Tag Archives: archaeology

Science fiction worlds and the ancient west

After visiting Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico, I read archaeological articles about the region. For a region so full of artifacts, we know little about what life was like. We don’t know what their social structure was. We don’t know why they came to the region around the year 900 or why they left around the year 1300. We think the canyon wasn’t fully occupied most of the year, but archaeologists debate whether the region’s role was more economic or religious. We aren’t even sure if the region could sustain agriculture. There’s plenty of speculation, but little certainty. Events that already occurred can be almost as shrouded and mysterious as the future.

I tried to imagine life at the height of the Chaco culture. Science fiction can be about the extrapolations of technology and travel, but its emotional core explores the human response to extraordinary worlds. The Left Hand of Darkness explores the human response to extreme cold and unusual gender dynamics. A Canticle for Leibowitz explores the response to apocalypse, the assignment of blame, and the attempt to rebuild within poisoned ashes. The Wind-Up Girl looks at human response to bioplagues and the biomechanical future.

Imagining life at Chaco Canyon is arguably more alien than science fiction. Science fiction is written for western audiences with western lifestyles. (This is not a criticism—science fiction is fiction first, and sociology study somewhere down the list.) The social hierarchies are familiar. We quickly understand what is considered important and unimportant. The motivations of characters in science fiction are often less alien to me than customs on our own planet. Russians often find smiling a sign of foolishness. Japanese salespeople so dislike saying “no” that they will ignore the question rather than give such a rude answer. These are tiny examples of different outlooks on life, shadows of structurally different mental organizations. These are cultures extensively connected to my own, living with the same technologies and the same global events. Our very language biases our ability to conceive of and express concepts. Ursula LeGuin explored this concept in The Dispossessed, but of course it is still in English.

By comparison, Chaco Culture is almost Martian; it’s 700 years gone, it was isolated in a draconian environment, and even the statistics of their society are now matters of speculation. But we can infer that they found rhythm and certainty in the sky. They made the Sun Dagger and they aligned so many of their buildings to the patterns in the sky. Reading archaeology felt like holding sand; the very question of whether or not the people grew corn on site was a debate waged hotly across decades. But I could look up at the sky and see their sky.

But even the sky we look upon isn’t their sky. Our planet wobbles like a top, and because of that, our window into the stars slowly shifts. Today, the north star, Polaris, is less than a degree from celestial north. (A degree is about the width of your finger when held at arm’s length.) In the year 1200, Polaris was 5 degrees from north. In 900, it was 6.7 degrees from north. We know the sky that they saw, but it’s different than ours. Add in light pollution, planes, and satellites, and it’s very different.

Unlike the stories of time machines, Chaco won’t ever give full answers. In science fiction, we imagine peeling back the fog of both future and past. The lack of answers is really the motivation, though. Science fiction is an expression of human response to things we can barely imagine. It’s an act of exploration, and Chaco reveals how much there is to explore.

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A map of how the celestial north pole moves with time. I never realized how briefly Polaris had been close to north.

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Chaco Canyon: New Mexico’s ancient convention center

Chaco Culture National Historic Park is in remote northwest New Mexico. The drive will take you on twenty miles of dirt roads and beyond cell range. But in this most remote reach of New Mexico lies the crossroads of an ancient culture. In Chaco Culture National Historic Park lies 3,614 recorded archaeological sites, including many massive great houses. The largest, Pueblo Bonito,  has roughly 800 rooms; visitors may walk through the doors and rooms of Pueblo Bonito. The Chaco Culture also built astronomical features into many of their works; some windows align perfectly with the sun on solstice, and some decorations align with phases of the moon.

When Chaco was discovered in modernity, it was thought to be a vast city. Having walked through it, it feels that way. It feels like it could hold thousands. But archaeological evidence suggests otherwise—there is little garbage, and few burials. Massive Pueblo Bonito may have housed only 70 people on a permanent basis. The guides at the park suggest that Chaco might have been a meeting ground, used for trade and weddings and astronomical ceremonies for a small portion of the year. Remnants of cacao from 1200 miles south have been found at Pueblo Bonito. The bones of macaws, native to eastern Mexico, have been found at Pueblo del Arroyo. They apparently didn’t flourish; only the bones of adults were found. So the astonishing quantity of ruins at Chaco Culture Park may be the remnants of an ancient convention center.

Chaco offers an amazing range of ruins, from the many-roomed grand houses to petroglyphs to astronomical markers to ancient stairs and roads. Like Mesa Verde National Park, not so far to the north, the whole site was abandoned in the 1300s, well before European influence. Like Mesa Verde, archaeologists don’t know exactly why the people left. There is evidence of an ancient drought. Some argue for catastrophic deforestation after all the building at Chaco (because all that construction took a terrific amount of timber, some of which still remains in the structures), though there is not consensus.

I grew up in St. Louis, a town once called Mound City for the mounds left by the ancient Mississippian culture. The massive city at Cahokia was also abandoned around the year 1300. A city of 15,000 abandoned, around the population of London at the time, and we don’t know why. It’s easy to live in the United States and think of it as the new world. But these amazing works of ancient people live on quietly. The inconvenient mounds of St. Louis were largely destroyed; those who did so may not have even realized their origin. But the remnants of the Pueblo culture at Chaco remain, mostly protected by their isolation over the years. Though the journey today is easier than it ever has been, Chaco is still hours from the interstate and quiet. As I took in the ruins, I was filled with the same wonder and questions that Cahokia Mounds always presented. Places like Chaco and Cahokia are reminders of humanity—no matter the size of the structures we build, one day people will view the barren remnants and wonder about us. We will walk the same valleys and cliffs, touch the same stones, but we won’t know each others names or voices or values. Ruins like Chaco remind of us of our place in the universe, and how beautiful and belittling that can be.

 

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The stars through my tent at Chaco Culture Park. Chaco is one of the night sky parks, where the darkness of the sky is specifically preserved through lighting choices and such. In light of the ancient Pueblo interests in astronomy, it seems appropriate.

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Sunrise at the camp site.