The Native American Peoples of Our Western Deserts

In the archaeological record of roughly 2000 to 1300 years ago, we can follow the story of the desert people’s emergence from their Archaic past, their transition to a lifestyle characterized less by nomadic hunting and gathering than by established villages and farms. The change occurred gradually and broadly, prodded at least in part by influences from the Mesoamerican region of southern Mexico. It appeared like a new horizon materializing out of Archaic mists, bit by bit, region by region, century by century. It signals the beginning of what archaeologists call the Formative Period, which would endure into historic times. Slow as it was, the season of change contrasts vividly with the prolonged cultural stability of the ancestral cultures.

The Cultural Stability of Earlier Times

The Paleo Indians, by far the most culturally unified and stable of all American peoples, hunted and gathered in small groups across the Americas and the southwestern U. S. and northern Mexico with comparatively little apparent change for more than 30,000 years (if we can accept Scotty MacNeish’s dates for the earliest Pendejo Cave occupation, see Paleo Indians: Shadows in the Night, DesertUSA archives, May, 2001). They foraged opportunistically until 15,000 to 12,000 years ago. They then apparently intensified their hunting when they turned to big game, armed, evidently for the first time, with spears tipped with beautifully crafted stone points. They would follow the great herds for several thousand years, until the end of the last of the Ice Ages about 10,000 years ago. Even then, they continued to hunt and gather for another 1000 to 2000 years even though large game animal populations had declined and some species had disappeared as the climate warmed and dried.

The Desert Archaic peoples, descendants of the nomadic Paleo Indians, remained true to the ancient hunting and gathering traditions for another seven millennia. The Early Desert Archaic bands did adapt to the changing climate, relying less on hunting and more on wild plant harvests, a practice they followed for more than 2000 years. The Middle Desert Archaic peoples remained fundamentally hunters and gatherers even though some began to experiment with village life, agriculture, food storage and cultural diversification. Even Late Desert Archaic bands held on to their hunting and gathering core although a few groups established true villages, practiced some marginal agriculture or gardening, and developed individual cultural signatures.


A few archaeologists think that hunting and gathering were so embedded that some desert bands may have continued the basic late Archaic lifestyle until well into EuroAmerican times. These would have included groups similar to the Great Basin Shoshoni, a historic tribe whose small extended family bands followed a seasonal circuit, hunting small game, harvesting wild plants, and occupying shallow caves or simple windbreaks or brush dwellings.

Other archaeologists believe that there is no indisputable evidence to support the proposition that bands comparable to the Shoshoni continued to hunt and gather without interruption in the southwestern U. S. into historic times. They think that all Indian populations across the U. S. desert adopted a village and agriculture lifestyle during the first half of the Formative Period, although they also believe that the peoples continued to hunt and gather to supplement agricultural production. The archaeologists do acknowledge that some unknown Shoshoni-type bands could have existed in northern Mexico, at least in the areas where little archaeological investigation has been done.

The Metamorphosis

In transforming themselves from primarily hunters and gatherers into primarily villagers and agriculturists, the people of the desert changed from food collectors and consumers to food producers and consumers. Over a period of centuries, they adopted survival strategies and cultural traits which were different not only from those of their fathers, but also from those of a thousand generations. They would, as Richard B. Woodbury and Ezra B. W. Zubrow said in “Agricultural Beginnings, 2000 B. C. – A. D. 500,” Handbook of North American Indians, published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1979, lay “the basis for far more extensive and complex changes later in the Southwest.”

Village Life

The early Formative Period farmers constructed villages which served as year-round residences or, at least, seasonal base residences—a place to come home to. This reflected an increasing acceptance of agriculture and a slow but steady growth in populations. They often built their villages at valley bottom sites located near arable soils and springs or streams and bounded by mountain slopes with game and wild food plants.

Giving up traditional mobility, they invested substantial labor in building more durable and somewhat larger dwellings, which would provide housing for populations in the dozens, not for weeks or months, but for years. In southern Arizona, they built clustered houses over shallow, rectangular-shaped depressions. In the Four Corners area and in southern New Mexico, they erected clustered houses over three- or four-foot deep round to oval pits.

An early farmer’s house in southern New Mexico, for example, might span a floor space of a few hundred square feet. It had a dome-shaped brush roof plastered with mud or clay and supported with posts. It had a covered and ramped passageway for an entrance. It had a fire hearth at the center of the floor and several storage niches scattered around the fire hearth. Sometimes a deceased family member lay buried beneath the floor surface.

