Log in / Register
Home arrow Health arrow Bodies and Lives in Ancient America: Health Before Columbus

Pueblo Southwest


With thousands of years of continuous living in the Southwest, the Pueblo groups offer insight into survival and adaption through periods of climate change and cultural upheaval. An impressive wealth of data exists for many aspects of Pueblo early history; thousands of archaeological sites have been excavated, and the reconstruction of environment, climate, culture, trade networks, population movement, settlement patterns, housing, subsistence activities, and other facets of life exists in the published literature (Cordell and McBrinn 2012). The Southwest provides an unusually rich database for exploring relationships among availability of resources, resource allocation, alliance formation, risk sharing, population density, settlement, and other variables likely to have a role in health and well-being.

The feature of the Pueblo Southwest that stands out most from other regions in the U.S. is that the people were largely desert farmers (Figure 5.3) . Agriculture was adopted in some form or another by the Pueblo I period (around ad 900) and the people continued to utilize maize agriculture as a primary mode of subsistence up to the time of contact with the Spanish colonists in the 1500s (Cordell and McBrinn 2012). The marginal and unpredictable nature of the local environments in the Southwest played an important role in shaping subsistence economies. Nelson and colleagues (2012) present an excellent overview of why this is such an important area to study in terms of what can be learned regarding the lives and lifestyles of farmers in already marginalized areas for agriculture.

In reconstructing health for the adults living in the Southwest, it is clear that many of the health problems facing people worldwide today were endemic and vexing difficulties for those in the past as well. As example, iron deficiency anemia was ubiquitous among adults (and infants and children too as discussed in Chapters 2 and 3). Anemia was a constant throughout the occupation of the Southwest (Walker 1985) and remains a health problem in more contemporary times (Story et al. 2000). Tuberculosis has been demonstrated to exist in a number of Southwestern

Dry farming in the Arizona desert

FIGURE 5.3 Dry farming in the Arizona desert. “Corn Field, Indian Farm near Tuba City, Arizona, in Rain, 1941.” Photo by Ansel Adams, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 1941, via Wikimedia Commons.

skeletal series such as San Cristobal (Stodder 2012), and it and other infectious diseases are a recurrent and growing problem today (Asturias et al. 2000: 351). Marden and Ortner (2011) reported on a case of treponematosis (a form of nonvenereal syphilis) for the ancient community living in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Nutritional anemia is found in adults across the Southwest from the earliest periods. For example, at Canyon de Chelly, 88% of the individuals (this includes children and adults) show involvement (Walker 1985). The underlying cause of nutritional anemia is not attributed only to the consumption of iron-poor maize. Walker (1985) argued that iron-deficiency anemia is the end result of a complex interaction between factors such as food intake, metabolism, malnutrition, and infectious disease. Thus, these lesions signal problems with consumption and/or utilization of certain nutrients, but does not provide information directly on the source of the problem. Walker (1985: 153) concludes that “[t]he remarkable prevalence of osseous lesions indicative of anemia among prehistoric Southwest Indians apparently resulted from the interaction of a complex set of biological and cultural variables relating to nutrition and infectious disease. Lack of iron in the diet, prolonged breast feeding, diarrheal and helminth infections, and living conditions conducive to the spread of disease all appear to have contributed to the prevalence of (anemia).”

Health problems for adults seemed to have worsened when compared from the Pueblo I period (ad 900) through to Pueblo III (ad 1350). Stodder (2012) presents a summary of disease in the ancient Southwest and provides a review of patterns of mortality, growth disruption, nutritional problems, and other indicators of morbidity. Tying this into climatic, ecological, nutritional, and political changes occurring at the end of the later period, Stodder’s interpretation is one that suggests that community health became increasingly compromised over time.

Akins (1986) and Harrod (2012) present a paleopathological analysis of the Chaco Canyon human remains. Although Chaco Canyon could have supported thousands of individuals, only several hundred burials have been excavated. Both Akins and Harrod were interested in delineating differences in health for high-status (Pueblo Bonito) and low-status (small site) individuals. According to Akins, Chaco Canyon inhabitants suffered from what she terms “subsistence stress” as indicated by growth disruption, high rates of nutritional anemia, and degenerative diseases (1986: 135). Akins further reports that for individuals from high-status burials it is likely that authority-holding elites had greater access to nutritional resources and enjoyed better health (1986: 137—140). Although there is some indication of better health, both groups experienced considerable degenerative diseases throughout adulthood.

