Desert Archaic Peoples

The Slow and Enduring Tranformation

Eight and a half thousand years ago in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, the time had come for change. A 2000-year period of Early american indianscool, wet weather was giving way to a time of heat and drought. Playa lakes, once filled by rainfall, had begun to evaporate. Lower elevation forests, previously nurtured by the rainfall, had begun a retreat into the mountains. Intermontane basin grasslands had begun to wither. Many large game animals had begun a migration to more favorable areas. Desert plants and animals, formerly confined to the arid southern reaches of Sonora and Chihuahua, had begun to advance northward into the drying basins.

The onset of a prolonged drought meant that the Paleo-Indians of the region had to redefine themselves, following a more diversified life based on desert hunting and gathering at the expense of ancient traditions rooted in wood- and grasslands big game hunting. They would make the change slowly, like the advance of a sand dune, which, at the insistence of prevailing winds, advances no more than a few feet in a century, but the Paleo-Indians had always made change slowly. More than a hundred generations of the big game hunters had lived and died since the last of the mammoths and mastodons had disappeared, at the end of the Ice Age.

Slow Change, Deep Roots

While a new life arrived gradually, it would take deep root, evolving into the culture which many archaeologists now call the Desert Archaic period. Over some six and a half millennia, the Desert Archaic peoples would have to adapt successively to the onset of a hot dry desert climate, the "Great Drought," which would last from about 8400 to 5000 years ago; the return of a cooler and moister climate, the "Sub-Boreal Period," which would last from 5000 to 2800 years ago; and, finally, the return of a desert climate, the "Sub-Atlantic Period," which would last – with some interruptions – from 2800 years ago into modern times. Ultimately, their adaptations, seasoned by influences from peoples far to the south, would become the foundation of the Pueblo cultures.

Cloudy Beginnings

Some archaeologists suspect that the Desert Archaic culture of the southwestern U. S. and northern Mexico could have originated in the deserts of southern California, southern Nevada and western Arizona, a region which has yielded some of the earliest evidence. If so, the Desert Archaic peoples would have spread new ideas and innovation eastward slowly, piecemeal and irregularly, gradually introducing change across Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas, southern Utah, southern Colorado, northern Sonora and northern Chihuahua. Over time, they left a ragged cultural mosaic, one now marked by large gaps in the archaeological record and by poorly understood regional similarities – and differences – in community relationships, band structures, technology, subsistence, outside influences and spiritual beliefs. Based on what they know so far, archaeologists can paint the Desert Archaic culture only with a broad brush.

Early american indians

Early Desert Archaic Peoples

During the first two millennia of the Great Drought, the early Desert Archaic peoples, like their Paleo-Indian predecessors, traveled in small mobile groups, probably extended families, in a ceaseless quest for food, materials, fuel and water. They carried their belonging on their backs, which prevented the accumulation of material wealth and, probably, the development of marked social status. They may have built rough brush or skin shelters at open campsites, perhaps sleeping on beds of grass. They lived in caves or rock shelters if available. They dressed in tanned deer, antelope and rabbit skins and woven yucca fibers. They likely moved in cadence with the seasons, returning in a circuit year after year to familiar areas to harvest ripening wild plants. It appears possible that they spent winters in lower elevations, near streams or playa lakes. They moved up the flanks of mountains during the spring and summer to gathering ripening plants and hunt deer. They traveled to higher elevations in the fall to collect berries, acorns and pinyon pine nuts, returning to the lower elevations, perhaps a winter base camp, with the onset of colder weather.

Early american indiansThe early Desert Archaic Peoples used suites of tools, or what the archaeologists call "tool kits," which reflected their increased reliance on wild plant collection and their diminished reliance on the hunt, although the relative importance of gathering and hunting varied from location to location and, probably, from year to year.

