from The Textbook Letter, Volume 12, Number 4

How Evidence Discredits a Tale
About Politically Correct Indians

Russell P. Hartman

Editor's Introduction -- In her book The Language Police, Diane Ravitch recounts some of the absurd, politically correct claims by which the writers of Glencoe's high- school book American Odyssey have glorified the Anasazi Indians. (See the review of The Language Police in this issue of The Textbook Letter.)

Glencoe's puffing of the Anasazi Indians was examined in TTL some years ago, in a short article that dealt with only two aspects of Glencoe's performance -- its deceitful account of a structure that the "highly developed" Anasazi erected in Chaco Canyon, and its claim that the Anasazi had a perfectly egalitarian society in which rank was unknown and all individuals "functioned as equals." Glencoe's writers said that the inhabitants of Anasazi farming villages built dams, reservoirs, and irrigation systems, even though they didn't have any "kings, chiefs, or other official authority figures to compel cooperation." (See "More Fake 'History' from Glencoe" in TTL, Vol. 10, No. 4.)

We thank Diane Ravitch for directing our attention again to Glencoe's material about the Anasazi, and we now offer a longer analysis of that material, broader in scope than was our earlier article. Our author here is a cultural anthropologist who has specialized in studying Indians of the Southwest.

In its section on prehistoric Amerindians of the Southwest, American Odyssey combines oversimplification with unsupportable claims that are contradicted by archaeological evidence.

The section is titled "Cliff Dwellers of the Southwest: From Nomads to Farmers," and it gives the impression that a single, homogeneous population continuously occupied the Southwest for thousands of years. The Southwest, however, was a topographically and ecologically diverse region (as it still is today), offering a wide range of resources. Its prehistoric inhabitants adapted to different local environments in different ways, and they existed as discrete populations that pursued various subsistence strategies -- yet American Odyssey teaches that they all subsisted by hunting and gathering until, one day, they all suddenly became farmers. This notion, presented in a long paragraph under the heading "Development of Agriculture," is not accurate.

In their next paragraph the writers of American Odyssey abruptly introduce the names of two Amerindian groups, "Pueblo" and "Anasazi," without any identification or explanation. These names have not been mentioned before, but the writers use them as if the student is supposed to know what "Pueblo" and "Anasazi" mean:

Like their modern Pueblo descendants, but unlike most other highly developed early peoples, the Anasazi fostered an egalitarian culture in which people functioned as equals. Without kings, chiefs, or other official authority figures to compel cooperation, members of Anasazi farming villages built dams, reservoirs, and irrigation systems . . . .

It would be helpful to explain that "Anasazi" is a broad term which archaeologists apply to all of the prehistoric peoples who, from about 100 BC until AD 1300 or so, inhabited the region that we now call the Colorado Plateau. It would also be helpful to omit empty phrases like "highly developed." The Anasazi did not have a written language or a central government, as far as we know, and they did not build stupendous ceremonial centers like those associated with the renowned civilizations of ancient Mexico and Central America. In that sense, the Anasazi were not as "highly developed" as, say, the Maya.

The Anasazi did, however, leave evidence of many significant accomplishments in architecture, astronomy, the development of trade networks, the building of roads, and the production of sophisticated craftwork; and all this evidence resoundingly contradicts the notion that Anasazi societies were "egalitarian" and had no "official authority figures." The evidence indicates that when Anasazi culture was at its zenith, there were authorities who had the power to enforce the division of labor, to regulate the distribution of precious goods, and to initiate and manage construction projects. Clearly, not all the Anasazi were equal.

Archaeologists divide Anasazi history into several periods, defined by changes in cultural traits. These changes, such as the advent of pottery or the introduction of new architectural or agricultural practices, usually indicate contact with other groups of people, but not all of the Anasazi embraced the changes at the same time or to the same degree.

Anasazi architecture took many forms, starting out with semi-subterranean dwellings and culminating, by the 11th and 12th centuries, in multi-storied structures that contained 600 or more rooms. The Great Houses of Chaco Canyon, in what is now New Mexico, are regarded as the crowning achievements of Anasazi culture -- not only because of their scale but also because they signify extensive social organization. The construction of the Great Houses required the felling and transporting of several hundred thousand trees (to be used as roofing timbers) and the hand-shaping of millions of sandstone blocks (for building walls). We cannot account for all that labor by ascribing it to casual cooperation among the members of small farming villages. The people who worked on the Great Houses had to abandon farming for long periods of time, and they had to rely on others to provide the food and the other resources that they consumed. Hence the Great Houses testify to careful organization and management by a supervisory elite.

