Thanks to a tour hosted by Old Pueblo Archaeology I finally had the chance to visit a place I’d long desired to see: Ventana Cave. Twenty (gasp) years ago while attending the University of Arizona I studied the archaeological excavation of the site. It featured prominently in my coursework as it contained evidence of human activity going back 10,000 years.
That length of continuous history at one site in the US is rare and it is the only one in southern Arizona. I suppose my professors might have also emphasized it since the dig was under the auspices of Emil Haury, famed archaeologist and early head of our department.
There are a few misconceptions I should dispel before going further. First, it is not a cave, it is technically a large rock shelter located in the side of a volcanic hill. Second, it was never used for long-term habitation, in other words, it was never permanently occupied. Third, the spot is still in use today by Tohono O’odham and migrants.
Why has this spot been so popular with native peoples for thousands and thousands of years? You know what they say in real estate; location, location, location. That was as true back then as it is today and Ventana Cave had everything you could ask for: a commanding view of the valley below and a small spring which is the only permanent water source for miles. Based on the evidence archaeologists believe the site was used as a seasonal camp for hunting and gathering.
When the excavation began in 1941 Haury had no idea the accumulated layers were 23 feet deep or that they would span such a vast amount of time. The top layer was littered with detritus from contemporary Tohono O’odhams while the bottommost layer contained the remains of Pleistocene megafauna. They uncovered extinct species such as bison, dire wolf, tapir, giant ground sloth, and early horse.
Ventana Cave was clearly an important location for the walls are covered in pictographs (which are rare in southern Arizona), there are a dozen bedrock mortars, and 1585 projectile points were found along with 39 burials, ten of them infants. Of those inhumations, three were associated with the Archaic period (8000-1000 BCE) while the rest date to the Hohokam period (200-1450 CE).
The variety of pictographs also denote the passage of time; from the dots and lines of the Early Archaic period, to the humanoid figures of the Hohokam, to the riders on horseback which can date no early than the the mid 1500s.
Two of the burials were especially interesting. An infant was found with well-preserved feces which were carefully examined. The child’s last meal contained mesquite meal, saguaro seeds, and cholla pollen. Since cholla blooms in the late spring they were able to determine the time of year the child died.
Also unique was Burial 9, a middle-aged male. He was wearing a cotton breech cloth, a rabbit fur belt, a wooden nose plug, shell earrings, a fur robe, and a human hair wig. Next to him was a skin quiver with arrows, creosote branches, a cactus needle, four bone awls, and two Archaic projectile points tied with string. In other words, he was not your average Joe.
To assuage any worries, all the human remains and associated burial items have been turned over to the Tohono O’odham who have reinterred them in a special cemetery set aside for the ancients.
Which brings up a question that Haury was unable to answer and still has yet to be definitively answered, Were the Hohokam the ancestors of the Tohono O’odham? The archaeological record is unclear. The tribe doesn’t know; some elders say no citing oral history, while younger O’odham say yes. Modern techniques such as DNA testing could solve the puzzle but the tribe (like most Native American groups) will not give permission since the test would destroy part of a skeleton and that would be sacrilegious.
Archaeologists are still studying the Ventana Cave artifacts in hopes of answering that question and many others. It is a fascinating place!