Modern borders have skewed how ancient civilizations are interpreted, says Steve Leckson, a University of Colorado archaeologist.
Great North American civilizations from 1,000 years ago, including Chaco and Cahokia near St. Louis, were outliers of a vast Mesoamerican empire in southern Mexico.
“Forget the international border, it was all one world,” he said during a presentation at the Sunflower Theatre in Cortez. “After the U.S.-Mexican war in 1848, the attitude here was that these were our ruins with no connection to the south. That is absurd.”
North American and Mesoamericans shared culture and goods in the postclassical era, which began about 570 AD. The period had explosive population growth and is known for exploration and long-distance trade between city-states.
Cahokia is often overlooked.
Thriving about the same time as Chaco, in 1,000 A.D., Cahokia was the largest North American city, with 30,000 residents. All that’s left are giant mounds that were once temples and pyramids.
“Cahokia was larger than most cities of Europe; it was bigger than London,” Leckson said. “It had the biggest pyramid north of Teotihuacan,” the Aztec ruins north of Mexico City.
Chaco and Cahokia were on the edge of a larger civilization, and leaders traveled and brought back high-end goods to impress commoners, he said.
Chaco nobles wore blankets of macaw feathers and “knocked back chocolate” products originating 1,500 miles away.
“High-end goods like cotton and perishables is what we should be looking for,” he said. “It tells the tale more than things like pottery that archaeologists are more comfortable with.”
Chemical evidence in vessels of Chaco have revealed cocoa residue. It is also likely Chaco traded in the Mississippi Valley for Black Drink, a highly caffeinated energy drink made from holly.
“Everyone in this room who took Archaeology 101 was taught there were no city-states north of Mexico, and that is not true.”
When exploring Chaco or Cahokia, Bandelier or Mesa Verde, think about Mesoamerica, said Leckson. Forget the border with Mexico.
“I would say the way to know about Chaco is to know about postclassic Mesoamerica, because that is what it is, plus a lot of other things,” he said. “The people of Chaco were trying to live like Mesoamerican lords.”
Leckson’s talk was part of the Four Corners Lecture Series. On Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, Dan Simplicio will give a Zuni tribe perspective on the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act.