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Central Colorado in Y1K

Article by George Sibley

History – January 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

SOMEHOW A POT got broken, up here in the Upper Gunnison. Maybe someone broke it, or maybe some hunters left it behind planning to return for it and some agent of nature broke it — a nosy coyote or freezing water.

It wasn’t one of their good pots — for they were making beautiful pottery by then. “It was just one of their common pots,” says Dr. Mark Stiger, anthropologist at Western State College in Gunnison. “The kind of pot the women might let the men take on a hunting trip.”

Stiger was answering a “Y2K” type of question. By the peculiar way that we measure time — as if the years were strung out on a clothesline between Creation and Armageddon — this new year comes up with three big zeros. And that inspires us to think in larger lumps of time than mere decades.

So I asked Stiger what was happening here 1,000 years ago, in Y1K. Stiger has been studying high-altitude human activity in this region for a decade and a half now, and has a book coming out next year which will challenge a lot of the conventional thought about what was and wasn’t going on in the high country over the past ten thousand years.

He’s found, for example, that the Upper Gunnison River valley — which shows up often as the coldest place in the nation — was pretty continuously inhabited on a year-round basis from 10,000 to 3,000 years ago.

But what was happening around here a millennium ago, in Y1K?

Stiger’s disappointing answer: not much.

Geologically, the mountains were wearing and washing away at their usual petty pace. Biologically, everything looked pretty much as it looks today — except for a little less sagebrush, and there were buffalo instead of cows wandering through the valleys.

In terms of human activity, however, there appears to have been almost nothing going on in the high country. Occasionally a hunting party passed through, and one of those parties left behind a broken pot — so the anthropologists were able to tell something about who they were.

The pot was left by the people we know only as the Anasazi, the “Old Ones,” from down on the southwestern edge of our headwaters region. As it turns out, there was no shortage of intense activity down there in Y1K.

Therefore the Anasazi are the people who predominate in the story of our “place long ago, in a time far away.”

It’s a story of the Anasazi encounter with the Great Trauma of Success. Like many stories of intense human activity, this one starts with a change in the weather.

Most of the millennium before the birth of Christ had been a fairly nasty time, weather-wise, in much of the northern hemisphere. The Archaic peoples had left Central Colorado because it had become too cold for the piñons on which they’d depended for much of their subsistence.

But the weather began to moderate and warm during the millennium following YNOK, and the human populations around the Rockies began to thrive accordingly. The moderating climate didn’t seem to make much difference for the peoples in the foothills east and west of the mountains, however.

In the lower South Platte and Arkansas basins, bands of “the people” (they wouldn’t know they were “Indians” for another half a millennium) continued to run great circular hunting and gathering routes, some of them up into North and Middle parks, but apparently never as far south as Central Colorado. During that first millennium they also began to practice simple farming in small plots, and they were making a basic kind of “paddle and anvil” pottery. In the opinion of some anthropologists, their pottery may have been influenced by the “back-east” Mound Builders, whose populations had really taken off in the moderating climate.

West of the Rockies, in the plateau country of present-day eastern Utah and up into the lower valleys of the Grand and White Rivers, hunters and gatherers were also beginning some simple farming to supplement their diets. Anthropologists call those southwesterners “the Frémont culture.” Again, if they forayed into Central Colorado on their rounds of hunting and gathering, we haven’t found the evidence.

But the moderating climate seems to have helped precipitate real changes south of the Rockies, down in the semi-arid San Juan River basin. There, there’s every indication that, during that first millennium, the people were pushed into a process that had already been underway for about a thousand years in what we call Middle and South America, and for several thousand years across the ocean in parts of Asia and Europe.

Now, here in the American southwest the people were coming together in the large cultural masses that we call “civilizations.” “Civilization” entails the creation of highly organized societies hierarchically organized under priestcrafts and military elites, divisions of labor into specialized workers and managers, and the building of great buildings — what Zorba the Greek would call “the full catastrophe.”

Down in the San Juan Basin in Y1K, the people we call the Anasazi were up to their waists in that Great Trauma of Humankind, and they were wading deeper every year. In all likelihood, they had embarked upon this course of “civilization” because growing populations had pushed them into their long, heady fall from grace — their fall out of balance with nature.

Toward the end of that millennium, around 900 O.T. (Our Time), the northern hemisphere passed into what could best be described as a 300-year period of “global warming.” In Europe — a place for which we have written records — this “Medieval Warm Period” resulted in considerable population growth and economic prosperity. Christians in Europe began building their great cathedrals around Y1K, (but the Europeans were already pretty “civilized” by then).

