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Hueco Tanks Village: A Culture in Transition

A hunter carrying freshly killed rabbits walks through a small plot of corn. Even as Jornada Mogollon villagers increased their dependency on corn and other crops, hunting animals and gathering wild plants still played an important role in subsistence strategies during the Transitional Doña Ana and later Formative times. Detail from painting of Firecracker Pueblo by George Nelson, courtesy of Institute for Texan Cultures.
photo of the area where the pithouse village was excavated at Hueco Tanks
Area where the pithouse village was excavated at Hueco Tanks. Villagers chose a location at the basin margin, close to water and the moisture-retentive alluvial soil that was particularly well suited for farming. Photo by Darrell Creel. TARL Archives.
Rooted in the past, but adapting to needs of the present, Hueco Tanks village was a culture in transition, part of a larger dynamic of changes taking place across the Hueco Bolson and throughout the region between roughly A.D. 1000-1300.
map of Mimbres soils, which have higher moisture retention properties
Villagers likely grew their crops in flat areas where Mimbres soils have accumulated. These soils, highlighted in yellow, have higher moisture retention properties. Map adapted from Kegley 1982.
photo of a basin metate, a deep stone used for grinding
A basin metate, a deep stone used for grinding, was recovered in one of the houses during excavations at the Hueco Tanks village. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Sometime between A.D. 1075-1150, people of the Jornada Mogollon culture erected a village of semi-subterranean houses at the edge of a protected, bowl-like enclosure formed by three rocky hills at Hueco Tanks. The location was well chosen: the community was close to a good supply of water both from the tanks as well as seasonal runoff flaring down from the rock pediments and ponding into cienegas, or marshes. The soils that accumulated in that locale tended to hold moisture for longer periods of time and had somewhat greater fertility. It was an ideal place to try farming.

Here the Hueco Tanks villagers grew small fields of corn and beans but also practiced more traditional means of obtaining food—hunting animals and gathering wild plants. Village hunters used a relatively new hunting technology, the bow and arrow, and made small triangular chipped-stone points to tip their weapons. Maintaining earlier traditions, they may also have used darts with heavier chipped stone points as projectiles. The community plant gatherers—likely women aided by children—used heavy grinding stones to process plants, both domestic and wild.

In the village, artisans used local clays to make traditional pottery vessels as well as a new type of decorated polychrome. More elaborate pottery with intricate designs was brought to the village from other areas farther afield. Near the village, the rocky hills and their deep shelters and crevices were adorned with paintings and special symbols, perhaps signifying affiliations within a much larger cultural network stretching northward into present-day New Mexico and southward into old Mexico. Rooted in the past, but adapting to the needs of the present, Hueco Tanks village was a culture in transition, part of a larger dynamic of changes taking place across the Hueco Bolson and throughout the region between roughly A.D.1000-1300.

Most of our knowledge about this simple yet worldly group of hunter-farmers comes from data recovered during excavations at the site in the early 1970s. TPWD archeologists George Kegley and Ron Ralph and crew members excavated the remains of the village at Hueco Tanks, apparently a single-component site representing a relatively short-term occupation. The archeologists uncovered traces of six square to rectangular dwellings—or pit rooms—and portions of several others. They were among the first structures of their type and time period—the Doña Ana phase of the Formative period— to be excavated and reported, and confirmed diagnostic aspects of the phase first defined by archeologist Donald Lehmer in 1948. As such, they provided an early view at what is now considered a transitional architectural type between the more insubstantial, circular subterranean pithouses of the Mesilla phase and the much larger, multi-room adobe pueblos of the later El Paso phase.

Along with the structural remains at Hueco Tanks were features and artifacts which help elucidate changing lifeways at this time period. The single radiocarbon assay from a piece of oak obtained from the site provided an uncorrected date of 800 +/- 50 years B.P. Calibrated, the date range is A.D. 1178-1256, a span falling within the latter part of the late Doña Ana and early El Paso phase. Re-analysis of the site’s ceramics assemblage and additional radiocarbon dates have helped further refine site chronology.

Houses in Pits

photo of a diorama of a pithouse
Reconstruction of a pithouse. Although no one is certain what the superstructure of the Hueco Tanks dwellings looked like, some researchers suggest they were constructed of wooden poles and branches and at least partially covered with adobe plaster or mud. The model depicts a pithouse from the late Mesilla/Doña Ana phase Los Tules site in New Mexico, shown in a display at the Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso. Photo by Susan Dial.
Who Were the Jornada Mogollon?
map of Jornada Mogollon cultural area
The western tip of Texas and adjacent areas of southern New Mexico and northern Mexico have a distinctive archeological tradition known as the Jornada Mogollon. The Jornada Mogollon is the easternmost branch of the Mogollon tradition, one of the "big three" cultures in the Southwest (the others are the Anasazi and Hohokam). By about A.D. 400 (or earlier) Jornada Mogollon peoples established pithouse villages and began making distinctive El Paso Brownware ceramics and experimenting with cultigens. Through time the villages became larger and more complex as reliance on horticulture increased and more permanent settlement was possible.

