Oddities 12: Payson’s
strange first residents
Anyone living in the area soon realizes they are not the first to live there. Pottery shards, ruins, petroglyphs, and more are everywhere.
Preceding the hunter-gatherers, like Apaches, this place was home to others — some strange. Many even left their bones, like the ones that surfaced during the development of Green Valley Park.
They were the bones of two pre-Columbian dwellers. According to then public works director Buzz Walker the incident was kept quiet for fear the public would begin digging for more bones. In February 1996 a utility crew digging a conduit trench on Main Street unearthed a prehistoric man and pottery. In accordance with regulations, the state sent an anthropologist to inspect the bones and authorize reburial.
Many unearthed burials in the area reveal a people that fit the category of “Rim Country oddities.” The skeletal remains are related to an archaic race that lived here from 4,000 to 1,500 B.C. A protrusion on the back of the head called an “occipital bun” identified them. The extension of the skull ranged from baseball- to softball-size and was located about where a hair bun would be. Thus archaeologists nicknamed them “Bun Heads.”
They are not related genetically to any of the other indigenous groups that surround the Rim Country. To add to the mystery, this occipital bun is also found on the skeletal remains of Neanderthals of Europe. Payson was a busy trading center, located at the junction of many routes. However drought and overpopulation ended the era of the Bun Heads. Charles Redman in People of the Tonto Rim writes, “Our own excavations and archaeological surveys, as well as those by others, indicate that by 1,300 A.D., and probably a bit earlier, the Payson region had been depopulated.”
This was just in time for the Athabaskan migrants to move in from the north around A.D. 1,500 and become a new wave of people called Navajo and Apache.
Burials of these earliest Rim Country residents seem to be centered around the Payson area and have been found in many places like the Risser and Shoofly ruins. But none was more surprising than the bones found in the Julia Randall School. As it turned out, those bones were placed at the school as a prank.
The prank was interrupted when some teachers discovered it, but the bones remained there until a plumber discovered them in 2003. They were sent out to be analyzed and the report came back that, sure enough these were prehistoric bones from, one of the legendary Bun Heads.
So it is we walk lightly on this land that has been hallowed by so many before us, not the least of whom was a race of odd people, the Bun Head natives. We are grateful they left their bones behind and some artifacts so we could learn about another Rim Country oddity.
Next — Legends: Rim Country Schools