Sanctifying Social Inequality at Chaco Canyon

The story is familiar and follows a similar trajectory wherever people have made the transition from foraging to agriculture: surpluses enable social stratification that is legitimized as part of the ritual order.  Elites claim the cosmological sanction of the supernatural.

In a recent study of mortuary practices at Chaco Canyon that appears in PNAS, Stephen Plog and Carrie Heitman find that social inequality arose earlier than had previously been suggested:

Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico has been the focus of much recent archaeological research on Pueblo groups who lived during the 9th through 12th centuries in the American Southwest. Here, we examine variation in mortuary patterns in the canyon, focusing in particular on one mortuary crypt, to address questions of social differentiation and the chronology of important sociopolitical processes.

Based on new radiocarbon dates as well as reanalysis of the stratigraphy and spatial distribution of materials in the mortuary crypt, we conclude that significant social differentiation began in Chaco ca. 150–200 y earlier than suggested by previous research. We argue that social inequality was sanctified and legitimized by linking people to founders, ancestors, and cosmological forces.

This ritually sanctified stratification has remarkable staying power and has persisted for nearly 1,000 years.  Jake Page, longtime editor of Natural History magazine and author of several important books on Amerindians (including his masterful synthesis, In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000 Year History of the American Indians) contends that the Pueblos can be characterized as “theocracies.”

Did you like this? Share it:

Leave a Reply