As you may recall, on my recent trek into Anasazi country I came across a strange petroglyph that I suspected was a map. Since I knew of no other instances of Anasazi cartography, this would be an important discovery if proven to be true. Also, like my stumbling across medieval maps of America that pre-date Columbus*, it’s not something I was intending to find; it was, rather, the result of keeping both open eyes and an open mind.
I’ve spent quite some time in the days since my return poring over maps of the area in which I found the petroglyph — yes, I’m being deliberately vague about its location — in order to accumulate evidence confirming or denying my initial hypothesis that this was an effort at cartography. I now feel reasonably confident in saying yes, it is. I cannot say this with absolute certainty, since to do so would be to abandon all objectivity in the matter, but reading the evidence in another way is growing more and more difficult for me to accept on rational terms.
Aside from mere novelty, there are at least four things that I find particularly striking about coming to the conclusion that this is a map. If my identifications of the canyons are correct, then …
– it reveals a rather remarkably attuned sense of scale at a macro level. The canyon “lengths” are in correct relative proportion to one another.
– it shows a degree of literacy that has previously been only suspected among these peoples. Simply put, a map is written communication; and what good is a text if no one can read it?
– it could provide direct evidence of the small-scale political and social boundaries within the larger-scale cultural relationships of the Anasazi. The map doesn’t end, after all, because of a dearth of rock.
– it may give us clear evidence of what’s “up” in the Anasazi worldview, because a key element in reading a map of any kind is a base orientation. If it is not marked somehow — a little arrow pointing to the word “North,” for instance — then it must be either culturally accepted or plainly obvious which way is up. My feeling here is that it’s not plainly obvious; thus, it must be an understood “fact” that a certain direction is “up.”
Each of these observations could, in turn, enter into arguments about nearly every facet of Anasazi life. To take just the last instance:
Medieval European maps were most often oriented relative to East, whereas the majority of modern maps are oriented relative to North. The reason for the previous eastern orientation was simple: many medieval Europeans were convinced that Eden was in the farthest East, and the resulting cartographic behavior was intrinsically related to their notions of Paradise and the level to which Christianity had infiltrated the predominating worldview. Knowing the Anasazi “north,” therefore, might give us great insight we are otherwise lacking.
I’m rather excited about this find, but I’m also moving slowly on studying it. I’m not a specialist in this area of study, for one thing. Even more than that, though, I want to be sure that I don’t lose objectivity, and the sense of “discovery” — or, better said, the desire to sense discovery — can all-too-easily lead a researcher to jump to claims without proof and otherwise forget the kind of focused, rational inquiry that is intended to be our intellectual stock and trade.
So I’m moving slowly. But moving nevertheless.
*I present the evidence for this, but not the story of my finding it, in the article “More Vinland Maps and Texts: Discovering the New World in Higden’s Polychronicon,” which was published in The Journal of Medieval History in 2004.