In gathering plant materials, the women used sharpened stone, bone or wooden tools to cut grasses, saw agave and yucca stalks, dig roots or collect prickly pear pads and roots. They probably used baskets to carry things such as seeds and acorns and pinyon pine nuts, and they used plant fiber string carrying loops to bind and haul stalks and roots from the harvest sites to camp. They used stone bowls or mortars and pounding or milling stones to grind the seeds, turning them into flour for cooking. They probably used, for instance, cobble hammers or, "hammerstones," to pound large hard seeds into coarse flour or to crack open the shells of nuts; a small milling stone to pulverize small hard seeds; and a pebble muller, or pestle, to grind softer seeds. They used sharp-edged stone tools and blades to chop stalks, strip fibrous material and slice prickly pear pads.

For hunting, the men continued, like their Paleo-Indian predecessors, to use spears ("darts," they are called by archaeologists) for killing the bigger game, now primarily mule deer, antelope or mountain sheep. They employed an atlatl, or "throwing stick," to hurl their spears with considerable propulsive force. They used plant fiber nets to snare smaller animals, especially blacktail jackrabbits and desert cottontails. They used rudimentary sharp-edged stone blades and tools to skin their kills, butcher the meat and flesh hides. They used heavy, sharp-edged chopping stones to separate bone.

Early american indiansIn camp, the women roasted plant foods and meats over open fires or in rock-lined pits. They wove agave or yucca fibers into baskets, nets, mats and sandals and tanned hides from the hunt. The men chiseled and ground spear points and tools from stone materials taken from nearby quarries, although their flint knapping skills seldom equaled those of the Paleo-Indian big game hunters who fashioned the exquisite Clovis and Folsum points thousands of years earlier. They used stone spokeshaves to finish spear shafts. They shaped bone and wood into tools and ornaments. Someone, possibly a shaman, may have sometimes ground colored minerals in a small stone palette, possibly for use in painting his body in preparation for a ceremony, perhaps a spiritual plea for rain, a ritual for a death, a thanksgiving for a birth, or a recognition of spring and renewal.

When the early Desert Archaic people left a campsite, they abandoned broken spear points and tools, stone-working detritus, fragmented bones and worn and discarded basketry and sandals. They cached heavy tools such as grinding stones, anticipating a return at the same season of the following year. These would become some of the evidence of their presence thousands of years later.

Middle Desert Archaic Peoples

Sometime during the latter part of the Great Drought, roughly 6000 years ago, the Desert Archaic people appear to have begun evolving in a profound new direction. We see in the meager archaeological record of their history the first whispers of village life in the deserts of the southwestern U. S. and northern Mexico. Based on limited research, archaeologists have found that early Middle Desert Archaic sites appear to be larger than the earlier sites, suggesting higher populations and increased duration. Researchers have discovered features which look as if they might be pithouses. More substantive and enduring than brush shelters, pithouses are small mud-plaster and brush structures built over a shallow scooped-out depression. Tools and utensils connected to gathering and hunting seem to be generally similar to those of earlier times, but the percentage related to harvesting and processing plants appears to have grown, at least in some areas. Campsite activities – cooking, weaving, tanning, flint knapping, tool and weapon making – appear to be similar to those of earlier times but more dedicated to the use of plant resources. A very few artifacts, for instance, a bone bead, whisper of an increasing interest in art.

About 5000 years ago, as the Great Drought finally melted into the moister and cooler Sub-Boreal Period, the Middle Desert Archaic people’s evolution toward true village life evidently accelerated, at least partially as a result of the introduction of a revolutionary new concept: agriculture. While the notion of growing corn, squash and other crops, introduced from civilizations in Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and Central America), grew in acceptance, the later Middle Desert Archaic people begin establishing pithouse villages. For example, somewhere between 4500 and 3500 years ago, a Middle Desert Archaic band built a village (the Keystone Dam site, where my wife worked occasionally with an archaeological team during the 1980’s) in what is now far west Texas. It consisted of pithouses, fire hearths and roasting pits grouped around an apparent plaza – a possible foreshadowing of Pueblo arrangements more than 1000 years into the future.

