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Chihuahuan Desert Neolithic: Integrating Farming and Foraging in the Prehistoric Past

The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, in southern New Mexico, testifies to the Jornada Mogollon culture, which stretched from present-day El Paso and northern Chihuahua to the West Texas plains. Like prehistoric peoples near present-day Presidio-Ojinaga, the Jornada Mogollon integrated agriculture with time-tested foraging practices, and farmed and built pueblos near playas, in foothills and along mountain streams.

The recent dating of fossilized human footprints in White Sands National Park – to 23,000 years old –  makes it plain: people have lived in our region for a very long time. 

Much of that history was highly mobile. In the deserts, mountains and plains, Native people learned the plants and animals, the intricacies of land and water, and lived on wild resources for millennia. Abundant recent scholarship shows that the hunting-and-gathering life – the norm for most of our species' history – was never static or simple. Early Spanish friars in the Big Bend were surprised to discover that nomads here were often multilingual – in a sort of exchange program, young people would spend years with another group, learning its language and lore. The murals of the Lower Pecos, with the intricate cosmology they express, testify that foraging lives coexisted with complex worldviews, and a detailed understanding of the patterns of the heavens and the earth.  

But in the centuries before European arrival, some people here embarked on a different enterprise – of agriculture, and settled life. A recent book explores this dynamic period, from present-day El Paso to Presidio and the Southern Plains. 

It was the 1930s when archeologist V. Gordon Childe posited the concept of the “Neolithic Revolution.” In separate locations around the world, he observed, the adoption of agriculture was accompanied by a “package” of other changes – ceramics and villages, increasing specialization and social hierarchy. When people started farming, it seemed, they were on a one-way road to taxes and kings.

Archeologists now recognize that the pattern is far more complex. 

Dr. Thomas Rocek is an archeologist at the University of Delaware. 

“But when you start looking at it in detail,” Rocek said, “that interplay of the factors that are going on can be very complex and very interesting, and non-unidirectional. People can walk away from agriculture, can ignore it for long periods of time, can stitch it together with other economic activities.”

With Dr. Nancy Kenmotsu, Rocek edited “Late Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers and Farmers of the Jornada Mogollon,” from the University Press of Colorado. The volume explores what might be called the Chihuahuan Desert Neolithic.

Agriculture in the Americas began some 10,000 years ago, and, from corn and beans to potatoes and tomatoes, Native American farmers developed crops that sustain humankind today. Without their innovations, the English would have no chips with their fish, Indian and Thai cuisines would be devoid of hot peppers, and French pastry chefs would be confecting without vanilla or chocolate.  

Ancient West Texans likely knew of the use of crops in other societies – a corn cob from a Presidio County cave was recently found to be 2,000 years old. But it seems they long regarded the wholesale embrace of agriculture as unnecessary or unattractive.

In our area, sustained farming began among a culture archeologists call the Jornada Mogollon – which stretched from El Paso and northern Chihuahua to the West Texas plains. The earliest evidence – from about 500 CE – centers on New Mexico's Sacramento and Sierra Blanca mountains, which offered reliable surface water. Then farming extended into the desert basins.

How do archeologists track these changes? 

For insight into the prehistoric diet, Kenmotsu and her colleague Myles Miller analyzed almost 19,000 charred plant remains – from Jornada sites near El Paso and Alamogordo. Mesquite beans, agave, sotol, yucca and prickly pear were on the menu – but so were beans and corn. Beginning around 1000 CE, and increasingly after 1150, corn became central.

Other signs point to an increasingly sedentary life. Earlier in their history, the Jornada Mogollon obtained high-quality raw materials for stone tools from distant locations – obsidian in particular. As they became tethered to fields, that obsidian disappears, Kenmotsu said. 

“When corn and agriculture takes off, then there's very little that comes in that we have found,” she said. “Consequently, what you have are localized resources, that people can get very quickly in order to do whatever what they're going to do, rather than obsidian.” 

The shift from foraging to farming is reflected in evolving architecture. Nomads lived their lives out-of-doors, and built small shelters for sleeping or escaping weather – not for “hanging out.” But farming means staying put, and Jornada farmers invested in substantial structures, beginning with deep pithouses.

“And then there are some fairly large, shallow structures,” Rocek said. “That's what I've worked on the most – 20 feet across, but only a foot deep or so. Then you get a whole range of things that can be referred to as pueblos, but they're really quite diverse. These can get quite large – 80 rooms-plus. What's interesting is there's an incredible mix and match of these things.”

Whether of adobe brick or of branches and mud, each pueblo had a plaza or larger room – likely dedicated to communal and religious life. 

Agriculture didn't mean a rejection of wild foods. As farming intensified, so did the roasting of agaves and other succulents – up until about 1300 CE. At that point, the Jornada people may have depleted local resources. Around 1450, the farming villages were abandoned. The Jornada may have migrated, or returned to foraging, or some of both. 

But village life continued elsewhere in the region.  

Farming communities had emerged at La Junta, the confluence of the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos at present-day Presidio-Ojinaga, by 1200 CE. Spanish expeditions encountered some 20 villages here, and those communities endured under Spanish rule. Indeed, there's every reason to believe the descendants still live here.

Kenmotsu recalled an excavation in Presidio a decade ago, led by archeologist Bob Mallouf.

“Most of the workers were local people,” she said. “And they found some burials – and the workers were just fascinated. 'Who were these people?' they asked him. And he said, 'My response is – they're your ancestors.'” 

Kenmotsu said the La Junta villages were built by local people, with generations of experience in the area, rather than by Jornada migrants. But there was clearly contact – one adobe compound unearthed in Presidio has all the hallmarks of a Jornada structure. At least one family, Kenmotsu said, moved from the El Paso area to join the La Juntans.

The Jornada Mogollon were potters – but the La Junta people saw no need for this part of the “Neolithic package.” When Cabeza de Vaca wandered – naked and starving – into La Junta, he took note of cooking techniques – beans were placed in a gourd, and hot rocks were added to cook both the beans and the pumpkin itself.

Cabeza de Vaca also observed La Junta's hybrid economy – when he arrived, many villagers were away hunting what he called “cows” – or bison. A similar approach applied elsewhere in the region. At villages in eastern New Mexico, people farmed, and made bison-hunting forays into the Llano Estacado. 

Life follows its own pattern in West Texas. It always has. When the region's ancient people embarked on their agricultural revolution, they did it in a distinctive desert way.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.