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Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Metate Incorporated into Wall Capping, Pueblo Bonito

I’ve written a bit about the recent research, spearheaded by Larry Benson of the USGS, into the sources of the corn found at Chaco.  These studies continue to refine the techniques used to identify source areas, but so far they have shown that corn was almost certainly being imported to Chaco both during and after the florescence of the Chaco system between AD 1030 and 1130.  As they begin to test more potential field areas, of course, the number of matches for the strontium isotope ratios in the corn at Chaco has increased.  While early studies indicated that much of it likely came from the Chuska Valley, it now looks much more likely that it instead came from the area along the Chaco River between there and the canyon.  This is an area with numerous outlying great houses, and it was probably the main route for the many commodities from the Chuska area that were brought to the canyon, and it’s also generally a better area for agriculture than the canyon itself, so this all makes sense.  There has also been some evidence that at least some corn was also coming from the Totah area to the north, again a more productive agricultural area with many Chacoan outliers.

Based on the proveniences of the corncobs from Pueblo Bonito that were tested early on, one tentative suggestion emerging from this research was that the main sources of imported corn changed over time.  The cobs that came from the lower Chaco River were from Rooms 3 and 92 in the northern part of Old Bonito, one of the earliest parts of the building to be built, while the one cob of possible Totah origin came instead from Room 170, in the southeast corner, one of the newest parts of the site.  Since there does seem on other grounds to have been a shift in the emphasis of the Chaco system from south to west to north over time, it would make sense that the early rooms contained early cobs from the west while a later room contained a later cob from the north.

Talus Unit with Snow

A paper published in 2008 by a group of big names in Chacoan studies sought to look at this directly by radiocarbon dating the cobs.  This is an interesting paper which goes beyond that narrow topic to also look at the characteristics of the corn found at the various great houses and other sites.  One of the co-authors is Mollie Toll, a specialist in archaeobotany who has done a lot of research on Chacoan corn.  As part of that research, she had long noted that the corn at Pueblo Bonito generally had bigger ears with more rows of kernels than most other corn known from the prehistoric Southwest.    It was bigger than earlier and later corn, for one thing, but it was also bigger than most other corn from the same period.  Corn from the Chacoan occupation of Salmon Ruin was also unusually large, as was corn from the Talus Unit behind Chetro Ketl, but corn from Pueblo Alto and Pueblo del Arroyo, other contemporary great houses at Chaco, was smaller and more in line with that from earlier and later sites.

Toll came up with three possible explanations for the difference.  Pueblo Bonito corn could be a different variety or “landrace” from the others, which is plausible but not directly testable with current technology.  It could also have been grown outside of the canyon where conditions were better for agriculture, while the corn from other great houses was grown in the canyon where conditions were poorer.  Finally, and problematically, the corn at Bonito might not have been Chacoan at all!  Since modern corn is generally bigger than ancient corn, Toll (when she was first looking at this in the 1980s) couldn’t exclude the possibility that the corn found at Pueblo Bonito had actually been put there by Navajos in the nineteenth century.  Much of it was from George Pepper‘s excavations in the 1890s, so it couldn’t be newer than that, but there was no way for Toll to tell how much older it was.

Room 3a/92/97, Pueblo Bonito

We still can’t tell different ancient landraces apart (although the recent sequencing of the maize genome may make this more feasible in the future), but the strontium isotope testing is giving us a sense of where the corn was grown, and accelerator mass spectrometry now makes directly dating the corn relatively easy.  Seven cobs from Pueblo Bonito that had been used in the strontium studies were dated for this paper.  One was the cob from Room 170 that possibly came from the Totah, one was from Room 92, and the rest were from Room 3.

The results were illuminating, but also challenging.  All the cobs clearly dated to ancient times, so the possibility that the size of Pueblo Bonito’s corncobs represents recent deposition is effectively quashed.  Three of the Room 3 cobs had closely clustered dates with intercepts around AD 1000, which offered some partial support for the idea that the corn in the early rooms was relatively early, but the other two were widely spaced, one at 870 and at 1170.  This is problematic for the idea that the date of corn in a room can be predicted from the date of that room’s construction, but it makes sense that the deposits in a room may date to well after its construction.  Since Room 3 dates very early, probably to the 900s, it’s likely that the deposits there resulted from much later trash dumping once it was no longer used for its original purpose.  Room 3 has a firepit, so it was probably originally a residential room, and it is likely one of those “big square rooms” that I have argued began to take the place of kivas in Chacoan room suites of the tenth century.  Room 92 is part of the maze of confusing rooms next to Room 3.  It had a well-preserved floor with corn and bean bushes on it (it’s not clear from Pepper’s description if this was the second or third floor), which suggests that it was used as a storeroom at the end of the period of occupation in this part of the building.  The cob from this room had the latest date of any in the study, with an intercept of AD 1220, which is consistent with the idea that this room was in use as a storeroom at the end of occupation.

Room 170, Pueblo Bonito

The biggest surprise, however, was the cob from Room 170, which dated to AD 1010.  This is particularly odd, since Room 170 was probably built around 1080 or even later.  Looking at the probability curve for this date, there is some chance that the actual date was around 1100, but the curve as a whole has a much more prominent peak around the intercept at 1010 than any of the other reported dates, which suggests that the probability is quite high that the intercept does in fact represent the true date or close to it.  The authors give various possibilities for why the cob might have been placed in this room long after it was grown, including the idea that it was put there as some sort of ritual offering of continuity with the occupation of earlier parts of the building.  I prefer another explanation they also suggest, which is that it was part of an earlier trash deposit that was redeposited in Room 170 for some reason.  There is very little information on what the deposits in this room were actually like, but many of the rooms in this part of the building were full of trash when excavated, and I think it’s most likely that this one was too.  The trash could have been put there for any number of reasons; if it was redeposited from somewhere else, it may have served as structural fill to support an upper story.  In any case, this puts a damper on the idea that the overall sources of corn changed over time.  Indeed, the sources seem to have been pretty constant through time for cobs left in different areas of the site, which suggests that the real story is much more complicated.

