New Mexico Art Tells its History

History: Farming, Food and Home


The roots of the earliest “New Mexicans,” the current day Puebloans of the Rio Grande valley, can be traced to two of three groups referred to as the Desert People. These nomadic people of the ancient hunting and gathering life changed location with the seasonal movement of game and the ripening of wild plant life.

The Mogollon, the Hohokam, and the Ancestral Pueblo people all belonged to the same cultural congregation but occupied different environmental regions. Several Mogollon groups clustered within roughly a hundred miles east and west of the New Mexico and Arizona border and extended some unknown distance southward into Chihuahua and Sonora. The heart of the ancestral Pueblo region lay across the southern Colorado Plateau and the upper Rio Grande drainage. It spanned northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado—a land of forested mountain ranges, stream-dissected mesas, arid grasslands and occasional river bottoms.

 The Hohokam and their cultural cousins, the Patayan, lived in the relentlessly hot Sonora desert country of south-central and western Arizona, southeastern California and northern Sonora.

Each group had to adapt to the growing seasons, temperature ranges, rainfall patterns, resources, game and wild food plant communities of their region. This in turn meant that each culture had to develop their own farming practices, technological capabilities, hunting strategies, gathering techniques and food preparation methods aligned with their surroundings.

Mogollon Culture

The Mogollon culture was named after the Mogollon area of southwestern New Mexico. This first phase of the culture was characterized by pit houses, dwellings that formed the basic domestic architecture in the area for more than a thousand years. They were built by forming a pit in the ground, pounding the dirt floor and roofing it over with a framework of heavy sticks which were covered with grass, sticks and earth.

In cadence with the seasons, families planted corn, beans, squash, cotton and perhaps other crops along riverbanks, in washes and on bluffs, hoping that any failure in one location would be offset by success in another. Crops were gathered into woven baskets, and carried back to the villages for initial processing and caching. Gathering parties, also equipped with woven baskets, ascended the mountains to harvest wild fruits and seeds.

Some families built cook fires in the centers of their pithouses, sometimes in no more than a depression in the floor, and other times in clay- or stone-lined hearths. Other families built their fires outside, although they may have carried fire-heated stones inside to radiate warmth into their lodges on cold winter nights.

In the second phase of Mogollon development, the western Mogollon bands apparently felt less threatened by their enemies, and began building their villages in more accessible areas nearer their fields. Some began to build larger pithouses, rectangular in shape, with well-finished interiors. They also built larger kivas near the center of the villages.

Rather than their signature brownware ceramics, potters began to experiment with more highly decorated pottery, producing new designs with red paint or brown clay backgrounds and later, with red or black paint on white backgrounds.

In the third phase of development, which began at about the end of the first millennium, archaeologists believe that the Mogollon experienced an intensification of influence from the ancestral Pueblo peoples, either as a result of migrations or a cultural “budding” process. With stimulus from the north and an increase in population, the Mogollon people began to give up their traditional pit house lodging, and like the ancestral Pueblo peoples, they started to build communities of above-ground masonry structures, one-or two story clusters of rooms, often with common walls.

The new, above-ground, more populous Mogollon towns now cultivated larger fields, raised larger crops and constructed larger ditch-fed irrigation systems. They cached food, not in underground storage pits or large pots, but in masonry rooms with rock slab floors.

After the early innovations, the Mogollon culture evolved very little and was gradually swallowed up by the more dynamic cultures of the north. Archaeologists speculate that the collapse of the culture may have been attributable to drought, resource exhaustion, warfare, disease, religious system collapse, "greener pastures" or some combination. In any event, the western Mogollon peoples began abandoning their communities in several areas in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico early in the 12th century. By about 1450 they had merged physically and culturally with the ancestral Pueblo peoples.

Ancestral Puebloan Culture

The earliest traces of Pueblo culture are reflected in characteristic kinds of basketry, (the culture is sometimes called Basketmakers), sandals, art, tools, architecture, settlement patterns, and agriculture. According to Pueblo oral traditions, different groups came from different directions and points of origin before joining together to form the clans and communities of today.

