White Mountains Online

Prehistoric Man in the Petrified Forest

From Paleolithic hunter to Pueblo farmer,
the record of the ancient ones remains...

by Jo Baeza


As it was for early man in this region, water in the Painted Desert is in short supply for animals and plants. For early man, eventually it meant leaving the area entirely!
7500 BC to AD 1
AD 1 to AD 500
(Flattop site)
AD 500 TO AD 800
(Twin Buttes Site)
AD 900 TO AD 1100
(SITE 236)
AD 900 to AD 1100
AD 1100 to AD 1250
(Agate House & Puerco Ruin)
AD 1250 to AD 1450
(Wallace Tank / Stone Axe)
AD 1450 to PRESENT

The buck lifted his nostrils to the morning calm and tried to define the scent he'd been detecting for days. The small herd of pronghorns he guarded browsed downslope from their bedground, nibbling at saltbush.

A moist gray sky tempered the warmth of mid-summer. Rainwater mirrored in every rock hole and ran thinly down the washes, absorbed by thirsty sand. For days the hunter had trailed the pronghorns, waiting for a clean and thrifty kill. He waited without moving, in a willow thicket along the river. He was in no hurry to leave the country he and his family had wandered into ~ a high plain cut by spring fed drainages and washes. Striated cliffs of red, blue, and brown changed color with the hour. Everything the newcomers needed was here; grass, trees, shrubs, game. They must be cautious, though. They had seen tracks and campsites and litters of stone tools.

The hunter fitted a new-made shaft into his atlatl, slowly rose up, took careful aim, and hurled the spear point into the heart of a fat yearling.

Today, 8000 years later, archeologists at the Petrified Forest National Park have tracked the hunter and found his stone implements, hearths, and campsites. They've even given him a name: Archaic Man. This nomadic dweller in earth's far past foraged from place to place, following the game herds and gathering seeds, roots, nuts, and berries. The necessity for constant movement kept material possessions to a minimum. He left few artifacts and no permanent dwellings, only stone scatterings.

Much later the first dwellings appeared. They were pit houses and belonged to a descendant of Archaic Man that archeologists refer to as Basket Maker because of the fine baskets and sandals he wove. He also fashioned warm robes from the fur of animals and ground wild plants and seeds in shallow basins and troughs in rock slabs with hand held grinding stones. In addition to stone tools, he made bone awls and drills, curved wooden throwing sticks, and crude, poorly fired pottery. But more important, he learned to do something that changed his life dramatically: the cultivation of corn. By AD 300, Basket Maker was a confirmed farmer.

Prehistoric drawingThe oldest excavated village in Petrified Forest National Park is a Basket Maker II site on the Flattops, twin mesas over-looking the Little Colorado River Valley and the mountains to the south. The village consisted of twenty-five round-to-oval pit houses dug into the rock of the mesa. The builders lined subterranean walls with upright sandstone slabs and added upper walls and roofs of brush and mud. Slab-lined chambers were used for burials. Baskets were still woven, but pottery had generally replaced them for everyday use.

By the time Twin Butte Village, near the center of today's park, was occupied, village life was more organized. Pit houses were deeper, roofs had support beams, and ventilator shafts were in common use. Archeologists have found a large variety of stone tools, suggesting an expanded diet. Bows and arrows helped hunters bring down a larger assortment of game. Families acquired pottery, turquoise, and trade goods such as coral and shell from the far off Pacific Ocean and Gulf of California. Farmers cultivated squash and beans in addition to the staple, corn, and fashioned methods to combat drought, building stone and brush windbreaks (similar to those still made by Hopi farmers) to reduce moisture loss and block windblown sand on their fields, located on hillsides, mesa tops, or river valleys ~ wherever the soil held moisture.

Pottery Between AD 850 and AD 900, a major drought forced many of the people to move to sites near more reliable water supplies. When rainfall once again increased, small family farms spread over the land.

During the period called Pueblo II, A.D. 900-1100, living conditions improved. Home now was a rock and mud masonry rectangle built above ground. Houses of several rooms, sometimes multistoried, and one or more kivas comprised a typical settlement. People grew cotton, wove it into blankets and sashes, and domesticated turkeys.

But climatic changes threatened this good life. Tree-ring data indicates a gradual shift in weather patterns, culminating in disastrous droughts between 1276 and 1299, which led ultimately to a decline in population. Small family farms were abandoned, and by 1300, survivors were gathered in a few spots along the major waterways where they could farm the moister floodplains.

Puerco Ruin, one of five Pueblo IV sites in the park, consisted of 125 rooms and may have housed up to seventy people. Rows of masonry rooms surround a central plaza. Entry was through the roof; small doorways connected interior rooms.

Once more life was happy; ceremonial life, rich. Then, beginning about 1300, weather patterns changed again. Rainfall increased, but it was concentrated in the fall and winter, with only widely scattered summer thunderstorms needed to grow crops. Hard, cold rains gradually washed out the floodplain farms, and summers of little moisture made dry farming impossible. Trading activity and religious, artistic, and social accomplishments declined before the ancient enemy, drought.

Hopi Indian tradition reflects that many of these Ancient Ones packed their belongings at this time and walked across the high plain to the mesas in the north where permanent water sources were available. By A.D. 1450, the people had abandoned their pueblos to the sun, wind, and rain ~ never to return.

About the author: Joan Baeza has lived and ranched in Navajo County for over thirty-five years. She wrote the book "Ranch Wife" under the name of Jo Jeffers.

If you've enjoyed this article by Jo, we know you'll enjoy her pages on Apache Rodeo and The Hash Knife Outfit!

Petrified Forest National Park / Hints for Touring the Petrified Forest
Hubbell Trading Post
/ Holbrook ~ City of the Petrified Forest