One nice thing about this paper is that the authors do a very good job of properly reporting their radiocarbon dates, particularly in giving point estimates as intercepts, which are meaningful, rather than midpoints, which are not.  Many papers make this mistake, including some of Benson’s reporting these and other dates on corn.  This paper also shows the probability curves for the dates, which give even more information.  This seems to be pretty common these days among Mesoamerican archaeologists, but it’s still quite rare in the Southwest, where radiocarbon dating has only recently become a major focus.  The availability of tree-ring dates, which are much more precise, has generally led Southwestern archaeologists to neglect radiocarbon, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious from studies like this one that the ability to date things other than trees is very useful in interpreting sites.

Obviously this paper just reports a handful of dates, and the authors take pains to point out the tentative nature of any conclusions they draw, but it’s an important contribution to the issue of where the Chaco system, whatever its nature, was getting its means of support.  As is often the case with new avenues of research, at this point papers like this pose more questions than they answer, but there are plenty of corncobs out there to date and analyze in other ways, just as there are plenty of potsherds to test for theobromine.  Once we get a bigger database of dates and strontium (and other) ratios, we’ll start to get a clearer picture of the behavior behind these remains.

Metate Fragment at Pueblo Alto

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Totah Theater, Farmington, New Mexico

In comments to my post on Salmon Ruins, John Barton asks for more discussion of this area, which is surprisingly poorly understood given its obvious importance to Southwestern prehistory as a whole and the Chaco system in particular.  Wolky Toll has a chapter in the Salmon synthetic volume discussing the Totah region (named from the Navajo name for the Farmington area), and particularly the La Plata subregion, which is becoming somewhat better understood due to a major salvage archaeology project along New Mexico Highway 170, which parallels the La Plata River from the Colorado border south to its confluence with the San Juan just west of Farmington.  Toll has played a major role in this project, and his chapter has interesting things to say about the Totah in general and the La Plata valley in particular.  I don’t really buy all of his interpretations of Chaco; he’s one of the major proponents of a view of Chaco as a regional ceremonial center drawing pilgrims from throughout the San Juan Basin, including the Totah, but with a minimal population permanently resident in the canyon.  He’s particularly associated with the view that even the small-house residents at Chaco only lived there for part of the year, having other residences in other communities, especially along the Chuska Slope to the west.  I’m more inclined to see Chaco as some sort of hierarchical system with at least a relatively large permanent population, mostly in the small houses, though I’m not sure which version of this idea (and there are many out there) I find the most convincing.

Still, Toll knows a lot about the Totah.  He even introduced the term to archaeological use in an important chapter in a previous edited volume that he coauthored with Peter McKenna.  One of the important points he makes in the newer chapter is that while this region has historically been treated as part of either the Mesa Verde region to the north or the Chaco region to the south, it really has an independent identity and cultural trajectory that has been obscured by seeing it entirely in terms of migration or influence from north or south.  This is not to say that the Totah was isolated from developments to the north and south; far from it.  It’s really more accurate to see the whole San Juan basin as a single cultural region, with remarkable uniformity in many cultural expressions and changes over time.  The specific manifestations of those cultural processes were not necessarily identical, of course, but there’s more similarity than archaeologists are often inclined to say.

Mesa Verde Museum

Part of the problem here is just the way archaeology developed in the Southwest.  As Toll notes, the activities of the Wetherill family had a huge influence on which areas came to be considered most important to the interpretation of regional prehistory.  They were not the only influential figures, of course, but they definitely did a lot to put Mesa Verde and Chaco specifically on the radar of the archaeological profession as well as the general public.  In any case, the way things developed was that Mesa Verde and Chaco became well-studied, with major excavation projects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries producing huge numbers of artifacts and a general understanding of the chronological sequence of pottery types and other artifacts.  Once tree-ring dating provided an absolute chronology for the whole region, the general outline became clear: Chaco flourished in the eleventh century then declined in the twelfth, while Mesa Verde hit its peak later, in the thirteenth century, shortly before the whole region was abandoned around 1300.

This was a bit of a shift from the more evolutionary approach to culture history encapsulated in the original Pecos Classification, developed at the first Pecos Conference in 1927 and described by Alfred Vincent Kidder in a short article in Science at that time.  This system saw both Chaco and Mesa Verde, with their big, impressive masonry “pueblos,” as belonging to the Pueblo III or “Great Pueblo” period.  The tree-ring dates, however, showed that Chaco’s peak actually occurred earlier, coincident with the widespread small sites that marked the Pueblo II period.

Aztec West Great House, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Turning back to the Totah, the main excavation project there in the early twentieth century was conducted by Earl Morris at Aztec Ruins.  This was the largest site complex in the area, and it clearly indicated some level of social and cultural importance.  What Morris found there, however, instead of a unique and clearly indigenous material culture, was a mix of what seemed to be Chaco and Mesa Verde material culture.  The early deposits showed clear similarities to Chaco, as did the architecture of the site, which Morris interpreted as evidence for a close cultural connection to Chaco.  After this period, however, Morris saw evidence for an extended hiatus with little evidence of any sort of occupation or use.  After that there was another, quite different suite of material culture that looked much more like Mesa Verde.  Morris interpreted this sequence as an initial Chaco-affiliated occupation followed by abandonment and reoccupation by immigrants from the Mesa Verde region to the north.  In an important chapter in the Salmon synthesis volume, Gary Brown, Peter McKenna, and Tom Windes argue persuasively that Morris was actually wrong about this, and that while the construction and early occupation of Aztec does indeed show substantial connections to Chaco, there was probably not any abandonment or hiatus, just a period of somewhat reduced construction activity at a time of widespread drought and environmental hardship in the mid-twelfth century.  This lull was followed by extensive occupation and construction in the thirteenth century, especially at the east ruin (which Morris didn’t excavate).  The occupants at this time did have pottery similar to that used at Mesa Verde, but that doesn’t mean they were immigrants from there, and it’s much more likely that they were primarily local people who had been living at Aztec all along.  Everyone in the region at this point was making the type of pottery now known as “Mesa Verde Black-on-white,” and there’s no particular reason to think that any groups in the Totah had links to Mesa Verde, which itself seems to have been remarkably isolated during this period, with few trade goods found at the many excavated sites in the region despite its large population.  A similar story seems to obtain for Salmon, with an early Chaco-affiliated occupation followed by a period of continued occupation but little major activity, then an increase in population and activity before the final depopulation of the entire region.

