Mar 212012

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service -- Petrified Forest expansion lands, acquired from the Bureau of Land Management and private landowners, provide an unexplored landscape that Park Archeologist Bill Reitze expects to reveal significant evidence of past human habitation.

By Teri Walker —

As the last Ice Age was drawing to an end, the earliest local human inhabitants scientists know of were roaming northeastern Arizona, hunting mammoths and bison in the area now known as Petrified Forest Na-tional Park.

Evidence of these peoples who lived 13,000 years ago is still found here, and new discoveries continue to fill the gaps of understanding of how these ancient people once lived and moved across the high desert.

It is the stories of these people, and all of those who have ranged across this rugged landscape since, that are being explored during Arizona Archeology Month, and there are still opportunities for area residents and visitors to hear them.

Petrified Forest is hosting a number of events during the month of March to commemorate Arizona Ar-cheology Month and the wealth of knowledge that has emerged ever since researchers and scientists began studying the unique environs of the area.

Guided tours to areas not usually open to visitors, children’s hands-on activities and lectures are being used to share the understanding gleaned about the many different people who have inhabited this region for the past 13,000 years.

“The Petrified Forest, and this area in general, was a major crossroads, where people came through north-ern Arizona,” explains Park Archeologist Bill Reitze. “We’ve found potteries from Flagstaff, Show Low and New Mexico here, showing a lot of people moved through this area and traded among themselves.”

Archeologists over the years have been able to piece together a picture of an evolving habitation of the region. The end of the Ice Age nomads were hunter-gatherers who stalked large herd animals across large expanses of land.

“We don’t have the skeletons of the mammoths, but we have evidence of the technology–the spear points and other weapons they used to hunt these large creatures,” said Reitze.

The era of these early hunter-gatherers, termed Paleo People, lasted from 13,500 to 8000 B.C., when a transition occurred to the Archaic Culture, which lasted until 500 B.C.

Park scientists say by about 4000 B.C., the climate in the region had settled into a semblance of what is experienced today. The huge ranging beasts of the post-Ice Age were extinct, so the people who lived here had to expand their food sources. They began relying more on the plants in the region and smaller game ani-mals, such as rabbit and deer. The use of these food sources, Reitze says, set the stage for the beginning of the Basketmaker period.

As the name implies, people during the Basketmaker period became more sedentary, not roaming such broad expanses following large herds. The people of this time began focusing on growing their own food and building stone-lined pit houses. They began staying put and making baskets. As the era, which is dated from 500 B.C. to 650 A.D., progressed, the first potteries were developed.

“These people would dig shallow pits a foot or two deep, in the sandy soil and line the pits with sandstone slabs, then they would build the pit house of brush, wood and mud.

“They made the houses just large enough to get out of the weather and would dig storage pits outside, which they would line with clay and top with a special cap,” said Reitze.

It was during this time that the people learned to cultivate the land, growing corn, squash and eventually beans.

Over the years, pottery ware, bits of charred corn and bones of small animals have been discovered in the pit houses in the Petrified Forest, giving evidence of the change in lifestyle of these early people.

At the end of the Basketmaker period, Reitze said, the people began making ceramic pots.

“Some of the earliest ceramic pots in northern Arizona came from here,” he noted.

The pots were basic, using clays from the river valley with perhaps some material coming from surround-ing badlands.

Coils of clay were layered upon one another and pinched together to seal them before firing.

“Early on, the pots were left plain, but later they began decorating them,” said Reitze.

“The technologies were saving them time,” said Reitze. “If you can store more of your food and keep the mice away, then you don’t have to spend as much time hunting and growing it. You have more time to deco-rate a pot.”

The Basketmaker period eventually gave way to the ages of the Pueblo People, which led eventually, some believe, to the Native American tribes of the area today.

“The Native American groups, our neighbors, all have different claims on how they’re related. There is certainly a lot of evidence that suggest the Native American groups are related to these earlier people,” said Reitze.

Some of that evidence, he says, includes the language, ceramics, oral histories and oral traditions, and how villages are set up.

Reitze is careful to point out that not everyone agrees that the lineage of ancient inhabitants can be traced directly to today’s Native American tribes.

During the periods of the Pueblo People, technologies continued to increase, farming and housing became more sophisticated, and larger communities were established. The potteries became more elaborate. Tools became finer, less crude.

The national park is replete with evidence of the progression toward established communities, and with relics of more recent pioneers and homesteaders, which are also an important part of the area’s history. All of the evidence of human history in the park provides useful understanding of the evolution of civilizations for today.

That understanding, Reitze says, is relevant to people today.

“This is the history of our country, this is our heritage. And it’s where we can see it,” said Reitze.

“It’s especially relevant in Arizona, where so many people are direct descendents of these early people. We have the opportunity to learn how people have dealt with changes in climate. What did people do when it got dry? When there was a good year? How did they live in villages? How did they deal with their neighbors? We still have to deal with our neighbors. What can we learn from them? A lot of archeology studies is striv-ing to understand day-to-day life,” said Reitze.

Continuing to gather an understanding of the peoples of this region is Reitze’s aim. He has been with the park for nine months, and anticipates continuing to focus on discovering more artifacts of the past and inter-preting them.

With the privately owned Hatch Ranch and Bureau of Land Management parcels the park recently ac-quired, which provide thousands of acres of fresh exploration, Reitze believes there are many more stories that will be unearthed at Petrified Forest National Park.

For now, people can visit the Petrified Forest for the remainder of Arizona Archeology Month, and be-yond, to learn what has already been discovered.

For a list of Archeology Month events, for children to adults, call (928) 524-9228 or visit