Over here, in the lower reaches of the headwaters region, from YNOK to Y1K, the people were still doing what humans had been doing for more than 99% of our evolution as a species. They were wandering along rambling routes, hunting and gathering for a subsistence living.

As the climate mellowed during that first millennium, however, things just got better and better. The land from which they gathered their sustenance was comparatively bountiful. It became easier for the people to stay alive, and their numbers began to grow.

Not just their own numbers grew, however. The numbers in the neighboring bands grew as well — the groups with which they had traded sons in marriage, and maybe shared a story or two with in the winter when the nights were long.

As the population grew, the relationships among these bands began to change. People who hunt and gather for a living need a lot of range, and the growing bands in our region needed to expand their ranges. Conflicts began.

Anthropologist Steven LeBlanc came out with a new book this year on this early engagement with civilization in the Southwest, a book on “a subject we would all like to ignore,” Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest (University of Utah, 1999).

LeBlanc’s book is basically an assemblage of the physical evidence that chronicles the progress of the Great Trauma of Humankind throughout the high and low deserts of the prehistoric Southwest. It explores conflicts not just among the Anasazi, but also among the Mogollon people down in the plateau country east of present-day Phoenix and of the Hohokam people in the Salt River valley on whose ruins Phoenix rose — hence its name.

THE GREAT TRAUMA is a success story that has happened again and again around the world. The climate moderates and grows benevolent, and the peoples who have evolved as adaptable wanderers for millions of years enjoy fat times and their populations expand. Thus, their territories expand accordingly, and they bump into adjacent bands of fat and sassy people who are also expanding their territories. Eventually, they start to fight over territory on the one hand, and on the other hand, they develop defensive strategies to protect the animals they live off of (herding) and to grow guarded concentrations of the plants they live off of (farming).

In time, they settle down to protect their plants and animals, and (after adjustments for the diseases and vermin that accompany settlement) their populations continue to grow as long as the climate remains favorable.

Hence, their villages grow larger and more numerous, and finally it becomes necessary to evolve even more intense forms of social organization for survival. Thus they gather in those great agglomerations of concentrated energy, ambition, coöperation, and conflict called cities.

That’s about as far as we’ve ever managed to get (for after a few hundred years those Four Horsemen — conquest, slaughter, famine, and death — tend to ride in and make a shambles of our civilizations).

LeBlanc compiles evidence that indicates that there was quite a lot of conflict among the Anasazi in the San Juan Basin between YNOK to Y1K — conflict LeBlanc attributes to the shifting of the subsistence strategy from hunting and gathering to hunting and farming, then primarily to farming.

As time went on, the people settled in ever more permanent villages. At first they lived in pit houses, but by 700-800 O.T., they moved into blocks of rooms built above ground, with shared walls like little motels. The evidence of conflict lay in things like the obvious defensive nature of many of the structures, plus evidence of structures deliberately burned and razed, and skeletal remains that indicate violent death.

But just when the climate was getting really mellow — around 900 O.T. — the warfare in the San Juan Basin seems to have dropped off, and it almost ceased for the next 200-250 years.

Circa Y1K, there was, in fact, considerable evidence that small groups had stopped fighting and were working together in many ways — although exactly how they were working together remains a mystery.

“Great Houses” started to show up in some of the villages, especially down in the Chaco River part of the San Juan basin. There, the people built houses with rooms much larger than those of the little motel-like village structures. The Great Houses were often multi-storied structures, with big spruce beams brought down from the mountains.

PARTS OF MOST structures built during this period were devoted to storage of grain surpluses, but the Anasazi also built several huge structures in the Chaco Canyon area that seemed to be largely devoted to storage. One of them, Pueblo Bonito, had some 800 rooms, and was probably the biggest building in North America until well into the 19th century.

Around 1050 O.T. — a couple of generations past Y1K — the Anasazi began to build roads to connect their ever-larger villages. They built wide, straight, smooth roads better than almost anything seen in the West until early in the 20th century. Yet their roads seem rather anomalous since they had no wheeled vehicles to run on them. Such roads were, perhaps, more symbolic than useful.

The coiled-clay pottery that people had begun making when the transition to a grain diet required more cooking, became increasingly sophisticated around and after Y1K. Decoration elevated pots from purely functional, to a kind of place-distinctive, maybe even individualized, art form.