So why did Morris get this wrong?  One reason, which Toll emphasizes, is that the mere fact that Chaco and Mesa Verde have been much more extensively studied than the Totah means that ceramic types (and other types of material culture, but pottery is the most important for cultural classification) have become associated with one or another of these areas, so that when they are found elsewhere in the region they are taken to indicate influence or migration from Chaco or Mesa Verde rather than a regionwide stylistic trend uniting all of these areas.  The latter is more likely, however, especially for the Totah, which was a major population and cultural center throughout the Pueblo II and III periods.  In her chapter in the Salmon synthesis volume, Lori Stephens Reed describes the discovery that the ceramic types found at Salmon and Aztec that have traditionally been classified as “Cibola” (Chaco) or “Northern San Juan” (Mesa Verde) types based on temper and design were mostly made within the Totah, judging from the type of clay used for the paste and slip of the vessels.  Rather than define new types, she just adds the qualifier “Animas Variety” to the existing type designations to indicate this local origin.  This makes sense from an Ockham’s Razor perspective, but as Toll notes in his chapter it’s really the type names themselves that have led to the downplaying of the local factor in the prehistory of the Totah.

Mesa Verde Escarpment from 2009 Pecos Conference at McPhee Campground

The best example of this is the very widespread thirteenth-century pottery type known as “Mesa Verde Black-on-white,” which is found all over the place but has tended to be interpreted as indicating some sort of influence or migration from Mesa Verde.  This is highly improbable, however, since Mesa Verde was gaining rather than losing people for most of this period (until the very end), and the people there don’t seem to have been very actively engaged in regional trade.  This strongly suggests that Mesa Verde Black-on-white is probably of local origin wherever it is found, despite the name.  Toll even muses more than once about how interpretations of Southwestern prehistory might be different if it were called “Aztec Black-on-white” instead.  It’s quite clear that Aztec was a very important site during this period, perhaps not as important as Chaco had been earlier but certainly more important than any single site in the Mesa Verde area.  And yet, because Mesa Verde has been more intensively studied, until quite recently it has been accorded an enormously important role in regional dynamics during this period that closer examination is revealing to be mostly undeserved.  Chaco has received a similarly privileged position for its period of florescence for similar reasons, but it seems to have actually been roughly as influential as this assumption implied.  (Something of an archaeological Gettier case.)

But why didn’t the Totah get the early attention that would have gained it the pride of place in Southwestern archaeology occupied by Chaco and Mesa Verde?  Ironically, a big part of the answer seems to be tied precisely to the geographic factors that made it such an important area in the first place.  One of the main reasons Mesa Verde and Chaco attracted early attention from archaeologists and pothunters was that their isolated locations left them unbelievably well-preserved.  The sites were very obvious on the landscape, many had stood relatively well due to either their massive construction (at Chaco) or their sheltered locations (at Mesa Verde), and they were sufficiently hard to get to that subsequent inhabitants and explorers hadn’t done them much harm.

Animas River, Farmington, New Mexico

The Totah, however, is an enormously attractive and productive agricultural area.  This is presumably what attracted people to Salmon, Aztec, and other communities in prehistory, and it definitely attracted huge numbers of Anglo settlers in the late nineteenth century who proceeded to plow over, loot, and otherwise damage the numerous archaeological sites they found before archaeologists had even heard of them.  The really big sites, like Salmon and Aztec themselves, managed to remain in relatively good condition until they could be professionally excavated, but innumerable smaller sites have likely been completely destroyed.

The local environment has also led to decreased visibility for these sites directly, by covering them with alluvial silt that makes them difficult or impossible to see from the surface.  As a result, we have little sense of how many sites are out there today, let alone how many were there initially before the farmers and the pothunters got to them.  Again, this is in contrast to the harsh environments of Chaco especially, and Mesa Verde to a lesser extent, where there are no permanent rivers to bury sites so deeply.  Furthermore, modern development in the Totah has been extensive, and there’s very little information about what lies underneath the rapidly growing modern towns of Farmington, Aztec, and Bloomfield.  For all of these reasons, the Totah remains surprisingly understudied, despite its obvious importance for understanding Southwestern prehistory.  Luckily this is starting to change a bit, at least on the conceptual level, with publications like Toll’s and Reed’s that point out the distinctiveness of this area and its independent identity.  The Totah has stood in the shadow of Chaco and Mesa Verde for a very long time, but it now seems to be finally coming into the light.

Chaco Street in Aztec, New Mexico

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Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

This is a fascinating example of a serious attempt to design an urban cooperative community based on the concept of a canyon.  The term “urban canyon” is often used to describe the narrow streets surrounded by skyscrapers in many big cities, and I think there is actually more to that comparison than the people who make it often realize, but this project takes the idea in a very different direction.  Produced for a design competition in Dallas a couple of years ago where the goal was to come up with a totally sustainable urban block, “Co-op Canyon” is clearly influenced by Anasazi precedents, and the architects even used the term “cliff dwelling” in describing it (although they don’t mention the Anasazi specifically).  It goes well beyond just copying the outward forms of Anasazi architecture, as modern architects often do, and incorporates agriculture throughout the staggered terraces that make up the inward-facing development with an internal “canyon” at its center.  There’s also an innovative cooperative concept for the organization of the community, in which residents contribute work in the gardens or in other parts of the community to earn their keep, along the lines of Habitat for Humanity’s  “sweat equity,” in which residents help to build their own houses in order to purchase them.  This cooperative idea is probably influenced by popular ideas about Anasazi social organization as well, although for the Mesa Verde cliff dwellingsspecifically this may not be very accurate.  The design didn’t win, so it won’t actually be built in Dallas, but it’s a great example of architects really thinking through the possibilities and implications of precedents drawn from the archaeological record.

Cliff Palace and Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

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Sleeping Ute Mountain and Surrounding Landscape from Four Corners

If you stand at the Four Corners monument and look in the direction of Colorado you will see Sleeping Ute Mountain dominating the view.  From this direction you are looking at the southwest side of the mountain, and in front of it you see the southern piedmont.  On the right side of the piedmont, though not visible from this distance, is Cowboy Wash.  It’s one of several ephemeral streams running from the mountain itself across the piedmont to the San Juan River.

