Taos Pueblo (USA): Big game nomadic hunters became cultivators of corn
The evolution of early man's hunting tools in the Upper Rio Grande Valley – Courtesy photo
Living in the Taos area it would be hard to not have some familiarity with the region’s archaeology. Black on white pottery shards are ubiquitous and easily recognizable. Projectile points and other stone tools are frequently seen in shadow boxes. The Taos Pueblo, whose architecture is characteristic of Native peoples throughout the Southwest, is the nation’s oldest continuously inhabited community dating back at least 600 years ago. But the Upper Río Grande Valley has seen seasonal influxes of nomadic tribes and bands for roughly 10,000 years. The artifacts they left behind are evidence of their presence, and they provide some indications of their way of life as it changed and evolved over time.
Before people began settling down in multistory mud apartments and growing corn for subsistence, they were small, itinerant clans of hunter-gathers. “Archaic foragers roamed over this ancient landscape while hunting and gathering a variety of plant and animal species. These annual rounds involved a seasonal pattern of movement up and down the valley between lowland and upland areas”, says Dr. Bradley J. Vierra, an archaeologist with Statistical Research, Inc., who has written extensively about this period in Northern New Mexico. The Archaic period begins around 8,000 years ago and continues to about 1,500 years ago. In 1973, Cynthia Irwin-Williams introduced the term Oshara Tradition to refer to the Archaic period in New Mexico and Colorado and was among the first to use the archaeological record to culturally connect the Archaic to the earliest phases of recognizable Pueblo culture.
But little is known about the period that precedes the Archaic — the Paleo-Indian period. During the time from about 12,000 to 9,500 years ago, archaeologists believed people migrated to the Americas via the Bering land bridge following herds of now-extinct giant and extraordinary mammals — mammals such as the giant beaver, mastodon, woolly mammoth and bison. Known as Clovis and Folsom, these Paleo-Indians were highly mobile, covering hundreds of miles in a year as they hunted and foraged across the land. Their toolkits were designed for efficient hunting, butchering and processing the hides of Pleistocene megafauna. The climate during this time was cool and wet, and food was varied and abundant during the warmer months.
The climate, vegetation and landscape, however, changed dramatically in the roughly 2,000 years that separates the Paleo cultures from those of the Early Archaic. In fact, the cultural connection between the two resides in an archaeological gray area. Within the Upper Río Grande, the shift towards a drier climate coincides with the drying up of several nearby major bodies of water. The transition towards a warmer and drier climate had a profound effect on residents, who now relied on a new mix and new distribution of plant and animal resources. “Early Archaic foragers were experiencing more restricted movement and hunting a wider variety of large, medium and small-sized game”, says Vierra. Evidence of this is often seen on the ground as nondescript piles of chipped stone. These lithic scatters are what make up the majority of Archaic archaeological sites, which are fairly common in the Upper Río Grande.
The earliest phase of the Archaic period is known as the Early Archaic. Early Archaic sites within the Upper Río Grande date to as early as 8,000 years ago. Hunters of the Early Archaic used Jay and Bajada points, which are large-stemmed points designed to withstand multiple hunts. Rather than hunting large game in an open prairie setting, like their predecessors, hunters of the Early Archaic began spending more time in the woods targeting medium and small-sized game. And rather than following the herds across the plains, their seasonal settlement pattern shifted to a north-south pattern within the Northern Río Grande.
Following the Early Archaic is the Middle Archaic (6,000-2,500 years ago). There was yet another shift in environmental conditions, this time towards a more favorably wet habitat. This allowed for the expansion of piñon-juniper forests within the Northern Río Grande. Hunting strategies once again evolved to fit the new landscape.
“It may be during the Middle Archaic that fall hunts in the Río Grande Valley were becoming less successful, so these hunter-gathers would have shifted their residence to the uplands where they could collect piñon nuts and hunt deer,” says Vierra. Along with a change in hunting strategies came new stone tool technologies. Points get smaller and there is some notching happening later. But most notable was the development of blade serration. These changes could have allowed for more successful hunts in the upland forests.
“Serration”, says Vierra, “may enhance penetration while creating a more irregular wound that would enhance a blood trail, something important for hunting in wooded settings.”
Materials of choice changed with time as well as people shifted their foraging and hunting tactics from the lowlands to the wooded uplands. Early and Middle Archaic hunters preferred a material called dacite (similar to basalt), which made for more durable points and reflects a north-south pattern of land use within the open lower valley. But point durability became less of a factor as people began targeting a greater variety of game. Impacting the animal effectively became more important. Obsidian gained popularity towards the end of the Middle Archaic, in part because it was widely available in the new areas being hunted. The change in material corresponds to this shift in hunting tactics following a lowland-upland seasonal migratory pattern.
The earliest use of maize agriculture in the Northern Río Grande, believed to be about 3,000 years ago, corresponds with continuing favorable environmental conditions and actually marks the beginning of the Late Archaic. Advantageous climatic conditions continued until about 1,800 years ago. Within the Upper Río Grande, people began following a lowland-upland pattern of land use restricted to the immediate valley. During the early summer, Vierra says folks were exploiting Indian ricegrass, then moving on to the upland forests for wild onions, berries and wild potatoes in the late summer, and then down to the low woodlands in the fall for pine nuts, acorns, yucca and cacti followed by overwintering near permanent water sources. The projectile points also become varied and specialized.
"This diversity of Late Archaic point types presumably reflects the implementation of a variety of hunting tactics designed to efficiently procure specific types of game,” Vierra says. These point types set the stage for the bow and arrow."
The limited addition of maize to the diet is thought to be one of the reasons people stopped wandering and decided to settle down. According to Irwin-Williams, “It presented a relatively concentrated, relatively reliable and seasonally abundant resource, which could for the first time provide a source of localized temporary seasonal surplus”.
This seasonal surplus no doubt allowed for larger group size and seasonal gatherings. Over time (1,800 years ago to roughly 1000 AD) regional population grew and dispersed. Within the Upper Río Grande there is evidence that favorable campsites were increasingly occupied for longer amounts of time, and eventually these favored spots became permanent residential settlements employing more of a farmer-forager strategy of subsistence. Climatic conditions around 1000 AD allowed for the growing of maize at 7,000 feet and by 1200 AD the Ancestral Puebloans of the Northern Río Grande had developed their own system of survival and community. There is evidence at Pot Creek, for instance, of pit houses being built during this time, to be replaced by above ground structures that look more pueblo-like in the 1200s and 1300s. The trend towards small agricultural villages is thought to be a cultural response to climate, continuing population growth and availability of resources.
The advance from small bands of peripatetic hunter-gatherers to sedentary agricultural communities was long and gradual with myriad advancements in tool technologies, hunting and foraging strategies, and social organization. Change in climate reflects humans' ability to adapt, evolve and progress. And while the archaeological remnants of the Paleo and Archaic people may not be as elaborate or obvious as those of their Pueblo descendants, they are nonetheless important in understanding and interpreting the region’s past.