Local archaeologist Penny Minturn wears red slip-on sandals as she trudges through the dirt, rock and rubble of the Risser Ranch Ruins.
Her sure-footed steps suggest an intuitive familiarity with its terrain.
Minturn, who holds a doctorate and specializes maxillofacial archaeology, has spent years studying the ancient cultures of the region.
Before the asphalt, before the xeriscaped yards and 2,500-square-foot homes, a nebulous group of aboriginal settlers, called CAT -- Central Arizona Tradition -- built igloo-like abodes and later, walled-structures of stone in and around Payson.
What researchers know about the residents of the past they have learned from the ruins scattered in and around town.
"We don't have a lot of information," Minturn said. "We think they were pretty closely related to the Zuni (of New Mexico)."
Residential development and limited archaeological excavation obscures much of the evidence from the past. State law, said Minturn, protects burial grounds and goods, not structures.
But what the law will not save, the Rim Country Archaeological Society protected another way. Through donations, they purchased the Risser Ranch Ruins site for $94,000 in the early 1990s.
And on this sliver of undeveloped dirt, Minturn and museum volunteers unearthed artifacts and the ancient dwellings of CAT.
"We use it as a point of pride," Minturn said. "It's been kept very pristine."
As a result, researchers have uncovered keen insights into Rim Country's prehistory.
Evidence left by CAT shows a community paradigm shift.
"Who are you sharing your space with?" Minturn said. "As you get bigger, you have to get together and cooperate. It's a whole idea change. There's a need for hierarchy."
Earlier incarnations of the culture lived in detached-stone huts -- more privacy.
As the strain on limited resources grew, tribe members moved into high-density living spaces, anywhere from 4 to 10 meters, not unlike a single-level apartment.
"The round homes were built by hunters and gatherers," said Larry Nemeth, president of the Museum of Rim Country Archaeology. "Then the people built the newer stuff, started to settle and grow the land."
David Engleman, longtime museum member and archaeology buff, has worked on the Risser Ranch Ruins on and off since 1991. He's uncovered everything from pottery to human bones.
In 1995, Engleman sent 222 wood samples to the University of Arizona. Most of the specimens yielded inconclusive results except one: A tree found in the partially restored Room 6 suggested human occupation as late as 1223.
According to archaeological evidence, CAT lived under a different set of social rules. Menstruation, because of diet and lifestyle, occurred every three months or so, said Minturn. And when it happened, women stayed in a separate "menstruation hut."
The methods of child rearing differed as well.
CAT women weaned their babies around the third birthday for two reasons: Breast-feeding delayed ovulation and provided children with better nourishment.
Most toddlers died from the physical trauma of what Minturn called "weaning stress."
"You can tell by the teeth," Minturn said. "They went from a high, protein-rich diet to corn. You can see the ridges (caused by the lack of nutrition) on their teeth."
And death, Minturn added, was merely another element of nature's scheme.
"As modern Americans we have a distance from death. If you live with death, it's not as scary," she said.
Study of the Risser Ranch Ruins is at a standstill. The current practice of archaeology values conservation instead of excavation.
"We are trying to preserve as many of these things as possible," Minturn said. "What we try to look at is an ongoing interest. You have to have a research design. You can't just go in and grab stuff."
Tours of the Risser Ranch Ruins and other area archaeological landmarks are available by calling the Museum of Rim Country Archaeology at (928) 474-3483.
-- To reach Felicia Megdal call 474-5251 ext. 116 or e-mail email@example.com.