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Athena Review, Vol.2, no.4:   Book Reviews

Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest

by Stephen A. Leblanc

 reviewed by Rebecca Hill

Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest by Steven A.LeBlanc. Salt Lake City, The University of Utah Press. 1999. 400 pp. with 70 b/w photos, illustrations, and maps. ISBN 0-87480-581-3. $34.95 (cloth).

Steven A. LeBlanc, a research associate at the Institute of Archaeology of the University of California-Los Angeles, did not find scholarly journals to be hospitable recipients for his articles on warfare. For this reason, he decided to write Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest. He states in the preface that his articles were rejected because the reviewers believed warfare was not common or important enough to merit such attention. Like Christy and Jacqueline Turner with their cannibalism hypothesis (presented in Man Corn, 1999; see AR 2,2), LeBlanc encountered resistance from archaeologists who were firmly entrenched in a paradigm that models the prehistoric inhabitants of the Southwest as generally peaceful farmers occasionally engaging in ritual warfare that produced few fatalities and few social consequences.

This new book will influence others to take a fresh look at old data, like Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization (1996) did for LeBlanc. Keeley’s work so inspired LeBlanc that a good portion of the introduction is devoted to restating Keeley's findings on the prevalence of prehistoric warfare worldwide. LeBlanc believes that “in light of Keeley’s evidence for how commonplace prehistoric warfare was in general, you should have to present actual evidence that there was a lack of warfare” (p.25).

The prehistory of the American Southwest is divided by LeBlanc into Early (0-900 AD), Middle (AD 900-1150), and Late (AD 1250-1540) Periods. The interval from AD 1150-1250 is transitional and LeBlanc discusses it in both contexts of the Middle and Late Period. The Early Period is characterized by the shift to agriculture and larger, more permanent villages. LeBlanc believes that chronic warfare was driven by resource stress and the lack of a central political authority. The Middle Period encompassed the rise and fall of Chaco on the Colorado Plateau. The climate was good and warfare was virtually nonexistent. Violence was directed within political units rather than between them. This 250 year period of peace is also known as the Pax Chaco (Lekson, 1992). During the Late Period, the environment deteriorated and warfare greatly intensified. Large settlement clusters were rapidly constructed with vast “no-man's-lands” in between. The overwhelming majority of these settlements would die out by AD 1325. The catastrophic events of the Late Period may have been triggered by the worldwide phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age. However, tree-ring data do not show clear evidence that either the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice Age affected the Southwest. LeBlanc acknowledges that more environmental data is needed to demonstrate the effects of the Little Ice Age in the Southwest.

LeBlanc presents several lines of evidence supporting his model for the prevalence, nature, and consequences of warfare. Settlement patterns, burned structures, and bodies not formally buried all reflect the existence or threat of warfare. LeBlanc also cites ethnographic references for warfare during the early historic period. By these accounts, warfare was not a new concept to the indigenous peoples of the Southwest.

The people of the Southwest experienced the most intense warfare during the Late Period, which coincided with the introduction of the recurved bow. The recurved bow was effective over a longer distance and with a greater speed than the self-bow or the atlatl. Kiva wall murals, rock art, and Mimbres (Mogollon) pottery dating to AD 1200-1450 depict use of the recurved bow as well as shields. LeBlanc follows the evolution of warfare technology in the American Southwest, noting that certain objects like large bone awls or tchamahias (ax head-shaped objects ground out of soft stone) may have been misinterpreted by earlier researchers. LeBlanc believes that large bone awls were actually used as daggers. The function of the tchamahias is debated as being either a weapon or a farming implement, but according to historical accounts tchamahias have only a ritual use related to warfare.

After explaining his criteria for evidence of warfare and outlining the evolution of warfare technology in the Southwest, LeBlanc proceeds by addressing warfare for each of the time periods in separate chapters. All evidence for Early Period warfare comes from the Anasazi and Mogollon. A significant site mentioned by LeBlanc [and also by Turner and Turner (1999)] is Wetherhill Cave 7, where weapons made of bone and stone were associated with 97 human skeletons, some with atlatal points or pieces of stone knives imbedded in their bones. Daggers made of bone were among the weapons recovered at this site. Although many skulls show evidence of bludgeoning, no clubs were discovered in association. Based on cutmarks on skulls and vertebrae, it is evident that the victors took scalps, ears, and in some cases entire heads as trophies. The victims were individuals of both sexes and of all ages.

Other evidence for Early Period warfare comes from defensive sites in the Anasazi and Mogollon areas. Communities were built in easily defensible locations like hilltops or were fortified with stockades. Other researchers have argued that farming potential was a more important factor in choosing where to build habitations. LeBlanc contends that both were important. He believes that prehistoric peoples chose defensible locations near good farmland. Habitations were definitely not placed for optimum travel time to fields.

