Chaco, Hohokam and Mimbres

The Southwest in the 11th and 12th Centuries

By: Stephen H. Lekson

Originally Published in 1993

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Caesar’s Gaul, the Southwest of the 11th and 12th centuries was divided into three parts (Fig. 2): Anasazi (on the Colorado Plateau), Hohokam (in the deserts of southern Arizona), and Mogollon (between Anasazi and Hohokam, in the uplands and deserts south of the Colorado Plateau). These terms have passed down from professor to student for at least three academic generations, and over that time they have evolved from jargon into Truth. Anazazi, Hohokam, and Mogollon have acquired a reality of their own: they are presumed to repre­sent cultures or peoples whose social, political, or economic interactions we then study (see Fig. 15). In fact, this as­sumption has become so entrenched that there is no easy way to speak of these prehistoric inhabitants except as “the Anasazi.” “the Hohokam” or “the Mogollon.” But things may not he that simple-or, more accurately, they may not be that complex. To explain this contradictory statement, we must look at Anazazi, Hohokam, and Mogollon as we understand them today, not as inter­acting cultures or peoples, but rather as archaeological patterns that reflect dif­ferent social and material adaptations to different environmental settings.

The ruins of the Four Corners area (the Colorado Plateau) were once inhabited by the ancestors of the mod­ern Pueblo peoples. We call these ruins “Anazazi,” a term borrowed from Nava­jo people, who live today where Pueblo peoples lived a thousand years ago. “Anazazi” has been variously translated from Navajo into English, but the gist is “ancient people who were not Navajo.”

The most familiar Anasazi sites are the largest: Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon (Fig. 1), Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde, and dozens of other large National Park Service ruins that show up in photo essays, calendars, and post­cards. But big buildings like these were actually rare in the 11th and 12th cen­turies. The typical Anasazi ruin of this period is much smaller: low stone mounds, perhaps 3 by 10 meters, often next to a shallow bowl-shaped depres­sion, usually between 4 and 5 meters in diameter. When excavated, the mound and the depression become a six-to-ten room masonry structure and a round subterranean room called a “kiva,” after the modern Pueblo ceremonial structure (Fig. 3). The combination of a small masonry structure and a kiva rep­resents the Anazazi home of the 12th century—the “unit pueblo” in which the Anasazi lived over most of the pin­yon and juniper country of the Col­orado Plateau. (I use the term “pinyon-juniper” for the mosaic of piny-onjuniper forests, grasslands, and the occasional pine forest that characterize the Anasazi world.) As ubiquitous as the small houses were gray clay pots, often slipped white and painted with black decoration. Together, black-on­white pottery and stone masonry con­stitute the archaeological calling card of the Anasazi.

The second member of the trio, Hohokam, was located in the deserts of southern Arizona. “Hohokam” is a Piman word meaning “those who have gone.” The Hohokam had neither black-on-white pottery nor stone masonry. The pottery was red-on-buff, and Hohokam homes were brush-covered, single-room structures erected over slightly sunken floors (Fig. 4). At first blush, Hohokam achievements might seem less impressive than Anasazi, but that judgment would be very much mistaken. Hohokam society in the Sonoran desert around Phoenix was based on an enormous network of agricultural canals, one of the most elaborate irrigation systems in North America (Fig. 5). Villages were aggre­gates of hundreds of individual houses, plus large-scale public architecture—earthen mounds and ballcourts (Fig. 6). Hohokam life was in many ways more complex, more centralized, and there­fore more “impressive in Euro-Ameri­can terms than was that of the Anasazi.

The third of the trio is Mogollon. “Mogollon” (usually pronounced Mug-gr-own, but actually Tow-go-yawn) is not an Indian word at all; it is the name of an early governor of New Texico. Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon. Thee governor had a mountain range named in his honor, and his name carried over to the archaeology of the mountain flanks. Throughout the mountains, archaeologists found pithouse villages (Fig. 10) with brownware pottery that was neither Anasazi nor Hohokam. Mogollon was originally intended to mean only the pithouse-and-brownware archaeology of the rugged uplands of the Mogollon Rim and Mogollon Tountains that separate the Colorado Plateau of the Anasazi from the deserts of the Hohokam. But as we shall see, that original definition has been stretched to the breaking point.

Strong Patterns: Anasazi and Hohokam

The 11th and 12th century Anasazi and Hohokam were “strong patterns,” easy for archaeologists to recognize and compare. The Animazi area was domi­nated (archaeologically if not actually) by Chaco Canyon, a near-urban center in northwest New Texico, and its huge infrastructure of radiating roads leading to outlier communities. With two exceptions, the Kayenta region (to the west) and the sparsely settled upper Rio Grande (to the east), the Chacoan network spread over almost all of the Anasazi area.

Within this vast domain, the majority of people lived in variations of the six­rooms-and-a-kiva configuration. These unit pueblos were often built, used, and abandoned within a single generation. Typically, a score or more, scattered over a square mile, formed a loose community. At the center of the community was a massive Chacoan “outlier” (Fig. 11), a large structure characterized by the distinctively Chacoan building tradition. These structures were probably, at least in part, public in nature, acting as storage depots or ceremonial centers for their communities. Cutting between commu­nities were broad, formal Chacoan roads, tying the outlier network back to its center in Chaco Canyon.

