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sketch of Native Americans growing corn

Man in the San Juan Valley

THE BASKETMAKERS. About the time of Christ, in some parts perhaps even earlier, small bands of Indians entered the Four Corners country. It is possible that a few small groups of wandering hunters and gatherers who had survived the Altithermal were already living there, but the archeological evidence for their presence is very scanty. Under the impetus of new ideas, such as agriculture, these people may have been slowly settling down to become farmers.

Or possibly under the pressure of expanding populations elsewhere, groups seeking new lands suitable for agriculture moved into the area and either amalgamated with, or drove out, any local groups. If so, we do not know exactly where these people came from. Perhaps they came from the south, around the Mogollon Rim country of New Mexico where there is evidence that even earlier an agriculturally-based sedentary population had developed. Corn had been known in parts of the Southwest for a considerable time. (At Bat Cave in New Mexico, archeologists have uncovered a primitive type of corn which was grown at least several thousand years before the birth of Christ.)

Only with an assured food supply, part of which can be stored against bad years, can a group find time to devote its energies to the arts and to the development of greater skill in crafts. The idea of agriculture must have spread slowly, for it forced a radical change in the living habits of those who practiced it, compared to their old subsistence pattern of hunting and gathering. At first, the hunting group would regard this new plant as just another seed crop—to be gathered when it was ripe. They dumped the seed in the ground and went on about their business; when it ripened they returned to harvest the crop, much as they went each year to harvest the pinyon crop when it was ripe.

But as they became more dependent upon corn and added the cultivation of squash, these people discovered that two things are necessary for a group dependent upon agriculture: one, that most of the group has to remain nearby while the crop is planted, matured, and harvested (to protect it from rodents, deer, birds, and, probably, marauding tribes); second, that there must be a secure storage place for the surplus food and the seeds for next year's crop. This latter requirement forced them to build storage pits lined with stone slabs, bark, and adobe which could be securely covered so that rodents and insects would not eat the surplus harvest.

Archeologists have long called these early inhabitants of the area "Basketmakers" because of the variety of beautiful baskets and sandals which they wove from fibrous plant materials. In the earlier part of this period, they did not know how to make or use pottery, and baskets were important as storage containers or as vessels in which to cook by stone boiling. Although their descendants also made and used baskets, they never achieved the fine quality and artistry of the early Basketmakers.

Archeologists divide this Basketmaker phase into an early period of about 400 years and a later period (sometimes referred to as "Modified Basketmaker") of about 350 years. The Modified Basketmakers had several important traits which the earlier ones lacked: namely, the bow and arrow, which replaced the atlatl (throwing stick); beans, which added important protein to the diet; and a knowledge of how to make pottery, which permitted much easier cooking and better storage of perishables.

The necessity for an assured food supply was of increasing importance, for there was a slowly but steadily growing population. Agriculture provided such a supply and freed a part of the population from subsistence activities, giving them leisure to devote to pursuits which were not necessary for mere existence. For example, turquoise—worked and polished into ornamental jewelry—seems to have been first used at this time. Small crude pottery figurines are also found, indicating a growing interest in religion and an increasing awareness of religious ideas. Kivas—developed from the idea of the older pithouse—first appear in this period. These provided a place for the performance of religious ceremonies and other nonsecular functions. The men evidently had the time to meet in council and debate communal problems. While the family unit was still important, the clan and even the entire community took on new important aspects of "togetherness."

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