Further evidence of warfare is found in the number of Early Period Anasazi sites that were burned. Although LeBlanc is able to differentiate between ritual and accidental fires, he cannot determine whether fires were started by an enemy or by the inhabitants as they abandoned the area. Intensification of warfare during the late Pueblo I Period (AD 700s & 800s) is indicated by the increased number of burned sites that also had unburied bodies, people aggregating into larger communities that were located on hilltops or were palisaded, and vast empty land areas that likely served as buffer zones. This period of intensive warfare did not last long and did not cover the entire Southwest. No evidence exists for warfare in the Hohokam area.

In the Anasazi area, the Middle Period is characterized by the “Pax Chaco.” In contrast to the communities of the Early Period, those of the Middle Period did not have locations, sizes, or configurations that promoted defense. In addition, fewer structures were burned during the Middle Period. Most unburied bodies recovered from this time period do not seem to be associated with warfare. However, LeBlanc acknowledges the possibility that cannibalism was practiced on a major scale in the Chaco Interaction Sphere, which consisted of most of the eastern Anasazi area. Like Turner and Turner (1999), LeBlanc does not believe that these are cases of starvation-induced cannibalism. He believes that an elite group used terrorism to enforce their demands, with entire communities killed for noncompliance. Unlike Turner and Turner, LeBlanc does not believe that this elite group came from Mesoamerica.

From AD 1150 to 1250, communities became more defensive in location and construction, incidents of violence increased, and the new social system disintegrated. The Late Period (AD 1250 to Spanish Contact) is described by LeBlanc as a time of “crisis and catastrophe.” Within 50 years the entire population of the Colorado Plateau moved into approximately 100 very large communities constructed in clusters of 2 to 18 pueblos. Many were built with line-of-sight communication in mind. Over time the communities declined in size and most of them were completely abandoned. Finally, the entire Colorado Plateau was reduced to 3 clusters of sites: Acoma, Hopi, and Zuni. At the time of Spanish Contact, Acoma consisted of a single pueblo and Hopi and Zuni both had been reduced to 6 or 7 pueblos each. The rate of attrition was less severe in the Rio Grande area. By AD 1540 the majority of the Southwest population was living in the Rio Grande Valley, not on the Colorado Plateau.

Of the 27 site clusters on the Colorado Plateau, approximately two-thirds of them have burned structures. The majority of the Rio Grande clusters also have some evidence for burning, but it was not as common as in the Colorado Plateau area. Unburied bodies have been discovered at more than 25 Late Period sites. Further evidence of intense Late Period warfare is found in incidents of scalps and body parts being taken as trophies. Also, sex ratios of burial populations from many sites display an imbalance indicating more men were being buried away from their homes, possibly due to long distance warfare. LeBlanc notes that rock art and kiva murals commonly have the shield-bearer motif in the Rio Grande area only after AD 1300. As previously mentioned, it was during the Late Period that the sinew-backed recurved bow was introduced to the Southwest.

Historical accounts suggest that warfare was endemic in the Southwest at the time of Contact. The Spaniards encountered well-defended and militarily organized communities. They also found that war leaders held high status among their people. Although Piman oral history describes a great war involving the Hohokam sites of Casa Grande, Pueblo Grande, and Pueblo de los Muertos, a pattern of warfare is not clear for the Hohokam area.

According to LeBlanc, the underlying cause for intense Late Period warfare was the marked deterioration of the climate caused by the Little Ice Age. Apparently climatic change was so severe that farming was discontinued over much of the Southwest. The prehistoric peoples were going to war over resources made scarce by the rapidly deteriorating climate. According to LeBlanc, warfare, famine, and disease are to blame for the population decline in the Southwest. He believes that most people did not have the chance to migrate. Even if they could migrate, where would they migrate to? There is some evidence that intense warfare broke out in the late 1200s all over North America. If warfare was indeed a pan-continental phenomenon, then the Little Ice Age could be the pan-continental explanation.

LeBlanc provides ample evidence for the prevalence of prehistoric warfare in the Southwest, particularly among the Anasazi. His argument is well-constructed with the various lines of evidence evaluated in reference to a temporal framework. A particular weakness in Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest is that the Hohokam and Mogollon do not get as much attention as the Anasazi. Although he includes information regarding the Hohokam and Mogollon when available, a pattern of warfare is not as clear for these groups as for the Anasazi. However, this deficiency is not really LeBlanc's fault. More data need to be collected on the Hohokam and Mogollon, and on the Early Period for all three groups. In encouraging others to critique and refine his work, he specifically challenges them to attempt to explain long periods of peace since they are such a rarity. Reviewed by Rebecca J. Hill

Reviewed by Rebecca J. Hill


Keeley, Lawrence H. 1996 War Before Civilization. New York and Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Lekson, Stephen H. 1992 Scale and Process in the Southwest. Paper presented at the Third Southwestern Symposium, January 1992, Tucson, Arizona.

Turner, Christy G., II and Jacqueline A. Turner. 1999 Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press.

The full review with illustrations appeared in Athena Review, Vol.2, no.4.

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