The 11th and 12th centuries marked the maximum geographic spread of the pattern we call Anasazi. North, east, and west, wherever there was pinyon-juniper, there were Anasazi sites. The extensive spread of the Anasazi mir­rored the thin beneficence of the coun­try: the presence of pinyon and juniper indicate almost enough rainfall to sup­port corn agriculture. Nowhere on the Colorado Plateau is sufficient rainfall assured, but everywhere on the Plateau there is a chance of growing corn. Because farming was risky, Anasazi archaeolo reflects small-scale, short-term mobility: people moved constantly around the landscape, adjusting to both had times and good. Anasazi, in the 11th and 12th centuries, was a broad, dynamic adaptation to rainfall fanning in the pinyon-juniper region.

Hohokam was equally extensive. The Hohokam deserts around the Phoenix and Tucson areas look inhospitable, but during the 11th and 12th centuries they were heavily occupied. Large Hohokam settlements were more complex than comparable Anasazi communities. Towns often lasted for centuries and had formal layouts in which individual houses were set around small court­yards, and courtyard groups were zoned around larger public architecture: plazas. platform mounds, and other earthen constructions (Fig. 12).

The differences between Anasazi and Hohokam settlement patterns reflect their distinct settings. Rainfall farming in the Anasazi area created Ioose-knit settlements spread over a broad area, but agriculture in the Hohokam desert required irrigation and, consequently, dense settlements along the canals with which Hohokam farmers brought water to their fields. The Hohokam setting is an artificial extension of the riverine environment. Miles and miles of canals, many as large as 10 meters wide and 6 meters deep, brought water out of the Salt and Gila rivers. Impressive even by today’s engi­neering standards, each canal had its own hierarchy of settlements strung along its length. On some canals, the largest village was at the intake; on others, it was at the downstream end.

Settlement extended beyond the canal systems of the Phoenix basin, but always focused on rivers and creeks, often with smaller scale irrigation. Because each canal or river segment supported its own system of settlements, the Hohokam area of the 11th and 12th centuries did not have a single obvious center as the Anasazi area did in Chaco Canyon.

The Hohokam area may not have had an easily recognized center, but it had an equally strong regional identifier in its ballcourts (Fig. 6). These earthen ovals, presumably used for a provincial version of the Mesoamerican ball game, are found at the edges of most larger Hohokam village sites. They were a public architecture, like Chaco outliers. Analysis of their varying sizes and orientations shows that ballcourts made up a structured system that tied Hohokam settlements into an integrat­ed network. The ballcourt system is the Hohokam equivalent of the Chaco network of roads and outliers.

What is Mimbres?

Anasazi and Hohokam present two strong, distinct patterns. The picture it the Mogollon uplands during the 11t1 and 12th centuries is much less co. herent. Under its original definition­brownware pottery and pithouse villages in the uplands—Mogollon per silted only in scattered pockets durin this period. Over most of the Mogollon uplands, pithouse and hrownware: gave way to stone pueblos with black on-white pottery. Along the Mimbres: River (and most other rivers in south western New Mexico), people begat making the most famous of all South white (Fig. 13). This use of black-on­white pottery came to typify the Mogollon area during the 11th and 12th centuries.

The aesthetic appeal of Mimbres pottery dazzled collectors and archaeol­ogists, and for a long time blinded both to the importance of the sites from which the pottery came. It is easy to un­derstand the disdain for Mimbres construction. The Anasazi used fine, flat sandstone in their buildings. Timbres masons used rounded river cobbles and, as a result, Timbres sites are poorly preserved and lack the spec­tacular visibility of Anasazi sites.

The villages may not make pretty sites; nevertheless they were the largest masonry pueblos in the Southwest of their time outside of Chaco Canyon. Indeed, the Mimbres Valley was com­parable to the densest Anasazi or Hohokam settlements. Mimbres sites were often used for five or six centuries, with structures built, abandoned, razed, and rebuilt, again and again.

In the early days of Southwestern archaeology, Mimbres stone masonry and fine black-on-white pottery were seen as prima facie evidence of Anasazi “swamping”—that is, Anasazi people spilling off the Colorado Plateau and displacing or overwhelming the rela­tively unsophisticated Mogollon. The early Anasazi archaeologists were quick to claim Timbres as their own. The pottery looks Anasazi, only more so (Figs. 13,14). Alfred Vincent Kidder, the dean of Anasazi archaeology, once said that Mimbres Black-on-white was the pottery the Anasazi should have made at Chaco Canyon. But instead, it was made at Timbres pueblos, which Kidder dismissed as half-baked Anasazi imitations—or words to that effect.

