Just 60 miles outside of Payson, the dozing ruins of Tonto National Monument have lately yielded fresh clues to an ancient mystery.
The 1,100-acre monument centered on two sets of well-preserved cliff dwellings have lately inspired new research, particularly in light of the discovery of 3,000- to 8,000-year-old spear points and other artifacts at a site overlooking Roosevelt Lake. Drawn by a spring that still lurks beneath the surface, ancient hunters regularly occupied the site over the course of millennia.
The discovery of the ancient site is just one of 75 known prehistoric sites in the monument, which draws between 60,000 and 80,000 visitors annually.
The discovery of campsites, going back perhaps 8,000 years, adds a whole new chapter to a monument created to protect several cliff dwellings laboriously built and mysteriously abandoned by a group dubbed the Salado, who occupied the Tonto Basin and the upper reaches of the Salt River between about A.D. 1100 and about A.D. 1450.
The Salt River's meandering course through the Tonto Basin formed the heartland of the Salado, who ultimately built great settlements every couple of miles along the river marked by walled compounds and giant platform mounds -- major dwellings built on top of handmade mounds.
The Salado occupied a vital crossroads and built sophisticated irrigation works to channel water from the drought and flood-prone Salt River onto fields planted with corn, beans, squash and cotton. They created intricate textiles and a distinctive type of pottery with a vivid abstract design that spread throughout the Southwest -- causing all sorts of subsequent headaches and puzzles for archaeologists.
The ruins yielded turquoise, bronze bells, parrot feathers, shells and other signs that the Salado participated in thriving trade networks that included the densely settled civilizations of Mexico, coastal California, New Mexico and Colorado. By the same token, the beautiful Salado pottery spread throughout the region. Usually, the pottery showed up in burials or other contexts in which it seemed to play a role in ceremonies. In one intriguing link, the massive settlement of Casas Grandes in northern Mexico included virtual warehouses of Salado pottery, suggesting that in that region the distinctive design might have become a hot trading item.
Archaeologists still fiercely debate whether the Salado just occupied the Tonto Basin and the associated highlands or whether they spread out as widely as their pottery. Some archaeologists argue that the Salado developed a distinct culture and religion at this crossroads between north and south, and then spawned a religious movement or cult that spread along with the distinctive pottery style.
After centuries of occupation along the river, the Salado began building impressive, but remote, cliff dwellings in the surrounding highlands -- including the two major sets of ruins protected by the monument.
No one knows for sure why the Salado went to the enormous effort of building these more easily defended cliff dwellings, only to abandon them after a few generations -- but similar shifts were taking place all across the Southwest at the same time.
Some archaeologists argue that the Salado faced attacks from neighboring groups or invaders. The Salado were probably founded originally by people moving into the area from the Hohokam heartland in the Phoenix area -- but archaeologists don't know whether the Salado eventually came into conflict with the Hohokam. They might have also clashed with the mountain people to the north, identified generally as the Mogollon.
The Mogollon generally occupied areas like Payson, taking advantage of the variety of recourses at different elevations.
Moreover, the Salado towns also incorporated many elements that link them to the complex civilizations to the north, the Ancestral Puebloean or Anasazi, who built the great stone fortresses like Mesa Verde in Colorado.
This blending of elements for the other civilizations, the long occupation and the complex relationship between the people living along the river and the people in the uplands, make the study of the Salado vital in understanding the larger trends in the Southwest, said Duane Hubbard, park archaeologist.
In addition, the ongoing studies in the monument connect directly to one of the most ambitious archaeological projects in history.
Most of the layered Salado ruins lay down along the river. The construction of Roosevelt Dam in 1906 to provide water and flood control for the Valley submerged most of those ruins. But a decade ago, in the process of raising the height of the dam to provide flood control and additional water storage, the water uses funded an unprecedented series of studies of the ruins along the river -- exposed when SRP lowered the lake level, first to work on the dam, then as a result of the drought.
Researchers gathered a massive amount of information on the settlement patterns, artifacts, farming, growth patterns and other aspects of the Salado civilization. The research raised fascinating new questions about the spread of Salado pottery and ideas and the relationship between the river people and the highlands people. For instance, a detailed analysis showed that the people living in the uplands at places like the monument were economically self-sufficient and not mere satellites of the irrigation-based towns of the core area.
Hubbard noted that the construction of the cliff dwellings in the monument coincided with a period in which people who had been living in smaller, scattered communities concentrated into a smaller number of large settlements. There, they built impressive houses and public spaces on top of giant platform mounts, suggesting either the development of an elite group that could command the labor of many people or perhaps the rise of a religion that would have the same effect.
The discovery that people were building the great towns along the river at the same time they were building virtual fortresses in the uplands remains intriguing and largely unexplained. Perhaps they were both reacting to external threats -- or perhaps drought or overuse of resources required larger and larger communal efforts to survive.
In any case, researchers based at the monument now face what amounts to a new golden age of research on the Salado. The monument will completely revamp its exhibits in the next year or two.
In addition, the monument has launched new research projects -- like using lasers to create a precise, three-dimensional computerized model of every room in the two ruins complexes, excavation of the stone age site, looking for clues to culture and connections with other groups in the details of the architecture and detailed studies of the more than 70 sites scattered throughout the monument.
"The timing is great for us," said Hubbard of the rush of new discoveries and the plan to revamp the exhibits and the visitors center. "What's great is that 100 years after preserving this area, we find ourselves able to study 10,000 years of human habitation."
To get there: Drive 17 miles south of Payson on Highway 87 to State Highway 188; turn left on 188 (southeast) and drive 39 miles to Tonto National Monument. The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Christmas Day. The Lower Cliff Dwelling trail closes to uphill travel at 4 p.m.