One thing that might strike you about the view from this perspective is that it looks like an awfully dry, desolate, uninhabitable wasteland.  And you would be correct to think that.  The southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain is an extremely arid and inhospitable environment even by the standards of the Southwest, which is saying something.  It’s only a few miles from Mesa Verde to the east and the Great Sage Plain to the north, both areas that get relatively abundant rainfall and supported large and prosperous prehistoric communities, but it is worlds away from them environmentally.  While those areas get sufficient rainfall to support dry farming, and the Great Sage Plain is commercially farmed even today, the southern piedmont does not, and any type of agriculture there would have to rely on some sort of irrigation.  Today the Ute Mountain Ute tribe has a large irrigation project in the area, using water brought in from McPhee Reservoir, 45 miles to the north, via the Towaoc Canal.  The construction of the reservoir and the canal was part of the Dolores Project, which involved substantial archaeological excavation of the inundated area that significantly improved archaeological understanding of the prehistory of the region.  This work took place from 1978 to 1985 and was known as the Dolores Archaeological Project, the largest salvage archaeology project in US history.

McPhee Reservoir, Dolores, Colorado

The creation of the irrigated fields on the piedmont resulted in further salvage excavations in the 1990s.  Among the sites excavated was 5MT10010, which contained considerable evidence of a gruesome incident of probable cannibalism around AD 1150.  It is not the only site in the area to show evidence of cannibalism during this period; in fact, three other sites in the same community, excavated slightly earlier in connection with the construction of the canal, also showed evidence of having been destroyed in an incident involving extensive processing of human remains in a way suggesting cannibalism, and there are several other sites in the area showing similar assemblages, most from the same period but at least one from a later period.  It is at 5MT10010 that the most solid evidence for actual cannibalism, as opposed to processing of bones in a way that may or may not indicate actual consumption of human flesh, in the form of a coprolite that tested positive for the presence of human muscle tissue.

There are many questions that arise from these findings, but one of the most puzzling is also one of the simplest: what were people doing living at Cowboy Wash in the first place, and how did they manage it?  After all, they weren’t building giant dams and canals of the sort involved in the Dolores Project.  In many parts of the Southwest, especially upland areas like Mesa Verde, dry farming using only rainfall was standard during this period, and water control techniques were generally used only for domestic water if a nearby spring or other reliable source was not available.  There are a few springs on the southern piedmont that probably would have supplied sufficient domestic water for the small number of people living there, but the rainfall would definitely not have been sufficient to farm with.  The only source of water at all sufficient for agriculture would have been the occasional floods, from spring snowmelt and summer thunderstorms, that would flow through Cowboy Wash itself and the other drainages on the piedmont.  None of these flows permanently today, and there is no evidence that they ever did.  As at Chaco Canyon, then, which is similarly dry, farming would have to have been based on some sort of technique for capturing the floodwater.

Flowing Chaco Wash and Cliffs below Peñasco Blanco

There are a variety of ways this might be done, including diverting the rainwater from cliffs, as was done at Chaco, planting along the sides of the drainage where the floods would regularly overflow the banks, and what is known as “ak-chin” farming, as practiced by the O’odham of southern Arizona, which involves planting right in the path of the runoff at places where the velocity of the water is relatively low, as at the mouths of tributaries to main arroyos.  There are no sheer cliffs on the southern piedmont like the ones at Chaco, so probably a mix of overbank and ak-chin farming would have been practiced at Cowboy Wash.

A paper by Gary Huckleberry and Brian Billman addresses the nature of farming at Cowboy Wash, and also addresses a related issue, which is whether periodic entrenchment of arroyos due to drought played a role in the patterns of abandonment and migration that characterize Southwestern prehistory.  It is pretty clear by now that the paleoclimatological record shows periods of drought corresponding to periods of abandonment of certain parts of the Southwest, and one proposed mechanism for how this would have worked is that drought would have led to increased erosion and/or hydrological changes in the water table that led to the entrenchment of arroyos, which would have been disastrous for populations dependent on certain types of floodwater farming (especially overbank), as the broad floodplains of the local drainages would have been replaced by deep channels that took the water away quickly instead of letting it overflow to water the crops.  Ak-chin farmers would not necessarily have been affected to the same degree, but if the side drainages they used became entrenched as well they would not have been able to use their techniques either.  Thus, drought would lead to arroyo-cutting, which would lead people to leave formerly productive areas for others that were less affected.  This theory has been proposed as an explanation for certain events at Chaco, with the idea being that some of the social changes late in the Chacoan occupation were due to degradation of the Chaco Wash and the need to change agricultural strategies.  The phenomenon of arroyo-cutting in general is richly illustrated in historic times at Chaco.  The early reports of the Chaco Wash from the nineteenth century indicate that it was a shallow, meandering drainage, much like the current condition of the Escavada Wash to the north and the “Chaco River” that is formed by the confluence of the two at the western end of the canyon and flows north to the San Juan.  By the early twentieth century, and accelerating since then, however, the Chaco Wash through the canyon has cut down significantly and there is a very deep arroyo channel apparent today.

Entrenched Arroyo at Chaco

The drought-downcutting-abandonment theory makes sense as far as it goes, but as Huckleberry and Billman point out there are some problems.  For one thing, the extent to which arroyo-cutting is actually linked to drought, rather than other factors including the specific geology of the area, is hotly debated and there is no consensus.  The idea that while drought may be one factor causing arroyo-cutting there are other factors involved as well is supported by the fact that in different drainages in the Southwest that have been studied in depth the periods of arroyo-cutting do not necessarily correspond to region-wide droughts or other climatic changes.  In some areas they do, but in other areas they don’t.  At Cowboy Wash specifically, the available evidence indicates that the wash began to entrench sometime before AD 950, and that it began to refill with sediment sometime between AD 1265 and 1400.  If abandonment does in fact correspond to arroyo-cutting, then presumably the Cowboy Wash area should have been abandoned between 950 and 1265, and possibly occupied before and after this.  If downcutting results from drought, there should also be evidence of drought during the 950 to 1265 period.