Early american indians womenAs villages took root, the Desert Archaic population increased, at least in some areas, possibly tripling that of earlier times. In a fundamental change, the people gave up the old notion of moving frequently in a hunting and foraging circuit regulated by the seasons. Instead they now dispatched parties to mountain flanks and valleys to bring game, plants and workable stone back to the village. Reluctant to give up traditional resources, they apparently counted relatively little on corn and squash for many centuries, planting the crops primarily as a backup or supplement should the game and wild plants fail.

More than ever, the Desert Archaic people prospered, especially as more favorable weather encouraged increased big game populations and richer wild plant growth. The people finally had enough food for them to cache surpluses in stone-covered pits as insurance against lean times. They opened trade routes which extended across the desert from the Pacific Coast eastward to New Mexico and, possibly, more than a 1000 miles southward, to Mesoamerica. Village activities evidently expanded. Workers dug wells, which permitted the trapping and improved management of scarce water supplies. Craftsmen manufactured bone and shell beads (including beads made of olivella shell, from the Pacific Coast). Artists, probably shamans, painted or chiseled symbols and figures on stone surfaces, perhaps creating symbolic entranceways into the spirit world.

Late Desert Archaic Peoples

As the Sub-Boreal Period dissolved into the hotter and drier Sub-Atlantic Period roughly 3000 years ago, the Late Desert Archaic peoples moved to consolidate changes set in motion by their predecessors 3000 years earlier. They built longer-lasting and, finally, year-round villages with more pithouses. With population continuing to increase, they occupied a greater diversity of ecological zones and exploited a wider range of resources, especially wild plants. They expanded their agricultural interests, introducing more productive strains of corn and a greater variety of crops (adding, for instance, pumpkins, beans and, perhaps, amaranth). They expanded their repertoire of tools and textiles devoted to wild and domesticated plant harvesting and processing. They constructed an increasing number of storage facilities. Although they maintained their hunting traditions and their spears and atlatls, they took fewer big game animals such as mule deer and antelope and more small animals, especially the jackrabbit. They seem to have strengthened contacts with neighboring bands, and they continued and perhaps even expanded trade.

With the emergence of sedentary villages, social classes, measured in terms of material wealth, may have developed. The Late Desert Archaic peoples honored some of the dead with grave goods (in one instance, a sash with beads) and others, with no grave goods whatever. With more opportunity and time for specialization, their shamans seem to have produced an larger number of images on stone, suggesting an increasing importance of the spiritual world.

Early american indians tools

By the beginning of the Christian era in the Middle East and southern Europe, the Desert Archaic peoples had essentially played out a role which lasted for more than six millennia (although some Desert Archaic populations would continue – with no agriculture – into historic times). They had made the long leap from big game hunter to village dweller, but they left an archaeological record cloaked in riddles, perhaps none greater than one surrounding the appearance, spread and development of corn in the southwestern U. S. and northern Mexico during Middle and Late Desert Archaic times.


South of Mexico City, in the valley of Tehuacan – the Place of the Gods or the Place of the Stones – the El Reigo (The Irrigation) people developed domesticated corn as well as squash, chili peppers and amaranth some 7000 years ago. This marked the beginning of agriculture in the Western Hemisphere. It became a watershed in American prehistory because, until that time, prehistoric cultures had survived by hunting and gathering for perhaps tens of thousands of years. It set the stage for profound change.

A millennium passed. Cultivated corn reached the Valley of Mexico, a few dozen miles from its origins. Another millennium passed. Corn reached the Sierra Madre of Tamaulipas, a few hundred miles north of its origins. Probably a few centuries later, it reached some unknown place in the deserts of northern Mexico and, possibly, the southwestern U. S. It followed an unknown route, carried by unknown messengers, brought for unknown reasons. Plausibly, it may have come up the western side of the Sierra Madre, through Sonora, into the Sonoran Desert region of southern Arizona. Alternatively, it could have come up along the eastern side of the Sierra Madre, through Chihuahua, funneled through mountain valleys into the Chihuahuan Desert extension into New Mexico. It may have followed both routes over time, being introduced again and again to the Middle Desert Archaic peoples before it became accepted. Sometime between 4600 and 3000 years ago, it spread across some parts of the deserts. At some unknown point, at some unknown place, an unknown people developed improved, more productive strains of corn. Some time near the end of the Late Desert Archaic phase, a combination of poorly understood conditions led some villages to adapt agriculture as a way of life. They bequeathed agriculture to their successors, who would elevate corn, their most important food source with all its mystery, to the heart of their economy, their spiritual life and their seasonal rituals.