In addition to studies on the Chaco Canyon burials, human skeletal remains from the Kayenta region of northeastern Arizona were examined. Wade (1970) analyzed 165 burials showing that for adults, health in general was poor, with a slight trend toward increased stress in the later periods. For Black Mesa, the paleopathology of adults showed similar trends, with cases of infection, anemia, growth disruptions, and degenerative osteoarthritic disease that were persistent throughout the occupation of the mesa (Martin et al. 1991).

In terms of dental disease, the frequency for caries at Grasshopper approaches 20% (Fenton 1998: 109). These data are in line with earlier sites such as Black Mesa (26%), Navajo Reservoir (15%), and Salmon Ruin (20%) (Martin et al. 1991). Dental health, represented by the percentage of individuals in each assemblage with one or more carious teeth, was poor in Southwestern populations. However, the rate of caries actually declines with increasing cohort age in most dental assemblages from the region, because high rates of occlusal wear and attrition and frequent antemortem tooth loss overtake the rate of caries formation. This is exemplified by the contrast between the Dolores sample, which has a preponderance of young adults and a 71% caries prevalence, and the Black Mesa population which has an equal imbalance in the opposite direction — more older individuals and a much lower caries rate (Martin et al. 1991).

Pueblo groups in the northern Four Corners region, living in densely population cliff shelters at Mesa Verde, created an environment highly conducive to the spread of contagious diseases such as respiratory illness and dysentery (Kunitz 1970). Sed- entism associated with agriculture also brings populations in close contact with their wastes. Often disposal of excrement in or near the source of potable water increases the potential for contamination. Studies of coprolites from these settlements reveal at least eight species of helminthic parasites (Reinhard 1988). In the ancient Southwest, rabbits and coyotes likely carried tick-borne fevers, Q-fever, rabies, tularemia, Giardia, and sylvatic plague (Schlossberg 2001). Van Blerkom (1997) provides an inclusive list of viruses thought to have been present in the Southwest prior to contact, and these include staphylococcal and streptococcal viruses, some forms of herpes and hepatitis, poliomyelitis, pertussis, and rhinoviruses.

The health of ancestral Pueblo adults thus varied in time and space, as did the nature of their communities and settlement patterns. Based on paleoepidemio- logical data, the health trends in Southwestern populations may be summarized in the following ways. Ubiquitous nutritional and health challenges led to growth disruptions, anemia, and infectious disease. In the later, larger pueblos endemic diseases including treponematosis and tuberculosis were increasingly common, possibly reaching epidemic proportions in some precontact settlements experiencing significant disruption.


Injury and trauma on individual skeletal remains has been noted in the literature as well suggesting that along with health problems involving anemia and infections, violence was a fact of life throughout the Pueblo I through III periods (ad 900—1350). There is an abundance of bioarchaeological evidence from large and small sites for low-level warfare combined with other forms of ritualized violence such as dismemberments and massacres that may have been enacted to support a stratified social order. Disarticulated, unburied, cut, and burned human bones are linked to group executions, mutilation of bodies (men, women, and children), and cannibalism (Turner and Turner 1999).

While there are some criticisms of some of the interpretations and differences of opinion about the meaning of all of the violence discussed for the ancient Southwest, there is a great deal of evidence for violence (Dongoske et al. 2000). In general, most scholars agree that increasingly impoverished environmental conditions in the 12th and 13th centuries served as a stimulus for a range of manifestations of violence (Harrod and Martin 2014). There is archaeological evidence for fortified sites, palisades, defensive architecture, aggregation of communities, and structures such as watchtowers (LeBlanc 2000). Warfare (which in the ancestral Pueblo literature is described as raiding, ambush, intercommunity violence, and intra-ethnic or tribal clashes) and fear of attack are provided as the most likely reasons for the defensive architecture used in the periods leading up to the 10th century (LeBlanc 1999: 119).

