Life at Arroyo Hondo Pueblo: A Reconsideration in 2015

Ann Palkovich

Ann Palkovich has an A.B. an M. A. and a PhD. in Anthropology. She was on the faculty at George Mason University for 30 years and was a Krasnow Professor of Anthropology at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University from 1997-2011. She was a Smithsonian Institution Fellow from 1976-1978 and Visiting Scientist from 1981-1985.

Life At Arroyo Hondo: A Reconsideration in 2015

During the 14th century, Arroyo Hondo Pueblo was one of several large settlements that appear in the Northern Rio Grande region.   The settlement grew rapidly, eventually creating a sprawling village of 24 roomblocks and 9 distinct plaza areas.    The configuration of the rooms suggests that groups from small villages resettled at Arroyo Hondo,  yet it appears likely distinct identities among these small groups persisted throughout Arroyo Hondo’s occupation.    The rapid growth at this Pueblo also created problems as Arroyo Hondo’s population reached its zenith of just as these villagers faced a drought cycle that begin to severely constrain food resources.   Crop yields diminished, big game retreated higher into the surrounding mountains and further from the village, and eventually even the availability of small game and wild plants were affected. 

The 14th century in the Northern Rio Grande was also a period when the Ancestral Puebloan life style was transforming into the Puebloan social forms , religious practices and village structures that are seen in historic and contemporary periods.    As a village, Arroyo Hondo stood apart from other Northern Rio Grande as a very large settlement that experienced extraordinarily rapid growth.   This rapid population growth likely represents families local to the area being joined by groups moving in from elsewhere (“outlanders”).    It appears kin groups resided in roomblocks that defined adjacent plaza spaces, evidenced by several instances of distinctive twine twist styles found in interment accouterments.  

Parallels to historic Puebloan ritual life are also evident at Arroyo Hondo Pueblo.   The room interment of one young adult male, buried with an array of grave accouterments has some striking parallels to ethnographic accounts of “medicine men.”   This young man also stood a head taller than anyone else in the village and survived a near fatal blow to his larynx that may have permanently altered his voice.   His embodied distinctiveness could well have contributed to the special status afford him at death.  In addition, the painted corpses of one woman and one man, as well as the a painted ritual axe with an adult male and a cloudblower with another adult male all imply a ritual basis for these status distinctions, perhaps representing village elders or religious specialists.   

Environments in the American Southwest were marginal for subsistence agriculture.  As a result, all agricultural populations experienced malnutrition and the accompanying illnesses as chronic conditions.  Anemia and scurvy are pervasive throughout Puebloan groups.  Archaeologically, there is clear evidence at Arroyo Hondo for severe hardship well beyond these chronic conditions.  Arroyo Hondo stands apart from most other 14th century Ancestral Puebloan villages in the Northern Rio Grande due to its high incidence of skeletal pathologies related to dietary deficiencies and related diseases.  Nearby settlements such as El Pueblo de Santa Fe (LA 1051) and LA 3333 reflect populations for whom chronic nutritional deficiencies and notable infant mortality were commonplace.  Nutritional deficiencies at these villages clearly impacted infant/childhood morbidity and mortality.  Yet the villagers of El Pueblo de Santa Fe experienced greater life expectancy at birth (25.3 years, with 38% of those reaching age 15 surviving to age 40) than those living at Arroyo Hondo (16.7 years, with 25% of those reaching age 15 surviving to age 40).  For many adults at El Pueblo de Santa Fe, the healed skeletal lesions from bouts of childhood nutritional stresses indicate many individuals survived these debilitating conditions.  At Arroyo Hondo Pueblo, a markedly greater number of individuals suffered from nutritional deficiencies, those affected often were impacted at younger ages, and overall life expectancy at the village was markedly shorter.

