THE THREE SISTERS ANCESTAL APACHE SITE IN THE DRAGOON MOUNTAINS, ARIZONA
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Ethnographic sources for the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache describe small family encampments.
Many of these were used by two or three related women and their families when they split off from the
larger group. Such encampments might have been used when these families were harvesting and
processing localized plant resources, as is inferred for the Three Sisters site.
This site has three structures including one that looks like a lean-to and two that seem to be the
bases of free-standing wickiups. In addition there are small roasting pits, caches, and a rather wide
diversity of flaked and ground stone artifacts.
The Three Sisters site is most important because it has produced dates in the A.D. 1300s and 1400s.
Both dates are from a roasting pit and one was a radiocarbon date on sugary residue while the second
was a luminescence date on a burned rock within the feature pit. These should be good reliable dates
that do not suffer from the old wood problem or related issues.
This site provides a good lesson on interpretation of dating results from sites used by mobile people.
People like the Apache used a residential site and then moved on. They may have come back annually
or now and then, but the site was used only on an intermittent basis. New generations may also have
used the encampment. These locations may have persisted as favored locales but they were not
continuously occupied. As a consequence it is important to treat the dating results differently than
archaeologists tend to for sites occupied by stationary farmers. Rather than averaging these dates as
archaeologists tend to do on sites used by sedentary farmers who stayed in one place for several
years, the dates must be considered individually. Each date may reflect a distinct occupational or use
episode, capturing a discrete visit to the locale. The Apache way of life meant multiple short-term uses
of these types of places so their resulting material culture and the dates there from should reflect this
Excavated roasting pits throughout the Southwest and Plains have shown evidence of multiple
episodes of use in the form of multiple and often overlapping pits, rake out piles of stone and ash, and
heavily reduced stone that has cracked and spalled from reheating. The Three Sisters site is no
different. Although the roasting pits are small they show evidence of reuse, consistent with
The Three Sisters site is one of the earliest ancestral Apache sites in the American Southwest. It was
discovered in 1994 and is only now being published owing to resistance to this notion of an early
The site is also important because it imparts information on gender, gaming, and a range of other
topics including insights into the defensive landscape.
More detail about the site will soon be published in the following paper:
2014 Three Sisters Site: An Ancestral Chokonen Apache Encampment in the Dragoon Mountains.
Chapter in Fierce, Barbarous, and Untamed: The Protohistoric Non-Pueblo World, edited by Deni J.
Seymour. Book manuscript under review.