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Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Chaco Revisited: New Research on the Prehistory of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (Amerind Studies in Archaeology) by Carrie C. Heitman (Editor), Steve Plog (Editor)

The Chaco Canyon culture area of the four corners region of the American Southwest.

Book Review
Chaco Revisited: New Research on the Prehistory of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
 (Amerind Studies in Archaeology)
 by Carrie C. Heitman (Editor), Steve Plog (Editor)
Published April 9th, 2015

  One of the vagaries of cross-cultural comparison is that they rise and fall independent of one another- during the early Middle Ages, the Middle East was at a peak, and Europe was a backwater.  In the 18th and 19th century, Europe had it all over everywhere else. This analysis can be extended to the "pre-historical" period in the New World, with the Aztecs, Maya and Incans regularly seeing inclusion in the "high vs. low" civilization peak discussion.  Less often included are the cultures of present day United States.

  These cultures have been handicapped by a variety of factors:  First, they had an early peak- sometime in the late middle ages, with 1000-1100 seeming to be a particular high point.  Second, they had a dramatic decline to the point where there were no surviving peoples who maintained the remnants of the earlier high point.  Third, none of them developed a written script.  Fourth, their major ruins were in a part of the continent (the American South West, Mid West and South East that was colonized later in the settlement period, meaning that what ruins did remain weren't fully "discovered" until the late 19th and early 20th century.

 Of the potential North American vanished cultures/civilizations that would head a short list for inclusion into the "great world civilizations" list, the Chaco Canyon/Anazasi of the four corners region of the American Southwest should take priority.  They left major ruins (albeit it in one of the most deserted areas of the American continent), they were way ahead of their time in their water management techniques and they appeared to have many survival techniques that helped them live in harmony with a harsh landscape.

 Chaco Revisited: New Research on the Prehistory of Chaco Canyon, is exactly what the title says it is, a collection of papers (apparently presented in 2010?) that summarize recent developments in the scholarship on Chaco Canyon.  Since each chapter has a different author, approach and focus area, Chaco Revisited doesn't have much cohesion, but it is useful for a reader who wants to learn more about the most up to date specialist scholarship in the area.

 Among the things I learned was that it was unlikely that the Chaco Canyon peoples spoke Uto-Aztecan, the most widely distributed language group in the American Southwest and Mexico.  It appears that the widespread supposition linking the Chaco Canyon culture with the "great" civilization of the Toltecs is born out in the trade goods found in grave site deposits and some of the cultural practices of the area.  It is unclear how many people lived in Chaco Canyon, whether they farmed there or whether they relied on outside sources of Maize (this book argues that they did farm in the canyon) and what languages they spoke.  The analysis which rules out Uto Aztecan is based on DNA analysis.

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