Thursday, December 22, 2016

Grassroots Astronomy In 13th Century Colorado

Most of the ancient Puebloan sites in the American Southwest have architectural features designed to serve as observatories for the movements of the sun during the course of the year, something common to many early agricultural societies. These are generally limited to public spaces and the homes of chiefs and high priests.

But, in the Hovenweep complex of ruins, along the Colorado-Utah border, from about 1166 CE to 1277 CE, a different phenomena was observed. There, ordinary people' homes also has astronomical observation features (e.g. architectural arrangements that light up a special marker on the day of the winter solstice).

Zuni ethnographic reports from the 19th century indicate that ordinary people used these because they didn't trust the Sun priests who kept the official astronomical and calendar records to get it right.

Teofilo at Gambler's House explains his take on this phenomena, although he doesn't have a pat answer.
Did the Chacoans trust their sun priests more than the later people of Hovenweep and Zuni? 
I think they just might have, and this brings me back to another theory I’ve proposed: that the rise of Chaco to a position of regional dominance in the tenth and eleventh centuries AD may have been associated with Chacoan elites’ control of new and ritually important astronomical practices. The astronomical alignments at Chaco appear to be the earliest known ones in at least the northern Southwest, and possibly the Southwest as a whole, and it’s possible that the development (or acquisition) of observation techniques that allowed Chaco’s leaders to demonstrate unprecedented powers of prediction fueled their rise. As long as those powers seemed to hold, they may have been able to keep close control over knowledge of their techniques, or the common people may simply have not thought to question them. 
But Hovenweep, with its apparently more “democratic” distribution of astronomical knowledge, dates to only slightly later than Chaco. So what happened in between?
It’s hard to say, and this is one of the enduring mysteries of Chaco, but this period (roughly the middle decades of the twelfth century) does appear to have been a time of great change throughout the northern Southwest, with the ultimate result being the loss of Chaco’s regional influence, although the canyon itself wasn’t completely abandoned until the whole region was at the end of the thirteenth century. There were some major droughts that occurred during this period, which seem to coincide with some of the cultural changes, so maybe the Chacoan elites’ esoteric calendrical knowledge no longer seemed to have the control over rain and fertility that they had claimed, and people began to trust them less and to try to do their own observations too. Or maybe there was a more general spread of astronomical knowledge that undermined Chaco’s influence even if its power didn’t appear to fail. It’s very hard to tell exactly what happened, but the patterns are intriguing.
Information about the parallel practices in the "Old World" aren't terribly informative, because they took place thousands of years earlier than they did in the New World. Historians had a brief window in which they could interview Zuni Sun priests before cultural change completely wiped away all memory of the old ways, while many of the old ways associate with this kind of solar astronomy were long gone by the time that a meaningful written historical record had emerged in Eurasia. 

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