Many of the prehistoric cultures of the Southwest are routinely described as “mysterious,” most often in popular accounts and tourist information but also sometimes in the more serious archaeological literature. This is certainly true in a sense, in that a lot of information about any given ancient society, especially one without writing, is gone forever and cannot be recovered even by the best archaeological techniques. The various archaeologically defined prehistoric Southwestern “cultures” actually vary quite a bit in how mysterious they are in terms of the big questions: where they came from, what happened to them, and which, if any, modern societies are their descendants. The irony is that the culture which is most often popularly described as “mysterious,” the Anasazi, is actually one of the least mysterious in these terms. While the details remain obscure, and connecting any given prehistoric site to its most likely modern descendant communities is currently not possible (and may remain so forever), on a large scale at least some of the answers are pretty clear: the origins of the Anasazi remain a bit murky but there is evidence that at least some developed out of preexisting Archaic groups, with others possibly descending from immigrant groups from further south, and it’s very clear that the Anasazi as a whole are ancestral to the modern Pueblo peoples. This is one of the main reasons that the term “Anasazi” is currently deprecated in certain circles in favor of “Ancestral Puebloan.” The latter term is certainly accurate, and I think it is useful in some contexts, but in this post I will stick to “Anasazi” in its traditional archaeological meaning, for reasons that will become apparent later on.
In contrast to this clear progression of Anasazi to Pueblo, many of the other prehistoric cultures have no obvious connections to any modern groups. The Mogollon of east-central Arizona and southern New Mexico are certainly quite different from the Apache groups that occupied these areas historically, and there is no archaeological consensus on what happened to them and who their descendants might be. The same is true of the Hohokam of southern Arizona; the modern group occupying their territory is the O’odham (Pima and Papago), and there have been arguments both for and against the idea of cultural continuity between the two groups.
The most mysterious ancient culture in the Southwest, however, might be the Fremont of Utah. Both the beginning and the end of the Fremont phenomenon have been subject to vociferous debate since the culture was first defined, and while there seems to be a general consensus at this point on where the Fremont came from, there is still vociferous debate on where they went. Understanding the issues here requires a brief discussion of the history of Fremont research and the different theories that have been proposed for who the Fremont were and what happened to them. The following discussion is based largely on the summary in an important 1998 review article by David Madsen and Steven Simms; there have certainly been new developments in Fremont research since them, and some criticism of Madsen and Simms’s approach, but the article remains influential and widely cited in recent work on the Fremont.
There was some sporadic archaeological work in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries at sites that would later be considered Fremont, most notably Neil Judd’s work in the 1910s in southwestern Utah, before his more famous work at Chaco Canyon in the 1920s. This work generally interpreted the sites in question as similar to the Anasazi/Pueblo sites further south but relatively crude and backward, leading to the notion of a “Northern Periphery” of the Anasazi culture area. The Fremont culture was first defined, however, by Noel Morss in 1931 based on excavations along the Fremont River in south-central Utah. Morss considered these sites not as “peripheral” to the Anasazi sites to the south but as a different and equally developed culture, showing some Anasazi influence but also many distinctive traits. He defined his Fremont culture fairly narrowly, however, and excluded the sites further west excavated by Judd and others. Morss’s position was not very popular over the next couple decades, however, and all of these sites continued to be widely considered part of a “Northern Periphery” of the Southwest, often termed “Puebloid” to emphasize that they were both similar to and different from true Pueblo sites to the south. In the 1930s the work of Julian Steward added to this mix a large number of sites in northern Utah around the Great Salt Lake. While Morss and others had interpreted the sites in southern Utah as the result of a society which relied on both corn agriculture and foraging of wild foods for subsistence, Steward separated his sites into a sedentary, agricultural “Northern Periphery” culture and a mobile, foraging “Promontory” culture, which were apparently contemporaneous.
By the 1950s a consensus began to emerge that all of these cultures, except maybe Promontory, were really regional variations of a single overarching culture which became known as “Fremont,” following Morss but expanding his terminology significantly. The sites in western Utah (the eastern Great Basin) excavated by Judd and later researchers were acknowledged to be different in some ways from those further east on the Colorado Plateau and were described by some as “Sevier Fremont” (after the Sevier River, along which many of the largest sites were located), but the overall unity of “Fremont” as a cultural unit equivalent to “Anasazi” or “Hohokam” became widely accepted.