The basic upshot of the Huckleberry and Billman paper is that neither of these expectations is met.  The evidence for drought conditions at Cowboy Wash generally matches that for the rest of the region, with the major droughts in the mid-twelfth century and late thirteenth century AD and several smaller droughts at irregular intervals before then.  This doesn’t show any particular relationship to the stratigraphic evidence for arroyo-cutting, which seems to have been going on to some degree throughout the period from AD 950 to at least AD 1265.  Furthermore, the evidence for settlement doesn’t line up either.  The marginal nature of the Cowboy Wash area implies that it would probably not have been occupied for most of prehistory, and this was indeed the case.  There were a few ultimately unsuccessful attempts to colonize the southern piedmont, however, and they don’t show any particular relationship to the periods of arroyo-cutting (although they do perhaps relate to periods of drought).  The first agricultural occupation of the area came during the Basketmaker III period, when a few pithouses were apparently used seasonally as summer fieldhouses, presumably associated with nearby fields, from about AD 600 to 725.  After these were abandoned, at a time which may correspond to a drought, the area does not seem to have been occupied again for more than three hundred years.  Then, around AD 1050, a few permanent, year-round sites were built.  These seem to have been occupied for only a few years, however, as there was no significant buildup of trash associated with them.  After they were abandoned, three larger villages, including one at Cowboy Wash, were established around AD 1075.  These had extensive trash deposits and seem to have been occupied for one or two generations.  These communities were apparently abandoned, however, when the next occupation began in the 1120s by a population with apparent links to the Chuska Mountain area to the south.  This occupation at Cowboy Wash is the community that was apparently destroyed around AD 1150 (again coincident with a major drought) when its inhabitants were mutilated and cannibalized.  After this event, the area was once again abandoned until about AD 1225, when two new communities were founded, including one again at Cowboy Wash.  Within a few decades the population at Cowboy Wash appears to have aggregated at Cowboy Wash Pueblo, following a typical pattern for the region.  Also typical of the region, the whole southern piedmont seems to have been abandoned by AD 1280, at the time of the “Great Drought” that coincides with major changes throughout the Southwest.

Entrenched Chaco Wash from Cliff Top near Pueblo Bonito

So basically, all of the attempts at year-round occupation of the southern piedmont seem to have occurred during the period that Cowboy Wash was being downcut.  While these were all ultimately unsuccessful, some lasted for a few decades, so clearly they were able to grow some food at some times.  This strongly implies that at least in this case, arroyo-cutting was not particularly linked to abandoned, although drought probably was.  Huckleberry address the issue of how farming could have been done during periods of downcutting by looking at Cowboy Wash and its tributaries today.  They find that while some portions of the main wash, especially, are indeed heavily downcut, other portions are not, and they label this type of drainage a “discontinuous ephemeral stream,” which is to say, a normally dry wash with some portions that are severely downcut and others that are not.  On the uncut portions, which include much of the length of the tributaries, overbank or ak-chin farming could easily be done today, and this was presumably the case in antiquity as well.  The hydrology of the area is such that the areas of downcutting would not have been stable, and would have tended to migrate upstream, but the complexity of the system is also such that this would not have made the entire system unusable; while some parts were being newly cut, others would be filling in, and prehistoric farmers would merely have to move their fields around a bit rather than abandoning the area entirely.

All that being said, however, the question of why people were trying to settle this quite harsh and difficult area in the first place.  It is interesting to note that the attempts at settlement generally came during periods of relatively favorable environmental conditions, which would have made this area a bit less forbidding than usual, as well as during times of increased regional population, when all the good land may well have been taken and some people were forced to seek out the more marginal areas.  The violence that appears to have accompanied the drought of the twelfth century, especially, suggests that when the good times came to an end social relations got very bad very fast.  Huckleberry and Billman suggest that the reason people did end up abandoning Cowboy Wash, the times when they were not attacked, was merely drought itself, which they were unable to cope with as well as other populations, even those who also used floodwater farming techniques, because the size of the watershed was relatively small and the amount of rainfall feeding the washes was also small, so the total amount of water they had to work with was much smaller even in good times than at place like Chaco with large watersheds.  In that context, even a small decrease in annual precipitation could be devastating, leading to failed harvests and the need to move away.

Non-Entrenched Escavada Wash from New Mexico Highway 57

Indeed, there is evidence that the time of the massacre at Cowboy Wash was very difficult for the people there.  Archaeobotanical studies of pollen and other plant remains showed that there was apparently little or no maize in or around 5MT10010 at the time of abandonment, which is quite surprising for a Pueblo site.  The plant remains that were there were mostly from wild plants such as chenopod, amaranth, and tansy mustard, all of which would have been available in the spring and likely would have been intensively collected if there were no stored corn available due to a failed harvest the previous fall.  In addition to pinpointing the season in which the incident occurred, this implies that times were very tough for the inhabitants of 5MT10010, and perhaps for their attackers too.  The coprolite showed no sign of having plant material in it, which suggests that whoever left it had not just eaten some corn at home before setting out to attack 5MT10010.

Another paper associated with the project, by Patricia Lambert, suggests another problem the Cowboy Wash inhabitants apparently had: disease.  In this paper Lambert reports on analyses of ribs of individuals at 5MT10010 and other sites in the Cowboy Wash area dating to various periods of occupation that had lesions on them suggestive of those seen in modern collections of individuals known to have died of tuberculosis and (to a lesser extent) other respiratory diseases.  These lesions were found in 11 of 32 individuals from Cowboy Wash that had enough of their ribs left to examine.  One of the individuals with lesions was from 5MT10010.  This was an adult woman who was not one of the victims of the attack at site abandonment but who had instead died earlier and been formally buried.  Lambert also examined comparative collections of remains from Pueblo Bonito at Chaco and Elden Pueblo near Flagstaff Arizona.  Only 3 of the 45 individuals from Pueblo Bonito and 2 of the 20 from Eldon Pueblo had similar lesions, suggesting that this disease was much more prevalent at Cowboy Wash than at these other sites, even though it was not absent at them.  Lambert notes that tuberculosis is an opportunistic disease that tends to strike people whose systems are compromised by other problems such as hunger and stress.  The evidence for physical violence in the Cowboy Wash sample, even setting aside the cannibalism assemblages, was much greater than in the other two samples as well.  Combined with the harsh environment, this suggests strongly that Cowboy Wash was a difficult place to live for several reasons.  Farming was possible but risky, and when conditions turned bad both hunger and violence from other hungry people were constant threats.