"The Desert Archaic culture was surprisingly complex," I commented to Dave Kirkpatrick, a good friend and a Southwest archaeologist.

"That’s when cultural diversification began," he replied.

During their 6000 to 7000 year odyssey from nomadic big game hunter to sedentary villager and agriculturist, the peoples of the Desert Archaic period manufactured and used assemblages of artifacts which were similar in function but often different in detail and relative abundance. For instance, probably all the bands used grinding stones for milling, but the forms may have been different depending on traditions of the band, types of available rock materials, and the size and hardness of the wild or domesticated seeds. All used stone-point-tipped spears and the atlatl in big game hunts, but they often used different flint knapping techniques and manufactured different shaped point. Bands wove plant fibers into baskets, matting, nets, cordage and sandals, but they frequently used different weaving techniques and produced different styles. The relative abundance of artifact types differed depending on the band’s emphasis on gathering, hunting and agriculture.

Early american indians tools Meanwhile, different bands in different locations evolved culturally at different rates and, sometimes, in different directions and, sometimes, not at all. For instance, by the end of the Desert Archaic period, village peoples in southeastern Arizona had become full time agriculturists after a long period of development. Those of the Colorado Plateau became agriculturists relatively swiftly. Those of southern New Mexico seem to have always regarded agriculture as a supplement to gathering and hunting, never as a full time occupation. For poorly understood reasons, bands in the desert lands of California, Nevada and western Texas never adopted agriculture at all. Across the Desert Archaic region, bands began to express their spirituality through images on stone, but with different motifs and symbols (the topic of next month’s DesertUSA story on the Native American peoples of our western deserts).

As the Desert Archaic period drew to a close roughly one and a half to two millennia ago, the people had laid the foundation for new cultural developments which would eventually lead to the rise of the Pueblos of the southwestern U. S. and northern Mexico.

You can see exhibits of the Desert Archaic culture at numerous museums in cities across the Southwest, and you can see pithouse replicas at the Wilderness Park Museum in El Paso, Texas, the Farm and Ranch Museum in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and the Three Rivers rock art site south of Carrizozo, New Mexico.

You can learn more about the Desert Archaic culture in the Smithsonian’s Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 9; Gordon R. Willey’s An Introduction to American Archaeology, Volume I; in Richard S. MacNeish’s Excavation of Pintada Rockshelter on McGregor Firing Range in New Mexico and Preliminary Investigations of the Archaic in the Region of Las Cruces, New Mexico; and in Meliha S. Duran’s and Helen K. Crotty’s Three Rivers Petroglyph Site: Results of he ASNM Rock Art Recording Field School. All these books should be available in any university library.

Jay W. Sharp

All photos were taken at the Desert Indian Exhibits Wilderness Park Museum, El Paso, Texas.



"Paleo-Indians" (Part 1)
Desert Archaic peoples( Part 2) This Page
Desert Archaic peoples - Spritual Quest (Part 3)
Native Americans - The Formative Period (Part 4)
Voices from the South (Part 5)
The Mogollon Basin and Range Region (Part 6)
The Mogollon - Their Magic (Part7)
Hohokam the Farmers (Part 8)
The Hohokam Signature (Part 9 )
The Anasazi (Part 10)
The Anasazi 2 (Part 11)
The Great Puebloan Abandonments (Part 12)
Paquime (Part 13)
When The Spanish Came (Part 14)
Life on the Margin (Part 15)
Life on the Margin (2) (Part 16)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 1 (Part 17)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 2 (Part 18)
The Outside Raiders (Part 19)
The Enduring Mysteries (Part 20)
Some Sites to Visit (Final Part)


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