Arroyo Hondo Pueblo from the Perspective of Southwestern Warfare

Steven LeBlanc

Steven LeBlanc is an archaeologist and former director of collections at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University's Peabody Museum. He is the author a number of books about Southwest archeology and prehistoric warfare. His books have run counter to the once widespread notion of peaceful preliterate cultures. However, he continues that tradition in asserting that all preliterate cultures were similar, with the same cultural responses to being stressed.

Arroyo Hondo Pueblo from the Perspective of Southwestern Warfare


Worldwide and through deep history, warfare was pervasive, deadly and rational. It was more deadly in the past than it is today, in terms of the proportion of people killed, and it had major impact on almost everyone’s lives. It appears that in the long run people fought over scarce resources, which in almost all cases was land (LeBlanc 2003). However, this was in the long run. In the short run, warfare was often driven by the desire for revenge, the desire to capture women, and the status attained from being a successful warrior. We see these short-term factors when we look at the ethnographic record, while we obtain a better picture of the long term rational and consequences of warfare when we have the time depth of the archaeological record.  This makes the archaeological record particularly important. Where our archaeological information is good, we can get a finer grained picture of prehistoric warfare through time. We can see how impacting it was on societies. How important was warfare in locating sites and the inhabitants’ ability to procure food? How important was warfare in the abandonments of sites and entire regions? That is, it is of considerable interest to the interplay between warfare and other environmental factors. Importantly, we can see the intensity of warfare to vary considerably over time. In particular, the intensity of warfare seems to relate to climate.  This is observable in many places in the world, but especially so in the American Southwest, with both its well-developed archaeological record and its very good prehistoric climate data (LeBlanc 1999).

Again on a worldwide basis it is clear that human population growth is high enough in almost all circumstances to out outstrip the carrying capacity of an area in a few generations or at most a couple of centuries. The response has been to compete for the available resources. We should always look at the history of any local area with this in mind. What is the dynamic between climate, population and warfare as possible explanations for site formation, migration and site abandonment?

These ideas and approaches, both for the world as a whole and for the Southwest in particular were not popular in the mid to late 1990s when they were put forth (Haas and Creamer 1993, 1997, LeBlanc 1999, Rice and LeBlanc 2001). Today, they are much more widely accepted and many models of today accept that warfare was a part of life most of the time and that models of site formation and abandonment, exchange and carrying capacity must take warfare into account. However, there is still resistance in some quarters. For a considerable number of researchers, lip service is paid to the existence of warfare, but their interpretations of site formation, life ways and site abandonment essentially ignore it. One of the most glaring aspects of this is the concept of defensive sites. They will argue that sites served many purposes and defense might have been one of them. They then go on to ignore the defensive aspect and consider the rest. This attitude entirely misses the point. Of course, sites, except in the rarest of cases, were used for other things. Even the most defensive castles were lived in. The relevance of defensive sites is that they are expensive in terms of construction labor and daily use. People do not build them unless there is a perceived threat. The more defensive they are, in terms of costs, the greater the perceived threat. If people build defensive sites it means they are fearful and warfare is affecting their daily lives. One cannot understand why the site was where it was, why it was laid out like it was without accepting this. And one must interpret all the other activities that took place there with the realization that threat of attack was present and would have had consequences.

The attempts to ignore the defensive nature of cliff dwellings are classic cases of such denial (see Haas and Creamer 1993 for a wonderful study regarding this). But a less well recognize but equally telling example are the trincheras of northern Chihuahua, Southwestern New Mexico, Southern Arizona, and northern Sonora. These terraced hill sites are clearly defensive. That is why they were built where they were and how they were. Yes they had many uses, but they are there because of warfare. Yet, an entire book was devoted to them and most of the papers in it greatly play down, if not outright ignore, their reason for existing (Fish et al. 2007).  Interestingly, Randy McQuire and M. Elisa Villalpando had a chapter in that volume that greatly played down the defensive aspect of the largest known example of a trincheras site, while disparaging those who had suggested its defensive nature. Then eight years later they published an extensive paper on how defensive it was and how important warfare must have been, yet failed to acknowledge that their earlier approach was seriously flawed (McGuire and Villalpando, 2007, 2015). Others of us, myself included, have realized that we missed the importance of warfare, but we have gone out of our way to try to make clear we missed it, and not pretend we always had it right. This must leave students and scholars in an unfortunate muddle. It is to Doug Schwartz’ credit that he has asked me to write this piece about Arroyo Hondo with these issues and considerations in mind. None of us were thinking this way in the 1970s.