Read More

Explore the map below by rolling over each house to see a plan map of each structure.

photo of the floor of House 6, the largest structure at the village
Floor of House 6, the largest structure at the village. Because of its size and relationship to an adjacent room, House 6 was thought to be either a communal structure or nascent form of puebloan two-room block. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
photo of collared hearth adjacent to possibly collapsed wall in House 1
Collared hearth adjacent to possibly collapsed wall in House 1. The raised collar, or coping, formed a protective barrier around the small hearth and served to contain the hot coals and sparks. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
photo of pottery sherds uncovered during excavations
Pottery sherds uncovered during excavations. Image courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The dearth of architectural timber in the Hueco Tanks houses may have resulted from them having being dismantled and robbed of their posts after the village was abandoned.
photo of excavations underway at Hueco Tanks village
Excavations underway at Hueco Tanks village. Image courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
In addition to corn and beans, village meals at times included rabbits, gray fox, raccoon, cougar, and a variety of rodents: rats, mice, gophers, and prairie dogs. Larger mammals obtained by hunters included deer, antelope, and black bear. The villagers also ate several varieties of turtle, rattlesnakes, and birds, including dove and road runner.
photo of an antelope
Remains of antelope were among the large quantities of animal bones found in trash pits. This evidence, along with more than 70 projectile points found during excavations, tells us that large game animals were important in village diet. Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Examples of the more than 70 projectile points
Examples of the more than 70 projectile points, including both dart points and arrow points, recovered at the site. Such large numbers of points are unusual in Formative period habitation sites of comparable size. Photo from Kegley 1982.
photo of a pictograph of “goggle-eyed” figure with geometric-design body
Pictograph of “goggle-eyed” figure with geometric-design on body. Many rock art depictions at the site, while broadly attributable to the Jornada Mogollon culture, cannot be assigned to specific phases. Photo by Rupestrian Cyberservices, courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The Hueco Tanks structures were semi-subterranean, that is, built within shallow pits with walls rising above ground. Ranging in size from about 7.5 x 7.5 feet to a little over 12 x 13 feet, most of the structures were not much larger than walk-in closets or small bedrooms in modern houses today. House 6, however, was larger, measuring roughly 15 x 18 feet and with paired central roof support posts nearly 20 inches (50 cm) in diameter. There were other differences in this structure: outside the east wall area of House 6, archeologists found a prepared floor surface covered with charred material and several lumps of adobe brick. The difference in overall size and the presence of the additional floor area led Kegley to suggest House 6 might have been a two-room structure, perhaps a nascent form of the contiguous-room pueblos of later times. Alternatively, it may have been a communal room where gatherings and ceremonies were held. In later pueblo villages, subterranean kivas served this function. ( Download pdf file to read Kegley’s description of each structure for more detail. )

For the villagers, the construction process would have entailed first digging the pit, usually not deeper than a few feet (about a meter). Near the center of the room, two large roof support posts, typically aligned east-west, were placed equidistant from the walls to provide support for the superstructure. The floor was coated with a layer of adobe plaster that, on several houses, extended up the walls of the pit. A small firepit was dug into the floor on the south side, and a plastered collar, or coping, was molded up around the edge to surround the pit. The firepits may have been used to hold hot coals for warmth, rather than actual fires which would have been hazardous in the small structures.

Entry into the houses may have been achieved by ladders through the roof, although the evidence was ambiguous. In one of the houses, an adobe block “step” was built at the south wall of the pit. The step may have been part of an entryway or related to placement of a ladder. In other houses, no clear evidence of an entryway could be discerned. As is evident in the house plan maps (see rollover map), several houses contained smaller postholes which might have been related to an earlier structure or a sheltered outdoor extension to the house.

