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A conus shell necklace with abalone pendants and the pot in which it was found.

Witchcraft, Hunger, War, and Disease: Charting the Downfall of Arroyo Hondo Pueblo

About 590 years ago, the inhabitants of a large village in New Mexico abandoned it, just 125 years after its founding. Researchers think severe drought, food shortages, illness, and possible warfare or ritual killings because of suspected witchcraft, all contributed to the village’s downfall.

Researchers led by Douglas W. Schwartz, then president of the School for Advanced Research, excavated the site for five field seasons and analyzed the information they collected for another 20 years. And research on the sites continues. Dr. Schwartz has a website with loads of information , articles, theses, dissertations, and photos from many scholars who have worked at Arroyo Hondo Pueblo since 1970.

He received three U.S. National Science Foundation grants over the years to excavate and publish on Arroyo Hondo and made a National Geographic documentary.

A drawing of some of the skeletons in a kiva or ceremonial structure at Arroyo Hondo; the bodies of seven people were crushed with rock, possibly because they were suspected of witchcraft.

A drawing of some of the skeletons in a kiva or ceremonial structure at Arroyo Hondo; the bodies of seven people were crushed with rock, possibly because they were suspected of witchcraft. (Drawing courtesy of Arroyo Hondo Pueblo Project )

The website describes a village that suffered much hardship and suggests that it may have imploded in part because of ritual killings. The village’s population estimates vary from 600 to 2,700, and it was one of the largest pueblos in the region.

Dr. Schwartz told Ancient Origins this week that there are two theories for the skeletons with evidence of violence. One researcher believes the people were killed in warfare. Another researcher believes they were killed on suspicious of witchcraft, a view he subscribes to based on later research.

The 4.9-hectare (12-acre) Arroyo Hondo Pueblo is large and well-preserved. It lies about 8 kilometers (5 miles) southeast of the modern city of Santa Fe in the northern Rio Grande Valley, according to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places information sheet (PDF).

The puebloans constructed their town in adobe with some masonry. The pueblo’s 1,200 rooms are arranged in 24 terraced, one- and two-story room blocks on 13 plazas. The site was essentially abandoned for a generation, but some people moved back in around 1370 and rebuilt about 200 rooms. Then everyone left around 1425 AD.

Map of Arroyo Hondo by the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Map of Arroyo Hondo by the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

The site of Arroyo Hondo included springs, a nearby river and marshy areas. The people of the pueblo subsisted on hunting game, kept domesticated turkeys, raised domesticated corn, beans and squash, and collected pinyon nuts and other wild plant foods.

Little religious or cultural iconography, such as rock art, petroglyphs or paintings, survives. But the region in general has a lot of that artwork, according to Polly Dix Schaafsma , an archaeologist with the Laboratory of Anthropology, Museum of New Mexico. Dr. Scwhartz said the people of Arroyo Hondo likely had some arts, possibly paintings or woodworks that disintegrated over time.

They did leave behind some artifacts, including pottery, arrowheads, jewelry, bone awls, grinding stones, and stone knives. Researchers also found drills, a pipe, choppers, hoes and an arrow straightener. Objects made from mollusk shells, turtle shells, non-local turkeys and macaws suggest the people had contact and traded with distant settlements, says the National Register.

“Arroyo Hondo site’s 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,” wrote Steven LeBlanc, an archaeologist at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, in an article on warfare at the pueblo and in the Southwest in general. “The initial room block 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.”

Dr. Schwartz said Dr. LeBlanc is the expert on war in the Southwest.

“To me there is no doubt that Arroyo Hondo was built as fortress,” Dr. Schwartz said. “It’s as if they found the most secure spot to build it. There are a lot of architectural clues this was a dangerous time and they were protecting themselves.”

Projectile points from Arroyo Hondo.

Projectile points from Arroyo Hondo. (Photo courtesy of Arroyo Hondo Pueblo Project )

Dr. Schwartz said that there was raiding because of severe droughts in 1330 and 1410. Some time before this, people of the pueblos did something new by living in fortified pueblos in larger numbers so they would have a force to fight off raiders.

Dr. LeBlanc wrote that there was a cost for the defensive arrangement. The collection of wild plants and firewood was time-consuming and dangerous for women. Also, the crop fields were far away from the living quarters. And the men would have had to go in larger hunting parties, which would have reduced individual success. Dr. LeBlanc wrote that there were probably no-man-lands near other communities, where it was likely too dangerous for the people of Arroyo Hondo to procure food and resources. “Such restrictions may have made the diet less diverse and food less available, further impacting the community’s health, which was quite poor,” Dr. LeBlanc wrote.

Dr. LeBlanc’s article says Arroyo Hondo may have been riven by war. “Sometime around AD1130 something very bad happened in the Southwest,” Dr. LeBlanc writes.

“[…] 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.”

Detail of a masonry wall from Arroyo Hondo.

Detail of a masonry wall from Arroyo Hondo. (Photo courtesy of Arroyo Hondo Pueblo Project )

Dr. Schwartz said the skeletons with signs of violence show there was conflict—but was it external from warfare, or internal because of suspected witchcraft?

“In the pueblo system witches are responsible for all bad things,” he said. Crushing suspected sorcerers with rocks was a common punishment.

Ann Palkovich, an anthropologist with George Mason University, wrote that “Food shortages and poor diets, along with illness, disability, death and widespread suffering were part of this social landscape.” She says these problems may have led the villagers to practice ritual killings of some of their fellow villagers. She writes that the people who were killed did not have as many skeletal pathologies from malnutrition as other villagers. Her article states:

“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. Hunger, disease and death were major disruptions to the social order; these misfortunes had a cause. Within the 14 th 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.” 

As for the people’s religion, there is little evidence at the pueblo to go on. But Dr. Schaasfma described a region rich with iconography and religious traditions. And Dr. Schwartz said their art may have simply disintegrated with time.

A kiva at Arroyo Hondo; kivas were places of ritual and religion in the pueblos of the American Southwest.

A kiva at Arroyo Hondo; kivas were places of ritual and religion in the pueblos of the American Southwest. (Photo courtesy of Arroyo Hondo Pueblo Project )

Dr. Schaasfma wrote that such imagery is essential in understanding a people’s past and their religions and social arrangements. Thus, the fact that there is very little iconography in Arroyo Hondo presents a challenge. “Except for those very few depictions on ceramics and other artifacts, we are largely dependent on secondary information in trying to figure out where to place Arroyo Hondo during these transitional times.”

Dr. Schaafsma concluded the Arroyo Hondo villagers were probably traditionalists who were not involved in the new religious beliefs and explosion in rock art and kiva murals of other nearby peoples of the time.

Dr. Schwartz and the website described a bleak, hard existence beset by violence, water and food shortages and disease associated with malnutrition. One can only speculate and hope that the villagers had some happiness and normality too.

“It is impossible to know,” Dr. Schwartz said on the phone. “But I have lived with people at this level of farming” in Ethiopia and the Grand Canyon. “When the weather was good and the population was increasing, I think it was a good time. Once the drought hit, I think it became very difficult for everyone. When there were droughts there was starvation, there was disease and there was conflict.”

Featured image: A conus shell necklace with abalone pendants and the pot in which it was found. Source: Arroyo Hondo Pueblo Project

By Mark Miller

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