Hello, and welcome to Distant Echoes, Episode 1 NM 1: the Paleo Indian Period.
Now before we get started you might be wondering why I chose the 47th state to be the start of this podcast. As Hamilton Tyler put it in the introduction to his book Pueblo Gods and Myths “When one cannot find the book he needs, the next best alternative is to write it himself.” I couldn’t find a good podcast on the history of my home state so I figured I should be the one to do the job.
One interesting fact I found about New Mexico during my research is that it is the only state in the Union to include “USA” on its license plates. Based entirely off of anecdotal evidence, I think there is a lot of confusion about the state so I think we should start with a very rough idea of where we’re talking about and the people who live there.
At around 121,000 Square miles,New Mexico is the fifth largest state in the United States. Today’s New Mexico is sandwiched between Texas and Arizona east to west, Colorado and the Mexican border north to south. In this area a great amount of change in environment can be found, in the south such as in Las Cruces it rarely snows, whereas in the north such as Taos where they have a ski resort. It has mountainous regions such as the Jemez mountains or the Sangre De Cristo Mountain range to valleys like the Rio Grande Valley around Albuquerque. It has mesas pockmarked by deep canyons to flat plainlands in the east. A Mesa, for those that don’t know, is a tabletop mountain. Overall it is classified as a high desert, meaning it has a high elevation on average, ranging from between just over 2000 ft at its lowest point to just over 13000 at its peak and an average of just under 6000 ft above sea level.
The climate is just as varied as the different regions. In general, the uplands get more rain and are cooler than the lowlands. However, especially where farming is concerned, the upland regions tend to have late freezes and a shorter growing season. The lowlands also have more temperature variation than the uplands. On average the state receives less than 20 inches of rain a year. Most of it delivered during the fall monsoons.
There are five major rivers in New Mexico: the Rio Grande, San Juan, Pecos, Canadian, and Gila rivers. The Rio Grande runs through the center of the state and forms its major artery. The San Juan runs through the north west corner of the state. The Pecos runs along the east side of the state. The Canadian runs through the north east portion of the state. Finally, the Gila runs through the southwestern portion of the state. None of these rivers are large enough for shipping of materials, for instance sections the Rio Grande often runs dry during the summer.
Onto naming of places. New Mexico was under Spanish control, nominaly starting in 1540 and lasting until Mexican Independence in 1821. It did not come into American possession until the end of the Mexican-American War in the mid 1800s. As a result, a lot of names and places here are Spanish. For those that aren’t familiar with Spanish, the language is phonetic but there are some rules that may be unfamiliar to an English speaker. First off, H is silent such as in hermano. J makes the sound of an h such as in Armijo. Now some letters are special, a double l is pronounced like a y, such as in llano. An n with a tilde on the top is an ñ, it is pronounced with ny sound such as in piñon. Finally, a double r is trilled. Such as in carro.
Native American place names, like the names of pueblos, are a little more difficult. Some of them are Rominizations into Spanish such as Pojoaque (Po-wah-que). Others are probably Romanized using English rules like Ohkay Owingeh (Oh-kay O-win-geh). In the transcripts I’ll endeavor to give the spelling and pronunciation of words that may be unfamiliar. I’m sure I’ll butcher the pronunciation throughout although I am trying my best.
Some more recently built places are more English inspired such as Clines Corners near Moriarty.
Speaking of the Native Americans in New Mexico today, there are 23 different tribes throughout the state. 19 of which are the Puebloans, 3 Apache tribes, and parts of the Navajo Nation. We’ll discuss them in more detail as it becomes more relevant to our story.
Another note on the native stories. I know a lot of podcasts like to start with the creation story or the oral histories of the people they’ll be talking about. While there are collections of the various stories of the native tribes in New Mexico, there has been a lot of pushback from these tribes towards sharing their stories and in some cases a complete version isn’t even known to outsiders. As I am not a Native American myself, I don’t feel like I can tell what they believe or the histories they share amongst themselves. Instead we will be focusing on archeological history. This is not to say that the oral histories are in any way incorrect or less valid than the archeological perspective. These are just not my stories to tell.
Finally, for the Prehistory period, a lot of older histories refer to the people who came before the modern Pueblo People as the Anasazi. This is a Navajo word that can be translated as “Ancestor of my Enemy” or “Ancient Enemy.” I will note that I am only fluent in English and speak just enough Spanish to get myself into trouble. The Pueblo Peoples refer to these people by an array of names, including Anasazi. However some find Anasazi to be offensive. In this podcast, outside of direct quotes, I’ll use the term that seems to be gaining popularity in more scholarly circles in recent years of “Ancestral Puebloans” or “Ancestral Pueblo People” to try and avoid stepping on any toes.
With the context out of the way, let’s talk about the difficulties in discussing the precontact period of New Mexico.