How the exterior walls and roofs of the houses were constructed, however, and of what material, remains a matter of conjecture. A few “molded lumps” of adobe found on, and above, several house floors led Kegley to suggest that the walls exterior to the pits might have been built of adobe, perhaps in a construction mode somewhat similar to the houses at the Polvo site in the La Junta District. He attributed the dearth of structural evidence at the Hueco Tanks site to sheet erosion which might have washed away any above-ground walls. Others believe it more likely that the walls were not solid but more open to the air, with layers of brush covering vertical wooden posts. Examples of this type of construction were seen at the Ojasen and Gobernadora sites where Doña Ana pithouses were crafted of vertical agave stalks covered over with grass. Roofs also may have been constructed of agave stalks and grass and covered over with adobe. At these sites, there were more distinct alignments of postholes as well as perishable remains to aid in interpretation. Pithouses apparently pre-dating a large, multi-room pueblo were uncovered at the Firecracker Pueblo site near El Paso. These rectangular houses contained many of the same structural elements as those at Hueco Tanks and provide an interesting view of a later manifestation of this form.

Archeologist Ron Ralph, who served as crew chief at Hueco Tanks excavations, believes that the lack of architectural timber in the Hueco Tanks houses—excepting the paired interior postholes and additional small alignment of holes in House 6—may have resulted from the houses being dismantled and robbed of their posts after the village was abandoned. Reuse and recycling he notes, may have been a common pattern in prehistoric times, given the scarcity of wood in the Chihuahuan Desert. Ralph also recalled that the floors appeared to have been patched in some places. Digging through them was almost like troweling “layers of laminate, like many layers of mud had been poured over time.”

Several of the houses appeared to have been re-used for other purposes after abandonment, an indication that not all the houses were in use contemporaneously. In two houses, villagers dug pits into the floor and deposited trash, including large quantities of animal bone. In another house (House 2), the body of an adult was buried in a corner, in fill just above the floor. The individual was positioned on its back, with arms folded at the waist, legs drawn up, and head oriented to the west. Three other burials were found during the 1972 excavations but their association with the village was not certain. Two of the burials contained El Paso Polychrome sherds.

Village Life

Traces found inside the structures and village commons help us envision daily life in the small community. Within the houses, villagers had a hearth for warmth and cooking and, in some, areas for food processing and other tasks, perhaps on days when weather was too inclement for work outdoors. In House 1, the likely remains of a family meal—bones of badger and antelope—were found along with fragments of a decorated ceramic olla (El Paso Polychrome) in an ashy lens near the firepit. House 5 contained a large groundstone milling bin lying on the floor.

Based on identification of excavated animal bone, village meals at times included rabbit, gray fox, raccoon, and a variety of rodents— rats, mice, gophers, and prairie dogs. Larger mammals obtained by hunters included deer, antelope, cougar, and black bear. The villagers also ate several varieties of turtle, rattlesnakes, and birds, including dove and road runner. Bison also were hunted at Hueco Tanks; this animal, however, was extirpated in the area during historic times.

The large numbers of projectile points—more than 70, including both arrow and dart points— are another strong indicator of the importance of medium- to large-sized mammals in the village diet. (The many small rodents and rabbits reflected in faunal remains at the site likely were trapped or netted by hunters.) Such large numbers of projectile points are a rarity in Formative period habitation sites. In his study of neighboring sites in the western Trans-Pecos, archeologist Myles Miller noted a total of only 27 specimens reported from at least 35 pithouses and other features at the Turquoise Ridge, Gobernadora, Ojasen, and Meyer Ridge sites.

Reconstructing the plant portion of villager diet has been more difficult, due to poor preservation of floral remains. Miller processed five large flotation samples collected during site excavations. Identified remains included both wild and domesticated plants: corn (Zea mays), prickly pear seed (Opuntia sp.), mesquite bean (Prosopis sp.), amaranth or chenopodium seed (Cheno-am), domesticated bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), and Banana yucca seed or fruit (Yucca baccata).

Villagers had access to a variety of desert plants, particularly leaf succulents such as agave, growing in nearby areas. Several large clusters of hearths and earth ovens, associated with ceramic sherds attributable to the Doña Ana phase, were documented by archeologist Margaret Howard during survey of Hueco Tanks. Although these features cannot be directly related to the village, a connection seems possible. Villagers might have roasted the plants while staying at field camps, then completed processing back in the village using grinding tools—manos and metates. Village crops, such as corn, also were ground into meal using groundstone tools. Both slab and basin metates were recovered at the village. All of the manos were hand-sized, unlike the larger, two-handed manos typical of later El Paso phase sites. Studies of groundstone “appliances” from other sites by UTSA archeologists Robert Hard and Raymond Mauldin indicate that metates as well as manos increased in size as corn was introduced into the diet and that the shapes of these grinding implements were altered as well to accommodate corn.

