CASAS GRANDES, Mexico — From the sky, the Mound of the Cross at Paquimé, a 14th-century ruin in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, looks like a compass rose — the roundish emblem indicating the cardinal directions on a map. About 30 feet in diameter and molded from compacted earth and rock taken near the banks of the Casas Grandes River, the crisscross arms point to four circular platforms. They might as well be labeled N, S, E and W.
Steve Lekson, shown at Chimney Rock, Colo., has a theory tying Casas Grandes to Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruins.
“It’s a hell of a long way from here to Chaco,” says Steve Lekson, an archaeologist from the University of Colorado, as he sights along the north-south spoke of the cross. Follow his gaze 400 miles north and you reach Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico, a major cultural center occupied from about A.D. 900 to A.D. 1150 by the pueblo people known as Anasazi. Despite the distance, Dr. Lekson believes the two sites were linked by an ancient pattern of migration and a common set of religious beliefs.
But don’t stop at Chaco. Continue about 60 miles northward along the same straight line and you come to another Anasazi center called Aztec Ruins. For Dr. Lekson the alignment must be more than a coincidence.
A decade ago in “The Chaco Meridian: Centers of Political Power in the Ancient Southwest,” he argued that for centuries the Anasazi leaders, reckoning by the stars, aligned their principal settlements along this north-south axis — the 108th meridian of longitude. In an article this year for Archaeology magazine, he added two older ruins to the trajectory: Shabik’eschee, south of Chaco, and Sacred Ridge, north of Aztec. Each in its time was the regional focus of economic and political power, and each lies along the meridian. As one site was abandoned, because of drought, violence, environmental degradation — the reasons are obscure — the leaders led an exodus to a new location: sometimes north, sometimes south, but hewing as closely as they could to the 108th meridian.
“I think the reason is ideological,” Dr. Lekson said on a recent visit to Paquimé. “The cultural response to something not working is to move north, and when that doesn’t work you move south. And then you move north again and then you move south again, and then you finally say the hell with it, I’m out of here, and you go down to Chihuahua.”
For many of Dr. Lekson’s colleagues that is an awfully big leap. With all the ambiguities involved in interpreting patterns of dirt and rock — the Anasazi left no written history — archaeologists have been more comfortable focusing on a particular culture or a particular ruin. Dr. Lekson is constantly reaching — some say overreaching — to make connections between isolated islands of thought. Scheduled for publication this summer, his new book, “A History of the Ancient Southwest,” will go even further, offering a kind of unified theory of the Native American population movements that have puzzled Southwest archaeologists for many years.
“Steve has definitely been the one who has dragged us kicking and screaming into ‘big picture’ archaeology,” said William D. Lipe, emeritus professor of archaeology at Washington State University. “In many ways, Steve’s ideas and publications have driven much of the intellectual agenda for Southwestern archaeology over the last 20 or more years.” That does not mean, Dr. Lipe added, that he buys the idea of the Chaco meridian.
On a walk around Paquimé, Dr. Lekson points out his evidence. Casas Grandes, the Spanish name for the ruins, means “big houses,” and the multistory structures remind him of the palatial “great houses” at Chaco and Aztec. Inside the structures, people moved from room to room through T-shaped passages like those at Anasazi sites. At the House of the Pillars, a row of three colonnades formed a grand entranceway. “No one around here had colonnades except at Chaco,” Dr. Lekson says. A coincidence or a connection?
Paquimé also hints at other influences. Ball courts, used for ceremonial games, are typical of those found in southern Mexico and Central America. Effigy mounds, in which dirt was shaped to form birds and other figures, resemble those built long ago by Native Americans in the Ohio Valley. A long sinuous row of mud and stone called the Mound of the Serpent seems to undulate like a snake.
“This thing runs north and south,” Dr. Lekson says. “I love it.” He points toward a prominent hill on the horizon called Cerro de Moctezuma. Barely visible on its summit are the remains of a centuries-old stone watchtower. Nearby, he says, is another snakelike mound running north and south.
“It’s not as easy to see,” he says. “You have to believe it.”