The Forever War

Archaeologist sees long fight with flatlanders in defensive pattern of ruins


Those angry flatlanders from the Valley have bedeviled Rim residents for a long time, says Museum of Northern Arizona researcher David Wilcox.

Think millennia.


The Black Mountain ruins are typical of those that were built at a time when some archaeologists believe the early people of the Salt River Valley were forcing their way into the foothills of the Mogollon Rim due to pressures from overpopulation, drought and floods.

In fact, a generations-long conflict between the densely settled cities along the Salt and Verde rivers in the Valley and the scattered settlements of Central Arizona between 1100 and 1400 A.D. could explain a host of archaeological mysteries, said Wilcox, who presented a slide show and talk on the revolutionary findings Saturday at a meeting of the Payson Archaeological Society, Jan. 19.

Wilcox and a handful of other researchers have proposed a controversial answer to a vexing mystery: Why did people in the central Arizona highlands start building defensible villages on hilltops in the 1100s and then even more impressive fortresses in the late 1200s, before abandoning the area in the late 1300s.

The researchers looked at data from some 500 hilltop sites and concluded that a network of settlements, designed to be in sight of one another, enabled people living in the rugged terrain from the Verde Valley to New River and up to the Rim to fend off large-scale raids mounted by the warriors from the Hohokam heartland where Phoenix now sprawls.

"Warfare is a stepping stone to understanding the political and economic systems that were in play," said Wilcox. "My understanding of violence is that it's not something in our genes, but rather there's an interaction and you have to deal with realities."

Mainstream archaeologists have long sought an environmental explanation such as drought cycles to explain the baffling ebb and flow of civilizations in the region during a thousand-year period. Despite the enormous effort people expended to build seeming fortresses like Montezuma's Castle in the Verde Valley, researchers have long downplayed violence and depicted the scattered civilizations as run by peaceful farmers living in harmony with the land.

But in recent decades, a more complicated and conflict-ridden picture has emerged as a result of the work of researchers like Wilcox.

Wilcox and his colleagues built on earlier studies by Tonto National Forest Archaeologist J. Scott Wood and others to try to explain several distinct building phases in the area from the Mogollon Rim south to the foothills north of Phoenix and from Burro Creek into the Payson area.

An aerial survey of that vast area helped pinpoint perhaps 500 sites, most of them built on easily defended hilltops. In fact, those settlements formed a line-of-sight chain villages that could have quickly spread the word of invaders through smoke signals or other signaling systems, said Wilcox.

Moreover, exhaustive analysis of the pottery patterns helped researchers fill in both the cultural relationships between different villages and the timing of their shifts.

Wilcox drew on that research to flesh out an intriguing theory that invokes warfare between the people of the "Central Arizona Tradition" who relied on dry farming and small scale irrigation and the Hohokam who built hundreds of miles of irrigation canals to support large scale farming and large population. Wilcox suggests that perhaps raids by ever-larger Hohokam war parties between 1100 and the 1300s could account for settlement patterns in the central highlands -- including the Payson area.

Prior to 1100, people in the groups Wilcox now considers the Central Arizona Tradition lived in extended family settlements, building scattered brush and log shelters, channeling rainfall to nourish small patches of corn, beans and squash, and participating in loose regional trade networks. Most of these settlements were built in valleys and along streams, without much regard to defense from attack. Some evidence suggests this settlement pattern in central Arizona extends back perhaps 4,000 years.

However, starting in the 1100s, people began concentrating these extended family networks into larger settlements, often located on hilltops and other more easily defended positions. Often, they surrounded these villages with low stone walls.

Wilcox suggests that this period may coincide with the onset of low-intensity warfare with the much more densely settled Hohokam areas to the south. Perhaps the mountain people started raiding towns on the outskirts of the Hohokam core area, plundering their food stores and trade goods.

On the other hand, burials from Hohokam sites show that the people living in the Valley suffered repeated famines as a result of droughts, floods or population pressure. So perhaps problems at home prompted the Hohokam to raid the hinterlands.

In ether case, Wilcox and others have documented an interesting link between settlement patterns at the fringes of the Hohokam core area and the Central Arizona Tradition settlements, with a shifting, abandoned no-man's land developing between the two areas and the people in the hinterlands withdrawing into more defensible settlements.

"We're trying to understand how these people were organized in relationship to one another. On Perry Mesa, they built small pueblos up to about 150 rooms so they could protect one another's back.

In the Payson area on the fringe of the Central Arizona Tradition area, people in this period also drew together.

That trend accelerated after about 1275, when the people in the central highlands built large, heavily populated settlements in easily defended places, most of them in positions where they could signal for help from more distant settlements.

Wilcox speculates that the long-running war had escalated, just as chronic, small-scale warfare in Europe festered for decades before yielding major conflicts. Now, it seemed that the people in the uplands had to build fortresses that could withstand raiding parties of perhaps 1,000 Hohokam warriors.

The scattered settlements in the Payson area apparently didn't have the population base to defend themselves, Wilcox speculates. In any case, as the highlands people in the Verde Valley and elsewhere built new, larger fortified settlements, they all but abandoned the Payson area. Moreover, everyone moved out of a 50-mile wide buffer zone between the Hohokam core area and the start of the highlands settlements at the same time people in what Wilcox dubs the Verde Confederacy moved to fortresses like Perry Mesa, protected from attack on most sides by 1,000-foot-tall cliffs.

This final phase of the hypothetical war lasted for perhaps 100 years, before the onset of a still hotly debated regional population collapse. By the time the first Spanish explorers arrived in the 1400s, most of the great cities that had persisted for 1,000 years throughout the southwest stood abandoned. Only a few settlements like the Zuni and Hopi mesas and the pueblos of New Mexico persisted. In the process, a regional population estimated at perhaps 200,000 shrunk to perhaps 60,000.

Wilcox suggests that a debilitating 200-year-long war between the Hohokam and their northern highlands neighbors could have played a key role in that eventual collapse.

So the next time the flatlanders storm the intersection of Highway 260 and the Beeline take heart: At least we have a good chance that history won't repeat itself.

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