The Archaeology of Ancient Arizona

Jefferson Reid; Stephanie M. Whittlesey

Arizona: Land and People

Arizonans, new and old alike, never fail to marvel at the stark beauty of Arizona's many landscapes and the way that variations in light and season create subtle changes at each moment in time. Although visitors may find it difficult to imagine a single state ranging from desert cactus through alpine meadows to monuments in rough-hewn stone and red mesas, this is precisely what travelers experience as they journey from south to north in Arizona. This variability is the result of geological processes operating over millions of years, of topographic features like the Mogollon Rim, and most especially of water. The scarcity of water created and maintains the deserts. Water was the force that gouged the Grand Canyon, and rivers are the lifeblood of irrigation farmers. So, too, water was a major factor in prehistory.

Twelve thousand years ago when Paleoindian Clovis hunters entered Arizona, there was much more water than today. Well-watered valleys rich in grass and forage were the range for elephants (Mammuthus columbi, or mammoths), horses, camels, bison, and lurking predators such as the dire wolf and the saber-toothed tiger. This prehistoric zoo parade even included a ground sloth that could grow to twelve feet tall but that was, thankfully, a vegetarian. At the end of this geological period that geologists call the Pleistocene, the climate shifted to become more like it is today, the large animals disappeared, and the Clovis hunting culture gave way to sparse populations of Archaic hunting-and-gathering people. People of the Cochise Culture, the Archaic people of southern and central Arizona, hunted smaller game such as deer, turkeys, and rabbits, and invested much time in gathering wild plants. By the middle of the first millennium before the Christian era, they began to grow corn they had acquired from people to the south in present-day Mexico. Soon beans and squash were added. Farming villages sprang up wherever land and water were sufficient to make a living. In areas ill-suited to farming, however, the people continued to rely on hunting and gathering.

Some time around A.D. 200 and perhaps as early as A.D. 1 in some parts of Arizona, the art of manufacturing pottery containers was introduced. Soon after, we begin to recognize major differences in architecture, lifestyles, and ceramics that mark the divisions archaeologists recognize as prehistoric cultures. Three physiographic divisions of Arizona present radically different environments today, and in prehistory these environments played a critical role in distinguishing the major cultures on the basis of whether they earned a living by hunting and gathering or by farming. As you drive the highways and back roads of Arizona, consider what the landscape around you could provide in the way of water, food, tools, and shelter, and you will gain a heightened appreciation for the skill and ingenuity of the Ancient Ones.

Kokopelli dancers on a Santa Cruz red-on-buff ceramic plate from the Colonial Period of the Hohokam Culture.

Southern and western Arizona are marked by Sonoran Desert basins, mountain ranges, and Arizona's major rivers-the Colorado, Gila, Salt, San Pedro, and Santa Cruz. The ancient Hohokam ("those who have gone before"; "all used up" in the Piman language) drew water from the desert rivers, especially the Gila and Salt, to irrigate their fields of corn, beans, squash, and cotton. They also grew agave on the slopes of the foothills, gathered wild plants such as cactus and mesquite, and hunted in the nearby mountains. The Pima and the Tohono O'odham (formerly called the Papago) believe themselves to be the descendants of the Hohokam.

The prehistoric Patayan people (the "old ones" in the Yuman language) pursued a more mobile lifestyle, shifting residence from their garden plots along the Colorado River to inland camps in the adjacent deserts and mountains. The Yuman peoples in this area today are probably their descendants.

The central highlands form a zone of heavily dissected topography, with steep canyons and mountains jutting above the tree line. The Mogollon Rim forms its northern boundary and is a principal feature, causing higher rainfall in the mountains than on the Colorado Plateau to the north. Here in the mountains the Mogollon people (named after the Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico, which were in turn named for the Spanish colonial governor Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon) hunted deer and turkey; gathered pine nuts, acorns, and berries in season; and cultivated small gardens in isolated areas of fertile, moist soil. The Mogollon have no recognized descendants, although they undoubtedly are represented today among the Pueblo people such as the Hopi and Zuni. The Western Apache, on the other hand, are historical-period residents of the Southwest who provide the best example of how the prehistoric Mogollon adapted to the central mountains of Arizona.

Northern Arizona is the southernmost part of the vast Colorado Plateau, stretching from the Mogollon Rim into Wyoming. In this cold desert land of scant surface water, the Anasazi ("enemy ancestors" in the Navajo language) mastered dry farming. Their Arizona descendants, the Hopi, live there today along the southern edge of Black Mesa.

The prehistoric Sinagua ("without water" in Spanish), who were related to the Anasazi and Mogollon and who formed part of the Hopi's ancestry, were skilled farmers who lived around present-day Flagstaff and down through the Verde River valley. Late in prehistory the Salado people (named after the Salt River, the "Rio Salado" in Spanish) adapted irrigation farming techniques to the river valleys of central and southeastern Arizona. Salado descendants remain to be identified as part of ongoing archaeological research and discovery.

As you read, you may be wondering how archaeologists know what the Hohokam and other ancient peoples called themselves. The answer is that we do not. The names of all the prehistoric cultures you will read about in this book were assigned by archaeologists. We do not know what languages the Ancient Ones spoke, for they left no written records. We cannot know what they called themselves, although for many living native peoples it often is simply the words that mean "The People" in their own language. For similar reasons, we cannot draw precise genealogical connections between living Arizona Indians and those who came before or define them as "tribes," as modern Indians do. We tell here the story of Arizona's ancient people as it has been derived from excavation and survey, from artifact and ecofact, from inference, and, indeed, sometimes from guesses. Unfortunately, there are no pat answers, and we cannot always be sure that we are right.

A horned lizard etched on the back of a Cardium shell from the Sedentary Period of the Hohokam Culture.

In contrast to prehistory, the historical era stands in clear light. We have the luxury of written records; we know the languages people spoke, and we can associate names with individuals and the events of their lives.

Although less intellectual detective work is required to understand the past, history is no less fascinating than prehistory, nor is it less varied in the people who made it happen. Arizona history begins in the summer of 1540 with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado's march to present-day Zuni, though some might wish to reckon its beginning in the previous year. In 1539, Fray Marcos de Niza, guided by the intrepid Estevan-ex-slave and survivor, along with Alvar Nudez Cabeza de Vaca, of the ill-fated Narvaez expedition to Florida-claimed to have traveled to a place near Zuni and then returned to Mexico upon hearing of Estevan's death at the hands of the Zuni. De Niza carried the tales of the gold-rich Seven Cities of Cibola that convinced the viceroy of New Spain to send Coronado north. Coronado's failure to find riches did not deter the expansion of Spanish colonization, which was marked by missionary and military efforts to bring Arizona's land and people under Spanish control. The Spanish colonial period lasted until Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821.

The period of Mexican control introduced a third element into the rich human tapestry of Arizona. Mexico stamped Arizona with her culture and her lifeways, and although the Mexican period formally ended with the Gadsden Purchase of 1854 and the abandonment of the Mexican garrison at Tucson in 1856, in many ways Arizona remained a Mexican state for many years after these events.

Still more variety in language, lifestyle, and culture was introduced during the subsequent American period. Many new ethnic groups, from Chinese to Greeks to peoples of African descent, joined the Arizona pageant. Statehood in 1912 marks the beginning of the modern period of Arizona history, when the state began to participate intensively in the national and international events sweeping the century. Today as then, Arizona is rich in human diversity, indelibly stamped by the Native American, Spanish, and Mexican peoples, and the peoples of many other heritages, all of whom call themselves Arizonans.

Copyright © 1997. The Arizona Board of Regents.

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