When the Spanish first entered the northern Southwest in 1540, they were surprised to encounter native people living in great adobe citadel settlements. Home to hundreds of families, these pueblos were sustained mainly by farming, and had a vibrant artistic and ceremonial life and had emerged a little more than 200 years before the Spanish arrived.
Extensive archeological research at Arroyo Hondo Pueblo produced fresh insights about the origin and development of these classic pueblos. The site is five miles southeast of present day Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The archeological investigation of the 1.000 room, 14th century settlement revealed comprehensive details about the climate conditions, the pueblo’s beginnings and it rapid growth, the nature of its everyday life, and the ultimate demise of this once substantial town.
During the 1200s, the northern Rio Grande valley contained a large number of 50- to 100-room pueblos. These small pueblos were thinly spread throughout the valley, built wherever there was water, farmland and adequate territory for hunting and gathering. During the 1200s, the climate was favorable for farming. Harvests were adequate and the times were mostly peaceful so these small pueblos were built with little concern for defense. Among these hamlets were some that eventually coalesced to create Arroyo Hondo Pueblo.
About 1295 the pattern of small, unfortified settlements changed radically” A “Great Drought” began bringing scarcity and suffering to the whole Southwest (Rose 94). Climatologists have documented this same arid pattern over the entire northern hemisphere and some had speculated that it may have been caused by the eruption of four huge tropical volcanoes between 1250 and 1300). The great drought’s severity disrupted life throughout the northern Southwest. The Mesa Verde area and the rest of the San Juan Basin were completely depopulated. In the northern Rio Grande Valley, the radical decline in harvests led to raids by neighbors in search of stockpiled food with small pueblos, which had not been built for defense, were vulnerable to attack. In many cases, adjacent hamlets attacked and burned one another. Eventually, such raids became unendurable. The whole region became a dangerous place to live and the inhabitants were forced to leave their old residences and move to safer, fortified settlements. As they moved, settlers sought strength in numbers, encouraging other vulnerable pueblos to join them and build a larger, stronger settlement that could better withstand attack.
This shift from small, unprotected pueblos to massive citadels was abrupt and rapid. About 1300 CE, aided by a favorable climate, Arroyo Hondo Pueblo began as a solitary 100-room pueblo. Then, more settlers moved to the pueblo and over the next two decades the town grew rapidly. By 1330, it was a boomtown, 10 times its original size. This sudden growth radically changed the pueblos’ architectural style, as well as its economic patterns, social life, political organization, religious customs, artistic practices and everyday life.
During this growth period, Arroyo Hondo Pueblo experiences an uneven development. The original settlement began near a spring and along the lip of a deep canyon. Residents of nine small, previously isolated pueblos joined its original inhabitants. This consolidation created a massive new fortified settlement. But, after 30 years, the pueblo’s early florescence was stopped cold by a severe drought. The drought started about 1330 causing diminished harvests, followed by famine, malnutrition, conflict and deaths that greatly reduced the number of residents. During this time, several people died traumatically, and within 10 more years, the once great pueblo had been completely abandoned.
During the next quarter century, Arroyo Hondo Pueblo remained essentially unoccupied as harsh climate continued to ravage the region. In the 1370s, the drought finally subsided and there was sufficient precipitation for the land to blossom again A second pueblo settlement began to be built directly atop the ruins of the old town.
However, during the first occupation, intensive farming, extensive tree cutting and far reaching hunting had depleted the surrounding area’s land, animals and plants. Therefore, the second settlement could never regain the lost Eden of the first. Nor did the climate look as favorably on the second settlements. The second settlement grew only to a quarter of the size of the earlier pueblo, with 200 rooms situated around one fully enclosed and two partially open plazas compared to the first settlement’s 1,000 rooms and 10 plazas.
Even at this smaller size, the second occupation at Arroyo Hondo was unable to endure. Soon after 1410, precipitation again declined, eventually becoming the worst drought of any time in the previous 1,000 years. Famine was followed by catastrophe when a disastrous fire, perhaps caused by outside raiders in search of food, destroyed a significant portion of the pueblo. The number of inhabitants now rapidly declined. By about 1425, Arroyo Hondo’s second occupation had come to an end and was never reoccupied.
The research that revealed this story began in the early 1970s with five field seasons. The research was an extensive, multidisciplinary project that focused on why and how the pueblo began, the pattern of its growth, the nature of everyday life, how the pueblo changed over time, and eventually came to an end (Schwartz, 1971, 1972). The field work, the analysis of the recovered remains, and the research write ups were supported by major grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society and the School for Advanced Research.
Nine monographs were published, each on a major aspect of the project. In addition, 38 special reports covered supplementary topics. The monographs are:
· Regional Archaeological Survey (Dickson 1979)
· Contemporary Ecology (Kelley 1980)
· Skeletal and Burial Analysis (Palkovich 1980)
· Past Climate (Rose, Dean, Robinson 1981)
· Fauna (Lang and Harris, 1984)
· Food, Diet and Population (Wetterstrom 1986)
· Architecture (Creamer 1993)
· Pottery (Habitch-Mauche 1993)
· Space Syntax (Shapiro 2005)
The supplementary reports include topics such as: pollen, stone work, ceramics, wood, bone and shell, plus descriptions of recovered items such as hide, fur and feathers. The full list of these reports is presented in the publication section of the website. Each of these monographs and special reports is available in their entirety as downloads from this website.
Taken in its entirely, the research project at Arroyo Hondo pueblo presents an important part of the Southwest’ prehistory. It tells how a changing climate repeatedly forced humans to change the way they lived – and of the traumatic societal upheaval that came as a consequence.