That affiliation was strongly rejected by the aggressively scientific projects of the 1970s. Mimbres was Mogollon, wholly Mogollon, and nothing hut Mogollon. It thus became the third major entity of the 11th and 12th century Southwest, contemporary with but separate from Anasazi and Hohokam. Yet many questions are still unan­swered. At this point, we know that Mimbres architecture and Timbres pottery extend over a region compara­ble in size to the Hohokam and Chaco “core areas,” but we are only beginning to understand Timbres’s relation to the better understood Chaco Anasazi and Hohokam. Part of our difficulty is a lack of attention to the time period and place. Mimbres regional studies are today where Chacoan and Hohokam studies were 15 years ago. We do not see a Mimbres “regional system” that matches the Chaco or Hohokam “regional systems” (whatever they maybe), but we have not really looked. Recent Mimbres studies have been low budget and consequently small scale, focusing on the excavation of a single site or the survey of a single valley. With comparable levels of research, we would never know about the Chaco and Hohokam regional patterns.

It is interesting to think of Mimbres not as Mogollon, but as an archaeologi­cal blend of both Anasazi and Hohokam. Anasazi is an adaptation to the pinyon juniperthat covers the Colorado Plateau (Fig. 7). That adapta­tion is signaled by stone masonry and black-on-white pottery. Hohokam is an adaptation to the Sonoran desert (Fig. 8). Agriculture in the desert requires irrigation, and big canals were the heart of Hohokam. The Hohokam adapta­tion, tethered to canals or other water sources, created dense settlements with long histories.

Mimbres sites, on the other hand, occur where the pinyon juniper meets the desert (Fig. 9), along almost every creek that flows out of the southeast­ernmost Mogollon uplands. These creeks carry permanent flow from the snow and rain of well-watered moun­tains. The narrow zone where perma­nent water leaves the pinyon juniper and reaches the desert is—potential­ly—an agricultural paradise. The grow­ing season is long and the soil is fertile, if only the water can be brought to the fields.

So let us forget about “cultural” tags and instead think of Anasazi and Hohokam as patterns of material culture and environmental adaptatipn. Mimbres architecture and pottery look very Anasazi, but the Mimbres agricultural environment was akin to that of the Hohokam. Rainfall farming, so important to the Anasazi adaptation, was impossible in the Mimbres desert settings. Big Mimhres towns. like big Hohokam towns, were supported by canal systems (modest by Hohokam standards but enormously larger than any contemporary Anasazi ditch-digging). Canal irrigation entails whole suites of social and economic relations. which gave Hohokam its complex flavor and made Mimhres villages (and Mimbres society) more complex than baseline Anasazi (that is, Atiasazi with­out the Chaco overlay). Timbres occurs where a pinyon-juniper adapta­tion meets a desert adaptation. It is the place where Chaco and Hohokain intersect.

Interaction versus Adaptation

A recent symposium on Chaco and Hohokam paired specialists from each area topically: architecture, subsistence, trade, and so forth. The coverage was hopeful but the conclusions were dismal: as far as archaeologists can tell, Chaco and the Hohokam were “region­al neighbors with apparently little for­mal interaction” (Crown and Judge 1991:305). We would like to find Chaco pottery in Hohokam sites, or Hohokam arrowheads in Chacoan bodies. These are the kinds of things we expect to see in interaction between two societies, two groups, two cultures. But the two apparently ignored each other. Archae­ologists have not found evidence for trade, warfare, exchange, artistic influence or other simple, easily recog­nized interaction between Chaco and Hohokam.

But perhaps we should not think of large-scale archaeological patterns, like Atiasazi and Hohokam, as social or cultural entities. Even the relatively well-defined Chacoan and Hohokam regional systems probably do not reflect self-defined social, political, or cultural groupings. Anasazi and Hohokam look inure like plant distributions than empires: they are adaptations.

We know from groups living in the area today that human adaptations in the Southwest were extensive in nature. People used the landscape differently, hut all were united in using a lot of it. For example, the people of Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico were historically the quintessential farmers, living in a tightly compact stone village, with a 5,000 square mile sustaining area that was vital for hunted and gathered resources. The Zuni have proved in court that the area needed for tradi­tional Zuni life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness was about the size of Connecticut. And Zuni is only one of a score of modem Pueblos.

Non-agricultural hunter-gatherers need even more land. The most famous bunter-gatherers of the modern South­west were the Apache. One group, the Chiricalma Apache. moved north to south on an annual subsistence round. “Home” for the summer/fall end of the round was a band of mountains in the American Southwest. During the win­ter/spring, the Chiricalma Apache went far to the south, to the northern Sierra Madre in Mexico, a distance of at least 400 miles! Human ecology and human adaptations in the Southwest operate on a very large scale.

Archaeological patterns like Atiasazi. Hohokam, and Mogollon are the result of a complex interaction of differing adaptations. When we turn those pat­terns into “cultures” or “regional sys­tems,” we give them a social or political identity that may never have existed. Looking at the 11th and 12th century Southwest without that baggage, Chaco and Hohokam appear as different adap­tations to totally different agricultural environments, and Mimbres as a fasci­nating example of life on the edge.

Cite This Article

Lekson, Stephen H.. "Chaco, Hohokam and Mimbres." Expedition Magazine 35, no. 1 (March, 1993): -. Accessed February 27, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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