Now that some consensus had emerged on the unity of Fremont culture, attention turned to who these Fremont people were, where they had come from, and what happened to them. Most researchers decided that they had developed in situ out of preexisting Archaic foraging groups (which would explain the evidence for continued foraging) with the adoption of some cultural traits diffused from the Anasazi (such as pottery and agriculture). There were some dissenting voices, however, such as James Gunnerson, who argued that the Fremont developed from the immigration northeastward of Virgin Anasazi groups from the Virgin heartland in southwestern Utah and southern Nevada, and that the Fremont proper and Sevier Fremont developed subsequently into the Utes and Shoshones, respectively, who occupied the equivalent parts of Utah in the historical period. The latter part of this reconstruction was quickly shot down by Albert Schroeder and others, who pointed out how different Ute and Shoshone material culture was in the archaeological record from the preceding Fremont levels.
A more influential dissent came from Melvin Aikens, who argued based on work in the Great Salt Lake basin in the 1960s that Steward’s Promontory culture was part of the Fremont complex, which itself was neither indigenous or the result of Anasazi migration north but rather the result of migration south, from the northwestern Plains, by groups that probably spoke Athabascan languages and later moved back out onto the Plains and became the Apaches and Navajos. Gunnerson had previously argued that the Promontory culture might have been Athabascan, as Steward himself had previously suggested, by pointing out similarities between Promontory and the Dismal River culture of the central Plains, which has been widely associated with the historic Na’isha (“Kiowa Apaches”). Gunnerson saw Promontory as a late incursion from the Plains roughly contemporaneous with Dismal River, which dates to the seventeenth century, while Aikens argued based on some of the same evidence that all of Fremont, including Promontory, stemmed from a much earlier migration from the Plains and ended with a migration back out. This was an elegant solution to both the origin and demise of Fremont, which by this point had become dated to about AD 500 and 1400 respectively, but it never achieved any wide acceptance among either Fremont or Plains archaeologists. For one thing, in addition to the resemblances to Dismal River, and the general Plains cast of certain Fremont traits (bison hunting, use of moccasins rather than sandals, the “shield-bearing warrior” rock art motif), Aikens appealed to alleged evidence from physical anthropology that skulls from Fremont sites resembled types associated with the Plains rather than those of the Southwest or Great Basin. This reliance on a typological approach to skull morphology was already considered old-fashioned, as George Armelagos pointed out in a response to Aikens. Madsen and Simms consider the real virtue of Aikens’s hypothesis that it stimulated research into regional variation within the recently defined Fremont “culture.”
This research quickly showed that variation was considerable, and in fact it was extremely hard to assemble a list of traits that characterized all Fremont groups without including any other cultures. Nevertheless, regional “subcultures” were soon defined: the Parowan, Sevier, and Great Salt Lake variants in the Great Basin and the San Rafael and Uinta variants on the Colorado Plateau. Many of the differences between these groups seemed to be primarily ecological in nature, given the very wide variety of environmental situations these groups found themselves in. In concert with the ascendance of the “New Archaeology” in American archaeology generally during the 1970s, Fremont archaeology came to focus extensively on adaptations to local environmental conditions, and new evidence of continuity in many areas between preceding Archaic groups and later Fremont variants led to a continued acceptance of an in situ origin for Fremont with the diffusion of Anasazi traits northward and their acceptance to varying degrees by indigenous foragers who still kept many of their previous practices, including a heavy dependence on foraging in addition to horticulture.
