Podcast New Mexico Episode 5 – Cliff Palaces Transcript

Hello and welcome to Distant Echoes. Episode 5: New Mexico 5: The Cliff Palaces.

Last time we talked about the rise and fall of Chaco Canyon. Starting in 800 CE with the first settlements in the lowlands such as Pueblo Bonito to the extremely quick fall of Chacoan society and the violence that followed. Today we’ll be picking up where we left off with the changes that started to occur after the violence began to abate in the 1070s. At this time trade between upland settlements began to increase, implying that the farmers felt far more secure in their situations.

As the 1200s approached, Cliff dwellings began to be built. These Cliff Palaces, as they’re often called, were almost exclusively built on the southern, Southwestern, or southeastern faces of mesas. This would allow them to capitalize on shade in the summer to help keep them cool and get the most sun in the winter to help keep warm. These Cliff Palaces such as those at Mesa Verde were primarily constructed in the 1190s-1270s with the peak construction being 1220-1260. Unlike Chacoan constructions, which until the very end of the Chaco Phenomenon were open, these Cliff Palaces were much more akin to medieval castles, usually in a defensive position: compact and difficult to reach. Usually tucked into overhangs on the side of mesas.

This implies that there was still some widespread violence, or that those building these Cliff Palaces were afraid of some kind of violence or attacks, after all with only a few approaches, it would be rather easy to defend such places with only a small amount of the population of each settlement. Places like Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde or Step House were far harder to reach.

However that is not the only theory behind why they would build in these places. Rather than for defense it was to handle population pressure. As the population in the uplands began to recover with the tapering off of violence, the people living in these locations needed every available plot of farmland and thus moved to these places where they couldn’t farm. The reasons they refute the defensive argument is that by looking at historical records of Puebloan warfare; espionage and starting fires was the preferred method of warfare rather than direct assaults. This means that if one of these settlements were attacked in the former way, it would be extremely difficult to evacuate. Furthermore some storage structures used by these Cliff Palaces were built on top of mesas. If one was worried about attacks or raids, why store your food in a place that was harder to defend?

Also during the 1200s, revealing that the people in the Southwest felt far more secure, is that some people moved back into the lowlands, renovating and using some of the Chacoan Great Houses briefly. It is believed that these people had some connection to the Mesa Verde populations. These were not up to the same quality as the previous construction. Cuts of the blocks were often not finely banded and were instead very rough. However, by about 1300, these sites were once again abandoned.

Another change is that those populations still living in pit houses dug them deeper over the early 1200s, as this was during the “Little Ice Age” it probably got much colder in the southwest as well, necessitating deeper pit houses.

During the 1230s-1260s settlements began to get larger. Often built atop mesas now. This period is often called the Coalition Period. This implies that larger groups were needed to keep back raiders or other hostile groups and people were banding together for defense. There was also an increase in rainfall from 1200-1250. Afterwards it began to get erratic again. However 1260-1270 was another period of instability. These south facing dwellings were hit the hardest. Almost all of the land fought over only a century ago was made almost unfarmable.

A special site I want to talk about during this episode was located on top of Mariana Mesa. This site was a one story adobe and cobble construction with no windows or doors. The only way to enter was to use ladders and entrances on the roof, like many traditional pueblo structures. This is seen in some historic pueblos and is a great way to withstand a siege. There is very little evidence of farming at this site and it is thought they mostly hunted or foraged.

Sometime between 1260 and 1270, the settlement was attacked, breached, and burned. But instead of looting the site, it was left alone. This implies the attackers were not there to raid the inhabitants but instead kill or drive them off. This appears to have been the case as any survivors of the attack left without taking any of their belongings. Leaving much of the site in situ.

Most other large sites like this, called aggregates, were abandoned over this time. However with far fewer signs of violence.

Over the 1260s, the Mesa Verde area would completely empty out. The reason for such a total depopulation may have simply been that the amount of people that could be supported on the land just were too vulnerable. Many of those who left could have gone to Bandelier on the Pajarito Plateau.

Into 1275 the drought became much more intense and local. This caused a decline in trade and from about 1270-1290 trade networks were much more local. However over the 1200s and during this drought, Ancestral Puebloans came up with some solutions to help keep their plants watered. 

Before we talk about the changes in farming let’s talk about some of the more general farming habits among the Ancestral Puebloans.

The first thing they did was plant a lot of plots all over the place in different climes. Some would be planted high, some in drier areas, and some in lowlands. These plots also tended to be spread out even if tended by one family. The former was mostly likely a way of hedging their bets, by having multiple plots in different areas and climates it increased the probability that one of them would survive. A late freeze hits and kills your highland crop, you may be lucky your lowland crop was unaffected. A drought means your lowland crop didn’t produce, your highland crop was more likely to have more rain and may have survived.