Often the villagers built a larger structure which would accommodate the whole population for rituals, celebrations and community business. These may have been forerunners to the Pueblo ceremonial chambers called “kivas.”

Near villages which could not always count on a year-round spring or stream flow, the residents may have dug wells to trap runoff or tap shallow water tables. Their Archaic ancestors had dug such wells for more than 2000 years.

The farmers planted fields not only in the valley bottoms, but also in tributary canyon bottoms and on hillsides, reasoning that they could offset a crop failure in one location with success in other locations. They raised several different strains of corn. One, called “Chapalote,” withstood drought better than earlier strains. The other, “Maiz de Ocho” (literally, “Corn of Eight”), had eight rows of kernels which were larger and softer than those of earlier strains.

Corn lay at the core of their agriculture, but they also raised beans and squash, which added important vitamins, minerals and amino acids to their diets. In some areas, they raised cotton, probably using the fiber for weaving and the seeds (rich in oil) for food. In a good season in favorable locations, a village might produce enough food on an acre of land to support a resident for a year.

The early farmers used simple digging sticks to plant their seeds and to weed and cultivate the soil. They likely posted watches throughout the growing season to drive away rodents and birds which would try to raid the crops. In southern Arizona, they irrigated their fields by drawing water from the Gila River and channeling it through extensive canal systems which resembled those of Mesoamerica. Across the southwestern U. S. and in northern Mexico, the early farmers likely experienced highly variable yields from their crops from year to year.

Although they turned increasingly to agriculture, they continued to rely on the old ways as well. Hunting parties continued to take deer and the smaller game, using weapons, snares and net traps. Gathering expeditions continued to harvest wild plants in season. Game and wild plants provided not only supplements to the food supply, but also raw materials for making clothing, bedding, basketwares and other articles.

Following precedents set in late in the Archaic Period, the early Formative farmers offset the shortages of lean times by banking surplus seed in storage pits, which would protect a cache for years. They dug the pits both under their dwelling floors and outside the dwelling walls. Typically, they excavated slightly bell-shaped pits which measured several feet deep and several feet across, and they often lined the sides with clay or stone slabs to constrain wall collapse. They capped the pits with clay or mud to seal out vermin as well as moisture. Some dug pits large enough to contain one to two tons of corn. In their latter centuries, they also used large pots for storage. They drew down their surpluses both for food and for crop seed.

The early villagers and farmers of the desert looked to southern Mexico as the original source of their domesticated plants, but they did not adopt the distant recipes. They continued to prepare food in traditional ways. The southern Mexico peoples, for example, soaked corn kernels in a lime solution to soften them prior to crushing them into flour. The desert farmers simply dried corn kernels and ground them into flour on a milling stone just as they had always ground wild grass seeds. They also roasted fresh ears of corn over the coals of their fire hearths. They parched corn and other seeds by shaking them constantly in shallow vessels held over hot coals.

They boiled beans and cooked stews by dropping hot stones directly into the cooking vessels. They sliced squash into strips for drying, and they separated the seed for parching. They roasted meat and plant foods over open fires or in large fire pits.

With the emergence of increased populations, sedentary villages, agriculture and storage, skilled specialists found the freedom to dedicate more time to crafts. As the archaeological evidence suggests, they intensified the manufacture of superb basketware, made from coiled plant materials such as split willow or rabbitbush and waterproofed with coatings of pitch. They wove plant materials into carrying bags and large trap nets. (The early farmers in the Four Corners regions are, in fact, called “Basketmakers” because of their signature product.) Craftsmen used skins from game animals, feathers from domesticated turkeys, fibers from yucca and other plants, and textiles of woven cotton to make clothing, sandals, cradles and blankets. They produced jewelry and ornaments such as necklaces and bracelets from bone, shell and wood. They crafted wood, sinew and stone into tools for the fields and weapons for the hunt. They turned reeds into flutes, wood and bone into gaming pieces. They fashioned minerals, wood, bone and feathers into elaborate ceremonial objects, which became centerpieces for seasonal rituals.


Although pottery appeared very late in the Archaic Period, introduced almost certainly from Mesoamerica, it was not broadly accepted by the early Formative Period farmers for centuries. Like corn two millennia earlier, it had come northward by an unknown route, conveyed by unknown hands. It may have served as a currency of trade. It may have represented an acquired skill.

The earliest pots we know, from southern Arizona and New Mexico, were well crafted shallow bowls and spherical-shaped jars, uniformly reddish or brown in color, with no significant decoration. They were intended to serve a utilitarian, not an artistic, role in sedentary village life. Over time, pots would displace pitch-covered baskets as cooking vessels, and they would find uses in transportation and storage of food stuffs and water.