Archæologists have taken to calling the Chaco River region of villages that had “Great Houses,” distinctive pottery, and those peculiar roads by a variety of names: “the Chaco Interaction Sphere,” “the Chacoan system,” “the Chaco Phenomenon,” et cetera — all indicative of the perception that something different was happening there and then, circa Y1K.

But along with all of this evidence of enlightened civilization, there was evidence of a dark side, too. For the anthropologists piecing together this history of a people who seemed to be doing so well — and so much — before they vanished without a trace, one of the persistent “loose ends” has been evidence that the people were eating each other (or that they were being eating by someone else, not of “the people”).

In any case, there’s evidence of cannibalism, or what LeBlanc prefers to call “processed human remains,” a more comprehensive term that includes evidence of “badly treated bodies.” The evidence, according to LeBlanc, “consists of broken and burned bones; cut marks on the bones; bones broken for the marrow; bones broken to a length that would fit in a cooking jar — such bones have actually been found in jars — and polish on the tips of bones from rubbing against the interior of a vessel during the boiling process, known as ‘pot-polish.'”

THEY WERE NOT EATING each other — or being eaten — regularly, in a manner that might indicate religious ritual, and the “processing of human remains” did not appear to be reverent either, in the manner of “take, eat, this is my body given for you.”

According to LeBlanc, “the bodies of humans were treated the same as carcasses of animals,” except that “human bones were not deposited in the same manner as those of animals…. The prevailing pattern is for the human bones to have been deposited in a structure — particularly, but not limited to, a kiva — and then the structure abandoned and sometimes burned.” In one such abandoned structure, one of the eaters had left a substantial fecal “calling card” on the hearth — not a reverent act.

So what was going on in the San Juan Basin, circa Y1K?

There is no agreement among the archæologists.

Perhaps that’s because our cultural presumption about the Anasazi has been that they were a peaceable, democratic, agrarian people. According to LeBlanc, some archæologists are so determined to hold on to this perspective that they have simply refused to consider the evidence of cannibalism, “based on little more than their opinions that they do not believe cannibalism could have taken place; and no matter what the evidence for it might be, they will not change their minds.”

Some archæologists look at things like the ratios of dwelling units to kivas in villages, and at the larger kivas built to serve larger groups, and they argue that the Anasazi confronted the Great Trauma of population expansion and a forced transition to agricultural strategy by developing a kind of modular representative democracy, with a “sequential hierarchy” of organizational levels.

The rationale for this regional social structure, they hypothesize, was a pooling of food surpluses to help villages hit by bad weather and a pooling of labor for communal projects like the Great Houses and the big roads.

These archæologists claim that the political structure would have to have been fairly democratic because the people were not so settled that they couldn’t or wouldn’t have “voted with their feet.” If the system had gotten too oppressive, they claim, people would have just picked up and moved. And there is, in fact, evidence of such moves.

BUT THIS EFFORT to see the Anasazi as the fulfillment of the way we wish we were leaves too many loose ends hanging. The Great Houses, for one thing. They clearly show that some of the people were “more equal” than the rest of the people. And then there are those “badly treated bodies” and the pot-polished bones.

LeBlanc believes that the villages in the “Chaco Interaction Sphere” fell into a kind of power struggle, as an “elite” group attempted to forcibly organize the villages into a centralized political structure that would yield food surpluses and labor for “the common good,” (but, as always, the “common good” was especially good for the elite).

The “central hegemony model” LeBlanc pieces together is fairly straightforward. “The elite used terrorism to enforce their demands, and entire communities were killed for noncompliance. Such terrorism included some form of processing the bodies of individuals, or sacrifice, or other violence. One or more forces of highly trained and organized warriors — a standing mini-army — were used to put down defiance and to incorporate new communities into the polity.”

How did they get away with it?

We hear it every day, somewhere, circa Y2K: You can’t go wrong if you just go along.

A second book came out last year that also attempts to confront and explain this dark side of the Anasazi. This one is by the archæological team of Christy and Jacqueline Turner: Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest (University of Utah, 1999).

The Turners look almost exclusively at the Anasazi in that halcyon period from 900 O.T. to around 1150 O.T., when the growing season had expanded and the rainfall was generally favorable — and when almost all of the incidents of cannibalism presumably occurred in the Chaco Interaction Sphere.

