NATURE NOTES:
With GIS, and Painstaking Fieldwork, Archeologists Decipher Ancient Desert Trails

By Andrew Stuart

Painted pottery, stone tools, rock art on cave walls – these are what come to mind when we think of artifacts of our region’s deep human past. But in the study of prehistory here, one of the most exciting recent finds has come in a subtler guise. 

During the last decade, archeologists have begun to document trails – prehistoric routes and pathways – in the Chihuahuan Desert. The research relies on new technology – and painstaking fieldwork. And though it’s new, it has the potential to shed light on the richness of social relations and ceremonial life, and the ways ancient societies related to this desert-mountain land. 

Archeologists have studied ancient trails in the Southwest since the 1890s. These traces of human movement are preserved in hard desert soils in Arizona and California. In northern New Mexico, there are footpaths in volcanic rock, worn deep over centuries. Many of these trails are easily identified with aerial photography – or even satellite imagery.

In the Chihuahuan Desert, no such overt evidence remains. Landscapes here were transformed with white settlement. Through overgrazing and drought, desert basins changed from prairies to shrublands and dunefields. Whatever prehistoric trails existed likely eroded away. 

But discovery can come from unexpected angles. 

At Fort Bliss Military Base, in West Texas and southern New Mexico, archeologists have spent years in an exacting process known as transect recording unit – or TRU – surveying. With GPS devices, crewmembers survey 15-by-15-meter units – recording everything they find. More than 150,000 acres have been surveyed with the method.

When the data is entered into mapping software, archeologists get the “big picture.” It was in these maps that one researcher noticed fragments of pottery distributed in bands across the landscape.

Myles Miller leads the research. 

“And then he noticed, what are these linear patterns?” Miller said. “These were prehistoric trails. It’s hard to carry pottery vessels, and they get broken and scattered. These were the remnants of trails, constant, repeated movements for a hundred, 150 years, back and forth, that left pot breaks and so forth.”

Miller’s team has now identified some 70 miles of trails.

These weren’t intentionally constructed roads, but preferred routes used over long periods. The trails were used by the Jornada Mogollon – a people that, for at least 1,000 years, farmed and hunted here, living in pithouse villages and, later, adobe pueblos. 

The first trail archeologists identified led from a settlement to a playa, or intermittent lake, suggesting a route used to collect water. But more extensive study reveals something far more complex. 

Miller had a sample of the pottery shards analyzed – to determine where the pots were made. The majority were not local. No doubt some trails led to water – or to other valued resources, like turquouise. But the pottery’s diverse provenance suggests the trails served to connect communities – within the Jornada world, and perhaps farther afield. Jornada sites yield pottery from La Junta – present-day Presidio-Ojinaga, and marine shell from the Pacific. The trails may have connected to broader trade routes.

And some certainly transcended the utilitarian. Pilgrimage has long been central to Southwestern Indigenous traditions – and remains so. The Zuni people make annual pilgrimages to a saline lake 50 miles from their pueblo – to conduct ceremonies and harvest salt. There are other “song trails” in the Southwest – in which ceremony accompanies pilgrimage, connecting a people to its past, and to the land. Some Chihuahuan Desert trails may have played a similar role. 

Indeed, Miller has found evidence for that. 

Archeologists have long been aware of a cave on Fort Bliss that the Jornada used as a shrine, and adorned with rock art. Some distance away are the remains of a sprawling Jornada pueblo. Miller recently analyzed the distribution of pottery shards in the area.

“And sure enough,” Miller said, “this trail of pottery leads exactly from that hundred-room pueblo across the desert basin and across a couple arroyos, right to the base of where that shrine cave is. So that is essentially a pilgrimage trail, leading from the pueblo to an ancestral emergence shrine cave.”

Miller suspects analysis around Hueco Tanks, the rock art site near El Paso, would reveal “radiating lines” of pilgrimage trails. 

The Jornada Mogollon abandoned their pueblos about 1450. Remarkably, we’re still awakening to traces of their presence here, more than 500 years later.