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On an isolated hill, archeologists unearth an unknown Chihuahuan Desert society

With its network of stone terraces, Cerro Juanaqueña, an isolated hill near Janos, Chihuahua, testifies to a farming society that emerged in our region more than 3,000 years ago.
Courtesy of John Roney
With its network of stone terraces, Cerro Juanaqueña, an isolated hill near Janos, Chihuahua, testifies to a farming society that emerged in our region more than 3,000 years ago.

It's famously a desert place where one of the world's first agrarian civilizations emerged. The Ancient Egyptians lived in an arid land, but they marshaled the Nile's River's floodwaters to build a farming society.

Now, researchers have learned that something analogous unfolded in our region's deep past. In “Early Farming and Warfare in Northwest Mexico,” from the University of Utah Press, archeologists John Roney and Robert Hard reveal a previously unknown society.

The landscape around Janos, Chihuahua, 130 miles west of El Paso, is one of sweeping grasslands and volcanic hills. It could be the Marfa Plateau. But there's a difference. A perennial river — the Rio Casas Grandes — flows down from the high Sierra Madre.

Archeologists have long recognized that a complex farming society flourished here just before European arrival. John Roney was researching that society when, in 1994, he traveled to an isolated hill called Cerro Juanaqueña, and asked landowners if he could look around.

“They said, 'Well, you're welcome to go up there, but there's nothing up there,'” Roney said. “Anyways, I followed the cow trail around the side of the hill, and when I got to the top there were just these huge features. And I started to find these Archaic dartpoints, and that really caught my interest.”

The “features” Roney had found were terraces, rock walls creating level platforms on the hillside, totaling 5 miles in length. The dartpoints were the real stunner. Peoples of the Archaic Period — a timespan from the end of the Ice Age to the early centuries A.D. — are generally thought to have lived in small foraging bands here. They wouldn't, it was assumed, have had the cause, or organization, for such extensive construction.

Roney shared his findings at a conference, where Hard was in attendance.

“John finished,” Hard said, “and nobody said a word. And I thought, 'My God, this is one of the most important papers I've ever heard.' And I went up and said, 'John, if you're right, this changes everything.' And he said, 'Yeah, I know.'”

The two men partnered in excavations at Cerro Juanaqueña from 1997 through 2000. And they identified a dozen additional “cerros de trincheras,” or terraced hills.

Their initial priority was clear.

“The first thing we had to do was to show that they were of the age that we thought they were,” Roney said. “Once people recognized them as cultural features, they said, 'Yeah, but Archaic people couldn't have built those. It had to be later time periods.' So our initial focus was on dating.”

Roney and Hard were able to get precise dates for bits of burned corn recovered in their digs, and the results were electrifying.

“Frequently as an archeologist I'm asked, 'What's the most exciting thing you've ever found?'” Hard said. “My standard answer is about putting together a puzzle. But when the fax came in for those radiocarbon dates — in those days it was a fax — boy, that was so exciting.”

The corn dated to a narrow window of time — 1300 to 1100 B.C. Archeologists have long believed agriculture only took hold in the Southwest in the early centuries A.D. But these findings showed farming was central for some Chihuahuan Desert peoples far earlier.

And it ties in with new West Texas discoveries. Cabeza de Vaca encountered farming villages at La Junta, present-day Presidio-Ojinaga, in the 1500s. But new finds suggest Indigenous people here were cultivating corn, and other crops, in the Archaic Period as well.

Cerro Juanaqueña's terraces were a massive undertaking, and they weren't used for farming. So why did these desert farmers construct the immense terraces?

Tune in next week on June 23 to find out.

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