The River and Delta Yumans

From about A. D. 700 to 1550, the River and Delta Yuman people – often called the Patayan – occupied the western sector of the Sonoran Desert, that fearsomely hot and dry region where the Colorado River divides western Arizona from southeastern California and southern Nevada. The geography comprises wide and sandy valleys and small, stark mountain ranges. The 1000-square-mile primal landscape called the Pinacate volcanic field, on the border between southwestern Arizona and Mexico’s northwestern Sonora, punctuates the harshness of the land. Summer daytime air temperatures soar to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Soil surface temperatures approach 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Annual rainfall averages less than three inches. Rainfall fails completely in some areas during the driest years. Drought-tolerant plants such as creosote, white bursage and a few cacti and shrubs grow in widely dispersed stands. In contrast to the surrounding desert, the Colorado River (like Egypt’s Nile River) once inundated its flood plains annually, leaving behind fertile deposits of silt.

The Patayan, who lived in small, highly mobile and loose-knit bands, left a confusing and ephemeral archaeological record. They likely wound some threads from the Mogollon, Hohokam and Anasazi traditions into their cultural skein. They raised corn, beans and squash in the river’s silt deposits, depending on the annual inundation rather than irrigation to nourish their crops. More than their cultural kin, they continued to rely heavily on the ancient traditions of hunting wild game and gathering wild plants (especially mesquite beans) to supplement their agricultural production. They moved frequently in response to the seasons of inundation, planting, harvesting and hunting, often seeing the flood plain campsites of one year swamped by the river during the following year. They lived in temporary hamlets, or "rancherias," which comprise settlements of widely separated lodges. "Rectangular earth lodges with lateral entryways, masonry surface structures with small rectangular rooms, and deep pithouses lined with timber all were reported," Linda Cordell says in Archaeology of the Southwest. The Patayan people stored and protected food in sealed vessels, pounded their grains to flour in mortars and pestles, and cooked in stone-lined roasting pits. They fashioned their ceramics with paddles and anvils, producing undecorated pieces in the early centuries and red-painted wares in the later centuries.

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Presumably it was the Patayan who produced the astonishing "intaglios," or "geoglyphs" – monumental landscape art consisting of images such as human figures, mountain lions and geometric shapes – which occur along the river basin from Blythe, California, and Ehrenberg, Arizona, upstream to southern Nevada. In creating an intaglio, the Patayan landscape artists used the surface of the earth itself as a canvas. They scraped away a thin blanket of dark soil to reveal an underlying layer of lighter soil, and they shaped the scraping into a form which typically measured more than 30 feet in length. They produced at least one which measured nearly 300 feet. These are now the most famous such figures in North America.

The Patayan contributed genes and cultural traditions to the rise of the historic Yuma – or, Quechan – and Mojave peoples, who occupied the lower Colorado River basin when the Spanish arrived in 1602. Like their ancestors, the Quechan and Mojave Indians farmed the river’s silt deposits, raising corn, beans, squash and other crops. They hunted wild game. They hooked or trapped fish. They harvested wild plants, especially mesquite beans. They lived in settlements of several hundred people, who occupied dome-shaped brush huts. Warlike, the Quechan and Mojave peoples fought for territory, trade routes, captives and spiritual fulfillment. Late in the 20th century, about 2500 Quechan people lived on the Fort Yuma-Quechan Reservation, which lies along both sides of the Colorado River immediately north of Yuma, Arizona. Descendents of the Mojave people lived on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, which straddles the stream north of Blythe, and on the Fort Mohave Indian Reservation, which extends into Arizona, California and Nevada near Needles.

The Upland Yumans

The Upland Yumans occupied a range which extended from the Grand Canyon and its deeply dissected tributaries in the western Colorado Plateau, to the Colorado River basin in the eastern Mojave Desert. Weather at the higher elevations ranges from moderate in the summer to severe and snowy in the winter, with about 15 inches of precipitation falling in an average year. Summer daytime air temperatures on the floor of Grand Canyon often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with only about eight inches of rainfall in an average year. Weather in the river basin downstream from Grand Canyon varies from hot and windy in the summer to mild in the winter, with annual precipitation averaging five to seven inches and falling mostly in January through March. Ponderosa and pinyon/juniper forests grow at the higher elevations of the Colorado Plateau, and rolling grasslands and desert scrub and yuccas dominate in the desert basin.

To an even greater extent than the River and Delta Yumans, the Upland Yumans relied on hunting game, including deer, bighorn sheep and smaller animals, and on gathering wild plants, especially yucca. Some raised corn, beans and squash in garden plots beside canyon streams during the summer then killed game and harvested wild food plants on the canyon rims during the other seasons. According to Kenneth M. Stewart in his paper, "Yumans: Introduction," in Handbook of North American Indians: Southwest, Volume 10, "The Upland Yumans lived in dome-shaped shelters thatched with grass, they dressed in buckskin, and they wove basketry as their principal craft."

The Upland Yumans comprised several sub-groups, including: the Havasupai ("those of the blue-green water"), who raised irrigated garden crops in Havasu Canyon, a tributary to Grand Canyon, in the summer and hunted and gathered in the plateaus during the fall, winter and spring; the Hualapai ("those of the tall pines"), who planted small occasional gardens and hunted game animals and gathered wild plants in the arid region to the south and west of the Havasupai; and the Yavapai, who – like their Archaic predecessors thousands of years earlier – relied primarily on hunting and gathering in the region south of the Havasupai and the Hualapai. Today, the Havasupai and Hualapai live on reservations within their ancestral ranges, along the south rim of Grand Canyon. The Yavapai live on reservations within or immediately south of their original range.

J.W. Sharp

Native American Desert Peoples Index
Prehistoric Desert Peoples Index



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