The Salado Culture

Culture is the behavior and beliefs of groups of people. These cannot be excavated directly, although they influence the physical remains or the material culture that archeologists find. These remains can range from stone tools to buildings to written records. Features are remains that cannot be moved (large buildings, post holes), while artifacts are smaller, portable objects.

Archeology is the study of past cultures through material remains. Anything that people created or modified is part of the archeological record. Archeology can help us to appreciate and preserve a shared human heritage. It tells us about the past, helps us understand where we came from, and shows us how people lived, overcame challenges, and developed the societies we have today.

According to archeologists, the Salado culture arose from a combination of the migrant Ancestral Puebloan populations from the Colorado Plateau, the Mogollon, and the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People (Hohokam).

Around 700 CE, Ancestral Sonoran Desert People from the Phoenix Basin settled by the Salt River in the Tonto Basin and mixed with local populations. Archeological evidence indicated that this group had a distinct cultural identity, an extensive trading network, and a sophisticated system of irrigation agriculture.

Later, around 1100-1150 CE, people from the Ancestral Puebloan and Mogollon regions began to move in search of a permanent, stable homeland, with an adequate water supply and sufficient land. Cultural characteristics of the Ancestral Puebloans generally included multistoried adobe and masonry structures. They may also include ceremonial sites, cliff dwellings, compound or defensive walls, certain pottery types, storage pits, and inhumations.

Mogollon groups from the region to the north and east are characterized by distinctive pottery, architecture, ground-stone tool design, residence location, and mortuary treatment.

Eventually, several thousand people of these different cultures settled in the Tonto Basin, forming a true cultural melting pot. Their villages dotted the landscape, with identifiable architecture, pottery, and textiles.
Later, archeologists and researchers began calling these people the Salado, although we don't know what they called themselves. The term Salado comes from the Spanish name Rio Salado, or the Salt River, which runs from the White Mountains in eastern Arizona through the Tonto Basin to its confluence with the Gila River in central Arizona.

Salado describes the prehistoric cultural group living in the Tonto Basin between 1250 CE and 1450 CE, but also encompasses a particular group of artifacts, architectural styles, and a belief system exemplified by Salado symbols and images (iconography).

Around 1300 CE, a small community of Salado people constructed two dwellings in shallow caves overlooking the portion of the Salt River that is now Roosevelt Lake. During the next 50 years, the climate favored life in the basin.

As hunters, gatherers, and farmers, the Salado took full advantage of the surrounding desert resources. They gathered desert plants, cultivated cotton, corn, beans, and squash, hunted small game, and obtained water from an ancient spring that still runs today. People of the Salado culture were generally in good physical health. Skeletal remains show little evidence of severe, long-term deficiencies often found in prehistoric agricultural societies. The Salado culture created elaborate pottery and wove exquisite textiles.

Then, between 1350 and 1450, the region became more arid, characterized by a falling water table and a climatic pattern of alternating floods and droughts. The changing climate negatively affected agriculture. Important plants and animals decreased in numbers. Life became more difficult and stressful for the Salado. People left their small villages and consolidated into larger communities.

By the late 1300s, resource depletion intensified and populations declined. Catastrophic flooding dammed irrigation canals, rendering much of the farmland useless.

By 1450 CE, those struggling to maintain their way of life began to move out of the once fruitful Tonto Basin. Today, oral histories of several of the associated tribes say this migration from the basin took their ancestors in many directions, guiding each to the place their descendants now call home.

Last updated: June 20, 2021

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