At the end of the 1970s Madsen challenged the whole idea that “Fremont” denoted a coherent cultural unit. He pointed out the impossibility of defining it based on traits, and proposed instead that there were two or three separate cultures lurking inside the concept. He reserved the term “Fremont” for the Colorado Plateau variants (San Rafael and Uinta), reducing the concept to more or less Morss’s original formulation, and redefined the Great Basin variants as a separate culture called “Sevier.” The major distinction he proposed for these two was in subsistence. He saw the Fremont as being primarily corn agriculturalists who did some hunting and gathering, while the Sevier were more focused on wild resources and farmed only supplementarily. This conclusion was based largely on his own research at Backhoe Village in the Sevier valley, a large, permanent site which he interpreted as having an economy based primarily on gathering of wild cattails rather than corn agriculture. In general Madsen’s Sevier were more like other Great Basin foraging groups than Fremont archaeologists had generally assumed, with a heavy emphasis on the resources in wetland areas surrounding lakes and relatively little use of agriculture. Madsen also held out the possibility of a third culture in the Great Salt Lake area with Plains affinities, much as Aikens had argued, although he refused to give it a name. (It’s not clear why he didn’t use Steward’s name “Promontory” for this culture, which seems to overlap to some extent with Steward’s concept.) Responses to Madsen’s proposal were skeptical, and it has not been any more influential than Aikens’s Plains theory. It’s noteworthy that in his 1998 review article written with Simms Madsen shows that he has grudgingly backed off of this division and accepted the Fremont concept at least as a scholarly convention.
In the 1980s the idea of “adaptive diversity” became influential in Fremont studies. Simms was one of the major figures in this shift, which emphasized the idea that the well-known mix of farming and foraging within the Fremont phenomenon may have involved shifts between the two lifestyles even in the lifetimes of individuals. An article published by Simms in 1986 demonstrated the existence of ephemeral structures similar to ethnographic Great Basin wickiups associated with Fremont material culture, and in his 1998 review article with Madsen the implications of this approach are spelled out in more detail. Basically, the idea is that the Fremont complex may have included full-time farmers, full-time foragers, and individuals shifting between the two subsistence strategies either routinely or over the course of a lifetime in response to changing environmental conditions. Thus, the defining characteristic of Fremont subsistence is not a single approach but a flexible attitude. This focus on individual behavior in response to changing circumstances is what Madsen and Simms mean by a “behavioral approach” to the Fremont complex. Given how influential their article seems to be in contemporary Fremont studies, this approach seems to have been more successful than the earlier attempts to redirect Fremont researchers by Aikens and Madsen.
That said, it’s not like there’s nothing to criticize in this approach. For one thing, it interprets the Fremont primarily through a frame of reference developed through studies of hunter-gatherers. The Fremont certainly did hunt and gather to some extent, but they also definitely farmed, and it’s not totally clear that the former is a more appropriate context than the latter for understanding Fremont societies. It certainly aligns Fremont studies with archaeological research in the Great Basin rather than with the very different tradition in the Southwest (with which it was aligned during the “Northern Periphery” period). This might be appropriate; after all, part of the Fremont region is in fact in the Great Basin, and if the Fremont did develop out of a local Archaic base that would also associate them with the Great Basin. As I noted in the previous post, however, this approach sets the Fremont apart from the Southwest and makes events in the Fremont region hard to line up with concurrent events further south, which is problematic because there is reason to think there may be connections between the two regions. This becomes even more of an issue when it comes to the question of what ultimately happened to the Fremont, which I have barely touched on in this post. That’s a subject that probably deserves its own post, though.
Aikens, C. (1967). Plains Relationships of the Fremont Culture: A Hypothesis American Antiquity, 32 (2) DOI: 10.2307/277904
Armelagos, G. (1968). Aikens’ Fremont Hypothesis and Use of Skeletal Material in Archaeological Interpretation American Antiquity, 33 (3) DOI: 10.2307/278710
Gunnerson, J. (1956). Plains-Promontory Relationships American Antiquity, 22 (1) DOI: 10.2307/276168
Gunnerson, J. (1962). Plateau Shoshonean Prehistory: A Suggested Reconstruction American Antiquity, 28 (1) DOI: 10.2307/278076
Judd, N. (1917). Evidence of Circular Kivas in Western Utah Ruins American Anthropologist, 19 (1), 34-40 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1917.19.1.02a00070
Madsen, D. (1979). New Views on the Fremont: The Fremont and the Sevier: Defining Prehistoric Agriculturalists North of the Anasazi: Reply American Antiquity, 44 (4) DOI: 10.2307/279114
Madsen, D., & Simms, S. (1998). The Fremont Complex: A Behavioral Perspective Journal of World Prehistory, 12 (3), 255-336 DOI: 10.1023/A:1022322619699
Schroeder, A. (1963). Comment on Gunnerson’s “Plateau Shoshonean Prehistory” American Antiquity, 28 (4) DOI: 10.2307/278572