Have you ever found anything?
It's the question just about everyone asks when they find out I'm an archeologists. It doesn't matter what their interests are or their background, it's still the no. 1 question. And I can't really help but laugh when I say yes all the time.
The magnitude of the prehistory here on the Tonto National Forest is actually rather staggering. Although we haven't surveyed all of the 2.9 million acres, and probably won't because some of it is just too rugged and too remote, approximately 60,000 archeological sites are out there.
We have around 9,000 recorded.
These findings can be everything from a cliff dwelling, rock art, a simple scattering of pottery pieces and waste from stone-tool production to abodes such as homesteads or a cabins.
If the finds are more than 50 years old, we must consider the artifacts to determine whether it represents meaningful cultural behavior and information about past lifeways.
Actually, if we find prehistoric evidence, odds are it does have that potential; if it's younger than 100 years old, it probably doesn't.
Artifacts are sometimes mistaken for the piles of old cans --probably the remains of a camping trip -- or the household trash dumped in the forest
But it's the prehistoric evidence that really grabs everyone's attention.
Most people know of three groups when they think of prehistoric peoples in Arizona: the Hohokam, the Anasazi and the Mogollon.
And while we possess evidence of their existence in the Tonto National Forest, we have so much more.
Professional investigations from the various highway improvements and work over the past 15 years around Roosevelt Dam, have yielded amazing clues about the dynamics of the different cultural groups that lived in what is now the Tonto National Forest.
We have strong evidence of something we had suspected, but until recently couldn't prove. The cultures, especially up here in the Rim Country area, had probably been here for thousands of years.
That culture was not just the result of contact with Hohokam colonies -- a once-popular theory. They didn't have what is called a cultural fluorescence, something that makes a major impact on the landscape or influences neighboring people, so we don't have a fancy name for them.
We just refer to these settlers as the Central Arizona Tradition (CAT), primarily to distinguish them from other nearby groups, such as the Hohokam, based mostly in the Phoenix basin area, and the Salado that settled in Tonto Basin.
Now this doesn't mean that these cultures didn't do much or leave clues to indicate their presence. They did. They built Shoofly Ruin up on Houston Mesa and Risser Ruin here in town. We know they didn't build huge communities such as those seen in other local areas.
They tended to live in close-knit groups of probably small or extended families. This makes sense: This part of the state doesn't have the water resources that would facilitate an irrigation agriculture. They definitely used the landscape, however.
There are a large number of small, isolated homes and a bevy of artifact scatterings, which are probably the remains of hunting or gathering camps. We know they had agriculture and grew the ubiquitous corn, beans and squash. But there's one thing that folks today tend to forget -- just because a culture grows crops, it doesn't mean investigations ignore wild products.
Even a hundred years ago, people who had farms would still gather wild fruits, nuts and plant products, which were useful for making tools or medicine, and they definitely hunted. One advantage of farming is it tends to attract wild game, whether it's a single bunny or herds of deer. And the variety of different vegetation zones present in the Rim Country, allowed for a wide exploitation of material.
From artifacts found during excavations, we know that they had contact with both the Salado and Hohokam, and occasionally the Anasazi to the north and northeast.
The analysis of human remains have uncovered evidence that suggests they were here for a very long time; the skeletal differences that show up among the local CAT population are not common elsewhere.
Penny Minturn -- a physical anthropologist and Payson resident -- feels these findings represent conclusive evidence of a long-term indigenous population that called the Rim Country its home.
"CAT is really a mix of a lot of different cultures," Minturn said. "The really interesting thing is, even though they were impacted by other cultures, they stayed unique."
Their lifeways were similar to other prehistoric groups and they definitely interacted with different neighboring groups, but they put their own distinct stamp on how they did things.
This inclination is very human -- every group and every culture has something that distinguishes them from other peoples, something that says, "I am me and not them."
"Their pottery tended to be more plain," said Minturn. "Cultures would trade for the flashy stuff and it seems like they didn't trade too much with others."
The characteristics of what is important and what gives us information about past peoples is amazing.
Each site is unique, because while people may have had the same possessions and activities, just like present-day neighbors, each group was different and had different approaches to making, using and accomplishing something.
And each site has the potential to yield information, but only if is stays undisturbed.
Vandalized sites can mar displaced or totally destroy delicate information. Certain artifacts, such as decorated pottery and arrow heads, are important because they can date a site and indicate trade associations.
This is how artifacts are associated with each other: its context and relationship are important.
Artifacts can indicate living versus storage areas and differentiate where and how people did certain activities.
These clues can even indicate cultural norms: They may have intermarried among groups, were engaged a unique activity.
It is vital that no one digs in a site or collects artifacts from the surface.
Curiosity is a wonderful thing, but it needs to be channeled.
Numerous federal laws protect all sites and artifacts on federal lands. If you see something, enjoy the moment of discovery, but please leave all aspects of the site, including artifacts as you see them -- and take only pictures.
If you have an interest in the history of our area, there are several books, notably People of the Tonto Rim, by Dr. Charles Redman.
Redman supervised the excavation work at Shoofly Village in the 1980s. Classes are also available at our local community college. If you enjoy hiking and being outdoors, and would like to be more involved in protecting these fragile resources, get involved in the Arizona Site Steward program, a volunteer group that routinely visit sites to monitor their condition.
To find out more information about the Site Steward program, contact state parks office in Phoenix, (602) 542-7142.
Minturn will present her doctorate dissertation on how the genetic connection of local people interacts with the cultures of this region, April 11 at the Payson Library.