Southwestern Background

In the Southwest, there is very little evidence for warfare one way or the other prior to dependence on farming. But once farming took hold we have trincheras (fortified hilltops) in the south, and lots of evidence of warfare in the Four Corners area with Basketmaker II (Hard and Roney 2007, Matson and Cole 2002). For Baskemaker II this evidence takes the form of rock art, site location, trophy heads and scalps, and mass burials some of which show clear evidence of violent deaths, including solid evidence for one of the largest know massacres for any period at Cave 7 (Hurst and Turner 1993, Geib and Hurst 2013). Interestingly, the introduction of the bow at the end of Basketmaker II did not apparently increase the level of warfare, and in some areas it seems to have declined such as the Mimbres area.

The interval from the late 800s into the 1100s appears to have been climatically overall very good for farming in the Southwest. This roughly corresponds with Pueblo II in the Anasazi area. The joke amongst archaeologists is that PII is everywhere. That is there are a lot of sites and most environments that might have been farmable were farmed. While there were some droughts during this interval, it appears that none were so long or so severe that intense warfare erupted. Or possibly the social systems damped down any warfare. Since this seems to be a Southwest wide situation, it is unlikely all the social systems could have damped down warfare, and it seems safe to conclude that the mild climate resulted in a relatively peaceful interval. Along with the peace, came population growth. All data suggests that the population of the southwest peaked in the PII period and never reached the same level until well into the historic period (Nelson et al. 1994)

Sometime around AD1130 something very bad happened in the Southwest. The Chaco system collapsed, the Mimbres culture collapsed, and the long Hohokam sequence had a sharp break. Whether this regional collapse was caused by climate change or a cultural unraveling is not clear. Interestingly, during the last stages of the Chaco system, many great houses had their previously open plazas closed off, even including Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.  Either at this time or starting very soon after, was a time in the northern Southwest where massacres and extreme human body processing (including cannibalism) became surprisingly common. This was perhaps the very beginning of a multi-century time of increasing warfare with major consequences.

The period from AD1130 to around AD1230 is very hard to understand in much of the Southwest. Large sites were few, construction activity was low, and population estimates are hard to establish. Following this, a new and very clear settlement pattern emerges along with other behavioral shifts. It starts in the northern reaches of the Southwest, and works its way south, and takes a bit of time to reach the Rio Grande, but all the former Anasazi area was affected, and large parts of the Mogollon region were also.

This behavioral shift is discussed in more detail below. The most easily observed is a transformation of settlement locations, as well as settlement layouts. Both took place at the same time and each was gradual. But the patterns were almost identical throughout the region. The most notable change was the formation of large defensive sites. This began to take place around AD1250 in the Mesa Verde region, around AD1275-1280 in the El Morro region in the middle of New Mexico, a bit later in the Mogollon Rim region of Arizona, and perhaps after AD1300 in the upper Rio Grande. Other changes have about the same time shift but are harder to date (LeBlanc 1999).

There is an additional factor in the warfare environment of the Southwest. The simple, self-bow diffused from Asia into the Americas in the first centuries AD reaching the Southwest toward the end of the Basketmaker II period. Then, the sinew backed, recurved bow diffused again from Asia around AD1000, reaching the Southwest sometime in the 1300 or 1400s based on mural images. These bows were much more powerful than self-bows, and this would have had a potential destabilizing impact (Bergman et al. 1989).  Some groups may have obtained the knowledge of how to make such bows and others may not. Moreover, the new bows seem to have required new shield technology, especially the use of buffalo hide shields, which would have changed the role of trade routes and trading partners (LeBlanc 1999). Of considerable interest, the earliest known evidence of the recurved bow is from Arroyo Hondo sometime before AD1340. This likely improved their hunting ability and may have given them a short-term warfare advantage with some neighbors. On the negative side, the recurved bow may have made warfare more deadly especially during the period of transition, just when Arroyo Hondo was occupied.

