may establish a ceremonial center that reinforces the authority of the leadership by ritual theater, festivals, parades, public architecture, and astronomical symbolism. Vijayanagara contains the most accurate north-south alignment that has been documented in the ancient world (Malville 1997). By means of such a powerful expression of north-south axiality, the geometry of the cosmos itself appears to authenticate power of leadership. Chaco contains several expressions of north-south axiality, at both small and large scales. Recently, Lekson has explored the meaning and symbolism of the north-south line that connects Aztec and Casas Grandes.

  It is noteworthy that most of the expressions of accurate north-south axiality and cardinality in the Canyon were developed after 1080. This period corresponds to the second major building phase in Chaco Canyon, a time during which a segmentary polity may have been developing. Below, we list the north-south lines in Chaco, indicating the precision of alignment to true north-south or true east-west in minutes of arc:
(1) north-south axis of Casa Rinconada (4')
(2) western half of the south wall of Pueblo Bonito (8')
(3) dividing north-south wall at Pueblo Bonito (15")
(4) eastern great kiva of Pueblo Bonito (45')
(5) north-south line between Tsin Kletzin and Pueblo Alto (8')
(6) north-south line between New Alto and Casa Rinconada (26').
(7) north wall of Pueblo Alto (70')
Only Pueblo Alto's north wall was constructed prior to A. D. 1080.

  As is true with pilgrimage festivals, calendrical accuracy in a segmentary state is highly important. Rituals involving the rulers have to be exact to be effective, and participants must arrive precisely on time to avoid insulting the leaders.

  The function and meaning of roads would have been intensified in a segmentary state. Not only would the roads be used by pilgrims and subjects coming into the Canyon for major festivals to honor and bring tribute to the leaders, but they would be used by the leaders to visit outlying communities to attend local festivals, and, in general, display power and wealth. In both cases the roads should be wide and elaborate when entering a great house in the Canyon or outlier.

  Wilcox suggests a further elaboration of a segmentary state model, arguing that in addition to a ritually sanctioned tribute system, the Chacoan polity added a coersive element and that the polity evolved rapidly between A. D. 1040 and 1140. He further argues that once Aztec was added as a secondary center, though one that may have soon began to challenge the ritual and political authority of the Canyon, evidence of conflict or its threat to the Canyon increases, and the Chaco polity declines and is defunct by the early 1200s. The roads, he infers, were built to connect certain fortresses to the central Canyon in the early 1100s, and served primarily a military function (Wilcox 1994).


Godelier, Maurice. 1978. Infrastructure, society and history. Current Anthropology 19:763-771.

Malville, J. M. and L. Gujural (eds). 1997. Ancient Cities, Ancient Skies: Cosmic Geometries, Ritual Landscapes, and City Planning in India. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts.

Southall, Aidan W. 1988. The segmentary state in Africa and Asia. Comparative Studies in Society and History 30:52-82.

_____. 1991. "The segmentary state: From the imaginary to the material means of production," in Early State Economics. Edited by H. J. M. Claessen and P. van de Velde, pp. 75-96. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Stein, Burton. 1977. "The segmentary state in South Indian history," in Realm and Region in Traditional India. Edited by R. J. Fox, pp. 3-51. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wilcox, David R. 1993. "The evolution of the Chacoan polity," in The Chimney Rock Archaeological Symposium. Edited by J. M. Malville and G. Matlock, pp. 76-90. Fort Collins: Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station.

_____. 1994. "The scream of the butterfly. Competition and conflict in the prehistoric Southwest," in Themes in Southwest Prehistory." Edited by G. J. Gumerman, pp. 211-238. Santa Fe: School of American Research.

_____. 1996. "Pueblo III people and polity in relational context," in The Prehistoric Pueblo World, A.D. 1150-1350." Edited by M. A. Adler, pp. 241-254. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

_____. n.d. "Three Macroregional Systems in the North American Southwest and their relationships.

Wilcox, David R. and Phil C. Wiegand. 1993. "Chacoan capitals: centers of competing polities." Paper presented at the 58th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, St. Louis.

Return to main conference page

Comments and more information E-Mail us.