(June 19, 2017)—Scarcely before we had finished digging our initial trench it was time for me to head out with two other students and a staff member to survey possible new sites for preservation and perhaps later investigation. This let me see a lot more of the land upstream from our dig site than I had previously. Over four thousand feet up with many hills and cliffs that went even higher, the zone we surveyed was near the headwaters of the “mighty” Gila River, the same river that goes past our site. Prickly-pear, mesquite, and cottonwood were rampant, and hares, vultures, skunks, and such went about their own business. We’d seen deer on the road and heard but never saw a rattlesnake.
This is not the landscape or the fauna that the people of the Cliff area who lived in the site we are investigating would have seen every day. From the animals to the river itself, as the Gila is a river that changes course quite often as the years go by, the landscape has changed both naturally and by the very obvious modern human hands of construction, as well.
Mogollon and Hohokam farmers of New Mexico and Arizona were not the idealized vision of the Native American tribes sometimes presented as perfect conservationists who had no impact on their environment. They were instead consummate irrigators and builders of terraces and berms to aid farming in a challenging environment.
They also hunted and ate many of the animals I saw as we surveyed, but not all of them. The javelina (a pig-like creature that I have not seen except as road kill, but apparently a lot of the stranger sounds we hear at night are them) is nonexistent in the local archaeological record. It does not appear in animal bones we dig up or on any Mimbres pottery that shows many other animals of the region, and even imported animals such as macaws. While digging at the site we have been hounded by tunneling animals that lived there before we came along, and yet we are short a digging creature the Mogollon people would have had many an encounter with: the prairie dog. The lack of prairie dog in this area is very recent and was the result of the creatures being killed off by humans until the last one in the area died in the 1950s. As with many extirpations this had a domino effect: a type of owl that makes its home in old prairie dog burrows no longer lives here, either.
While looking out at the Gila River from the edge of a high terrace where our survey located a large room block mound with a lot of Mimbres pottery, it was hard not to think of what the landscape may have looked like for the people who lived there. Could they see the other room block a few hills over? Did the Gila River surround the hill their houses were built on back then? Did they curse when a prairie dog got into their corn? How people interact with their environment is a lot more than just big irrigation, building, and modern polluting. It’s about everyday life.