Patterns of bone lesions observed skeletally can be associated with a variety of dietary problems.  Porotic lesions are pervasive among Arroyo Hondoans,  suggesting  most villagers suffered from a form of dietary anemia resulting from Vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies  (known as megablastic anemia).  This anemia creates a vicious cycle of incessant infections causing diarrhea and other illnesses that exacerbate dietary inadequacies.   Prevalent among young children, these micronutrient deficiencies mirror the health issues and high infant mortality rates observed in contemporary impoverished communities that persist in developing countries.  Most adult Arroyo Hondo villagers bear evidence of having survived bouts of childhood anemia, evidence by the healed porosities they acquired during childhood.

The physiological links among other vitamin deficiencies, termed micronutrients deficiencies, have been shown medically to form spiraling interactions that result in a wide variety of debilitating maladies.  Vitamin D deficiency is evident in some children, witnessed by patterns of richitic skeletal porosities.  Individuals at Arroyo Hondo who survived rickets as children retained their weaken, bowed bones into adulthood and thus were disabled for life.   One child’s severe systemic skeletal porosities were physiologically devastating and implicate scurvy as the cause of death, the result of Vitamin C deficiency.   Patterns of pitting and channeling on the interior cranial surfaces evidence in others suggest scurvy likely affected many more children in the village.  

Disabled infants were also born that show neutral tube defects, often attributable to folic acid (or Vitamin B 9) deficiencies.   One infant suffered from anencephaly (a severe, fatal development syndrome where the cranium never forms).  Another individual who survived into early adulthood suffered from a genetic disorder that caused development delays notable throughout her skeleton, including her cranium.  Developmental malformations of this woman’s skull may have also compromised her cognitive abilities.     These various pathological processes are tightly linked physiologically; metabolic disturbances underlying many maladies were intimately related to the availability of food resources, dietary practices, hygiene, and social behavior including childrearing practices. 

Dietary and health hardships were pervasive among of Arroyo Hondo’s inhabitants, particularly those who resided in the roomblocks that surround Plazas G and K.   These skeletal measures of hardship are concentrated among these individuals, while only sporadically evident among the remains of individuals recovered from other areas of the village.

These hardships at Arroyo Hondo also may be related to the instances of violence found in this village.  Three clusters of human remains witness violent deaths  --  the individuals crushed in the collapse of Kiva G,  the individuals buried in the collapse of Room 12-16-37 (and an adjacent room excavated by Nelson), and  the 3 children and remains of an isolated leg found in the trash fill of Room 12-18-15.  A fourth cluster of bones -- the mutilated remains of a forearm and crushed partial adult cranium recovered from several adjacent rooms in Roomblock 18 – exhibit an unusual pattern of cut marks on the ochre painted arm bones as well as dry bone breakage of the cranium. 

The unusual contexts of these remains and the manipulation of bones from those long dead present us with salient moments in Arroyo Hondo’s history.    Insights offered from accounts at nineteenth century Pueblos suggest the bodies of suspected witches are treated differently; often the remains are mutiliated or crushed and pieces of the body ritually separated to disperse the witches power.  Ethnographic information and archaeological study of other Ancestral Puebloan sites also indicate that the purposeful collapse of rooms and kivas to kill the witches trapped inside.  Additionally, relatives of known witches, including children, may also have come under suspicion as witches and were subsequently killed.   Collectively, these four clusters of remains at Arroyo Hondo may indicate a series of witch hunting incidents.   Additionally, one adult male was shot in the pelvis from behind with an obsidian projectile point.  He survived the attack, though the point healed permanently into his left innominate.  Ethnographic accounts of shooting witches with obsidian points suggest he too may have been accused as a witch and attacked.

The height of Arroyo Hondo’s occupation witnessed the confluence of a burgeoning population at the same time a drought cycle begin limiting food resources.   Crowding in the village affected hygiene, chronically exposing children to various infections, especially diarrheal diseases.   Some women may have begun cloistering their infants indoors, possibly to care for them due to illness, possibly to shield them in cold winter months, but inadvertently limiting Vitamin D in individuals already experiencing rachitic symptoms from limited calcium intake.   In Plazas G and K, children were chronically ill, some dying from infections.  Others were affected by poor diets, some sickened and died from scurvy. Disabled infants were being born.   Childhood mortality was very high.  Some surviving children grew into adults disabled by rickets suffered in childhood.   And beginning in the 1330s, year after year the drought persisted.