Pottery and pot making moved slowly northward, presumably village to village, across the desert, not reaching the Four Corners area until midway through the first millennium. Some pots begin to show experimentation with decoration: broad lines and chevrons painted over the reddish and brown fired clays; designs reminiscent of those used for baskets; and different shapes of vessels. Pots would eventually mark the slow and distinctive evolution of the technology, style and artistry of regions, villages and perhaps even individual potters. They suggest trade activities and contacts among villages and regions. They serve as markers of time.

In the hands of an authority on prehistoric ceramics of the desert, for example, experts like Toni Laumbach, who is associated with the Southwest archaeological firm Human Systems Research, Inc., pottery speaks of its place of origin, its period of manufacture, its role in trade, its function in village life and ceremony.

The bow and arrow, which appear in the archaeological record – primarily in dry cave sites – beginning about 500 A. D., took the early farming people another step beyond Archaic times. Compared with the traditional spear and atlatl (or, throwing stick), the bow and arrow offered greater accuracy and increased portability and firepower. Unlike pottery, which came from the south into the desert Southwest and northern Mexico, the bow and arrow apparently came from the north, possibly from the Great Basin, where the weapon appeared at the beginning of the first millennium A. D. (Of course, some bands may have introduced the bow and arrow into the Sonoran or Chihuahuan desert regions centuries earlier than 500 A. D., but the archaeological evidence has not been found.)

Material wealth in the form of heavy ceramics, stone tools, weapons, wooden farm implements, food stores, clothing, jewelry became a byproduct of village life. Such things could not have been transported conveniently in quantity by nomadic, hunting and gathering Paleo and Archaic peoples. With material wealth likely came at least modest social stratification, which is suggested by the relative abundance of artifacts in burials.

Spirituality and Ritual

The early farming communities made spirituality and ritual a centerpiece of their lives, possibly merging ancient world views and ceremonies associated with their hunting and gathering origins with new perspectives and rites derived from their new village and farming lifestyle.

As Woodbury and Zubrow said in their paper on the beginnings of agriculture in the desert, “The enormous complexity of ritual activity that characterizes the Indians of the Southwest in historic times suggests a great time-depth, so that even two millennia ago there was probably an elaborate annual series of ceremonies related to the basic social and economic needs of the group—individual progress through the stages of life, security and health, and economic well-being.”

Religious leaders clearly gave elaborate ceremonial expression to spirituality. In Indian Rock Art of the Southwest, Polly Schaafsma said, speaking of rock art by the early farmers in the Four Corners area, “I suggest that the art styles involved [the portrayal of large human figures with supernatural attributes] were underlain by a related ideographic system or religious structure based on shamanic practices.”

Speaking of figures with a “slightly tapered trapezoidal body shape and drooping hands and feet,” which are pecked into stone surfaces near the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico, Schaafsma said, “Considering their elaborate headgear and other paraphernalia and the occasional depiction of masks, I feel that the Basketmaker anthropomorphs not only had ceremonial import but that they exceeded the realm of the ordinary; they were probably representations either of supernatural beings themselves or of shamans. Images such as these may have been thought to contain the soul force of the beings they represent.”

Cultural Diversification

The Paleo Indians sustained a remarkable cultural unity and stability across a continent for many thousands of years. The Archaic Indians retained the hallmarks of hunting and gathering peoples for more than 6000 years, but touched by Mesoamerica’s magic wand of agriculture, they began to experiment with change. “By about 3000 B. C.,” Woodbury and Zubrow said, “there were several localized variants of the Archaic in the southwest, a western (San Dieguito-Pinto tradition) a northern (Oshara tradition), a southern (Cochise tradition), and a southeastern….

The early communities of Formative Period villagers and farmers, while sharing many similarities, nevertheless developed clear regional cultural differences from about 2000 to some 1300 years ago. Woodbury and Zubrow said, “By A. D. 500 the culture patterns that set off the Southwest from the rest of North America had emerged in elementary form and succeeding centuries saw their elaboration.”

The early Formative Period people gave rise to the Mogollons of southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, western Texas and northern Chihuahua; the Hohokam of south-central Arizona and northern Sonora; the Patayan of the lower Colorado River; and the famed Anasazi of the greater Four Corners region. Those are the cultural regions we will explore in DesertUSA’s continuing series on the Native American peoples of the southwestern U. S. and northern Mexico.

Jay W. Sharp
August 2001