PROTOHISTORIC PERIOD IN THE SOUTHERN PORTION OF THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
Why is it that the protohistoric (and early historic) period in the southern Southwest is so poorly understood? There are several reasons.
The protohistoric and early historic periods are more complex, with many more processes going on than generally conceived. Historic accounts and traditional reconstructions
suggest that there were the large prehistoric groups and then the Europeans arrived. European arrival decimated native populations with introduced diseases, and then,
sometime thereafter, the Apache moved in. In reality, the sequence of events is more complex: (1) important prehistoric groups reorganized and declined in breadth and depth of
influence, (2) at least three other groups moved in (Apache, Sobaipuri, and Canutillo-complex mobile groups), and (3) then the Europeans arrived. (4) Then perhaps more native
groups moved in, and (5) many groups reorganized by intermarrying, adopting, moving and so on. Pluralism is the name of the game in the protohistoric and historic Southwest.
Greater mobility meant that culture groups are not as easily archaeologically defined with respect to specific geographic (spatial) distributions. Many groups used extremely large
geographic areas. Many mobile groups' territories or ranges overlapped with those of other groups (both mobile and sedentary). This means that spatial distributions of artifacts
and features overlap one another. In the prehistoric period culture areas are more discrete and can be differentiated from one another on the basis of this separation. Prehistoric
groups also painted their pottery which signals social and cultural differences to archaeologists.
This contributes to a especially confusing record when several new groups entered the area, resulting in an overlay of their material culture over prehistoric sites. There is not
just one new group present, but there are at least three. Their sites overlie and intermix with the prehistoric sites and also with the sites of contemporary groups.
Through time the protohistoric occupants merged into two groups: the Apache and O'odham. While this was occurring the once-distinct archaeological manifestation become not
just mingled but transformed into something new. Thus, what was Apache and O'odham in the nineteenth-century is very different from what it was a century or two earlier. This
is one reason why modern descendants often do not recognize the material culture and lifeways of their ancestors any more than I recognize the castle-dwelling habits of my
ancestor clansmen. For one, mobile people have a substantially different mindset than do sedentary people. Also, people under attack and constant threat have a different view
of their role in the world, just as people do who are connected through exchange and information networks to their entire world. Protohistoric globalization simply had a different
face than it does today; people were interconnected to the entire known world, but the limits of that reality simply differed from views of global limits held today. Changes in
understandings about global geography do not minimize the fact of the cosmopolitan nature of their world because the extent of one's reach is partially defined by technological
advances that allow one to expand the known world.
While groups were interchanging and intermixing new groups moved west off the plains. This took place in the eighteenth century in part because the Comanche moved south,
killing Apaches along the way. This replacement was encouraged by the Europeans who viewed the Comanche as a lesser evil than the Apache and assisted in the attempted
genocide by providing weapons and information.
Many protohistoric sites were reoccupied many times. Multicomponency means that the groups with the most material culture or the most distinctive material culture will be the
most likely to be recognized. Many sites are multi-component, meaning that people of different groups lived there through time. Most of the protohistoric and historic groups in
the Southern Southwest produced so little non-perishable material culture that what was left is often camouflaged by the denser scatters. The encampments of protohistoric
groups are also so close to the modern ground surface that much evidence has been eroded or collected by vandals. This is a problem for non-mobile groups, such as the
Sobaipuri, as well. While some Sobaipuri houses were covered with adobe or adobe-covered mats, the sites are so close to the surface that most of the evidence has dissipated.
If these terrace-top sites had been covered by alluvial sediments it is likely that the adobe walls would have been better preserved and more visible.
The sites are also difficult to see. This is true for two reasons. First is because the Canutillo complex looks in many ways similar to the Archaic period, including in the use of
formal bifaces and a lithic tradition oriented toward production of formal durable tools on nice materials. Houses were even made in a relatively similar way, like mobile groups
the world over. These were simple constructions, circular, and built on the surface using available materials. Moreover, because many of the protohistoric people were mobile
they left fewer artifacts behind and their structures were made using less effort, which means that when abandoned there is less to find.
It is also important that most field schools and academic fieldwork has occured in the northern portion of the Southwest. These locations are more temperate during the hot
summer months when a large portion of academic and research-oriented fieldwork takes place. Contract archaeology has changed this to some degree, carrying out
investigations throughout the year, even in the searing desert. The impact of the Four-Corners focus or Pueblo orientation of most studies should not be underestimated. The
difficult nature of the archaeology in the southern Southwest also generally precludes its inclusion in field school contexts. This is changing to some degree, however, as
archaeologists realize that a greater portion of the archaeological record is more subtle and unobtrusive than the remains of culture groups that tend to receive most study. With
the addition of these less-studied groups the record becomes much more complex, with many more unknowns. Not everyone is interested in pursuing unknowns. Not every
scholar wants to be the modern equilalent of a Columbus, sailing across uncharted waters with sea-monster critics lurking in every wave and the threat of the
flat-earth-knowledge coming to an abrupt cascading end. Is safer on the shore of extant "knowledge."
THE MATERIAL ON THIS PAGE IS COPYRIGHTED AND SHOULD BE APPROPRIATELY CITED (C) 2007-2008, Deni Seymour