Puebloan worldviews and beliefs may have lead villagers to attribute the sickness, disability, and death affecting the settlement to witchcraft.   Someone was to blame for the drought and other misfortunes, and thus its conceivable individuals singled out as witches were blamed.    Ridding the village of witches were highly ritualized, often violent, acts.   The mutilated remains of an adult in Roomblock 18, the men and women and the isolated skull found crushed in collapsed Kiva G,  the individuals found crushed in two collapsed rooms in Roomblock 16, the violent deaths of three children and the isolated leg discarded in a trash filled room in Roomblock 18 may all  represent individuals whose deaths resulted from witchcraft accusations.  One male who survived being shot with an obsidian arrow may also have been a suspected witch.

After the collapse of Kiva G ended the lives of some accused witches, the depression was filled over time with trash.  Life went on in Plaza G for a time.  Archaeologically we know the D-shaped Kiva built at ground level and protruding into Plaza G was constructed later than the other Component I kivas.  This new Kiva served the ritual needs of Plaza G residents for a time.   Ultimately, the witch hunt stopped neither the drought nor the hardship.  By the 1350s, Arroyo Hondo was largely abandoned for one or two generations.  Those few remaining in the village may have been adults too disabled by childhood rickets to move elsewhere.

With only 12 interments associated with the reoccupation of Arroyo Hondo, we know far less about those residing in the village after the 1370s.    Interment practices resonate with the pattern of interment evident for the village’s main occupation – single, flexed burials in small oval pits scattered throughout the plazas, rooms and trash deposits.   Four of the five infants less than 22 months exhibited anemia skeletally, as did the 5 year old child.  One of the infants also exhibited scurvy.   Malnutrition and its related illnesses remained pervasive at Arroyo Hondo.  Four of the six adults associated with the reoccupation were over 40 years of age at the time of death.  One adult woman who died in her 40s exhibited rickets.   It is conceivable this woman as well as the other older adults were among those who remained at the village during its period of depopulation.   These bits of evidence suggest life likely remained hard at Arroyo Hondo Pueblo.

All of the hardships of Arroyo Hondo were shaped by the social contexts of those who lived in this village.  Food shortages and poor diets, along with illness, disability, death and widespread suffering were part of this social landscape.   These disruptions to the social order may well have triggered the violent ritual acts.  Perhaps these were attempts to purge the village of the perceived evil deeds possibly attributed to witchcraft.  It is curious to note that those that suffered violent ritual deaths did not exhibit the same range and extent of serious skeletal pathologies as were evident among others in the village (only mild healed cranial porosities among the adults in Kiva G and Roomblock 16, and mild post-cranial porosities evident in the murdered children which may be an early stage of rickets.)   It is plausible to imagine that those residents of Plazas G and K may have found reason to accuse other villagers of sorcery.  Those suffering great hardship may have found reason to blame those who were not as severely affected.  The effects of the drought, illness, disability and death were not experienced socially in isolation from the acts of ritualized violence evident at the site.  Given the deaths of seriously ill villagers as well as the acts of ritualized violence both occur within the same time frame and same general area of the site, it is plausible they are related and part of the same social stresses experienced by these residents.   Hunger, disease and death were major disruptions to the social order; these misfortunes had a cause.  Within the 14th century Ancestral Puebloan worldview, sorcery was a compelling reason.  Witches could have been blamed for the villagers’ hardships.  Witch hunts affected the social order at Arroyo Hondo, and ultimately may be partly to blame for the abandonment of the village.  Drought and poor hygiene due to crowding may have been the underlying triggers of the illness and death experienced by the inhabitants of Arroyo Hondo.   Yet it may have been the resulting internal ritualized violence that caused the village abandonment.  At Arroyo Hondo, the many hardships of everyday life brought on by drought and food shortages are linked to the salient moments in the history of this village of ritualized violence and the ultimate abandonment of this village.