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View from the ruins on the Indian Mesa, Arizona.

The Indian Mesa: Commanding Views at Native American Fortifications in the Wild West

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The Indian Mesa site is a historic area located in the wild and rugged Arizona landscape. With its spectacular views and, of course, its association with the Wild West, Arizona is a popular destination. The state is home to fascinating archaeological sites, many belonging to the Native American cultures that flourished in the area over hundreds of years; such as the Indian Mesa, where Native American tribes lived until natural elements and tension forced them to abandon their once peaceful home.

The Table-Hills of Arizona

Geographically, a   mesa is a high area with a flat top, and it is one of the characteristic features of the arid south-west of the United States. Mesas are often called ‘table-hills’.

The Indian Mesa commands an area about 250 feet (76 meters) above the surrounding land and its sides are quite steep. It is considered part of the Bradshaw Mountain Range. A winding path leads to the top which extends for about 6 acres and from there the view overlooks Lake Pleasant and the Agua Fria River. It has been excavated and studied by archaeologists for many decades.

Why the Hohokam and Pueblo People Abandoned Indian Mesa

This mesa has provided archaeologists with unprecedented insights into the Hohokam culture . It’s thought they built a village on top and lived there between 1000 and 1400 AD, although they lived in the harsh environment of central and eastern Arizona for even longer, from 200 AD. The Hohokam were an agricultural people who developed canals and water reservoirs such as Lake Pleasant.

The Hohokam people also developed exquisite pottery, jewelry, and large-scale urban settlements. Based on artifacts recovered from their former settlements, they established long-distance trade networks and traded with the Aztecs, and even the Maya. Evidence shows that the Hohokam had been influenced by Mesoamerican culture, as seen in the development of Maya style ball-courts.

Example of Hohokam pottery from Casa Grande. (Kaldari/CC BY 2.5)

Example of Hohokam pottery from Casa Grande. (Kaldari/ CC BY 2.5 )

At some point, the ancestral Pueblo people came into contact with the Hohokam and they peacefully co-existed. There is evidence that the Hohokam adopted the Pueblo style of architecture.

Men hunted while much of the agricultural work was carried out by women, but when a bad drought afflicted the area between 1275 and 1300 and was followed by years of irregular rainfall, animals would have moved from the area and farming would not have yielded enough to feed a community. This may have been the main reason the Hohokam were forced to finally abandon their urban settlements and migrate south of Arizona.

Entrance to an Indian Mesa home, overlooking Lake Pleasant. (Marine 69-71 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Another theory is that the people came under attack from other tribes who had forced them to leave the area. It is widely believed the Hohokam are the ancestors of the Pima and Tohono O’odham tribes.

The Indian Mesa Village and Archaeological Site

Initially the Hohokam appear to have lived in a small settlement near the base of the hill. Over time they moved to the top of the mesa as it was easily defendable, which suggests that there was a great deal of instability in the area at the time.

A village on the mesa is estimated to have housed a population of 100 to 200 people. Numerous post holes, which were used to prop up the roofs of their homes, have been found in the ruins. There are also fire pits, believed to have been used in the production of pottery, as well as a stone milling basin used by the village women to grind maize into flour. Archaeologists have even discovered shell-ornaments at the site.

Pottery shards found at the Indian Mesa site. (Marine 69-71 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pottery shards found at the Indian Mesa site. (Marine 69-71 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

 

The village was fortified, and its remaining walls are five feet (1.5 meters) high with only a single point of access into the settlement. There are, however, a number of portals in the walls from where the Hohokam could have fired arrows at attackers.

Archaeologists have determined that the settlement declined over several generations. This is evident in the more primitive style of housing adopted by the inhabitants and the absence of shell jewelry.

Portion of the wall that defended the village. (Marine 69-71/ CC BY-SA 3.0)

Portion of the wall that defended the village. (Marine 69-71/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Worthwhile Journey to the Indian Mesa

The location is 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of the bustling metropolis of Phoenix, Arizona , and is a half a mile (less than a kilometer) off Highway I-17. The road to the location may be hard to access, but the hike to the top of the mesa only takes a few minutes. No entrance fee or paperwork is required to visit the area.

Be careful of snakes and other reptiles in the area and it should be noted that the ruins are not reinforced so that they may be unstable.

Top image: View from the ruins on the Indian Mesa, Arizona. Source: TibberProductions 2015/ YouTube Screenshot

By Ed Whelan

References

Bayman, J. M. (2001). The Hohokam of southwest North America . Journal of World Prehistory, 15(3), 257-311. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1013124421690

Doyel, D. E. (1979). The Prehistoric Hohokam of the Arizona Desert . American Scientist, 67(5), 544-554. Available at:   https://www.jstor.org/stable/27849435?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Lekson, S. H. (1993). Chaco, Hohokam and Mimbres . Expedition, 35(1), 44. Available at: https://search.proquest.com/openview/8c38f316a93f7c940fe02e905f9cfdc2/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=1816471

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