Podcast Transcript NM Episode 2: The Archaic period

Hello, and welcome to Distant Echoes episode 2: New Mexico 2: the Archaic period.

Last time we talked about the Paleo-Indian period which covers the earliest people in the Americas and Southwest, big game hunter-gathers. We talked about how we can determine when people lived there using things like radiocarbon dating and tree ring dating and some of the issues with these methods. We also talked about how we estimate the climate using things such as tree rings to estimate the climatic conditions, pollen samples, or packrat middens.

Today, we’ll be covering the next two major periods of the Prehistoric era of New Mexico: the Archaic and part of the early farming periods. The Archaic, lasting from 5500 BC to 1 CE, covers the remainder of the pre agricultural period. While my notes say that the shape and style of points is far less important now compared to how it was for identifying previous periods, I’m still going to end up talking about them quite a bit during this episode. As the people were still nomadic, it is still very hard to find remains of their time. One handed manos, stones to grind corn and other plants, and metates, the grinding Basin begin to appear during this period. In the post accompanying this episode, some examples of manos and metates are given.

Why did these grinding stones begin to appear? There is proof that the people began to shift away from hunting as much and moved towards plants.

The reasons for this shift in diet are thought to be due to population pressure. As the population increased, it became harder to subsist mostly off of hunted game. By the end of the Cody Complex, the population density has been estimated as about 1 person to 26 square miles. Another theory is that as the climate changed and got even hotter across parts of this period, known as the Altithermal that we’ll talk about more later, the bison that were previously hunted were pushed further north and the overall productivity of the Land decreased forcing adaptation. Regardless, a shift to plants is a far more efficient use of land. According to David Stuart, meat loses about 90% of the calories input to it. Thus by switching diet to a more vegetarian style, significantly more calories can be gained from the same land. This does not mean people can just settle down, nor does it mean that they can just go fully vegetarian. On the former point, plants rarely grow in large groups in the southwest, as a result people still had to be highly mobile, traveling from grouping to grouping of these plants. 

Meat was also still quite important. There are certain amino acids that humans need to survive that can only be found in meat or modern supplements, meaning the Archaic period hunter-gatherers still needed to do some of the hunting part of hunter-gatherer.

Starting in about 5000 BCE major climate change occurred in a period known as the Altithermal. It got much hotter and drier. For instance in the Four Corners region it was warmer and drier than it is today. There is evidence that some of the game previously present began moving north.

By 4000 BCE it is believed that every year was harsh. By now, the bison hunted by previous peoples were believed to spend the winters grazing in Colorado and then migrated to spend the summers in Alberta.

By about 3000 BCE five distinct cultures had appeared. The San Dieguito-Pinto in Arizona, California, and Nevada. The Chiricahua Cochise in the southern Southwest. The Hueco complex in southeastern New Mexico. The Coahuila complex in Chihuahua Mexico and West Texas. The most important one, for this podcast, was the Oshara which ranged across the Arroyo Cuervo, San Juan Basin, Rio Grande Valley, Plains of San Agustin, South-central CO, and Southeastern Utah.

The Oshara, who it is believed became the Ancestral Puebloans, can be broken into five different phases which I’m going to go through quickly.

The first being the Jay talked about in our last episode. Then came the Bajada.

Bajada points have basal thinning and indentations not seen in Jay period points. There are no longer any Paleo-Indian hints left in the points found. They also had chopping tools, scrappers, hearths, and earth ovens. They used rock shelters for campsites. By the end of this period, the Altithermal had come to an end.

Following the Bajada phase is the San Jose phase from about 3000-2500 BCE. The San Jose points show more serrations, shorter length, and smaller length-to-stem ratio. They had larger subsurface ovens and manos began to appear. Their tool sets were much more localized for their environment. By the end of this period almost every choice rock shelter or campsite was in use. Their points can be found over half of the Continent. There is also a shift away from wandering as much. At about the end of this period, a more or less modern climate was achieved.

Next we have the Armijo phase from 2500-1500 BC. After about 2000 BC the Armijo rock shelter use began to drop off, it is around this time that Maize and squash is currently thought to have appeared in the southwest after having been brought from Mexico, however it was not adopted immediately. Their points had short widths and expanding stems with Concave or straight bases. From 2000-500 BC the climate began to get wetter. By the end of this period, the population density could be as high as 1 person per square mile.

After the Armijo phase is the En Medio Phase lasting from 1500 BC-1CE. En Medio translates to “in the middle” and that transition from hunter-gather to a more agriculturally based culture begins to appear. From 1500-1000 Maize and squash are planted in small plots. But this was not large-scale farming. It was believed to be mostly planted as a subsidy to the hunting and gathering lifestyle, if it grows where planted that just means extra food. Early pit rooms and storage pits begin to appear during this time. By about 500 BCE beans, the last plant of the Southwest agricultural triangle had appeared. Not only do corn and squash not form complete proteins they deplete the soil. Legumes like beans, however, can form a complete protein and help with nitrogen fixing in the soil.

By 500BCE farming could completely replace the hunting gathering lifestyle. Some meat would still need to be collected for certain nutrients. It is also around this time that pit houses begin to appear. A pit house is a dwelling dug into the ground with a wooden roof that extends above it. The depth could vary depending on the region it was built in. On the website is a picture of a reconstructed pit house from 1960 in Mesa Verde.

What are the advantages of a pit house? They’re rather thermally efficient. In the winter or in the summer they remained about the same temperature, comparatively cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Right before 1 CE the climate got a little wetter. Allowing both foragers and farmers to farm more easily.