Given this context, the occurrence of extreme events such as cannibalism incidents at Cowboy Wash starts to make some sense.  Cowboy Wash is a place of extremes.
ResearchBlogging.org
Huckleberry, G., & Billman, B. (1998). Floodwater Farming, Discontinuous Ephemeral Streams, and Puebloan Abandonment in Southwestern Colorado American Antiquity, 63 (4) DOI: 10.2307/2694110

Lambert, P. (2002). Rib lesions in a prehistoric Puebloan sample from southwestern Colorado American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 117 (4), 281-292 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.10036

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Sleeping Ute Mountain from Cortez, Colorado

In comments to the previous post, Graham King raises an important question: assuming that the assemblages of broken, burned, and otherwise unusually treated bones at sites like 5MT10010 at Cowboy Wash represent incidents of cannibalism, what does this mean culturally and historically?  After all, cannibalism has occurred in various contexts in many societies, including our own, and it can arise from a variety of causes.  One of the most obvious is starvation, seen most often in situations like the plane crash in the Andes made famous in the movie Alive and incidents during the settlement of the American West such as the Donner Party and the Alferd Packer case, all of which involved small groups being trapped in mountains under harsh conditions and resorting to cannibalism to survive.

So were the events at Cowboy Wash around AD 1150 the result of survival cannibalism, perhaps of members of the community who had died due to disease or starvation by other members of the community?  The excavators of 5MT10010 argued that they were not, but the evidence they gave for this conclusion is not particularly convincing.  They basically had two arguments against survival cannibalism:

  • If the individuals at Cowboy Wash had died natural deaths, the demographics of the dead should reflect the differing susceptibility to harsh conditions of different age groups, which generally means a higher death rate among infants and a lower one among older children and adolescents.  Since the 5MT10010 assemblage contained no infants but a higher than expected number of older children, it is unlikely to have resulted from natural death.
  • Unlike in the historically documented cases, the people at Cowboy Wash were not physically trapped.  There was nothing preventing them from moving away from the area if there were insufficient resources.  The southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain is pretty flat and open, rather than mountainous, and the abandonment of the sites there apparently took place in the spring, when snow would not have been an issue.

Neither of these arguments is very convincing.  The assemblage of cannibalized individuals at 5MT10010 looks demographically unusual, sure, but then again it apparently consists of only seven people.  That’s a minimum number, of course, but since the whole site was excavated and it wasn’t a large site to begin with it seems likely that the recovered bones represent most or all of the people involved.  If the assemblage represents the inhabitants of the site, which the excavators claim and I see no reason to doubt, they likely represent a family or other social unit, and it’s quite possible that they just didn’t happen to have any infants in the group at the time of the event.  In any case, with a population this small there is no reason to expect any sort of “normal” demographic profile.

The second argument is better, but still somewhat unconvincing.  It’s definitely true that the inhabitants of Cowboy Wash wouldn’t have been snowed in at the time of the abandonment event, which apparently took place in the spring, but it’s not necessarily true that they would have had somewhere else to go.  This was a time of drought and resource shortages throughout the northern Southwest, and there is considerable evidence for violence (even leaving aside the alleged cannibalism incidents) throughout the region, including at other sites in the Ute Mountain area, at the time.  Indeed, Cowboy Wash is a very marginal area for agriculture to start with, so the fact that they were there in the first place, and that they had not already left when the harvest failed, implies strongly that they had nowhere else to go.  Under those circumstances, it is certainly conceivable that some community residents might have begun to succumb to hunger or disease and others in the community may have resorted to eating them.  That’s not to say that it’s likely or the best explanation, of course.  One piece of evidence arguing against this interpretation, which the excavators mention but don’t go into much detail on, is that all the processing seems to have taken place at the same time, rather than drawn out over a period of weeks or months as might be expected if people were gradually dying and being eaten.

Sleeping Ute Mountain from Lowry Pueblo

Instead of survival cannibalism, the Cowboy Wash excavators prefer a scenario of intercommunity violence to explain the 5MT10010 assemblage.  This implies that the people who ate the residents of 5MT10010 also killed them.  This sort of explanation does fit well with the other evidence for violence short of cannibalism in the region during this period, but it is tricky to show any correlation between violent death and cannibalism because the processing of the bodies would likely eliminate any skeletal evidence of violent death.  That does seem to be the case in this assemblage, as in most other alleged cases of cannibalism.  There’s plenty of evidence of skeletal trauma, of course, but most of it seems to be directly related to the processing of the bodies shortly after death, and much of the rest seems to represent injuries incurred during life that had healed before death.  In this case, then, there is no direct evidence linking alleged cannibalism to violent death.

One piece of evidence supporting the “raid by other group” theory is that three other sites in the Cowboy Wash community, contemporary with 5MT10010, have also been excavated and all three show similar signs of cannibalism.  Since there are only ten sites in the whole community, the fact that four of them seem to have been rapidly abandoned at the same time that many people in them were eaten seems to imply that the abandonment was the result of a single event.  As the authors of the 5MT10010 paper point out there and in more detail in another article, however, there are some differences among the four assemblages and even between the assemblages in the two pitstructures at 5 MT10010 containing large numbers of bones.  Although all four sites show evidence of processing for consumption, the specific body parts that are most prevalent and the way they were processed suggest that the processing was done separately at each site and not in accordance with a common technique.  For example, at 5MT10010 the bodies found in one pitstructure appeared to have been cut into small pieces and cooked in a pot on the surface, with the bones thrown down the ventilator shaft after consumption.  At the other pitstructure, however, the bodies seem to have been cut into fewer pieces and roasted directly on a fire in the hearth inside the structure.  All this suggests that if in fact the Cowboy Wash community was destroyed by a raid, the raiders who attacked each part of it seem to have acted fairly autonomously in deciding how to deal with the inhabitants, even though they all apparently had the common goal of eating them.

This is actually rather odd, and does seem to undermine the idea that warfare was behind the cannibalism at Cowboy Wash.  It is possible, however, that raiding and survival cannibalism aren’t mutually exclusive, and that the raiders of Cowboy Wash may have attacked it specifically in order to eat the people there because they themselves were starving.  The excavators do mention that the meat from a cannibalistic attack may have been a valued “spoil of war” during harsh environmental times like this, but they generally downplay this aspect and focus more on the idea that cannibalism would have served as a terroristic tactic to strike fear in the hearts of enemies and perhaps scare them away from the area.  (The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, of course.)  The fact that the people in the different parts of the Cowboy Wash community were apparently prepared differently does seem more compatible with the idea that the attackers were focused on eating them because they were hungry than with the idea that they were concerned with striking fear into any survivors or other nearby villages.  The terroristic theory seems to imply a ritualistic approach to the cannibalism, which is not particularly apparent in this or any other Southwestern cannibalism assemblage.  Any type of ritual cannibalism would likely have been more standardized in execution, as in Mesoamerica where ritual cannibalism was widespread.  In the Southwest, by contrast, the execution seems rather haphazard.