I had a lot of trouble deciding where to begin this topic. Most of the general histories that I read when outlining this show only very briefly talk about the Pre Contact period, often only a chapter or two. There is a wide breadth of history in New Mexico that predates the Spanish arrival and I didn’t want to just do one episode or aside on what New Mexico, or most of the southwest as a whole, was like before the Spanish. While we currently don’t, and may never know, the full stories there is a rich history across the southwest regarding life before Coronado arrived.
To add to all of that, the Pueblo People themselves did not keep a written record. However through the hard work of many archeologists we have been able to piece together a picture of their history. An important part of this story is the first people to have arrived in the Southwest. I have decided to start with the earliest information that we can pull together. Luckily, New Mexico, and much of the Southwest, has a climate that makes for great preservation of the Archeological record. Many archeologists receive training here. This means that a lot is known and new ideas are constantly coming into the mix describing the prehistoric period of New Mexico.
Even without names of people or their stories to point to, we can at least talk about the broad strokes of what went on. In the following episodes I plan to go from the first humans in the area to the pueblos the Spanish found. With this knowledge and the breadth of literature on it, I think it is best to start the tale at the very beginning with the first people to arrive here in the Southwest.
I also think it will be beneficial for us to talk about the tools archeologists employ for a lot of their work.
There are two major topics we are concerned with. Dating and Paleoclimatology, the latter being the study of ancient climates. While these are gross oversimplifications of the methods, I believe it is important to at least introduce how archeologists arrive at their conclusions.
Dating of archeological remains and estimation of the climate are difficult and important tasks to the history of New Mexico. Several different methods are often applied in tandem.
One of the two most common methods is dendrochronology, or the dating of tree rings. During certain periods, the Ancestral Puebloans often used wooden roof beams known as vigas in their homes. The tree rings can be compared to a sample of similar trees from the area that are still alive. If some of the rings match, it can be backdated from the recently cut tree to estimate when the archeological sample was cut. There are some issues with this method. The biggest is that trees don’t always put on new growth year to year. If conditions are extreme enough a tree may not put on new growth, such as during an extreme drought. However, even this can give us useful information about the climate.
The other most common dating method is radiocarbon dating. To vastly oversimplify, due to solar radiation, there is a relatively constant ratio of radioactive to nonradioactive carbon being created in the atmosphere. The half life of this radioisotope is known. As all living things are made of carbon and cease gaining new carbon when they die they accumulate carbon in this ratio. At some point later, a sample can be taken. By comparing the abundance of radioactive to non-radioactive carbon in the sample and using the half life of the radioactive carbon, the approximate age of the sample can be determined. This is a highly accurate method. Very little organic material is needed for this method, meaning charcoal from an ancient fire pit can even be used for such dating. Radiocarbon dating is one of many radiometric dating methods that can be used. While there are some issues in dating past certain ages but that is outside of the scope of this podcast.
Another interesting method I discovered during my research was Archeomagnetic dating. In the prehistoric southwest, pottery was abundant. When the pottery was fired, the grains of iron present in the clay would solidify and the grains would align with magnetic north. The magnetic field varies in direction over time and if this direction at various times is known, usually obtained via seafloor spreading, the approximate date of firing can be determined.
With some of the primary, or at least interesting to me, dating methods out of the way, let’s move on to how we look at ancient climates.
Connected to dendrochronology, Dendroclimatology is the use of tree rings to study the climate in different periods. The amount of new growth a tree creates every year is variable based on various limiting conditions. In the southwest this condition is often the amount of water available. Often this water is delivered through rainfall. Using similar methods to those above, as well as controlled experiments into tree growth, archeologists and scientists can gain insight into what the climate looked like in certain areas during certain periods.
Another way to examine the ancient climate is looking at ancient pollen. By measuring the relative amount of pollen in an area, the abundance of certain plants can be determined. If there is an abundance of pollen from plants that require a lot of water, it can be inferred that the climate had relatively abundant water at these periods. However, there are some problems with this method. Pollen from some plants can be carried large distances by the wind, this could skew the results of the pollen sample. Another issue is that the area where we’re interested in collecting pollen samples from were lived in. The places we want to learn about are the places these people called home, as people were coming in and out of the house sometimes from far away or working in these areas and disturbing the pollen and dust, skewing the data in individual locations, causing for wide variation of data even just within a home.
You may be noticing a trend in how we look at the ancient climate, by looking at the plants that were present. There is one method to get a look at the plants that were abundant at different periods of time with less worry about the samples having come from large distances. Packrat middens. According to Linda Cordell in her book Prehistory of the Southwest, packrats tend not to range too far from their midden when collecting food, only about 100 to 300 yards. Meaning the plant material they collect is from the immediate area. This allows for inferences to be made about the plants and climate in an area.
However, most of these are more helpful for sedentary populations. This will not be the case for the first part of our story. The physical remains left behind by these early nomadic people are ephemeral at best. Points found with Mammoth bones, a pile of flakes from making a point. Not much to go on for dating these items or studying the climate they lived in. Making it quite a struggle for archeologists. However there are a few different methods they have used specifically for these populations such as using water penetration in obsidian.
