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[Mis]Understanding Village Abandonments
in the Prehistoric North American Southwest
Empty and abandoned, the well-preserved ancient dwellings of Pueblo people give the impression of a suddenly vanished society. Where did they go?
Recent findings in the Southwest's Mesa Verde region reveal that the Native Americans who lived there actually moved within the region on a regular basisthey migrated into and out of the area many times during their centuries-long occupation, scientists said today at the 2003 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting.
Clues from tree rings and household objects like remnants of pottery gave researchers insight to determine that the disappearance of the inhabitants in the late 13th century was not due to failure at village life or an inability to grow. Native people moved often to sustain a regional presence.
Pueblo households moved regularly, but the overall length of occupation spans increased over time, according to Mark Varien, research director of Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colo. Varien measured the accumulation of cooking pot shards to calculate the length of occupation of residential sites leading to this connection.
"Population movement was an essential feature of Puebloan life," said Varien. "Our data indicates that individual communities persisted for long periods of time. The centuries-long persistence of communities is a sharp contrast to the incessant movement of houses."
The Mesa Verdefrom southern Colorado and Utah into northern Mexicois mostly desert or semi-desert with large regions at high altitude, making it necessary for its inhabitants, past and present, to employ tactics to deal with the arid environment. The ancestral Puebloan people began living permanently in the Four Corners region near Mesa Verde as early as the A.D. 600 in small villages.
While the typical household occupation during the 600s A.D. was limited to less than ten years, by the 1000s A.D., this had increased to about 20 years, or approximately one human generation, Varien said. By about 1200 A.D., the length of occupation increased to over 50 years at some residential sites. The increase in occupation length is evidence that houses and property rights were passed from one generation to the next, according to Varien.
Varien and his team also studied tree ring data to uncover the periods when humans harvested trees for construction timbers and fuels. Periods where there was little or no tree harvesting were interpreted as evidence of a community's depopulation. By taking over 10,000 tree-ring samples at over 8,000 sites, the scientists found that some communities lasted for at least three centuries.
According to another AAAS speaker, Linda Cordell, director of the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, Colo., these prehispanic settlers developed use and crop strategies to successfully grow corn, supplemented by squash and beans. The relative longevity of settlements was often tied to specific agricultural practices, weather rainfall or irrigation dependent, and the availability of wild plant foods and game.
Cordell added that settlement and movement not only depended on the successes of farming practicesthey were also constrained and facilitated by social ties of inheritance, of political and ritual alliance, of territoriality and dispute. She added that the people lived within social networks that play out in the settlement dynamics, still present today among their descendents today.
In a comparison of past with present, Varien also investigated the connection between the archaeological sites in the area and the Native Americans who currently live in the Four Corners area, and found that the ancients had shaped the cultural landscape for their descendents.
Today, the descendants of the original Mesa Verde groups live in many settlements along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico, and in the Pueblos of Laguna, Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi in western New Mexico and north-central Arizona. The modern Pueblo people maintain a vital connection with the Mesa Verde region. While Varien noted that there are many reasons for this link, one of the most important is that the descendents hold the belief that the archaeological sites are still occupied by their ancestors.
This link has important implications for Pueblo people and the other residents of the Mesa Verde region. The archaeological sites were recently recognized when 164,000 acres of federal land were designated as Canyons National Monument.
17 February 2003