Long before the arrival of the Spanish, small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherer
societies occupied the Chihuahuan Desert and surrounding areas; this region is
often referred to as Aridoamerica. Water and resources were generally scarcer
in Aridoamerica than in Mesoamerica to the south or Oasisamerica to the north
and west. Over thousands of years the people of the area changed as much as the
environment itself. The original hunters started gathering more until they
eventually settled in the first agrarian communities.
The Chihuahuan Desert dates to about 9,000 years ago. It has been hypothesized
that during these years there have been three transitions from grasslands to
shrub lands, each followed by a return of grasslands (Van Devender 1995).
The first evidence of maize cultivation in Arizona and New Mexico
dates to 2100 BCE. It is believed that the societies of 10-50 people relied on
multiple food sources to help mitigate drought effects. As maize cultivation
expanded, so did the communities.
While there are some discrepancies in the historical models in my research, it
seems that there is an overall pattern in the climate of this region. In short,
it seems to oscillate, since the end of the last ice age, between a grassland
and a scrub land every 3,000 or so years. Rainfall seems to be the primary
driver, allowing grasslands to suppress future scrub until the extra water
subsides and the scrub can take over again. Interestingly, both extremes
operate to minimize erosion - the grassland holding the soil in place with a
mat of roots while the scrub land vegetation anchors soil under it in what are
called "islands of fertility". Both the grassland and scrub land also contain
about the same amount of overall mass.
After the Ice Age
The earliest peoples thought to continually occupy this region were known as
Paleo-Indians. Arriving through migrations across a periodically frozen Bering
Strait, these societies existed from 18,000 BCE to 12,000 BCE. They were
primarily nomadic hunter bands of 20-30 people. Limited forage was undertaken
because of the readily available mega-fauna. In the warmer months food would
have been plentiful. In the winter, coastal communities would move inland where
the focus was on small game after preparing as best they could for the coming
While originally believed that the humans hunted the mega-fauna to extinction
through over-harvesting, today it is assumed that the mega-fauna were on the
decline, being suited more for the past ice age and humans were simply the
straw that broke the camel's back. A mastodon's teeth suggest they were used to
browse, being ill suited for grazing. After these animal sources were
exhausted, the grasslands were maturing. The mega-fauna were dead but...
Nomads become Farmers
Over the next 12 thousand years or so, the climate shifted from grasslands to
scrub lands and back. During this time the original Paleo-Indians spread and
splintered into a number of other societies that occupied the region between
18,000 BCE and 11,000 BCE.
The first established culture among these migrants is the Clovis. Identified by
their unique spearheads. The Clovis culture spread across the Great Plains,
evolving or being replaced along the way by other cultures like the Folsom,
Gainey, Suwannee-Simpson, Plainview-Goshen, Cumberland, and Redstone. These
cultures often differ only in regionally specific activities and variations in
The extinction of the mega-fauna is associated with the Clovis people during a
period known as the Younger Dryas (~11,500-10,000 years ago), a mini-ice age.
The Chihuahua Archaic people appear on the scene in between 8,000 and 6,000
BCE. Initially more forage replaced the exhausted mega-fauna. The hunters
became more hunter-gathers, but still were primarily nomadic, following the
food sources. When the climate permitted, groups would stay longer in one
place. Resources of a particular area would be depleted before the people
moved on. The end of the Archaic people and the beginning of plant cultivation
occurred around 2,000 BCE.
Farmers become Resilient
By 400 CE some of these nomadic people settled as pit-dwelling Jornada/Mogollon
agriculturists. Their culture prevailed from 400-1450CE and is noted for its
brown-ware ceramics decorated with black and red paint. In the later stages,
the pit-dwellings were replaced by aboveground adobe structures. The adobe
structures evolved into large expanses with many contiguous rooms.
As in the older history, many groups emerged and disappeared as the climate
shifted. During drought and scrub land dominated periods only the smaller
Anasazi, Hohokam, and Mogollon managed to find balance in their environment.
The resource depletion cycle continued, and by 1350 CE (the last third of a
grassland cycle) there is clear evidence of advanced agricultural activity –
land clearing and water diversion. It is estimated that, between 1000 CE and
1300 CE the Anasazi would, after developing agriculture, deplete and area every
50-100 years before moving on. Eventually the areas could be returned to, but
after hundreds of years of farming, the erosion took its toll, and during a
prolonged drought, the last Anasazi abandoned their communities.
Currently (1450 CE to present) the Jornada region is occupied by the Masons.
These people were possibly the descendants of the Jornada Mogollon. They
intermarried with refugees from northern pueblos after the Pueblo Revolt in
Even a cursory look into "recent" history of the area in and around the
Chihuahuan Desert will revel its ever-changing nature. This change imposed the
necessities of survival, which in turn birth innovation to allow the humans of
the region to not only adapt, but thrive, albeit temporarily.
Many water harvesting techniques were developed over the last several
centuries. A few basic examples can be seen in cliff-base plantings, check
dams, and gravel mulching. These techniques preceded more "traditional"
irrigation. Archaeological evidence of these check dams can be seen throughout
modern day CO, UT, NM, in locations like Mesa Verde, Hovenweep National Park,
the upper Rio Grande, Chama drainage, and Pajarito plateau.