The ancestral Puebloan homeland was centered in the Four Corners region of northwest New Mexico and northeast Arizona, and in adjacent areas of Colorado and Utah, where their occupation lasted until 1280 or so. By 1300 the population centers had shifted south, to the Rio Grande Valley in north-central New Mexico and the Mogollon Rim in central Arizona, where related people had already been living for centuries.

The early Pueblo peoples lived in shallow depressions in the ground covered by a canopy of brush and mud called pithouses. They did not make pottery during this period, but they did raise Meso-American corn and squash with dry farming and some flood irrigation. The introduction of corn allowed the ancestral Pueblo peoples to settle in one area. Over several hundred years, the agriculture of the Ancestral Pueblo people advanced to the point that they could live and sustain themselves in permanent villages.

About the middle of the first millennium, the Ancestral Pueblo people quickened their pace of change and increased the diversity within their culture. They began to build some larger villages, with far more storage bins, possibly signifying increased yields from their fields. Reflecting growing populations and increasing crop yields, they began building still larger and now more nearly permanent villages, which they set in clusters of structures around plazas. They occupied their villages throughout the year, though hunters, in pursuit of game and possible assertion of territorial claims, sometimes occupied temporary campsites some distances from their villages. As more serious farmers, they began to improve the growing conditions of particular fields by terracing, irrigation, and gridding. The Ancestral Pueblo people continued to hunt and gather to supplement their crops, which were always subject to failure in an arid land with capricious rainfall.

Three important changes took place before A.D. 750: the old atlatl (spear thrower) that had been used to propel darts (small spears) from time immemorial was replaced by the bow and arrow; the bean was added to corn and squash to form a major supplement to the diet; and the people began to make pottery.

By A.D. 750 these farming and pottery-making people in their stable villages were on the threshold of the lifestyle that we think of as being typically Puebloan, and from this time on we call them Pueblos.  

Chaco Canyon

It has been theorized that Chaco Canyon served as a Central Place or ceremonial nexus for its outlying communities, connected to the core by a network of converging roads. The Chaco Canyon great houses communicated with their "outliers" by way of signaling stations perched on the crests of hills. The territory included nearly 40,000 square miles, an area larger than Scotland. The Chaco Canyon Great Houses stood as the Puebloan equivalent to England’s Buckingham Palace or France’s Versailles, built many centuries later.

The almost perfectly D-shaped Pueblo Bonito, the largest and most celebrated of the Chaco Canyon Great Houses, stood five stories in height along its back perimeter rooms. Located in the canyon on the north side, it faced south and encompassed a large plaza. At its peak, it had more than 700 rooms, thirty-seven family kivas, and two community kivas, or Great Kivas. Built in several stages, it covered more than four and one half acres. Over time, workers shaped an estimated one million blocks of sandstone weighing a total of some 30,000 tons to construct the walls of Pueblo Bonito. According to a University of Arizona study, the workers hauled more than 200,000 spruce and fir timbers more than fifty miles, from the Chuska Mountains to the west and the San Mateo Mountains to the south, to construct floors and roofs.  Chaco and its communities shared a common ideology, which almost certainly revolved around agriculture, astronomical observations, the seasons, water and hoped-for prosperity, prayed for and celebrated through ancient hunting and gathering rituals.

By the middle of the 12th century, possibly as a result of some combination of drought, overpopulation, depleted resources and discredited political and religious leadership, the Chaco Phenomenon collapsed. The population scattered, probably in a series of migrations. To the south of the Chaco and Kayenta regions, immigrants from areas in decline apparently settled the Hopi villages in northeastern Arizona and the Zuni, Acoma and Laguna villages in west central New Mexico. 

 To the east of Chaco Canyon, in the upper Rio Grande drainage with its more dependable water flows, the ancestral Pueblo populations began to increase during the 13th century, presumably a result of displacement from the waning Chaco and Mesa Verde regions. True to their roots, the new immigrants raised large, multistoried pueblos, some with populations in the thousands, along both sides of tributaries as well as the main stream of the river. 

 It is the pueblos of northwestern Arizona and western New Mexico and those of the upper Rio Grande drainage which greeted the Spanish expeditions into the Southwest in the 16th century.

Desert USA

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