Getting Religion: Lessons from Ancestral Pueblo History

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Religion may be uniquely human. It might even be that which makes human beings human (Rappaport 1979:229-230). But to what extent do religions or religious ideologies constitute human history? Answering that question is a task for archaeologists, but they often seem uncertain about their beliefs about, well, beliefs. Fortunately, uncertainty in the study of religions or, more precisely, the relationship between humanity, history, and religious practices, rituals, places, ideologies, or cosmologies is as it should be. Any understanding of religion necessitates gaining some perspective on the matter. One does this by first stepping outside the role of believer and then by unpacking that which is asserted to be religion by those who would define it. Archaeologists often do the former, but they seldom do the latter. This volume does the latter, and here I attempt to clarify why it matters to the larger historical and anthropological project. Importantly, neither the volume nor this essay begins with a rigid definition of Ancestral Pueblo religion (see Parsons 1939), although most analysts would undoubtedly agree that Pueblo religious practices were "animistic," not unlike those of many people worldwide (Bird-David 1999). That is, many if not all Pueblo peoples probably recognized that spirits or powers might inhabit certain people, places, things, nonhuman creatures, and any number of earthly or atmospheric phenomena (see also Ingold 2007). This is an ontological truism almost as basic as the statement above that people are inherently religious. But it matters with respect to understanding the history of the later Pueblo world because various kinds of numinous experiences or cosmic events might have held greater significance to Pueblos than they do in the Western world today (Walker 2008). Indeed, the trends and events of the late thirteenth century hinge on understanding why this is (see Van Keuren and Glowacki, this volume). Reviewing the chapters in this book leads one to an important conclusion: the central issues of and major transformations in indigenous and later colonial history in the Southwest are fully explicable only in religious terms. Most significantly, the authors of these chapters interrogate Ancestral Pueblo rituality and religiosity (by which I mean the ritual and religious dimensions of past practices and experiences) rather than delineate Pueblo religion. By doing so, the authors in effect enable Ancestral Pueblo people to define religion for themselves. As a result, we all learn some lessons about human history (if not humanity generally) from the later Pueblo people of North America. These include the following: religion is multidimensional performance; it has an extended or networked character; and it is transferred or transmitted in ways that radically alter history.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationReligious Transformation in the Late Pre-Hispanic Pueblo World
EditorsDonna M Glowacki, Scott Van Keuren
PublisherUniversity of Arizona Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9780816599721
ISBN (Print)9780816503988
StatePublished - 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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