Spreading them out actually served another practical purpose. It is thought that the Ancestral Puebloans had several varieties of corn with different properties desirable to these areas. Some might be more drought resistant, some may do better in the cold, so on and so forth. By spreading these plots out, they didn’t need to worry about the different varieties cross-pollinating and losing their benefits.

Now onto some of the innovations they developed.

The first one we’ll talk about is cobble-mulching. At its core, cobble-mulched plots have stones spread over them. This has three benefits. The first benefit is that it stores heat from the day. Rock is a great way to store thermal energy, these stones were heated during the day by the sun to be nice and warm at night, this could extend the growing season slightly as when it began to get cold at night these stones would radiate heat and keep the plants warm. The next benefit is that it helped prevent evaporation, by providing shade under the rocks, it made it far harder for water to evaporate before the soil could absorb it. Finally it helped prevent water runoff, water would have a harder time running through a cobble-mulched plot, once again allowing the soil to absorb it before it would get away.

The other innovation that we’ll be talking about is cairns. These piles of rock would be heated by the sun, so that when the morning, the most humid part of the day, came, the cairns would build up water that would sink into the soil beneath them. Plant roots would then grow under these cairns to get at the water beneath. This is the same concept that causes trees to put their roots under sidewalks.

By 1300 only the canyons with permanent streams, where wet farming could be practiced were permanently inhabited, locations such as Tyuonyi in Frijoles Canyon Bandelier. But if these streams dried up, people would move on towards the permanent rivers. By this time the San Juan Basin was abandoned.

As life in the uplands declined potentially due to climate change in 1290-1300 another new change would occur, the move to streamside villages. This is the last of the prehistoric periods that we will talk about, Pueblo IV which lasted from about 1290-1540.

This period, like many we’ve talked about, starts with pit houses. Large pit house villages were built along the streams and arroyos that drained into New Mexico’s rivers. These villages show some signs of trade as well as a mixture of different pottery styles. However within a few years these were renovated into above ground pueblos.

Sometime in the early 1300s, it is believed that the Kachina cults were introduced from the Zuni Pueblos.

Those south of Cochiti down to areas like Socorro were still fortified until about 1350, implying the episodic violence would continue in some areas. After the mid 1300s the violence seems to have sorted itself out and settlements begin to move down into the lowlands.

Over this time, Pueblos often controlled vast areas of land. Spreading from the rivers they farmed out to the uplands nearby. This allowed for a mix of wet farming, dry farming, and foraging or hunting to collect all of the needed food. The Pueblos that managed to survive this period were the ones that managed to control these uplands.

Seasonally used farmsteads would begin to be built further and further out, allowing for more land to be cultivated. In some ways they now resembled medieval settlements. One central settlement surrounded by smaller farms. Self-sufficiency and Self-containment were the law of the land for each Pueblo as far as food was concerned.

Trade also picked up, with the Galisteo Basin picking up where Chaco Canyon left off. Trade now was mostly along streams and other waterways.

There were also less people overall. The episodic violence and hard times over the past two centuries had thinned the population to as much as a quarter of the Chacoan population of 1050. Meaning a large settlement could easily defend itself.

The upland or riverine lifestyle by itself was no longer viable. A mix of the two was needed for a Pueblo to succeed. However the chances of living were still low, comparable to that of Chacoan farmhands.

Into the 1400s, once again there would be a shrinking of Pueblos as people moved into the uplands. Some abandoned places such as Otowi Pueblo were restored. This next century would be a golden age.

Rivers or tributaries would be diverted over this period to provide water for fields. However in wet years the rivers would flood, hence arroyos and tributaries were favored for habitation as they were less likely to flood and destroy fields or villages.

Life was becoming easier and more stable for the people. Many Pueblos practiced a mix of dry and wet farming. People were now living as well as the Chacoan Elites; the society was less stratified socially. Elders were supposed to be chosen for their wealth of experience and knowledge as leaders.

The Pueblo came first. Non-conformists were ridiculed and mocked by Koshare, clowns, until they conformed. Factionalism often led to one group leaving rather than warfare.

For the Tewa speaking Pueblos, the leadership was divided between two moieties, the Summer and Winter people. The Summer People were in charge of the cultivation and harvest of the agricultural products and the Winter People were in charge of winter hunts. Both were responsible for their time’s religious rituals.

Food was often communal, shared between those who had surplus and those who did not have enough.

By 1500 a stable system had been created, just in time for a system wide shock to occur when new arrivals with a strange language and culture appeared to the west and New Mexico finally passed from its prehistoric phase to the historic phase, first with the rescue of four naked men. But we’ll talk about that in two episodes. Next episode, which will most likely be shorter, I want to look back over the entire prehistoric phase and sort of summarize it. I’ve also been compiling any questions I’ve received and plan to do a Q&A at the same time. Don’t forget to submit your questions.

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