Farmers and exit

From Anasazi America by David E. Stuart, who is a much better archaeologist than a political or economic thinker:

If ever there was archaeological evidence for the short-term power but ultimate futility of psychological denial and social myopia, it can be found in the late-eleventh-century great houses of Chaco Canyon.

Parts of Chacoan society were already in deep trouble after A.D. 1050 as health and living conditions progressively eroded in the southern districts’ open farming communities. The small farmers in the south had first created reliable surpluses to be stored in the great houses. Ultimately, it was the increasingly terrible living conditions of those farmers, the people who grew the corn, that had made Chacoan society so fatally vulnerable. They simply got too little back from their efforts to carry on.

We should worry about this. Did you know that in 1998 there were 300,000 fewer farmers in the United States than there were in 1979? Did you know that 94 percent of American farms are still small, family farms, but family farmers receive only 41 percent of all farm income? Our farmers are walking away, too. Why? They aren’t getting enough to carry on, either. Is urban America any more aware of this than were the village elites in Chaco’s great houses? Many of us are not.

Still, the great-house dwellers didn’t merely sit on their hands. As some farms failed, they used farm labor to expand roads, rituals, and great houses. this prehistoric version of a Keynesian growth model apparently alleviated enough of the stresses and strains to sustain growth through the 1070s. Then came the waning rainfall of the 1080s, followed by drought in the 1090s.

Circumstances in the farming communities worsened quickly and dramatically with this drought; the very survival of many was at stake. The great-house elites at Chaco Canyon apparently responded with even more roads, rituals, and great houses. This was actually a period of great-house and road infrastructure “in-fill,” both in and near established open communities. In a few years, the rains returned. This could not help but powerfully reinforce the elites’ now well-established, formulaic response to problems.

But roads, rituals, and great houses simply did not do enough for the hungry farmers who produced corn and pottery. As the eleventh century drew to a close, even though the rains had come again, they walked away, further eroding the surpluses that had fueled the system. Imagine it: the elites must have believed the situation was saved, even as more farmers gave up in despair. Inexplicably, they never “exported” the modest irrigation system that had caught and diverted midsummer runoff from the mesa tops at Chaco Canyon and made local fields more productive. Instead, once again the elites responded with the sacred formula — more roads, more rituals, more great houses.

Nonetheless, by the 1100s the roads, like the West Virginia turnpike — a “make-work” project that was the butt of jokes some 40 years ago — began to go “nowhere.” Other roads (like the one to Salmon) were never completed, and though some great houses were clearly built to move some of the elites out of an increasingly tense and impoverished core area, others were just erected in the middle of nowhere at the end of a new road, then never continuously used. This is all rather like the wave of unneeded savings-and-loan towers so scandalously built in America by deregulated bankers in the 1980s and ultimately paid for by the taxpayers.

The unbelievable explosion in kivas about A.D. 1100 points to a ritual life that had stopped nurturing open communities and had grown increasingly demanding and obsessive. We can see this phenomenon at work in American society today in what the news magazines have termed our “culture wars.” In our modern version of this behavior, a narrow sector of society designates itself the “chosen one” and attempts to regulate the values, morals, even politics of the rest. The explanation for every problem that besets us — recessions, crime, drug trafficking, teen pregnancies, and many more — becomes our nation’s declining moral values and secularization. In the end, this type of behavior blames the victim: one is poor in America because one is morally and ethically defective. No matter what you, the reader, think about such behavior — whether you embrace it or reject it — either way, it feeds no babies, makes no young mother strong, and sends no child to school. The same was true of the Chacoan elites’ rituals: however base or pure their motives at the time, ritual alone did not feed the babies or create new food-producing enterprises to sustain farming families over the longer haul. Failure to address this problem destroyed Chacoan society.

I also find it ironic that the greatest Chacoan building projects were, like many of the CCC and WPA projects of our own Great Depression, the desperate economic reactions of a frightened and fragile society. In fact, most such projects support displaced people only in the short-term, rather than address the production and distribution of basic necessities. Nonetheless, these projects, like ours, tend to be viewed as grand achievements, reflecting the pinnacles of power. We are as myopic as they were, because such projects are often proof of a hollow shell. In Chacoan times, that hollow shell may have hidden the misery and hopelessness of the small farmers just as our make-work projects of the 1930s did. The great houses may even now hide those facts from the many tourists who visit Chaco Canyon and go away as impressed as Lieutenant Simpson was in 1849. But grandiosity cannot hide the essential facts from the field archaeologists who have excavated countless small houses in the last 25 years.

At the bitter end of the Chacoan era, many elites remained in their great houses, probably trying to hold onto the past, rather like Scarlett O’Hara trying to hold onto Tara in Gone with the Wind. But the farmers who had brought in the corn harvests were long departed, like the black slaves who had supported Tara before the civil war. Chacoan society collapsed, the farming pillar of its once great productivity shattered. The beleaguered Chacoan farmers had buried their babies one last time. Then they abandoned Chaco Canyon and most of its outlying great houses. …

At least the Chacoans had an excuse: they had never in 8,000 years dealt with a society so large, so complex, or so fragile. Their greatest invention was not the roads, the great houses, or the rituals. It was the expansive, open farming communities that had once traded with one another. But in spite of its ecological elegance, that invention died because the society’s obsessive, formulaic response — roads, rituals, and great houses — was of no practical use to the farmers after the drought of 1090. The Chacoans simply could no longer keep their farmers on the land — a labor problem of defining moment.

We moderns have seen some of these same things and the United States, and we have read history. Most of our forebears washed up on these shores after similar failures in other lands. Most of us are the direct descendants of people who once walked away from societies that could not or would not sustain them. We do know how it works. But have we yet learned the lesson?

[Chapter 7]

The far-flung trade network that had characterized the Chaco phenomenon for more than a century vanished quickly. As infant mortality and abandonments destroyed their open communities, farmers stopped making pottery to trade. The vast expanses of the Four Corners were no longer connected to a functioning economic machine.

Those elites who hung on in a half dozen of the more stable great houses after A.D. 1130 lost all access to nearly all the signature trade goods that had marked their status. More importantly, they lost access to the surpluses of corn, dried meat, and other foods that had once made them taller and their babies three times more likely to survive than a farmer’s child.

Archaeologists refer to a number of these late great houses as “scion” communities because they are believed to have been founded when groups of elites left the earlier great houses in the Chacoan core and attempted to carry on in new places. They were smaller, lacked great kivas, and were located in arable spots on the margins of the San Juan basin. Lacking great kivas, the scion communities provide us with superb evidence that Chaco’s ritual and its regional economy were interdependent. Apparently, the disintegration of Chaco’s regional trade network equaled no great kivas in the 1120s to 1140s. Meanwhile, as some Chacoans clung to a pathetic facsimile of their old order, surviving farmers were busy laying the foundations of a new one.

The first farmers to walk away from the Chacoan world benefited the most. They returned to places of ancestral Basketmaker and Pueblo I hamlets in the uplands even before violence overtook the Chacoan core in the 1100s. A return to the uplands was utterly logical.


Jake Bacharach on Game of Thrones: “Now, as we enter the fourth season, the overwhelming question is: how do these people eat?”

Matt Lewis, “Why conservatives see rural America as the ‘real’ America”

Gracy Olmstead, “Place ≠ Pastoral”

Rod Dreher, “The South as Eternal Scapegoat”

Bill Kauffman: “What Rural America is For”


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