The Chiricahua Cochise may have become the Mogollon or Hohokam peoples we’ll encounter soon enough. However, not enough studies have been conducted to say for sure.

After these periods a transition occurred to the Basketmaker I or Early Basketmaker phase. From here on out, adoption of any of these phases we’ll be talking about for the prehistoric period is not uniform, everyone didn’t just wake up one day and say, “I’m going to build a Pueblo I style house now.” It was a more gradual transition with different areas adopting things at different rates depending on local factors.

There were 3 major cultural groups in the southwest by this time. The Ancestral Puebloans in the Four Corners region, of which the majority of this podcast will be focused, the Mogollon in southern New Mexico which were extremely difficult to research for this show, and the Hohokam in Arizona which will be the least talked about in this podcast.

The basketmaker periods can be divided into two periods, Early Basketmaker and late Basketmaker. Sometimes these are also referred to as Basketmaker I or II. Both of these are noted by more reliance on farming and the use of baskets with no pottery.

Early Basketmaker lasted from about 1CE-400CE. Between the start of the Basketmakers and 300CE it is thought that the bow arrived in the Four Corners region. However it was not distributed equally across New Mexico. For a hunter, what would be the advantages of switching to the bow? A simple answer would be that bows are just more accurate. Another is that they are better suited to the wooded environments that were being hunted in. Basketmaker campsites tended to be in the uplands near streams or washes to have access to water. Near the end of this period, storage pits began to move into houses. This implies less sharing of resources within groups. Most likely, the Early Basketmakers only lived in pit houses seasonally.

To cook it is thought that basketmaker people would heat up stones in the fire and then transport them to pools of water with baskets of food in them. Obviously, baskets would burn if put directly on the fire so this allowed the people to heat their food with little worry as the baskets were made tightly enough to keep water out.

Late Basketmaker would see quite a few changes in lifestyle. While there were still hunter-gatherers in the mountains, the farming population continued to grow. Pottery began to appear with Sambrito Brownware around 300-400 CE. Most likely this Brownware came from the Mogollon to the south who had been making pottery for some time. The Mogollon may have even learned pottery from Mesoamerica.

Another thing that may have been introduced by the Mogollon to the south are domesticated turkeys. Turkeys were rarely eaten until old, unless it was truly desperate times. Instead they were used for their eggs and feathers. The former could be eaten and the latter could be turned into clothing or ritual implements. Once the turkey was killed its bones could be used for tools.

Late Basketmaker settlements tended to be in the uplands. They got more rain on average, however the growing seasons were much shorter and fraught with peril such as late freezes. As someone from the mountains of New Mexico, I can confirm. Our apricot tree rarely produced fruit due to the late freeze that hit every year. However, there was also more access to game and forage in the uplands. Offsetting some of this risk. The type of farming is also quite important, wet farming along waterways could be much more successful than dry farming depending on the year. But there is a lot less land to wet farm in the southwest, meaning that not all groups had equal access to such options.

Corn cobs began to grow in size and Pit Houses became more standardized. Dried corn could be stored for the colder months and once stripped the cob could be used to fuel a fire. Wild plants and game now subsidize the diet rather than being the primary source of food.

There were more, smaller villages during this time as well. By the 800s there was less opportunity to return to the foraging and hunting strategy, populations were becoming much more sedentary.

These changes in diet were not the only ones occurring. Socially New changes were appearing. In the 600s and 700s religious and social structures were changing. Community houses, early kivas, begin to appear. A circular building with a bench along one wall. Burials also began to move closer to habitations; into middens or abandoned rooms or houses. The grave goods found could range from shells coming from as far as 750 miles away in Texas or California.

This is all not to say life was easy. Grinding Corn using sandstone manos and metates introduces tiny fragments of rock that can wear down teeth. As there was extensive competition for game, the basketmaker burials often show signs of osteoporosis due to a lack of amino acids from meat.

Around 700-900 CE another change would take place, the movement from below ground settlements to above ground ones. This period is known as Pueblo I. These above surface homes were often built next to pit houses, which could be used for storage. Villages also start to get larger. This could be due to the need for defense against those who did not have as successful farming. Despite the above ground villages being built, they were not inhabited for very long. Often abandoned after 30-40 years, many reasons are speculated for this frequent abandonment.

In the late 700s, trade appears to have expanded, possibly due to more uncertainty in farming, the villages that had more trading to those that had less so that these villages would help when the situation reversed,  or to secure and reinforce alliances. This coincides with a period that was hot and dry making rainfall far harder to predict.

Barring a few exceptions, those being: Pueblo Bonito, Panasco Blanco, and Una Vida. Farming outside of the uplands wasn’t really viable. For those of you who have a little bit of an idea of what’s coming next in the Prehistoric era, some of those names, especially the first, should be rather familiar.

Pueblo I is also one of the few periods that has heavy overlap with the one following it, Pueblo II. However, you will have to wait two episodes to hear about that. In the next episode I want to move south and talk a bit about the Mogollon, now that they are beginning to play a larger part in the narrative.

If you enjoyed the show, please share it with your friends. Leave a review on your podcast app of choice, if it lets you. Since I’m a luddite and don’t use social media, word of mouth and reviews are the only ways the show spreads. We have a website located at engineeringfire.org where I have a link in the header for podcast resources, including: pictures, Companion Posts, my bibliography, and the transcripts of each show. We have an email you can submit comments and questions to at michael@engineeringfire.org The intro music is Desperados by Frank Schroeter and sourced from filmmusic.io. The outro music is NeoWestern from Kevin McLeod of Incompetech. Links to all the things mentioned are present in the show notes and at the website. And thank you all so much for listening and I will see you in the next episode.

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