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Prairie Pueblos: Archeology Reveals a “Dual Economy” on the Prehistoric Plains

Photographs courtesy of John Speth

The first European to encounter Native American life in our region bore witness to a distinctive phenomenon. When Cabeza de Vaca arrived at La Junta de los Rios, present-day Presidio-Ojinaga, in the 1530s, he found farming communities. The starving Spaniard was fed beans and squash. But he also learned that many La Juntans were away, “hunting cows,” he wrote. The evidence of that “cow” hunting was on display – bison robes abounded at La Junta.

Cabeza de Vaca was glimpsing what might be called a “dual economy,” one that incorporated both farming and seasonal bison hunting. And what he saw was in fact part of a centuries-old tradition. 

In recent years, archeologists have been excavating previously little-known village sites, from the West Texas plains of the Llano Estacado to the Pecos River in New Mexico. They've unearthed the story of a dynamic time, when our region's prehistoric people put themselves at the hub of extensive trade networks, and found themselves drawn into violent conflict. 

An hour's drive north of Carlsbad, Roswell, New Mexico is perhaps best known for alien visitations. It's at the edge of a booming oilfield, and its surrounding prairies are prime rangeland for cattle. But visiting Roswell today, the word “oasis” wouldn't jump to mind.

Yet until the early 20th century, it was a place of freshwater abundance, with multiple perennial streams flowing into the Pecos River.

John Speth, an emeritus professor at the University of Michigan, has excavated prehistoric pueblos at what archeologists call the “Roswell Oasis.”

“There were seven rivers,” Speth said. “It was extremely well-watered. In fact, there were statements written in the late 19th century that said it's water supply was inexhaustible. I have several thousand fish bones, five different species of catfish, hundreds of coots – it was very well watered.” 

Speth's first excavation was a bison kill – a site where, at around 1450 CE, hunters killed some 35 of the creatures. He hoped next to excavate an occupation site, where those bison hunters might have lived. 

With its streams and springs – and their fish and birds – Roswell likely drew humans for centuries. The extent of that prehistoric occupation will never be known – most of the evidence was destroyed with modern development. But a few sites endured. There were pithouse villages known as Rocky Arroyo and Fox Place. And pothunters and amateurs had identified a site known as Henderson Pueblo. The accounts weren't promising, but Speth decided to take a look.

“The original description of Henderson was 'a serpentine line of rocks,'” Speth said. “I thought, oh – this is a total waste.”

Yet as he began to explore and excavate the site, located on ranch land outside Roswell, Speth found something more complex than expected. 

The “serpentine line of rocks,” he learned, was the foundation of a wall. Speth and his crew ultimately unearthed the outline of a village shaped like a capital “E” – with a long bar of continuous rooms, and three room blocks extending out from it. But what Speth really wanted was trash. As the detritus of daily life, trash is a boon for archeologists. And beneath a mesquite tree in the village plaza, Speth hit pay-dirt. 

“So I tested there,” he said. “It was about a meter and a half deep. It was a huge oven complex and just solid bison bones. So I got my trash.” 

A picture came into focus. Henderson Pueblo clearly had links to the Southwestern Puebloan world and its farming ways. Ceramics from the El Paso area were in heavy use – they were the village's “tin cans.” There was evidence of maize consumption. But the villagers were also capitalizing on another resource.

Bison might seem synonymous with the prehistoric Southern Plains. But their presence here waxed and waned over the millennia. Around 1200 CE, bison herds surged in what's now West Texas and southern New Mexico, and local life, it appears, was transformed.

The people of Henderson were apparently making seasonal forays east – likely into the Texas High Plains – to hunt bison, beginning around 1200. Around 1300 CE, bison hunting intensified, and bison feasting became a communal touchstone. And something else changed.

Speth found increasing number of ceramic fragments – from very far afield. There was painted pottery from pueblos on the Rio Grande, from the canyons of Arizona, from the great desert city of Paquime, in present-day Chihuahua, Mexico. The people of Henderson, it seems, were trading bison goods – hides, and perhaps dried meat – with societies more than 300 miles away.  

Speth didn't stop with Henderson. He excavated another nearby pueblo – known as Bloom Mound, which flourished into the early 1400s. The record here was curious: There were fewer signs of bison processing, but more evidence of long-distance trade, in the form of ceramics and even copper bells. Speth speculates the people of Bloom Mound may have been intermediaries – between bison hunters to the east, and farming societies to the west.

It suggests a phenomenon called the “Plains-Pueblo Interaction.” Early Spanish explorers observed it in northern New Mexico – the Pecos pueblo, for example, is thought to have been a bartering hub between Plains hunters and Puebloan farmers. Yet our region – at the threshold of the Southern Plains and the Chihuahuan Desert – hadn't been considered in that context.

“Most people believe the Plains-Pueblo Interaction really began around 1450,” Speth said. “The Roswell stuff for me would suggest that something akin to it was already happening much earlier.”

Clearly bison were a precious resource, and that appears to have prompted competition. Violence visited Bloom Mound. Amateur excavators found burned bodies there. And Speth's team also unearthed burials that showed signs of possible violence. Victims included women and children. Projectile points suggest Bloom Mound's attackers may have come from Central Texas – hunters who were asserting, perhaps, their preeminence on the bison plains.

The Roswell area wasn't the only setting for these “dual-economy” villages. There's a place called the Merchant Site, just across the Texas line in southern New Mexico. And in Andrews County, 60 miles west of Midland, the Salt Cedar Site was a bison-processing hamlet on the plains, that, like Bloom Mound, suffered violent attack.

It's a reminder: Indigenous life here was never static or unchanging. Like our own world, the prehistoric one knew innovation and upheaval.

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