Sunday, October 06, 2013


A type of site never before described by archaeologists is shedding new light on the prehistory of the American Southwest and may change conventional thinking about the ancient migrations that shaped the region. The sites, discovered in the southern mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, are remote Apache encampments with some often “disguised” features that have eluded archaeologists for centuries. And their discovery is surprising not only for their seclusion but also for their age, because some sites appear to date back hundreds of years before Apaches were thought to have migrated to the region.

The sites are called platform cave caches, where small, uniquely constructed platforms were built in rockshelters to secretly hold a stash of goods for later use, Dr. Jeri Seymour (Research associate with New Mexico's Jornada Research Institutue and the University of Colorado Museum0 writes in the Journal of Field Archaeology, where she describes the finds. The structures were sometimes “disguised” by rocks and other features in the caves, and typically included a ring of stones layered with ersatz shelves made from local desert plants, like ocotillo or yucca, and secured on the top with grasses, branches and stones.

The Apache practice of caching goods in caves — like pottery, basketry, food and, in later years, weapons and ammunition — has turned up in accounts from 19th century Native Americans and settlers, but no evidence of the custom had ever been found before.
Seymour notes that such secret stashes were necessities for itinerant people like the ancestral Apache, whose livelihoods often came from raiding other bands or foraging in places that were frequently under the control of other groups. This may explain why the newfound caches were discovered only in remote mountain spots, and in areas far outside the boundaries of other, more sedentary farming groups, like the Mogollon, Mimbres or Hohokam.

But, the author notes, the sites do fall within the historic range of particular Apache bands, including the Mescalero of southern New Mexico, and the Chiricahua in Arizona, who offered one of the last and longest resistances to European-American control. The most convincing evidence of the sites’ origin, however, is the fact that many include uniquely Apache artifacts, such as pottery and rock art.

One of the best-preserved platform caches Seymour found, in Arizona’s Peloncillo Mountains, features fragments of a ceremonial headdress, a ritual staff or “wand,” and four pictographs that depict Apache “mountain spirit masks” drawn in charcoal.

The new platform caches add to previous research Seymour has conducted in Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains, where another Apache camp — this one without a cache — was dated to the 14th and 15th centuries. So while experts have long surmised from historic accounts that Apaches migrated to the Southwest after the 1680s, she concludes, “such interpretations are not sustainable when considered in the context of this new archaeological evidence.”

The new dates “open a host of new possibilities regarding the end of prehistory,” Seymour writes, suggesting that the years leading up to European contact may have been marked by interactions — either peaceful or not — between the itinerant Apaches and more sedentary groups, and that those relationships may have been long-standing by the time the Spanish appeared. Taken together, she says, the new data provided by the platform caches “provide a basis for reevaluating long-held views about the end of prehistory and the arrival of ancestral Apachean groups in the heart of the American Southwest.”


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