Local archaeologist Penny Minturn is about to blow the lid off one of the best-kept secrets in the Rim country.
It's a story about the people who lived in and around Payson during prehistoric times a people who were contemporaries of the more commonly known cultures, including the Sinagua, Anasazi, Mogollon, Salado and Hohokam.
What makes this an amazing story is that the people who lived here had a physical characteristic that none of the other prehistoric peoples of North America had a protrusion on the back of their skulls called an occipital bun.
The protrusion, which ranged in size from a baseball to a softball, varied from one individual to the next. Because the bone itself looks like a bun, and because it is located about where a hair bun would be, the prehistoric people of the Rim country have been given a "working" nickname the bunheads.
Minturn doesn't especially like the nickname, but seems resigned to the fact that it is probably going to be around for a while. The only other name they've been given the Central Arizona Tradition makes them sound more like an Arizona golf tournament.
Minturn, who is working on her doctorate in physical anthropology at Arizona State University, is writing her dissertation on the bunheads. She hopes it will be the basis for a book on the subject.
An archaeologist's job, she explains, is to learn more about past civilizations by studying their "material culture," while physical anthropology is "technically the study of human skeletons and evolution."
For the past two years, Minturn has been excavating along Highway 260 between Star Valley and Kohl's Ranch, the first portion of that road being widened from two to four lanes by the Arizona Department of Transportation.
She says there is 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."
While her work along Highway 260 continues, Minturn has found a new place to take a "closer look" a site that sits on a vacant lot smack dab in the middle of a quiet neighborhood within the town limits of Payson. The site, known as Risser Ranch Ruins, was recently purchased for $94,000 by the Northern Gila County Historical Society.
Under an agreement between the society and the Shoofly Chapter of the Arizona Archaeological Society, Minturn and a team of volunteers are spending an average of two days a week excavating and stabilizing the Risser Ranch site.
Eventually it will be turned into a limited-access, education-oriented tourist attraction operated by the NGCHS.
In the meantime, the society wants to keep its location as quiet as possible to avoid having it scavenged for pottery and other artifacts. Fortunately, the remnants of the village that once occupied the site are not visible from the subdivision street.
But just over a small rise at the front of the site, an incredible scene unfolds. "There are probably at least 12 rooms still remaining," Minturn said.
Walking the path that meanders around them, she says she gets the feeling that this ancient site is still part of the modern subdivision that surrounds it. There is a sense of home, of community, and of life frozen in time.
"At one time this site was at least as big as Shoofly (another bunhead ruin off Houston Mesa Road northeast of Payson)," Minturn says. "Some of the remaining walls are close to five feet high."
She suspects the six larger rooms in front were community rooms of some sort, while the small rooms to the back of the site were "single family" homes. One-hundred-year-old trees have sprung up in the middle of some of the rooms, and pottery shards are scattered everywhere.
Minturn says there is also clear evidence that at least some of the structures were two stories high. "You can tell by the way the walls have fallen," she said.
While the structures stop at the back end of the site, trash and artifacts wash all the way down the hill it sits on. From this vantage point, the people who lived here could see two other major Bunhead communities Shoofly and Goat Camp, which is located off Tyler Parkway.
While few know the whereabouts of Risser Ranch Ruins, its existence has been known for several decades. "Dr. Risser's family owned the property and somebody from Scottsdale Community College did some archaeological work on it back in the '70s," Minturn said.
"Then the archaeological society did some work in the late '80s and early '90s." But the bun-like protrusions on the skulls of the people who lived here were largely ignored.
"This is physical anthropology and archaeologists and physical anthropologists often don't speak to one another," Minturn said. "There was just a small report done on the physical remains.
"Arizona State University did some work in Star Valley in the late '80s, and they first noticed them there," she said. "But they only had a handful of bodies."
At Risser Ranch, Minturn has so far excavated about five bodies, and expects to find more." Generally burials are on perimeters of the sites," she said.
"I suspect when they put the road in front through here they probably hit 20 to 25 burials. I pulled one out of the back yard of the house next door, which was the last house to be built here."
While Minturn didn't actually "discover" the bunheads, she is the first person to put their story together. "What I think I discovered is that the Bunheads were a lot more prevalent than anybody realized.
"The reason this has been such a secret is because no one has been particularly interested in it. There hasn't been a lot of archaeology done in this area."
Both the town and the subdivision homeowners association have given their blessing to Minturn's work, but residents don't seem as interested as you might think they would be. "Occasionally a neighbor drops by to watch us work, but not very often," she says.
Minturn speculates that one of two possibilities accounts for the unique shape of Bunhead skulls:
Since the occipital bun has been found in European Neanderthals and in Australian aborigines, it is possible that a yet undiscovered link exists between these peoples and the Rim country bunheads.
It is also possible that the occipital bun is a genetic aberration, an independent development that "just happened."
Minturn says some archaic peoples who lived in the Southwest from 4000 to 1500 B.C. had the trait. "But once we get from 900 A.D. to 1250 A.D., we don't get (the occipital protrusions) anymore."
What that suggests to her is that the bunheads, "this little pocket of people," may be ancestors of these archaic people, and "may have been here for a long, long time. This could be one of the oldest civilizations in North America."
Could it be that the extra cranial capacity made the bunheads smarter than other prehistoric peoples? Minturn doesn't think so.
"Basically that's a visual portion of the brain, so it probably wouldn't have affected anything but maybe visual acumen," she said.
She does know the community of Rim country bunheads, comprised of probably 1,000 different sites, was at the very heart of the prehistoric cultures of the Southwest. The bunheads were literally surrounded by the Sinagua to the north, the Anasazi to the northeast, the Mogollon to the southeast, the Salado to the south, and the Hohokam to the southwest.
"It was kind of a crossroads, and the center of a lot of trade networks," she said. One of the more valuable artifacts found at the Risser Ranch site is a smelted copper bell "traded up" from one of the Mexican civilizations the Aztecs, Mayans or Incas.
But as unique as they were, the Rim country bunheads met the same fate as the prehistoric peoples who surrounded them. Sometime during the 1300s to 1450, they all disappeared.
"It wasn't just in the Southwest," Minturn says, "but pretty much all over. We now think it might have been an El Niind of thing a number of years of drought and bad weather.
"And it happened just as these civilizations were peaking when they had a lot of people to support. Had it happened when there were fewer people vying for resources, they might have survived."
The fact that Payson grew up on top of and around Risser Ranch doesn't surprise her. "Cities are pretty much built on top of old cities because they're good places to have cities," she said.
"This is a big, flat area just before you get to the Rim."
But the fact that so much of Risser Ranch Ruins was lost forever in the process is disappointing. Looking up and down the street lined with large, modern houses on neatly landscaped lots, she slowly shakes her head and says, "All of these houses are built on ruins on both sides of the street."
Reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's "Poltergeist," a 1970s-vintage movie about a housing development built on a sacred burial ground, Minturn says many of the houses in the subdivision "have rooms like this in their back yards. There are a lot of burials out there."