Across the region, the dual subsistence pattern of growing crops and harvesting wild plants continued throughout the Formative period, but with varying intensity. Archeologist Myles Miller, who has studied burned rock features in sites throughout the region, holds that rock-lined pit cooking peaked between A.D. 1150 and 1250 during the Doña Ana phase and that processing of wild plants intensified in tandem with an increase in agricultural production during the later, El Paso, phase.

photo of fallen adobe found in several of the houses
Fallen adobe found in several of the houses may be remnants of wall or roof covering. The rubble shown is from House 6. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
What the Houses Can Tell Us:

The Hueco Tanks Village houses, or "pitrooms," exemplify many of the more formal construction elements common in Doña Ana structures which distinguish them from less durable and typically circular pithouses of the earlier Mesilla phase.
  • Angular shape
  • Paired support posts aligned on a central axis
  • Prepared floors of plaster or adobe
  • Collared firepits in consistent locations
  • Refuse pits
Researchers see a correlation between these more durable architectural forms and a more sedentary lifestyle and, by implication, an increased dependence on horticulture. Construction of a Doña Ana house was more labor intensive and involved a greater commitment to the locale. On a larger, regional scale, researchers have correlated the transition to angular house forms in the Hueco Bolson with settlement in the alluvial fan piedmonts, away from the central basin.
photo of a collared post hole in House 5
A collared post hole in House 5 is brushed clean for closer viewing. Image courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
illustration of comparisons of house forms during the Formative period
Comparisons of house forms during the Formative period in the western Trans-Pecos. The upper two rows show examples of structures of the Mesilla Phase. The lower row includes examples of isolated rooms from the transitional Doña Ana phase and El Paso phase. At bottom left are House 1 and House 6 from Hueco Tanks. Graphic by Myles Miller from Perttula 2004 (Fig 7.21).
illustration of a village woman
A village woman grinds corn using a two-handed mano and metate typical of later El Paso phase sites. Inset from painting by George Nelson, based on Firecracker Pueblo, courtesy of the Institute for Texan Cultures.
photo of the excavation of one of the heavy basin metates
Excavation of one of the heavy basin metates. Image courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Three of the plant foods identified in sediment samples collected during village excavations. From left, corn, prickly pear cactus with ripe tunas, and beans. Paintings of corn and beans, from U.S. stamp, Crops of America.
photo of tools and other items recovered during excavations
Tools and other items recovered during excavations. a, chipped stone gouge of brown chert, b, disc made from painted Chupadero Black-on-White pottery sherd; c, pottery sherd disc; d., olivella shell; e, drilled shell disc-shaped bead; f, boat-shaped fired clay object with cross-hatched incising; g, ground stone mano with pecked groove; h, awl made from deer long bone. The clay discs may have been used to smooth the vessels during production. Image from Kegley 1982 (Fig. 5).
photo of refitted El Paso brownware vessel
Refitted El Paso brownware vessel shown in display at the El Paso Museum of Archaeology. Although not from Hueco Tanks Village, the constricted neck jar exemplifies the type so prevalent at Mesilla and early Doña Ana phase sites in the southern Jornada Mogollon. Photo by Susan Dial.
photo of a painted face, or mask, discovered on the wall above a prehistoric water control feature
Painted face, or mask, discovered on the wall above a prehistoric water control feature in a crevice of Hueco Tanks. Because of its protruding tongue, the painting has been dubbed “thirsty man mask” by park personnel, and is thought to mark the location of water. Photo by Ron Ralph, courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife.
illustration of El Paso Brown vessel forms and rim profiles
El Paso Brown vessel forms and rim profiles. Use of plain brownware pottery waned during the Doña Ana phase, to be replaced by decorated forms: bichrome and polychrome. Graphic from Perttula 2004 (Fig. 7.20).

Digging Further

In recent years, researchers have reexamined evidence recovered from Hueco Tanks Village and compared it with data from other sites. This information has helped refine our picture of life at the village site and also helped identify patterns useful for regional studies.

The characteristic ceramics used at Hueco Tanks Village were thin-walled brownware vessels—chiefly round-bottomed jars and simple bowls—made of local clays and decorated with red and black organic mineral pigments. Kegley noted combinations of old and new traits in the vessels, describing the assemblage as “a homogenous collection of evolving El Paso Polychrome, retaining the direct jar rim of El Paso Brown without the characteristic everted rim of classic El Paso Polychrome.” Today we see these traits as characteristic of the transitional Doña Ana culture, reflecting changing use and subsistence patterns.