The Regional Perspective

At the Regional Scale the pattern there is a very consistent pattern, but it is clearer in some places than others. The point here is that it appears that Arroyo Hondo fits a pattern seen elsewhere. With such great similarity in patterning, it is hard to believe that the reasons for this behavior at Arroyo Hondo were different from the reasons for the same pattern elsewhere. What follows is a description of these changes in much of the Southwest. The particular situation at Arroyo Hondo is then discussed.

Defensive location and layout

A multi-stage process of increased defense took place. The first step was discreet roomblocks clustered together, often on and around a high point of some type.  In the Four Corners region, these roomblocks often surrounded a spring or other good supply of domestic water. In other places such as Cibola or central Arizona, that was not the case. Hilltops were important but an immediately nearby secure domestic water supply did not seem to be a critical factor in settlement location. Classic examples of this can be seen in the El Morro Valley in the Cibola region, around Grasshopper Pueblo and Chavez Pass Pueblo in Arizona, and the roomblock cluster at Burnt Corn Pueblo in the Rio Grande. Many other examples exist. The only realistic explanation for this settlement pattern was for defense. It appears that warfare was intensifying, but the response was only a partial solution. The clustering of roomblocks would have made for large numbers of individuals close together for defense, and the hilltop locations would have also been more defensible and less likely to be surprised in a raid.  The roomblocks were separated usually by dozens of meters, which seems to be a holdover from the typical community layout of PII times (although in PII times, hilltops or other high locations were not usually chosen for settlement locations). It is as if, there was a perceived need to have increased defense, but the desire to keep social units separated was still very strong. That this pattern was so widespread is quite amazing, given the different societies involved. (Different branches of both Anasazi and Mogollon, who must have belonged to different linguistic families and were certainly not all culturally very similar).

This solution to increased threat of attack was not successful. In fact, it is striking how unsuccessful this approach was. Most of these communities lasted a generation or two at best, and many of them were attacked and destroyed. It appears that each region had to learn the lesson again, such discrete roomblocks, even on hilltops, were not adequate for defense. Again, a very similar solution resulted over much of the Southwest, and again the pattern is found earliest in the far north and it spreads over time to the south and into the Rio Grande valley.

The defensive solution that worked was very large communities where the roomblocks were packed very close together, and in many cases formed a defensible outer wall with one or more interior plazas.  This approach was much more successful and many of these sites lasted a long time. Some few continued to be on high locations, such as Acoma, but most were low, near water. They varied quite a bit. Some were completely enclosed such as Pueblo de los Muertos or Grasshopper Pueblo. Others were almost enclosed such as Sand Canyon. Others had massive roomblocks but there were openings in places to the outside as was the case in much of the Rio Grande.

Groups merge

 It is clear in a number of instances that large groups of people merge into extant villages. Rowe, Kin Tiel, Kluckholn, Point of Pines ruins, etc. are good examples where one can see entire large sections being added on as a single event. In other instances, the very rapid growth of the community must represent the same phenomenon, but perhaps smaller groups joining the community at any one time. This was how communities grew, not via intrinsic growth.

Size mattered

The sites that survived became larger over time. Smaller communities were abandoned in favor of larger ones. Some of the earlier inward facing defensive pueblos with outer wall enclosed perimeters had perhaps only 100 rooms. Within a generation later, many had 500 or more rooms and few if any had only 100 rooms.

Secure Water

Increased concern for secure domestic water is notable everywhere. This is not water for farming but is clearly for domestic use. It can consist of locating very near a spring, such as Hovenweep sites, or Sand Canyon. Or diverting a stream to flow near a town or damming it to make it more dependable, such as Pueblo de los Muertos or Castle Rock. Or digging a walk in well in the plaza, such as Mirabal (in El Morro).

Site clusters form

Clusters of sites form. They have empty zones between the sites of a cluster and other clusters. These clusters shrink in size, that is, there are fewer sites in them over time. Sites on the edges of clusters are most vulnerable as are smaller sites. So, over time the edge sites and small sites disappear. Some clusters completely disappear on the Plateau but fewer clusters disappear in the Rio Grande although they are often reduced in number.

