Ancient Women Fought Back

Women victimized by war may have become peacemakers



Photo courtesy Tonto National Monument

Photos courtesy Tonto National Monument Two new studies suggest that the Salado people who made a distinctive form of pottery may have started a religion of peacemakers that spread throughout the Southwest.

Victimized by generations of warfare, women who lived in Rim Country 700 years ago fought back by establishing a religion whose central theme may well have been — “blessed are the peacemakers.”

That’s the intriguing conclusion that emerges from two contrasting studies of the role of women in the Southwest in the 1200s and 1300s — with key elements of the studies centered on the Salado people who lived in Rim Country and left the ruins preserved at Tonto National Monument overlooking Roosevelt Lake.

The two separate studies offer a fascinating view of women as both victims of war and as peacemakers.

One study focuses on the long-debated implications of the spread of the distinctive Salado pottery style through the Southwest, perhaps with its origins among the peaceful farmers who lived along the Salt River. Most of their densely settled cities and irrigation works now lie beneath the waters of Roosevelt Lake.

That pottery style with motifs emphasizing fertility and cooperation spread to many different groups and shows up in the burials of both ordinary people and the elites, according to a study by University of Missouri researcher Todd VanPool published in Archaeology magazine.

The second study provided a disquieting echo of those findings. That study of burials in New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona concluded that cultures throughout the Southwest often mounted raids on one another and frequently kidnapped the women from neighboring groups. The study was published in Current Archaeology by Washington State University archaeologist Tim Kohler and U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Kathryn Kramer Turner

The researchers in that second study examined more than 1,300 human remains, mostly from burials in Mesa Verde in Colorado and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. The researchers found many injuries suggesting violent death and widespread warfare in the 1200s.

They discovered that the Mesa Verde burials had far fewer women than they should have and the Chaco Canyon burials had more women than they should have, given a normal 50/50 sex ratio.

Moreover, they found that many of the women in Chaco Canyon were buried carelessly and showed signs of abuse.


Photo courtesy Tonto National Monument

Two new studies suggest that the Salado people who built the ruins at Tonto National Monument may have started a religion of peacemakers that spread throughout the Southwest.

The researchers said the burials suggested that the powerful, highly centralized groups at Chaco Canyon and Aztec mounted frequent raids on Mesa Verde and other areas, often bringing back kidnapped women as prizes. The seemingly high death rate among young adults — especially men of fighting age — supported the idea that the imbalanced sex ratios arose as a result of warfare rather than migration.

If so, that period of raiding and warfare might have led naturally to the woman-dominated religion suggested by the study of the spread of Salado pottery.

Archaeologists have pondered the “Salado Problem” ever since they began to unearth the curiously widespread, beautifully decorated pottery starting in the 1930s — with the early discoveries of the pottery centered on the Tonto Basin.

The pottery showed up in a place of honor among the Hohokam, the Mogollon and the Ancestral Puebloan (or Anasazi) — the three major cultures in the Southwest between about 1100 and the mid-1400s. The Ancestral Puebloan built the great cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde and other sites throughout Northern Arizona and Colorado. The Hohokam built great irrigations works and great cities in Phoenix and Tucson. The Mogollon occupied Rim Country along the great crossroads of the trade routes from California to New Mexico.

Based on patterns among Native American groups like the Hopi, archaeologists have long believed that women in the ancient Southwest were the potters. Moreover, many Native American cultures like the Hopi, Navajo and Apache are matrilineal, which means that property and status were generally inherited through the female line.

Therefore, VanPool speculates that the spread of the Salado pottery to diverse cultures reflects the expansion of a set of ideals and religious beliefs espoused by women. That conclusion was buttressed by the frequent use of themes and images that seemed to stress cooperation, farming and fertility — rather than hunting and warfare, which were traditionally male spheres.

VanPool speculates that the spread of this cooperative, female-dominated religion associated with the Salado pottery came in response to nearly two centuries of escalating warfare in the region — the period that produced the violent deaths and unusual sex ratios documented in the earlier study of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.

The evidence for warfare, raiding and even cannibalism emerging from the study of burials throughout the region hints at a period of strife and conflict, which likely spawned the movement of refugees from one area to another. That could also account for some of the odd mixtures of social and religious traditions in that period. That mixture has long been particularly striking among the Mogollon who occupied Rim Country and the Payson area, since they lived on the borders between other, major cultures — like the Hohokam and the Ancestral Puebloan.

All of that underscores the perhaps crucial role played by the Salado, who built the great cliff houses of Tonto National Monument, overlooking Roosevelt Lake.

Several years ago when the Bureau of Reclamation lowered Roosevelt Lake while it worked to raise the height of Roosevelt Dam, archaeologists from Arizona State University undertook a major excavation of ruins on the shores of the lake. They found a dense network of huge villages, each with miles of irrigation canals to divert water from the fitful, flood-prone Salt River. Those ruins had a fascinating mix of influences, including the great platform mounds, ball courts, temples aligned with the sun and turquoise, copper bells, shell jewelry and parrot feathers attesting to intimate connections with cultures throughout the western U.S. and down into Mexico.


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