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Valley of the Gods, Bears Ear National Monument, Utah, where the Pueblo peoples practiced a form of sustainable agriculture long ago. The plants they planted are now being used as a clue for finding other possible archaeological artifacts nearby.

Pueblo Peoples of American Southwest Were Expert Gardeners, Study Shows

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Researchers working in the Bears Ears region of southeastern Utah have discovered some fascinating details about the plant-producing practices of the area’s former Pueblo peoples. Led by conservationist Bruce Pavlik, a team of plant scientists and anthropologists from the University of Utah conducted a survey of 25 archaeological Pueblo peoples’ sites within the boundaries of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and have now published a highly interesting study of their findings on PNAS.

The Four Corners potato (Solanum jamesii) growing in sand at the base of slick rock waterfall, just above site 42SA244, a two-story Pueblo peoples’ cliff dwelling in Bears Ears. The species reproduces only by tubers that have very limited dispersal capability. This situation repeats itself among archaeological sites in southern Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. (Kari Gillen / PNAS)

Culturally Significant Plant Species of the Pueblo Peoples

The latest study focused on artifact-rich locations that had at one time been occupied by the Pueblo peoples of the Colorado Plateau, including the Hopi, Zuni, Utes, and the Navajo (Diné).

The scientists were primarily interested in searching for culturally significant Pueblo peoples’ plant species that grow in the area. Puebloan populations in the region were at their peak 1,000 years ago, and these species would have been used back then and in later years for food, medicine, and ceremonial or religious purposes.

In total, the researchers identified and collected samples from more than 117 species of plant they knew had some significance to ancient and modern indigenous residents related to the Pueblo peoples. All of these species were found in the vicinity of various Puebloan archaeological sites , and other locations in the area were checked to see if the same types of plants could be found outside those sites.

The distribution of these plant species was surprising and revealing. As the scientists explained in their May 17 report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the plant ecology of the landscape appeared to have been shaped by intentional planning.

Many plant species were found growing almost exclusively near the Puebloan archaeological sites, where native groups had settled in large or small populations. In locations away from Pueblo peoples’ settlements, these particular plants were rarely found. Near the biggest and most complex archaeological sites, the researchers found a greater number of different culturally important species, in comparison to smaller sites that had less plant diversity .

“The plants weren’t randomly just there,” Pavlik explained in a University of Utah press release. “People brought propagules [ seeds or buds] of the species in with them.”

The Pueblo peoples of the Colorado Plateau had left behind a clear footprint of their presence. Except in this instance, the artifacts discovered were plants, instead of the usual cultural productions like pottery, tools, or weapons.

“This is one of the rare times in the archeological literature where people invested in native species and brought them to their habitations,” Pavlik continued. “It indicates this higher level of landscape manipulation, what we call ‘an ecological legacy’ of past human occupation.”

Overall, there were at least 31 species that appeared to have been intentionally planted or cultivated in areas where Pueblo peoples lived. There may have been more, but some of the plant species common at archaeological sites were also common in other areas, making it impossible to tell whether they had been planted intentionally or spread there naturally.

Ecologically-wise, sustainable societies like the Pueblo peoples created over a 1,000 years ago are useful today for understanding these societies, our own and where to look for other artifacts. ( sodawhiskey / Adobe Stock)

Ecological Wisdom and Timeless Sustainable Societies

Study co-author Arnold Clifford, a botanist and member of the Navajo (Diné) Nation, noted that seven of the plant species found at the archaeological sites are viewed as sacred. They are “lifeway” medicines that native peoples have long relied on to preserve their health in even the most challenging times.

“The medicines on the landscape all have a story,” said co-author Cynthia Wilson, director of the Traditional Foods Program for Utah Diné Bikéyah and like Clifford a member of the Navajo (Diné) Nation. "The original proposal to designate 1.9 million acres for Bears Ears National Monument came from listening to the elders and medicine people who mapped culturally significant plants to protect our narratives.”

This search for information about the gardening and landscape management techniques of Pueblo peoples was motivated by more than curiosity.

As stewards of the land they lived on, the indigenous people of the American southwest were ecological experts who understood the principles of permaculture, soil preservation, and ecosystem protection.

Their gardening practices involved only light human intervention, as they relied largely on the land to provide for them naturally and sustainably. Adding a few extra seeds here or there didn’t disrupt local ecosystems but added to their diversity in a way that would allow a larger human population to survive.

“Identifying how past human populations altered ecosystems is critical for understanding current ecological diversity and for the management of both natural and cultural resources,” the researchers wrote in their PNAS article. “This study presents evidence for an enduring ecological legacy of ancient people on the Colorado Plateau, where the complexity of archaeological sites correlates with the richness of culturally important plant species.”

The importance of the last observation should not be overlooked.

The Pueblo peoples’ cultures were prosperous and stable. Notably, their success in building culturally and economically rich societies was matched by their smart ecological practices. They relied on wise use of resources and respect for the land to guarantee a healthy, sustainable future for themselves and for coming generations.

The wisdom of the Pueblo peoples provides us with a lesson that is just as relevant today as it was 1,000 years ago.

Another image of Valley of the Gods, Bears Ear National Monument, Utah, where Pueblo peoples’ plant artifacts are now being used as a clue to other possible archaeological finds . ( Thoffman / Adobe Stock)

When the Plants Are the Artifacts

Study co-author Brian Codding, who is the director of the Utah Archaeological Center, worked with two anthropology students to create a statistical model that will allow these research results to be applied to other established or potential archaeological sites in the Bears Ears region.

"The model can help Tribal and federal land managers identify places that need the most protection to preserve complex archaeological sites and important plant species," Codding explained.

In other words, where plant diversity is high, archaeological discoveries are likely to be bountiful—and vice versa. If an abundance of plants known to be valued by Pueblo peoples are found in new locations, there could be many material artifacts buried close by, waiting to be excavated and discovered.

From an archaeological perspective, the plant life around these Native American Pueblo peoples’ sites should be seen as another category of valuable artifact, and one that is just as deserving of protection as any other type of ancient remains.

Top image: Valley of the Gods, Bears Ear National Monument, Utah, where the Pueblo peoples practiced a form of sustainable agriculture long ago. The plants they planted are now being used as a clue for finding other possible archaeological artifacts nearby .                    Source: Thoffman / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

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