Archeologist Robert Hard and associates have looked further at the Hueco Tanks village ceramics, comparing them with samples from other Formative sites in the area. As Hard notes, ceramic vessel forms and functions during this time period were rapidly evolving, likely in response to different adaptations as villagers increased their dependence on farming and became more sedentary. At Hueco Tanks and other Doña Ana sites, necked jars increased in frequency and size, perhaps reflecting use as storage jars and/or increased cooking of maize, a grain that requires steeping or boiling to break down complex starch.

Ceramics from Hueco Tanks also speak to the mobility and trade networks of the villagers. Nonlocal ceramics indicate contact with the Mimbres area, White Mountain (eastern Arizona and western New Mexico), Cedarvale (central New Mexico), and Chihuahua, Mexico. Clay sources for some of the nonlocal pottery have been determined through instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA). Samples of Chupadero pottery indicate its clay derives from the Sierra Blanca area.

The association of Mimbres pottery with somewhat later Chupadero Black-on-White pottery provides more information for dating the village site. According to Hard, the Mimbres sherds appear to be predominately Style III, which has been dated to circa A.D. 1000-1150. The production of Chupadero begins circa A.D. 1100. Combining both the ceramic data and a new suite of radiocarbon dates from Hueco Tanks obtained by Miller, it appears that Hueco Tanks village occupations can be placed between A.D. 1075 and 1150.

Research on the rock art at Hueco Tanks is ongoing and may provide additional insights about the ritual life of the Jornada peoples. Depictions of masks found throughout the rocky hills may have been painted during rituals or shamanic ceremonies, or individual identity quests. Many bear strong resemblance to ritual items—possible masks and headresses— recovered from other Jornada Mogollon sites. Just how much of the art at Hueco Tanks can be attributed to the villagers, however, is a matter of speculation.

Radiocarbon dates on a suite of samples obtained from what were thought to be Jornada Mogollon pictographs were spread rather widely. Samples from "google-eyed" or so-called Tlaloc motifs are more tightly clustered, ranging from A.D. 650-1020, slightly before village times. A mask was dated to A.D. 890-1210, and one of two "squared circles" dated to 1030-1280, both overlapping with the time of the village. As Texas A&M chemist Marvin Rowe, who analyzed the samples, notes, these data cannot be considered fully reliable due to problems in dating wood charcoal and possibility of contamination (see Rock Art section).

Other studies have tracked patterns in various elements in the rock art. Artist Deborah Cool-Flowers has noted a consistent pattern of elements in some of the Jornada depictions and what she thinks might be a “signature” of the artist, a bold symbol similar to a capital “T.” To the El Paso artist, the possibility of multiple works, signed by the artist, hints of a specialist, or “artist in residence.” The corollary implications of this interesting conjecture would be longer term occupancy in one location and a more organized social system, such as would occur in groups relying increasingly on growing crops.

A fuller reconstruction of life at Hueco Tanks Village awaits additional studies such as these. The site’s significance at the time of excavations lay in documentation of a little-known house type and corollary traits which, as Kegley noted, “fills the hiatus between the pithouses of the Mesilla Phase and the multiroom pueblos of the El Paso Phase." His work and interpretations helped validate the concept of Doña Ana as a transitional phase in the Formative period. In his report, Kegley's summary of the site bears repeating:

A picture emerges of a small farming hamlet which must have attained a large measure of economic self-sufficiency. Ties to local resources are apparent in the paste composition of the local brownware, in the nature of the lithic technology, and in the sample of the faunal material. What must finally set this small hamlet apart from many others is the proximity to an important rock art locality and the intriguing notion that the inhabitants of these humble dwellings must have possessed such wealth and variety in their ideology.

photo of Mimbres bowl from display at the El Paso Museum of Archaeology
Mimbres bowl from display at the El Paso Museum of Archaeology. Mimbres pottery was the most prevalent non-local ware found at the village site, particularly the Mimbres III style, shown, which has been dated to ca. A.D. 1000-1150. Photo by Susan Dial.
What must finally set this small hamlet apart from many others is the proximity to an important rock art locality and the intriguing notion that the inhabitants of these humble dwellings must have possessed such wealth and variety in their ideology.
-George Kegley 1980
painting of sacred clowns dancing in ceremony around a campfire at Hueco TanksSacred clowns dance in ceremony around a campfire at Hueco Tanks. This imaginative scene, painted by artist O. Contreras, is part of a mural depicting Jornada Mogollon life at the El Paso Museum of Archaeology.
chart of Doña Ana Phase ceramic type frequencies at Hueco Tanks
Doña Ana Phase ceramic type frequencies at Hueco Tanks, top, and comparison of type frequencies at Hueco Tanks through time, based on findings from earlier and later sites in the area. Graphic from Hard et al. 1994 (Tables 1 and 2).