What purpose did the Great Houses serve? American Odyssey leads the student to believe that the Great Houses were "huge apartment complexes," and the writers say that "At one dwelling site, Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, more than 1,000 residents lived in a free-standing 600-room structure." Archaeological evidence, however, indicates that many of the rooms in the Chaco structures were used not for housing people but for storing goods. Pueblo Bonito, therefore, can be characterized as a complex of apartments and warehouses, mixed together.

Chaco Canyon is now seen as the center of a regional system for distributing commodities among outlying villages. Those villages were linked to Chaco by some 400 miles of roads, parts of which are still visible to observers on the ground or in the air. The goods accumulated at Chaco included copper bells and macaw feathers from Mexico, sea shells from California and the Gulf of Mexico, and other items that had come to Chaco through long-distance trading networks. The goods had been sold and resold many times along the way, increasing in value at each step. They evidently were collected at Chaco and then were distributed to craftsmen in the outlying villages, who used them in making finished products. This distribution of materials, like the Anasazi construction projects, had to be directed by overseers.

From various Anasazi sites, and especially from Chaco and other large centers of population, archaeologists have recovered many exquisite art pieces: whole-shell pendants encrusted with mosaic-inlays of turquoise, necklaces of tiny turquoise or shell beads, brightly painted wooden objects, and beautifully made baskets, pots and textiles [see notes 1, 2, 3, and 4, below]. These products, and the arcane skills required for manufacturing them, represent further evidence of a formal division of labor, controlled by some kind of political authority. Such products cannot be ascribed to farmers who occasionally took a day off to be amateur craftsmen.

The Anasazi who practiced agriculture needed to predict the changing of the seasons -- and to this end, they invented ways to monitor and record celestial events [note 5]. Atop Fajada Butte, for instance, near the entrance to Chaco Canyon, some Anasazi carved a spiral petroglyph that was aligned so that a shaft of sunlight would bisect it on each solstice and each equinox. (This device was fairly accurate until, about twenty years ago, the rock on which it was carved broke off and slipped by several feet.) At other sites in Chaco Canyon, the walls of buildings have openings that evidently were used for observing particular stars. The knowledge expressed in these inventions could have been acquired only by individuals who had been chosen to conduct continual, long-term observations of the heavens, and who had been freed from the mundane tasks of subsistence. Here again is evidence of a formal division of labor, enforced by authorities.

The Chaco Canyon center was abandoned by the Anasazi before the end of the 13th century, and the American Odyssey writers glibly attribute this to "drought or a devaluation of turquoise." That is misleading. Though a prolonged drought, extending through several decades, was certainly a major factor, archaeologists have inferred that there may have been other factors as well -- warfare, for example, or the depletion of the local soil or other resources. But the notion that Anasazi culture collapsed because of "a devaluation of turquoise" cannot be taken seriously.


  1. J.J. Brody. Anasazi and Pueblo Painting. School of American Research Press (Santa Fe, New Mexico), 1991. [return to text]

  2. Helen K. Crotty. Honoring the Dead: Anasazi Ceramics from the Rainbow Bridge - Monument Valley Expedition. Published in 1983 by the University of California at Los Angeles, as monograph 22 in the Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, Monograph Series. [return to text]

  3. E. Wesley Jernigan. Jewelry of the Prehistoric Southwest. School of American Research Press (Santa Fe, New Mexico), 1978. [return to text]

  4. Kate Peck Kent. Prehistoric Textiles of the Southwest. School of American Research Press (Santa Fe, New Mexico), 1983. [return to text]

  5. Ray A. Williamson. Living the Sky: the Cosmos of the American Indian. Houghton Mifflin Company (Boston), 1984. [return to text]

Russell P. Hartman is a cultural anthropologist and a staff scientist at the California Academy of Sciences (in San Francisco). His scientific work is focused on the Amerindians of the Southwest, especially the Navajos. His book Navajo Pottery: Traditions and Innovations was published in 1987 by Northland Press (Flagstaff, Arizona).


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