The Humanistic Approach

While a strictly rigorous point of view cannot work, it is equally risky to embrace a completely humanistic, or emic, approach. When applied to archaeoastronomy, this approach seeks to identify the cultural matrix in which astronomical knowledge developed, availing itself of ethnological information so as to determine which traditions and values to mine for the right content. There are, however, several frameworks to the reconstruction of the cultural context in which the study of a monument or an astronomical alignment should be situated. If there is a connection—real or presumed— with a population that still exists, one can try to exploit it. Such is the case, for example, in the link between the ancient Anasazi and the modern Pueblo and Zuni peoples. Archaeologists and archaeoastronomers have thus analyzed the available ethnological material on these populations for clues that might help them understand the frenetic astronomical activities of the Chacoans, particularly their roads (Ellis 1975).

Though getting a handle on what really happens in today's Pueblo rituals is a difficult enterprise, certain points are clear. Pueblo cosmology is full of roads. Life is a road, and the spirits are custodians of the various roads that branch off from it. When humans first emerged from the sipapu, the hole in the floor of a kiva (see Chapter 7), they remained close by. But the site was so sacred that they were eventually asked by the gods to move further south. Consequently, when they died their spirits would travel northward, returning to the sipapu and back into the womb of the earth. The spirits then return each year to visit the living, using the roads that had led them north, and these roads are often described as being straight. When a person dies, a holy man places offerings for him in a canyon to the north of the village on the road toward the sipapu, including containers of food for his final journey. The Pueblo are also well documented as undertaking what we would call pilgrimages to sacred sites. Often these journeys are as long as 500 kilometers and can last for months, a specific example being that of the Pueblo who live near Chaco, whose pilgrimage takes them northward from Chaco proper to a sipapu in the form of a small lake in the San Juan Mountains.

Among the Zuni, a pilgrimage is undertaken every 4 years at the summer solstice toward a lake believed to host the spirits of the dead. During the journey, one of the holy men lights fires along the road. In both Pueblo and Zuni cosmology, the lake is seen as the "middle place,'' the navel of the world, a sacred point where all the cardinal directions converge. Sun and moon play complementary roles in governing religious rituals and agricultural activities; the year begins, for example, with the first full moon following the winter solstice, or "weak sun.'' The solstice also figures prominently in Pueblo mythology, such as the legend that has the solstice sun impregnating a virgin through a window. The Pueblo and the Zuni, finally, share an interest in the passage ofthe noonday sun, which may be significant as a method of determining south (Zeilik 1985, 1986).

Does all this information on the descendants of the Anasazi increase our knowledge of the Anasazi? It's hard to say. We have learned something, and intuited perhaps something else. However, there is nothing in the practices of the modern-day Pueblo or Zuni even remotely comparable to the "scientific'' attention dedicated by the Anasazi to celestial phenomena, or to the corresponding building craze that transformed Chaco into a complex machine of astronomical observations. To cite just one example, the Pueblo of today are not aware of the 18.6-year cycle of the lunar stations, which were well known to the Anasazi.

Ambiguous or mutated traces of the past are commonly found in ethnological data. Despite the fact that some traditions filter down easily through the centuries (particularly common with calendars, to the extent that some Mayan populations, for example, still use the Tzolkin calendar today), it is very difficult to reconstruct a civilization's thought—in the sense of its overall view of the world, which would include the extravagant monumentality of its astronomically anchored architecture—on the basis of the objective and often difficult conditions of the contemporary life of these people.

Still more complex and thorny is the problem of understanding if it is possible to apply ethnological interpretations by analogy.

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