So, tentatively, I think the best explanation at least for Cowboy Wash specifically, and perhaps for other cases as well, is that certain communities in the Mesa Verde area during the extended drought of the mid-twelfth century AD hit upon the idea of compensating for their poor harvests by attacking other communities, not to take their stored food (since they likely didn’t have any either) but to eat their residents.  Which communities these might have been and where they got the idea remain open questions.  This idea led to a rash of cannibalism incidents around AD 1150 which subsided soon thereafter, perhaps as climatic conditions improved (or, alternatively, as other communities got better at defending themselves).  When the next major drought came, in the late thirteenth century, the idea of cannibalistic raiding does not seem to have been taken up again.  The authors of the Cowboy Wash articles take pains to note that there is no evidence of cannibalism in the Mesa Verde area after AD 1200.  Although there is plenty of evidence of violence during the late 1200s preceding the total depopulation of the region by 1300, none of this involved cannibalism.

Or did it?  There is actually some evidence from at least one site suggesting that the idea of cannibalism did not totally disappear from the Mesa Verde area after 1200.  But that’s a matter for another post.
ResearchBlogging.org
Lambert, P., Billman, B., & Leonard, B. (2000). Explaining variability in mutilated human bone assemblages from the American Southwest: a case study from the southern piedmont of Sleeping Ute Mountain, Colorado International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 10 (1), 49-64 DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-1212(200001/02)10:13.0.CO;2-B

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Sunset Crater Volcano

The effect of the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano on the prehistoric population of northern Arizona has long been a topic of interest to archaeologists.  As I’ve mentioned recently, in the 1930s and 1940s Harold Colton of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff came up with a theory to explain the settlement dynamics of the Wupatki area northeast of Sunset Crater.  In Colton’s view, the eruption resulted in a level of volcanic ash falling on Wupatki that acted as a mulch to retain water and make that very arid area suitable for farming for the first time, resulting in a “land rush” in which people from all over the region converged on Wupatki to farm the newly available land.  Over time, however, the ash began to blow away and the land became less productive, so people aggregated into the large pueblos for which Wupatki is best known, then left entirely when the area could no longer support its population.  Dendrochronological evidence from timbers at Wupatki Pueblo later provided a basis for dating the eruption to around AD 1064, which would put the “land rush” shortly after that.  Other evidence has shown that the abandonment of the area probably occurred some time in the thirteenth century, a time when many parts of the Southwest were being abandoned as well.

As I’ve mentioned, recent archaeological survey at Wupatki has cast doubt on some aspects of this model.  The main influx of population seems to have come after AD 1130, a few decades after the eruption, and the scale of that influx was probably quite a bit lower than Colton estimated, since many of the sites he counted to compute his population estimates were probably season field houses or other temporary structures rather than permanent habitations.  This implies that there wasn’t really a “land rush” the way Colton described it, but rather a substantial increase in population at some point after the eruption, perhaps in response to drought or other problematic conditions in other parts of the Southwest.

A few parts of Colton’s model do seem to hold up, however.  Experiments have shown that the levels of ash found at Wupatki do indeed work well as a mulch.  Without this mulch, dry farming in the area with any reasonable measure of reliability is basically impossible, since there just isn’t enough rain, and irrigation or floodwater farming isn’t possible on any substantial scale either due to the geological conditions and the lack of permanent surface water sources.  Furthermore, the Wupatki survey showed that this lack of agricultural suitability made the area essentially uninhabited before the eruption.  Of nearly a thousand datable sites recorded by the survey, only two dated to before the eruption.  The biggest influx of population came after about 1130, but there was already a fairly significant movement of people into the area in the immediate post-eruptive period.  Perhaps these people first experimented with agriculture using the ash as a mulch, and were so successful that when conditions deteriorated elsewhere others joined them.  The ash was liable to blow away in the strong winds, however, and over time the advantages it offered as a mulch would have diminished as a result of this and other factors, so it’s quite possible that it was declining agricultural productivity, perhaps exacerbated by warfare to defend land claims, that led the area to be abandoned in the thirteenth century.

Volcanic Rock in Masonry at the Citadel, Wupatki National Monument

That’s all well and good, but where did the people who moved to Wupatki after the eruption come from?  Colton saw them as coming from all over, but at least in the immediate post-eruptive period a more specific answer is tempting: perhaps they came from the area right around the volcano, which would have been rendered uninhabitable (and certainly unfarmable) by lava flows and massive ash fall.  A relatively recent paper takes a close look at the circumstances of the Sunset Crater eruption and its likely effects on local people, and basically comes to this conclusion.

From a detailed analysis of the details of the eruption, the authors of this paper found that the area of the heaviest ash fall and the largest lava flows was probably densely populated and heavily farmed before the eruption.  They cast some doubt on the tree-ring evidence pointing to an AD 1064 date for the eruption itself, but they argue on other grounds that the eruption likely took place between AD 1050 and 1100 and that it was relatively quick, lasting from a few weeks to a few years at the most.  Because the high-elevation area where the eruption took place gets more precipitation than lower-elevation Wupatki, it would have been the most favorable area for farming at the time, and a large number of homes and farms were likely buried by the lava and ash.  The amounts of ash falling right around the volcano would have been much too thick to serve as a mulch.  The ash itself is sterile, so it could only function effectively as a mulch if plants could reach their roots down through it to the soil underneath.  The few inches of ash cover at Wupatki would have allowed this, but the uplands immediately around the volcano got over a foot of ash, which would have effectively killed any agricultural potential.