High elevations early but not late

In a number of areas, site clusters seem to form at rather high elevations. This is the case in central Arizona, El Morro and parts of the Rio Grande. Sites are located at 7000 or more feet.  In most cases these were locations that were only lightly used earlier and were soon abandoned in favor of lower elevations. This does not seem like a warfare related behavior but seems to be climate related. It appears that for a short interval high elevations were good choices for farming but not in the long run.

Much burning early, but not late

Many of the smaller earlier hilltop sites are burned. However, the larger defensively laid out later sites are rarely completely burned but sections often are. The response to early burning is abandonment of that location and the formation of larger much more defensive sites. Partial burning of large sites is complicated. Experiments have shown it is hard for a row of rooms to burn by accident. It appears some burning is the result of attacks that were partially but not completely successful.

Little skeletal Evidence for Warfare

 In some regions such as California, warfare is associated with considerable evidence of skeletal incidents, such as arrow points in bone, forearm fractures, blows to skulls, or scalp marks, and decapitated heads. Even where evidence for warfare is very strong there is little such evidence in the Southwest. The reasons for this are not clear. However, because this is a regional pattern, absence of skeletal evidence of warfare at any one site does not provide good evidence for a lack of warfare. Indirect evidence might include skewed sex ratios, and multiple burials.

A Closer scale- Galisteo, Pecos, Santa Fe Clusters

When we look at the clusters that Arroyo Hondo was in or near to, they seem to fit pattern rather well ways (Adler 1996). The Galisteo basin just to the south of Arroyo Hondo has Burnt Corn pueblo, a classic case of a hilltop separate roomblocks site that was burnt and not rebuilt. Smaller sites are abandoned, and the remaining sites become very large. We know that the number of large sites in the basin decline over time, and at least one site was noted by Coronado as having been abandoned very recently due to warfare. It should be noted that the Burnt Corn site is not on much of a hilltop. This is similarly the case for the Scribe S site in the El Morro valley (LeBlanc 2001). They were more elevated than sites that were earlier or later in time. Each seems to have been a poor location for defense as each was burned.  There is no question each location was more defensive than what was used before and each site did was not very defensive. The intent was there, the execution was poor.

The Pecos cluster immediately to the east of Arroyo Hondo has Arrowhead ruin (Holden 1955), on the edge of the cluster, which was burnt, and smaller sites abandoned were abandoned early. Rowe pueblo has a large group merge rapidly in greatly increasing its size, but then it too is abandoned leaving only one site – Pecos Pueblo, which is highly defensive (Cordell 1998).

What can be termed the Santa Fe cluster, which seems to include Arroyo Hondo, has not quite as strong evidence for cluster formation as some others, but it does appear to fit the general pattern for site clusters. The smaller Upper Arroyo Hondo site on the edge of the cluster is abandoned early on. Arroyo Hondo is then founded and becomes an edge of the cluster site at 7000 feet. The initial occupation of Arroyo Hondo is from AD 1310-1340 or bit later. It is then depopulated; it is reoccupied from AD 1370/80 to 1415/1420. Pindi Pueblo (LA 1) along the Santa Fe River was occupied from AD 1310-1350. The Aqua Fria Schoolhouse site (LA 2) dates from AD 1300/1325 to AD 1415/1420. It is very near Pindi Pueblo and the two sites were contemporary at least in part during the first part of the 1300s. There were four smaller sites near them, which may have formed a community along the river. There appears to have been some earlier sites on upper areas in what is now the central part of Santa Fe, with a seemingly rather large site that lasted later down near the modern plaza area. This site, LA 1051 (downtown Santa Fe), was occupied from around AD 1300/1325 to AD 1415/1420, with a possible hiatus in the AD1350-1370/80 range. Thus, for a time there were three communities -- Pindi/Aqua Fria Schoolhouse, downtown Santa Fe, and Arroyo Hondo – which would have been contemporarily occupied. Both Arroyo Hondo and down town Santa Fe were at 7000 feet and both seem to be abandoned for a while post AD1350 and then reoccupied. The second occupations of downtown Santa Fe, and Arroyo Hondo and the Aqua Fria Schoolhouse communities all seem to have been depopulated at roughly the same time around AD1415-1420.