With that out of the way, let’s finally get to the history.
While it is not known exactly when humans arrived in the Southwest, it is believed to have been about 11,000 years ago during the late Pleistocene. This period of time, lasting until the extinction of the megafauna and arrival of modern fuana, is called the Paleo-Indian period. The Paleo-Indian period ended about 7 to 8 thousand years ago.
It is unknown exactly how people got to the southwest. The current theories are that people came across the Bering Strait some 13,000 years ago. From there they either traveled south along the shores using canoes, along the shores by walking, or when the glaciers began to retreat about 11,000 years ago, paths opened up allowing people to travel south. This latter theory has been challenged in recent years due to finds in Chile dating from 12,000 years ago, implying that people had traveled south far earlier than previously believed.
But who were these people? How did they live? The first of the groups we’ll talk about are the Clovis people. These people are marked by their beautifully crafted fluted points. In the post accompanying this episode, there’s a link that leads to some examples of Clovis points. These early people survived mostly by hunting. It is unknown exactly what the majority of their diet was. For some time it has been suggested that they mostly hunted Mammoth, wiping out entire herds of the animal. However, when looking at African elephants, a close relative of the Mammoth, it becomes far less likely. Before the introduction of firearms, it would have been extremely difficult to wipe out an entire herd of elephants. If mammoth behavior was similar to elephants, it would have been extremely difficult for these people to have done such. As such, archeologists have suggested that instead they ate Mammoth when they could but instead ate other smaller game or plants. A reanalysis of potential Clovis kill sites showed a large number of the sites had many intact points left with the killed beasts as well as a lack of tools for preparing the meat, implying unsuccessful hunts. Why leave perfectly usable tools behind after a kill? The New Mexico that they survived in was far wetter than the New Mexico of today, water and wildlife was abundant from about 9000 to 7000 BCE when the Clovis artifacts were supplanted with other artifacts. The Clovis, as well as the other people we’ll talk about today all used choice stone, some of it could come from places as far away as modern Texas. The Clovis people were named after Clovis New Mexico, where the first artifacts of these people were identified.
Following the Clovis we get the Folsom people, their points were smaller. One thought for this change is that there was a need for hunting tools to become more generalized. The Folsom also hunted mammoths and began to hunt large bison. The bison drive and jump, where a group of bison is chased to the edge of a cliff and ran off came later. These large bison are believed to have traveled in smaller groups than modern bison, which would have made this method impossible or more difficult to achieve. In New Mexico, things were becoming drier through this period. But it was still believed to have been wetter than today’s New Mexico. Once again there is a link to some pictures on the website for Folsom points. The Folsom complex is said to have lasted from 7000 to 5800 BCE. These people also were named after a location in New Mexico, Folsom. Their artifacts were actually the artifacts that forced many archeologists to redefine how early people were in the southwest. Before Folsom, it was widely believed that people were relatively new to the New World arriving around 1CE rather than 11000 BCE. But the fact that Folsom artifacts were found in situ with Pleistocene fauna made such an argument impossible to support. By the end of Folsom, all of the megafauna, things like Mammoth and giant sloths, were extinct in North America.
The final Paleo-Indian complex we’ll talk about is the Cody Complex. They lasted from about 5800 to 5550 BCE a much shorter time than the others noted above. Their tools were even smaller. They may have hunted large bison or some similar animals. There is evidence that the Cody People had large camps during the hunting season. By the end of this period, it is believed that the climate was wetter and cooler than that of today. But that was not to last forever.
One thing of note, and this is true across the entire prehistoric period, is that over time the points being manufactured get smaller and smaller. It has been theorized that this change was due to the use of broken or damaged points to be fashioned into another usable point or being used from smaller pieces during the manufacture of other tools. Another theory is that these points were somehow more efficient than their predecessors. Due to population pressure, the people were forced to improve as hunters and this is one way that they might have done so. Another theory on this change is that these smaller points were somehow more generalized allowing for easier hunting of whatever game was found rather than specific types of game.
Some listeners may also have noticed that I’m calling them points and not arrowheads. The bow did not arrive in the area until 1CE. Instead darts and lances were fashioned and an atlatl, a type of spear thrower, was used instead. Again, links to pictures are on the website.
As hunter-gathers, it is believed that they spent a lot less time working. Only working some 500 hours a year. This is based on studies of the contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Furthermore, it must be remembered that much of the hunter-gatherer societies of today are not on the most productive land, much of which is occupied and used by modern nation states. As a result, the ancient hunter-gatherers may have been able to support a far larger population density than those of today.
Within each one of these groups, there have been identified some smaller complexes that were isolated to some smaller areas such as the; Scottsbluff, Plainview, and Eden complexes. But these don’t have enough written about them for me to talk about them.
At the end of the Cody Complex period, the Jay culture was dominant in New Mexico. Some archeologists label these people as Paleo-Indian. But most archeologists that I read in preparation for this show mark them down with the next period that we’ll talk about, the Archaic. That will have to wait, however, until our next episode.
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