The Turners develop a hypothesis that parallels LeBlanc’s, but incorporates some things that aren’t emphasized in LeBlanc’s study. They cite macaw feathers, copper bells, petroglyphs representing the Mexican god Quetzalcoatl, and other evidence to suggest that the people of the Chaco Interaction Sphere were interacting to some extent with the Toltec empire in central Mexico where cannibalism and other violent rites were foundational to the power structure. They point to a few skulls (not cannibalized) that had filed teeth, a Toltec practice, and conclude that, early in that halcyon age, the people of the San Juan basin were infiltrated by “a few zealot cultists from Mexico…”

So what really happened, there in that best of times, but maybe also the worst of times, down on the edge of our place long ago?

Grassroots democracy? Fascist terrorism?

We will probably never know for sure, and what we choose to believe will be colored by our natural predispositions. We will, in other words, believe what we want to believe, and find some evidence to support it.

But those who argue that a small cadre of fanatics from central Mexico — or just from the ranks of the people themselves, or both — could not have controlled such a large group of people through terror sound a lot like those seeking evidence to deny what happened in Germany in the 1930s.

Apparently, some things are so unbelievable to good people that they can’t be believed until experienced.

Whatever the truth about yesterday is, however, we moderns seem to have created an Anasazi myth of our own. In our version: once upon a time a gentle, peaceful people learned to live in perpetual, perfect balance with nature and with each other. Whether that’s true or not, it’s obviously something most of us would like to believe is possible. And perhaps, it’s something we actually need to believe is possible.

For the Anasazi, whatever happened in that time of plenty ended as the time of plenty ended, beginning around 1150 O.T. The climate changed again, cooling down, shortening the growing season, and gradually drying out the region over the next two hundred years as the northern hemisphere slipped into the “Little Ice Age,” which persevered until nearly 1800 O.T.

Populations crashed as food supplies failed. English peasants tore down hedgerows and bridges at night for fuel. The Black Death was rampant in Europe, and the great European migration in search of new lands and new resources began.

IN THE SAN JUAN BASIN, whatever “central hegemony” had come into being collapsed as the food surpluses disappeared. After that, there is not much evidence of cannibalism — but there is plenty of evidence of real warfare. In the fat times, the population had evidently expanded beyond the lean-time, mean-time carrying capacity of the land.

Through the romantic lens, we’ve assumed that the Anasazi retreated to the cliffs of the Plateau country for protection against marauding bands of outside nomads, but there is no evidence of nomadic peoples with sufficient numbers to really threaten the numerous Anasazi.

LeBlanc argues that the truth is harsher. The Anasazi were probably seeking protection from each other.

What’s different today?

The feeding off of one another is usually more subtle — more symbolic, if you will. But yes: I think they were probably us.

I imagine that hunting trip up here circa Y1K, and I wonder what I might have heard around the campfire.

Were some of them bragging about all the great progress back home, about plans and visions they’d heard of in the big kivas down at Bonito? (For there had to have been vision. Terror alone would not have sufficed.)

Were some of them complaining about how crowded everything was getting?

Did they talk about the Great House people who had stormed a village close to theirs, and supposedly — can you believe it — had killed and eaten all of the people of a certain kiva who had allegedly kept back some of their surplus?

When I imagine it, I can hear — and am still hearing echoes from Rwanda, Colombia, and Kosovo circa Y2K — their mixture of disbelief and fear. What I see, in our place not all that long ago, in a time not all that far away, is a kind of compressed myth for the last ten or twenty thousand years of our natural history as a species: the long rumbling detonation of our population exploding across the earth in this warm and mellow interstadial, this time between the times of the Big Ice.

Jacob Bronowski has flattered us all by calling it “The Ascent of Man.” And certainly our achievements have been great. But what do we know today that will keep us from reliving the past?

We’ve now reached an historically unprecedented degree of complication and vulnerability, with a vast, almost global civilization. But we are all people — changing, adapting, and evolving — prey to suspicion, competition, and combat. We interact with our neighbors — pressured by growing population and at the mercy of the climate.

I think I’d feel a little better about everything if we weren’t culturally so deep into denial about the Great Trauma of Success that we keep trying to pretend it is all Really Progress. Maybe if, for once, we would…

What? What can we do?

This is all too hard for my poor brain to contemplate — still hard-wired for wandering around looking for food and inspiration as it is.

Instead, I would rather just think about camping next summer, out in the megamillenial darkness where the fire sheds a warm, flickering point of light beneath the great spread of stars.

George Sibley teaches at Western State College in Gunnison, where modern mythology holds that people can stay through the winter.