A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A scholar revisits the Southwest's most controversial theory
University of Colorado archaeologist Stephen H. Lekson at Chaco Canyon, an ancestral Puebloan site he believes is linked to three other major centers in the Southwest. (Bill Hatcher)
Ten years ago, I wrote a book that argued for a new vision of Southwestern prehistory: Chaco Meridian: Centers of Political Power in the Ancient Southwest. I still believe its premise—that something I call the Chaco Meridian played an essential role in the life of the ancient Puebloan people—but it's due for an update, even if many of my colleagues still aren't completely convinced of the idea.
The Chaco Meridian is a north-south line at approximately 108 degrees longitude that runs through or very near several extremely important sites: Chaco Canyon, Aztec Ruins (both in New Mexico), and Paquimé (just across the border in Chihuahua). Each of these sites, in its time, was by far the biggest and almost certainly most important regional center in the Southwest. The population of each was probably between 2,000 and 3,000 people—not quite a city, but very large for the Southwest. And they followed one another as major centers in a tight sequence: Chaco from A.D. 850 to 1125, Aztec from 1110 to 1275, and Paquimé from 1250 to 1450.
It occurred to me that the bim-bam-boom sequence of Chaco, Aztec, and Paquimé may have had something to do with history. That is, the lockstep series of rises and falls was probably not a matter of chance. Perhaps the collapse of one city somehow set off the rise of the next, with ruling elites moving from the old capital to the new.
So, for seven centuries, the center of the Pueblo world bounced back and forth over (only) 80 miles, from Chaco Canyon to Sacred Ridge and back again—and then to Aztec Ruins. The southern extension to Paquimé is still a matter of doubt and debate, I admit. But new data from Shabik'eschee and the ALP complex give me some confidence that the Chaco Meridian was real, and that it meant something to ancient Pueblo people.
What exactly did it mean? I don't know—yet. To understand the Meridian, we need context. None of these sites sat alone in the Southwest. There were thousands of smaller Pueblo sites in every time period, and each period had its own complicated history and geography. Beyond the Pueblo region, there was the remarkable Hohokam civilization in southern Arizona, and of course there were Mesoamerican cultures far to the south. We will never understand Shabik'eschee, Sacred Ridge, Chaco, Aztec, and Paquimé without looking far beyond the sites themselves.
Stephen H. Lekson is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His latest book, A History of the Ancient Southwest (SAR Press), will be published in early 2009.