Category Archives: Outdoor Adventures

Our fun trips to Arizona’s wilderness, and beyond.

Ventana Cave, Window to the Past

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.

Looking Up at Ventana Cave

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.

Across the Valley

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.

Black Figures, Horse and Rider on Painted White Background

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.

Bone Fragments, Pottery Shard, Lithics

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!

Creosote Bloom

Just June

Can we say hot? Every single day in June was over 100 degrees with a few extra special days in the 110s. On top of that the humidity started to rise. Now I know that has to happen before our summer monsoons can start but that knowledge hardly makes it more bearable. Especially since we still rely on an evaporative cooler (aka swamp cooler) to control the temps in our house. Swamps work fantastic in hot and dry conditions but their efficacy declines drastically as the humidity rises.

Biosphere 2

Escaping from the heat was on our minds as we headed north towards Oracle to tour Biosphere 2 (B2). It was a first visit for both of us which is rather silly when you consider that we’ve lived nearby for all these years. B2 was a privately funded experiment designed to replicate Earth systems with an eye toward space colonization. Completed in 1991 the 3.14-acre enclosed structure contained five artificially created biomes (rainforest, desert, grassland, ocean, and wetland), an agricultural area, and crew living quarters.

In late 1991 eight researchers (Biospherians) were sealed inside the airtight, glass-domed enclosure with their tools and a few animals. The experiment was designed to last for two years with the intent of survival in a self-contained system. In theory, the Biospherians would live off the food they grew and would optimize their atmosphere by altering the amount of foliage grown.

Continue reading