Thus, there were three sites or communities all within about 4 miles of each other that form a cluster beginning in the early 1300s. The La Cieneguilla (LA 16) site considerably downstream is probably part of the cluster but it is more than six miles from the others. The spacing of four miles between the three communities is a bit larger than for some other clusters at this time but not extraordinarily so. Arroyo Hondo is added to, and then abandoned, and then reoccupied. At about the same time sequence, the downtown Santa Fe site is abandoned and reoccupied and then along with the Aqua Fria Schoolhouse site, the sole surviving site of that community, is also abandoned leaving only the lowest elevation site in the cluster, the La Cieneguilla site, to survive into the historic period. The similarity of the histories of the Pecos cluster and the Santa Fe cluster is quite striking. Each had only a few sites in the cluster and each had only one site that survived for a long time into the historic period. As elsewhere in the Southwest, the higher elevation sites in the Santa Fe cluster are abandoned in favor of ones at lower elevations. That is, the history of the Santa Fe cluster closely matches patterns found for other site clusters in the Southwest. In other clusters, evidence for warfare during this time is quite clear. That, the same settlement pattern shifts take place in the Santa Fe cluster strongly supports the idea that warfare was significant at this time and that Arroyo Hondo would have been a part of it.

The Arroyo Hondo Site

Arroyo Hondo site initial construction was on the edge of a little plateau, the most defensive part of the location with two sides protected by steep drop-offs. The initial roomblock is right next to a spring and was rather defensive in its layout. Its rapid expansions were initially on the edge of the arroyo and for the time rather defensive. The rapid growth is just the type that is seen all over. As with other sites, there was an attempt to keep the incoming social groups together and distinctive. However, over time additional roomblocks were not as close to the spring (which was not possible) and not as defensive. However, as the site grew, it was likely assumed that its ever-greater size provided protection. The site was abandoned and reoccupied. Interestingly, the most defensive part of the location, the one on the edge of the plateau protected on two sides and nearest the spring was chosen for reuse. So, from a macro perspective, Arroyo Hondo fits the overall Southwestern pattern.

The inhabitants moved into a high elevation. They built very near a domestic water supply. They built on the defensible edge above a steep arroyo. The initial construction was defensive in that roomblocks enclosed a plaza with only easily defended entryways. Large groups moved in quite quickly. In fact, the site was more defensive than most for the time. Many other sites were not protected on any sides, or not as close to domestic water. And Arroyo Hondo was very large for the time. Late much larger pueblos existed, but in the 1300s it was one of the largest sites in the region. Size did provide protection. So while not a fortress in the European sense of the term, in comparison with its peers,
Arroyo Hondo was quite defensive. And while there is evidence of warfare related to the site, it was not sacked and destroyed, as were some in the Galisteo Basin, or the Pecos Cluster.

We must remember that if a site was designed well enough it did not get destroyed. Even if we think it was not as defensive as it could have been (and certainly that was the case for Arroyo Hondo), it was only as defensive as it needed to be given its potential enemies. Arroyo Hondo seems to fit that description.

The Cost of Defense

There would have been a substantial cost for this defensive stance. Everyone would have lived very close together making procurement of wild plants and firewood more time costly. Also, the distance to fields would have been greater. It would have been unsafe for women to have traveled far to collect wild plants, and men would have likely had to go in larger parties for hunting, reducing individual success. Some areas near other communities would have been too dangerous, leaving empty zones or no-man-lands unavailable for resource procurement. Such restrictions may have made the diet less diverse and food less available, further impacting the community’s health, which was quite poor.

Potential Evidence for Warfare at Arroyo Hondo

It is possible that Arroyo Hondo was defensively successful and we should not expect to find any evidence for warfare on the site itself. Many castles in Europe were never attacked much less sacked. It also may have been the case that raids or other forms of warfare took place and there would be minor evidence for warfare. That is, there could have been ample threat of warfare while leaving little evidence for it other than settlement location and configuration data. However, there is some evidence for warfare at the site, however, it as is usually the case, hard to interpret.

