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New Evidence Suggests Ideas About Early Farmers May Miss the Mark - 2003-05-25


A few years ago we learned that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not always the workaholics we long imagined. Far from slogging from one hunt to the next, they had ample hours for play and art. Farming, the discovery seemed to suggest, was the comparative drudgery, tying our ancestors to one place. Now archaeologists in southern Utah have uncovered evidence that suggests some of our ideas about early farmers may also miss the mark.

Within a fortress of rust-colored cliffs in Utah's remote Kanab Desert, a crew of archaeologists discovered the remains of a prehistoric farmstead hidden in a juniper forest. It was occupied for about a century, 1,300 years ago, when a group of people known as the Anasazi roamed Utah's Red Rock Country.

Just after sunrise under a clear blue sky, a dozen university students sort themselves around the dig site. Crew member Jason Porter has been camping out here for two months. He's unshaven and his clothes have taken on the red tinge of the surrounding rock. "More rock and dirt busting! You can see a nice profile along this wall that we've created as we've excavated. You can see a layer of this burned adobe. It's basically roof fall material from the structure as it burned," he says.

This site is so well preserved it looks as though the prehistoric people who built it could still live here. There are intact sandstone walls and fire hearths. Remnants of bone reveal the Anasazi hunted rabbit and deer. Anthropologist Steve Simms found the site late last year while excavating other ones nearby.

He immediately recognized that it was different. This wasn't a temporary camp. It looks like an ancient family-run factory. "As we steadily exposed the site what we had was a ramada, open-sided structure. It had posts, it had juniper, it would have been tall enough to stand under. It would have been roofed with logs and sticks and adobe mud. Out in front were storage bins for corn, the bins could have also been used for roasting things like agave hearts, prickly pear pads, food processing," he says.

An abundance of charred corncobs and kernels indicate that corn was the agricultural mainstay here. Based on this find, Mr. Simms and his colleagues at Utah State Univeristy in Logan believe that the Anasazi maintained several small farmsteads and moved among them, to increase the tribe's chances of survival in the parched desert. "What they have is a series of these little houses and depending on where their corn is producing, those are the ones they will live in," he says. "They're moving people to the production. That is very different from the way our culture does it. We load things into trucks, trains, and we move the production to the people."

Anthropologists have known for years that the Ansazi thrived as farmers in this fragile desert ecosystem. They've wondered how. Archeologist and crew member Buck Benson says this site strengthens the now-accepted theory that the Anasazi were farmers who did not simply settle down. "They have to be able to pick up and move when either the arable land is used up beyond growing capability or, if situations change like climate, or other factors like another group moving in and there is possible confrontation. The Anasazi were able to leave the area, let it regenerate itself and then come back," he says.

According to Steve Simms, lessons from this site and others nearby offer clues to help solve the mystery of how humans can survive in a forbidding landscape. "We're down here trying to figure out the settlement patterns and subsistence and the social organization of these Anasazi, but at the same time it gives us a different way of looking at some of our own modern behavior now. By moving people to the production, the Anasazi in southwestern Utah give us one more example of how our relationship with the land is really in our hands," he says.

As a sliver of moon rises, the crew heads back to camp for dinner and an evening of music around a blazing campfire. After living out here for several weeks, these young archeologists feel a kinship with the ancient Anasazi land and they want to tell its story. They hope what they learn from the old farmstead they've uncovered will suggest new ways to cope with future environmental problems.

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