Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Books: Chaco Death Squads Volume 52 Number 3, May/June 1999
by Stephen Lekson

These are troubled times for the ancient Southwest. The story of the great Pueblo period--the tenth through fifteenth centuries A.D. at Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Casas Grandes--is being revised, and the new version is brutal, grim, and unpopular.

The public attitude toward Pueblo prehistory had been consistently, even relentlessly, positive. At the beginning of our century, social philosophers offered ancient Pueblo towns as a New World contrast to the Old World order: Southwestern pueblos were independent, democratic communities of yeoman farmers. They were quintessentially American. Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and other sites were painted in those same warm colors. Later, in the wake of the Great War, pop-psychology books presented Pueblo Indians (and, by extension, their ancient ancestors) as paragons of peace. Pueblo ceremonies and philosophies appealed, eclectically, to flower children in the 1960s and to New Agers in the 1980s, thousands of whom flocked to Chaco for the Harmonic Convergence. Hundreds of articles, dozens of books, and an unbroken chorus of park rangers still present the last thousand years of native Southwestern society as happy, its peaceful people in harmony with their environment.

Peace no more. At the turn of our millennium, the ancient Southwest is beset by famine, flood, and war. Famine and flood we can handle. Drought-induced famines were always a hazard in the desert Southwest, and they have been blamed for the thirteenth-century abandonment of Chaco and Mesa Verde. Floods are implicated in the fourteenth-century fall of the remarkable Hohokam civilization of southern Arizona. These were natural processes; this was the environment with which ancient Southwestern people sought harmony. War, however, is unnatural, and not part of white America's romantic vision of the ancient Southwest. But recent archaeological studies now reveal that warfare--and worse--was common practice in the ancient Southwest.

Stephen Leksonis a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Short Swift Time of Gods on Earth
Bahr, Donald, et al.,
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994

War Before Civilization
Keeley, Lawrence H.,
New York: Oxford University Press, 1996

Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest
LeBlanc, Steven A.,
Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999

Chaco Meridian: Centers of Political Power in the Ancient Southwest
Lekson, Stephen H.,
Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1999

Hopi Ruins Legends
Malotki, Ekkehart,
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993

Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past
Martin, Debra, and David Frayer, eds.,
Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1997

Man Corn
Turner, Christy G., II, and Jacqueline Turner,
Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999

Stress and Warfare Among the Kayenta Anasazi of the Thirteenth Century A.D.
Wilcox, David, and Jonathan Haas,

Prehistoric Cannibalism at Mancos 5MTUMR-2346
White, Timothy,
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America