The skeletal evidence at Arroyo Hondo is very hard to interpret. First, there are actually a large number of skeletons. The first component has 47 adults, and it is estimated that 10% was excavated. This provides an estimate of 470 total adults. With an average adult age of 33, there would be 3 deaths per hundred adults per year. If the occupation was essentially 30 years, then on average it would take population of about 500 adults to result in that number of burials. As the site grew and declined the peak population would have been much larger to have an average this high. Is this high death rate the result of warfare deaths that cannot be recognized as such, or poor health? There seems to be no way to distinguish between the possibilities.

More relevant is that for the first occupation component there are 12 males and 16 females. Unfortunately, the sample size is small. But 25% of the males are missing. This may be nothing more than the two women in the collapsed rooms and the two (at least) excess women in Kiva G.  However, missing males in skeletal populations is a mark of warfare, where men are killed away from the site and the bodies are not returned.

In addition, Kiva G is very hard to explain by any means. It contains a skull with two vertebra, which is the standard evidence for decapitation. The presence of violently killed individuals associated with kivas is very wide spread in the southwest, but just why the evens happened is very poorly understood. How many archaeologists remember the 4 heads, one in each ventilator shaft in Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde, among other examples (Fewkes 1909)? Kiva G is worth a discussion, and I will not write more about it until we have that discussion.

The one individual with an imbedded projectile point is of interest. The individual was male. Even if one assigns some of the sex unknown individuals to the male group, this represents a greater than 5% of all males have projectile points in them. As a percentage this is quite significant, however, the sample size is too small to really have much confidence in this number. There is also a forearm fracture. These are often attributed to parry fractures, where one shields their head from a blow with their forearm. Again, the sample is small.

Kiva G is enigmatic. There are not only non-properly buried bodies on the floor of the kiva, but partial remains as well as well as individuals that might have been tossed into the structure as it collapsed. The kiva did not burn, the bodies except for the decapitated skull do not show obvious signs of trauma, but it is highly suspicious nevertheless. It has been suggested that the deposits are the result of killing witches, but warfare explanations are just as likely. As there is no obvious means to differentiate between explanations, further discussion seems futile.

There appear to be a very large number of isolated human remains. Some of this number is probably good excavation methods and analysis, etc. but it appears to be a large number compared with other sites and time periods, to my knowledge. Some of the burials in plaza areas do not seem to be good formal burials. One possibility is that they are the result of prehistorically disturbed burials. However, given the portions of the where most were found were used for only a generation or less, it seems odd that no one remembered where those burials were. Could there have been unburied or hastily buried bodies at the time of the first abandonment?

 So, in spite of the suggestion that there was little skeletal evidence for warfare, there is a decapitated skull, a parry fracture, a significant percentage of imbedded projectile points, suspicious deaths, and a lot of isolated human body parts. This is more evidence than has been found in sites for which warfare is generally accepted.


Arroyo Hondo was abandoned in the first half of the 1300s. This was a time when many high elevation sites were abandoned in the Southwest. This could have been due to climate change and a shortening of the growing season. It could have been coupled with regional population decline so that sites in lower elevations had fewer people and would have had the room to welcome migrants who would have helped with defense. Likely, the portion of the Arroyo Hondo population that existed at the end of the occupation simply moved down stream to the La Cieneguilla site. They most likely would have continued to monitor the Arroyo Hondo locality as the used that area for hunting. At some point they must have determined that the warfare threat was low and the growing season was long enough to re-establish a population at the site. However, some part of the assessment was wrong and it did not last long. That they occupied the location closest to the spring and continued to build in a defensive manner, and that a suite of rooms was burned in the new pueblo, strongly suggests that warfare was still present. Whether that threat or reality or a misjudgment of the farming potential was the cause this marginal location was finally abandoned except for the likely occasional use as a hunting camp.

From a big picture perspective, we see that marginal environments were abandoned as population declined throughout the Southwest. Only the best niches continued to be used. The El Morro valley was abandoned and lower elevation Zuni area survived. Chavez Pass and the Homolovi sites were abandoned and Hopi survived. Similarly, Arroyo Hondo was not in the best location in the Santa Fe cluster and it too was abandoned, in fact twice.

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