The osteological record supports large-scale village massacres in places such as Castle Rock (Kuckelman et al. 2002), Cowboy Wash (Billman et al. 2000), and Sacred Ridge (Stodder et al. 2010). However, the assemblages and burials found at these sites are not comprised of simply dead bodies struck down while fighting. There is a remarkable range of variability in the kinds of corpse treatment (by both the perpetrators of the attack and possibly returning survivors), rituals for burial of the dead that are unique to this period, and cases of violent deaths. In addition, there is skeletal evidence documenting victims of violent interactions who escaped death. Healed (nonlethal) traumatic injuries and head wounds are present at many sites as well. Stodder (1989: 187) compiled a frequency chart for a number of Southwestern groups, and she documents relatively high rates of cranial injury. For the Transwestern Pipeline series (ca. ad 1200), Hermann (1993) notes that several adult females had cranial depression fractures as well as a number of lower- body healed fractures. At Carter Ranch (ad 1200) Danforth and colleagues (1994) summarize trauma for the following individuals, although sex was not specified. One-quarter of 24 adults had healed fractures. There are two nasal fractures, one associated with a broken jaw and the other with a broken humerus; two radius fractures; a clavicular fracture; and a femur fracture. The fractures are interpreted to have resulted from blows to the body (Danforth et al. 1994: 96).

A number of prehistoric human skeletal assemblages exhibit signs of dismemberment and disarticulation, perimortem damage, and thermal alteration (Figure 5.4). These assemblages (which include children and adults, males and females) have been variously interpreted to represent acts of cannibalism (Turner and Turner 1999; White 1992), witchcraft killings (Darling 1999), warfare (LeBlanc 1999), ritualized dismemberment (Ogilvie and Hilton 1993), and political massacres used to increase social control (Osterholtz 2013). Allen and colleagues (1985) analyzed ten cases of scalping at Navakwewtaqa (ad 1200—1300) and Grasshopper Ruin (ad 1300). Some of the individuals who had been scalped showed depression fractures as well. For example, at Navakwewtaqa, there were four males ranging in age from 25 to 40 who were scalped, and three females ranging in ages from 25 to 35. One female had a depression fracture on the left frontal, and one had an ovoid shaped hole on the left parietal, suggesting penetration by a weapon and the

Cut marks consistent with scalping from the site of Sacred Ridge on the right temple area. Photo by Anna J. Osterholtz

FIGURE 5.4 Cut marks consistent with scalping from the site of Sacred Ridge on the right temple area. Photo by Anna J. Osterholtz.

probable cause of death. At Grasshopper, two males were scalped, and one young female aged 15 exhibited a depression fracture. Most of these individuals were buried with many grave goods such as bowls, beads, awls, and crystals. The authors suggest that this “indicates that it was members of these two communities themselves who were the victims of the practice [scalping]” (Allen et al. 1985: 30).

For Pueblo groups living in northern New Mexico (ca. ad 1200), a detailed study was conducted for a sample of 66 individuals (Martin et al. 2001). In terms of violence-related injuries, young children were free of fractures and trauma. Three young adult males had healed cranial depression fractures (all slight in expression), and three older males had postcranial fractures (a healed broken rib, a healed broken finger, and a healed broken wrist). Six females had healed cranial depression fractures that ranged from moderate to very severe in expression. The ages of the women ranged from 20 to 38 (peak reproductive years). Three of the women had multiple head wounds, and in four women with head wounds, there were also traumatic lesions on the body as well (healed fractured ribs, shoulder, vertebrae, and hip). Compared to the males, the inventory of healed fractures for women is longer and more extensive and involves multiple wounds for several of the women. These women clearly formed a subgroup of victims of violence and may represent captives abducted from neighboring villages (Martin et al. 2010). The evidence for severe and multiple trauma on women suggest strongly that in addition to warfare, other forms of violence were also being practiced.

Although it shows up in different forms and different times in different places, it was a ubiquitous and persistent part of daily life. Massacres, dismemberments, burning, possible cannibalism, scalping, intentional injury, and limited hand-to- hand combat have all been documented, and these cases of violence represent relatively large-scale and integrated systems of political and cultural dynamics involving things such as oppression, coercion, and conflict resolution (Martin et al. 2010). It is possible that to maintain unanimity and harmony across diverse (economically, linguistically, and ideologically) Pueblo communities, violence in culturally specific forms may have been necessary. There have been so many publications about violence in the ancient Southwest that it is not possible to report on every piece of evidence, but much of the variability and kinds of data available are compiled in the edited volume by Nichols and Crown (2008).

The indigenous peoples of the Southwest have always been in a state of growth, adaptation, migration, decline, and movement. The themes of resilience, flexibility, movement, and hardship tempered with respect for the power of nature and climatic events in their everyday lives are strongly entwined in their oral narratives (Echo-Hawk 2000). Hotez (2008) suggests that this region of the U.S. has long been a challenging and difficult place to live even today.

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >
Business & Finance
Computer Science
Language & Literature
Political science