Southwest: Arid Environment and Subsistence Practices
In the last couple of posts I’ve focused on the Southeast so for the next couple of posts I’m going to focus on the area to the west of this region. This new culture area is the Southwest which is the area that is bordered by the Colorado, Gila and San Juan Rivers on its west and the Rio Grande River and the western plains to the east. The suggested border was put in place to the south was the border of Mexico. This border was almost an artificial one since archaeologists and historians alike see similarities in the Southwestern Indians and the Northern Mexican Indian tribes (Rochete 2010).
Now many of you when you think of the Southwest probably think of the Pueblos with their villages on the side of cliffs and their farming ways. Where the Pueblos do make up a large part of the Southwest there are also 5 other tribes including the Mogollon, the Anasazi (which in Navajo means the “ancient alien ones” or the “enemies of our ancestors”), the Hohokam, the Patayan and the newest members the Athabaskan speakers of the north. Currently in this region we have survivors from the Anasazi and Mogollon tribes which make up the people of the Western Pueblos which include the Hopi, Zuni and Acoma (Rochete 2010).
Another thing that probably springs to mind is the environment and climate of this region. It is mostly deserts in the area with extreme temperatures, precipitation and topography. The extremes are either bitterly cold or sweltering heat as well as dramatic elevations such as high mountains dropping down into low valleys. Along with this we also see that this is a very arid area, though even more so now than in prehistoric times do to overgrazing of livestock.
Even though it is arid this area does see rainfall sometimes but it is very random and unpredictable. For example it might be pouring down rain in one area but then a couple of miles away it’s sunny and dry. A lot of this has to do with the elevation spikes that sometimes allow clouds to drop rains at higher elevations but not at the lower ones (Rochete 2010).
When storms do come to this region they are usually severe and have high winds and hail. Either way there is either a lot of precipitation or very little precipitation being given to these regions. There is not much balance. Many times these areas will experience droughts which can last for a long period of times; in some regions can last years (Rochete 2010).
One would think because of this that the area would be inhabitable for these tribes for lack of vegetation. Actually the opposite is true. The tribes in this area are very good at lasting through long droughts with food sources. The pueblo Indians were known for farming in this harsh terrain.
Another thing that is synonymous with the Southwest is also the farming of corn especially among the Anasazi and the Pueblos. What is interesting though is that corn started be grown in the region around 1000 BC but wasn’t used readily until awhile after that. The reason for this? Lysine. Lysine is an amino acid that is essential in digestion and it is an amino acid that corn lacks. Corn then would cause indigestion, canker sores and many other more serious problems among its consumers (Rochete 2010).
The crop that was rich is Lysine was beans. Because of this beans became a stable part of the diet even once they were introduced in the last few centuries BC. Before beans the most important subsistence practice was the eating of meat. Meat was the only source of protein they had before beans were introduced and not only that but it also was a source of salt. Salt became a very important part of the diet of this region since without it blood can’t be circulated well and one can also become dehydrated (Rochete 2010).
Since salt was acquired by animals licking minerals and absorbing into their systems which then was consumed by the tribes. The problem then arose when it came to the migratory patterns of these animals such as deer. They’re seasonal migratory animals meaning that the Indians had a decision to make at times when it came to either hunting or farming. There were other ways though to get the salt that the Indians needed to survive. They could process salt from the mineral springs that these animals were getting it from (Rochete 2010).
With the advent of beans and the processing of minerals to get salt one would think that hunting wouldn’t be necessary anymore but hunting still remained a part of the culture. It is easy to see then why it took so long for corn to become a staple in the society since there were other means of getting nutrition in the area. Another main reason though has to do with the riskiness of trying to plant the corn and grow it in the environment of the Southwest. Though it took a couple hundred years, the corn crops genetically evolved and became very abundant in the desert environment. Then because of this abundance corn became a reliable crop to the region and then became the staple for the area (Rochete 2010).
2010. Anth 146 Lecture for October 14, 2010.
The Pennsylvania State University.
Photo Courtesy of http://www.daveandangela.us