Episode 14: The Ancient Southwest – Discovery of Diversity

Ancient Civilizations of North America

Dr Edwin Barnhart (2018)

Film Review

During the Archaic Period (10,000 – 3,000 BP), the Southwest was a patchwork of similar but distinct cultures extending far into Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert. Although large populations clustered intermittently around the river systems of Tuscon and Phoenix, occasional droughts overwhelmed all irrigation strategies and drove them out of the region. Early Southwest cultures had far reaching trade networks with bison hunters on the Great Plains, coastal fishermen and possibly Central and South America. There’s no evidence of Mississippian contact, possibly due to extreme difficulty crossing the Texas desert.

By 3,000 BP (before present), the Southwest was home to four distinct cultures (comprising millions of people): the primary Hohokam culture in the Sonoran Desert (Arizona) along the Gila and Salt Rivers and Mongollon culture in the Mongollon mountains of modern day southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico and the secondary Patayan and the Fremont cultures.*

Between 1500 BC – 50 AD, the Mongollon and Hohokaum lived in camps and open caves, made baskets and engaged in seasonal hunting and gathering. Although corn first appeared in the Southwest around 2000 BC, it didn’t become a major crop (along the coast) until 1000 BC. Many  inland peoples were planting it by 300 BC, settling into permanent pit houses and building irrigation canals to accommodate their two weeks of annual. Although they left behind grinding stones and the large flat baskets they carried corn in, they continued to rely heavily on hunting for subsistence.

Beginning around 400 AD the Mongollon and Hohokam gradually transitioned from pit houses to single story masonry homes. By 500 AD, they began to favor ceramics over baskets and were able to add beans (which must be soaked and boiled) to their diet. However it was the introduction of the bow and arrow that allowed them to establish year round settlements (it’s really hard to hit a bird with a spear). Villages from this period featured central plazas, steep oval depressions used as ball courts and enormous “great houses”** constructed on platform mounds.

There’s evidence both cultures participated in immense trade networks, providing them shells from California and copper, turquoise and obsidian from western Mexico. They are also known for exceptionally painted pottery bowls, small decorative stone pallets and elaborate figurines wearing clothes and jewelry.

Beginning from 750 AD, cultures identified as Ancestral Pueblo (or Anastasi***) appeared in the desert regions north of the Mogollon and Hohokam. The former lived in above ground adobe or stone built homes with flat roofs to catch water for storage. Their eventual adoption of irrigation reservoirs and canals led to increased agriculture production and population increase. Later settlements are known for multistory apartment complexes and (in Chaco Canyon and Ma Verde) wide well-built roads connecting villages.

Between 1130-1180 AD, Chaco Canyon experienced 50 years of drought, which worsened in the 1200s, leading to major emigration from the region.

After 1350 AD, the Pueblo returned to settle in large independent towns built around central plazas.

*The Patayan, settling  west of the Hohokum and south of the Grand Canyon, lived in earth lodges, engaged in hunting and left behind rock trail markers. The Fremont were limited to the northern reaches of the Colorado plateau and lived in areas making up  modern day Colorado, Utah and parts of Nevada. They engaged in hunting and extensive petroglyph art.

**Southwest great houses were large multi-room buildings that were either chief’s homes or charnal houses housing the remains of dead chiefs.

**Anastasi was a Navajo name (meaning ancient enemy) for Ancestral Pueblo culture and contemporary Pueblo reject the label.

The Mongollon lived big towns the same time as the Ancestral Pueblo (900-1150 AD), which they abandoned due to the severe 12th-13th century drought. Around 1300 AD they were re-inhabited by the Pueblo people.

*Cervesa De Vaca


By Jeffrey L. Klump

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