Lava at Sunset Crater

Thus, the effects of Sunset Crater on local agriculturalists were two-fold: they were forced to leave a rather large and previously quite productive agricultural area around the volcano, but they were able to go to a previously unproductive area nearby that was made newly fertile by the ash.  Cinder-cone eruptions like the one that created Sunset Crater rarely cause much direct loss of life, and that would have been particularly the case in this context, since the pre-eruption populations lived in dispersed farmsteads and were probably not organized sociopolitically at any level above the household or extended family.  This would have allowed rapid reactions to the eruption, which would primarily have taken the form of migration away from the immediate area.  Since the population was so dispersed, people fleeing the ash-fall zone would likely have had relatives or friends in less affected areas to whom they could go for shelter and assistance in the immediate aftermath of the eruption.  The population movements spurred by the eruption, however, could well have resulted in groups infringing on territory claimed by others and resulting violence and loss of life.  Within this context, the relatively empty Wupatki area may have seemed particularly attractive even before its enhanced potential for farming was discovered.

Another reaction of people in the local area to the eruption, which was documented in an earlier paper by some of the same authors, was the apparent practice of placing corncobs in the path of lava and carrying the resulting “corn rocks,” with visible imprints of the cobs (which were vaporized by the heat) to rather distant settlements.  Given the amount of effort this would have required, it probably had some ritual significance, perhaps to appease the spirits of the volcano or something similar.

Mt. Trumbull from Pipe Spring National Monument

In addition to the Sunset Crater eruption, the authors of this paper also discussed a smaller and less studied eruption that likely took place about the same time at Little Springs, next to Mount Trumbull on the Arizona Strip just north of the Grand Canyon.  Here there was relatively little ash fall, so the loss of productive land and enhanced productivity of other land seen in the Sunset Crater case did not occur.  Instead, the main effect was a lava flow, with the land immediately surrounding it continuing to be largely ash-free and fertile.  The people who had lived and farmed in the immediate area covered by the lava flow would have had to leave, but people clearly continued to live and farm right around the lava, and they also built sites on top of the flow itself.  These sites have few artifacts and likely served defensive purposes, a theory that is supported by the presence of an elaborate system of trails on the lava flow that would have made it an effective refuge in times of war.  The use of defensive refuges or strongholds separate from ordinary living quarters is well-attested in the prehistoric and historic record of the Southwest.  Similar to the corn rocks at Sunset Crater, in this area there were some rocks with potsherds embedded in them, a sign of similar ritual behaviors with respect to the volcano.

These two eruptions and the different reactions to them by local populations show the effects that sudden, catastrophic events can have on human societies.  The eruption of the much larger White River Volcano a bit earlier and its effect on local Athapaskan populations in Alaska and the Yukon is another example.  Unlike many other catastrophes, volcanic eruptions are generally pretty visible in the archaeological record, which makes them a useful source of information on how societies adapt to sudden shocks.
ResearchBlogging.org
ORT, M., ELSON, M., ANDERSON, K., DUFFIELD, W., & SAMPLES, T. (2008). Variable effects of cinder-cone eruptions on prehistoric agrarian human populations in the American southwest Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 176 (3), 363-376 DOI: 10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2008.01.031

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Ledge at Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki is a very dry place even by the standards of the Southwest, with annual precipitation averaging about 8 inches.  Human habitation in such an arid landscape is therefore highly dependent on capturing as much available moisture as possible.  It appears that the prehistoric inhabitants took advantage of the volcanic ash laid down over the area by the eruption of Sunset Crater in AD 1064 for farming purposes since it acted as a mulch, retaining water from the summer rains that would otherwise have evaporated in the heat and strong winds.  For other purposes such as drinking, cooking, and construction, however, water trapped in the soil isn’t very useful, so other sources needed to be found.  As at Chaco Canyon, which is similarly dry, some of this water would have come from a few springs in the area, especially in the dry season, but it would also have been useful to capture as much of the runoff from the summer rains as possible.  Due to the geology of the Wupatki area, this water could only be used for floodwater farming in a very few places, but there were other ways to take advantage of it.

One such way was apparently shown by a discovery made by two National Park Service archaeologists in the 1940s.  While out evaluating sites for stabilization needs, Albert Schroeder and Philip Van Cleave found some potsherds on the ground in sufficient number to make them think that they might be reconstructible into something approaching the original vessel.  They picked up the sherds and dug a bit into the ground beneath them to see if there were any more.  Sure enough, just under the surface of the ground there was a whole ring of sherds in place, indicating the presence of a broken but substantially complete jar that had apparently been deliberately buried.  They excavated it and took some pictures, and Schroeder wrote up a short article on the discovery for American Antiquity which was published in 1944.

Small Site on Ledge, Box Canyon, Wupatki National Monument

The jar was of the ceramic type Moenkopi Corrugated, which Schroeder dates to AD 1075 to 1275.  This is unfortunately a quite wide date range, encompassing almost the entire period of substantial prehistoric occupation of Wupatki, so it is not possible to say at what point during the occupation the jar was buried.  From its position, however, Schroeder was able to determine that it was likely placed to capture runoff from the summer rains.  It was buried in the sand underneath one of the sandstone ledges that are so common at Wupatki, so one possibility is that it was placed to capture runoff from the ledge.  Indeed, it seemed that the part of the ledge above the jar naturally collected runoff from a wide area of the sandstone outcrop.  At the time Schroeder and Van Cleave found the jar, however, the water pouring off the ledge fell somewhat short of where the jar was.  Schroeder suggested that there may have been some erosion in the period between the time the jar was buried and the time it was found, such that at this time of placement the ledge extended further out and the runoff may have poured directly onto the jar.  If this was not the case, however, the jar was probably buried with the sand level with or a bit higher than the rim, so that runoff from the sandy ground around the jar rather than the ledge above would flow into the jar.

Either way, it seemed apparent to Schroeder that the purpose of the jar was likely to collect water, which makes sense in such an arid environment.  He admitted to being somewhat unsure of the details of his proposal, and he did not venture any theories as to what the water would have been used for or why a jar was used in this way to collect it.  Obviously the amount of water in a single jar would not have been much for agricultural purposes, so I suspect the water was used for household use.  To be so used, depending on how close the household in question was (which Schroeder unfortunately did not mention), the jar could either have been dug up after filling or left in place.  In the latter case, the water could have been taken out with a ladle and transferred to a canteen or some other sort of vessel for transportation.

I don’t have any sort of major point to make about this paper, but it’s interesting as an example of the kinds of adaptations people make to harsh environments.  Wupatki would have been a hard place to live in prehistoric times, but people gave it their best shot.
ResearchBlogging.org
Schroeder, A. (1944). A Prehistoric Method of Collecting Water American Antiquity, 9 (3) DOI: 10.2307/275790

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