Digging Into The Past


The fact that local archaeologist Penny Minturn wrote her master's thesis on cannibalism is a good indication that the information she can relate about the people who have lived in the Rim country is anything but ordinary.

You'll be relieved to know that this area does not have a "strong tradition" of cannibalism. "In fact, there is none in the area that we can identify," said Minturn, who is now hard at work studying human skeletons as she strives to earn her doctorate in physical anthropology at Arizona State University.

An archaeologist's job is to learn more about past civilizations by studying their material culture, while physical anthropology is technically the study of human skeletons and evolution, Minturn said. For the past 18 months, she has been excavating along Highway 260 to Kohl's Ranch, the first portion of the highway scheduled by the Arizona Department of Transportation to be widened from two to four lanes.

She said there's a lot yet to learn about the prehistoric people who populated this area.

"Up here in the Rim country, we're still not sure who they were," Minturn said, "and the construction of 260 has caused us to take a much closer look."

Minturn and a fellow archaeologist in Tempe have formed a company that does excavations in locations where construction is planned.

"I specialize in the removal and analysis of skeletal remains," Minturn said, "and she specializes in burial removal and teeth."

While prehistoric people in other parts of Arizona have generally been classified as Hohokams, Anasazi and Salado, those who lived in the Rim country were not part of any of those groups. What Minturn is finding along Highway 260 are some of the earlier sites dating back 1,000 to 2,000 years.

While trade between prehistoric groups eventually resulted in a great deal of intermarriage, there is no evidence that the people of Rim country did so.

"The people who lived here aren't Salado like most others found in areas adjacent to the Rim country," Minturn said. "They are unique unto themselves."

And so far they don't even have a name "The closest thing we have for a name is what the Forest Service calls them the Central Arizona Tradition," Minturn said.

She said that one common way of identifying and differentiating between various peoples is by the types of pottery they create.

"Unlike the others, the people in this area produced very little painted pottery, although they did create lots of other pretty things, like jewelry."

Minturn said there also is a physical characteristic that is completely unique to the prehistoric people of the Rim country, a protrusion on the back of their skulls called an occipital bun.

"We also find these protrusions on the really ancient skeletons found in the Southwest, but not on the Hohokam, Salado or Anasazi," Minturn said.

The trait is "definitely genetically driven," she added. "We're now looking into whether it exists in any modern Native Americans."

While the Rim country's major ruins are at Shoofly, Risser Ranch and Goat Camp, Minturn said that almost every hill in the area offers something in the way of artifacts. And often it is the smaller sites like those along Highway 260 that yield the greatest treasures.

"The larger sites tend to be ceremonial centers," Minturn said. "The smaller sites tell us more about the everyday people, about their houses and how they functioned on a basic, day-to-day level."

So far, Minturn, who has lived in Payson for six years, has found some skeletal remains along Highway 260. They all have the occipital bun.

She moved from Missouri to Punkin Center 19 years ago when her husband, then right out of college, got a job as a firefighter with the Forest Service. That's when a passing interest in archaeology became a passion for Minturn.

"I was always interested in archaeology," she said, "but I never pursued it until I got to Arizona. I was looking for work about the time that (Arizona State University) came to Tonto Basin to do the Ash Creek project, the first leg of paving highway 188. They hired me as a laborer.

"Tonto Basin is the heartland of the Salado and I have now spent many years trying to unravel their story," Minturn said. "Because of all the highway work and raising the dam," there has always been a lot of archaeological work going on in the Tonto Basin area."

She has also spent a good portion of those 19 years commuting to ASU, where she earned her masters in bio-archaeology, and where she hopes to complete her Ph.D. in 2002. While she is specializing in this region, one of the highlights of her studies was a four-month excavation in Egypt last year.

"It was a field study in an area of central Egypt called Abydos, and we were looking for the tomb of a specific grand vizier, which was kind of like a prime minister in early Egypt," Minturn said. "We were working with an archaeologist from the University of Michigan who was doing some research.

"We found his tomb and quite a few others, and we also removed about 60 mummies in the process."

While a lot of what they found had already been destroyed by prehistoric pot hunters, many of the mummies were very well preserved.

"It's not only the mummification process, but the fact that it's so dry over there that keeps things so well preserved," she explained.

While she is committed to spending her life uncovering and analyzing skeletal remains, Minturn is careful not to let the scientist in her overrule the human. It's a perspective that all archaeologists try to maintain.

"The people I work with who deal with human remains tend to be more spiritual than scientific," she said. "I feel a connection with the people who came before, and I try to be very respectful."

She agrees with those who say the Rim country is a very spiritual area. "I do feel strength of spirit in certain places," she said.

But she disagrees with those who say the Shoofly ruins are a place of especially strong spirituality. "I don't feel much there; I feel more at Risser than at Shoofly," Minturn said."There are also a couple of sites in Tonto Basin that are strong."

One of the misconceptions about early peoples that Minturn constantly tries to dispel is the belief that they were simple and primitive.

"Their burials show that they loved their families just as we do, that they mourned and grieved when they lost a loved one just as we do, that they valued people just as we do," she said.

In what spare time she has, Minturn teaches at Eastern Arizona College-Payson. The courses she offers, which are always popular with students, include Physical and Cultural Anthropology, Archaeology of the Southwest, and next semester a new course, Buried Cities and Lost Tribes.

Minturn occasionally even finds a little time to dig for pleasure. "Somebody always has a site that is going to be destroyed for one reason or another."

She cautions amateurs, however, that since 1992 when the National American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed, it has been illegal everywhere in the United States to disturb a burial on any land, public or private. In Arizona, you are required to notify the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona in Tucson if you find such a site.

It also is illegal to remove any kind of artifact from public land.

As Minturn completes her education and has more time to delve into the mysteries surrounding the Central Arizona Tradition, she hopes to one day have a better understanding of their fate. Were they driven from the Rim country by drought or famine? Was it conflict with other peoples? Or was it disease?

Minturn thinks it might have been a combination of the four. "We know there was a series of droughts in the Southwest about the time they disappeared," she said, "but then, they were always able to handle drought before.

"As more and more people began living closer and closer together, the chances for famine and contagious diseases grew greater. And it's a very good possibility that conflict played a part as well."

The answer to why the prehistoric peoples disappeared has so far eluded scientists, and it could remain a mystery forever. But Minturn is confident she'll have lots of years to work on the problem.

"In Arizona there is so much construction going on that there will always be work for archaeologists," she said.

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