Soil analysis in discussions of agricultural feasibility for ancient civilizations: A critical review and reanalysis of the data and debate from Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

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Questions about how archaeological populations obtained basic food supplies are often difficult to answer. The application of specialist techniques from non-archaeological fields typically expands our knowledge base, but can be detrimental to cultural interpretations if employed incorrectly, resulting in problematic datasets and erroneous conclusions not easily caught by the recipient archaeological community. One area where this problem has failed to find resolution is Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, the center of one of the New World’s most vibrant ancient civilizations. Discussions of agricultural feasibility and its impact on local population levels at Chaco Canyon have been heavily influenced by studies of soil salinity. A number of researchers have argued that salinized soils severely limited local agricultural production, instead suggesting food was imported from distant sources, specifically the Chuska Mountains. A careful reassessment of existing salinity data as measured by electrical conductivity reveals critical errors in data conversion and presentation that have misrepresented the character of the area’s soil and its potential impact on crops. We combine all available electrical conductivity data, including our own, and apply multiple established conversion methods in order to estimate soil salinity values and evaluate their relationship to agricultural productivity potential. Our results show that Chacoan soils display the same salinity ranges and spatial variability as soils in other documented, productive fields in semi-arid areas. Additionally, the proposed large-scale importation of food from the Chuska Mountains region has serious social implications that have not been thoroughly explored. We consider these factors and conclude that the high cost and extreme inflexibility of such a system, in combination with material evidence for local agriculture within Chaco Canyon, make this scenario highly unlikely. Both the soil salinity and archaeological data suggest that there is no justification for precluding the practice of local agriculture within Chaco Canyon.