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March 11, 2010 Volume 31, No. 23

Ancient pottery suggests Southwest women promoted peace and stability

Salado solution

MU researcher proposes solution to long-standing debate

From ancient times to the modern day, war refugees have struggled to integrate into their new communities. They are often economically impoverished and socially isolated, which results in increased conflict, systematic violence and warfare, within and between communities as the new immigrants interact with and compete with the previously established inhabitants.

Now, MU anthropology researcher Todd VanPool believes pottery found throughout the North American Southwest comes from a religion of peace-seeking women in the violent, 13th-century American Southwest. These women sought to find a way to integrate newly immigrating refugees and prevent the spread of warfare that decimated communities to the north.

First discovered in Arizona in the 1930s, Salado pottery created a debate among archaeologists. According to VanPool, the Salado tradition is a grassroots movement against  violence. The mystery of the pottery’s origin and significance was known as “the Salado problem.”

This pottery was found among three major cultural areas of the ancient Southwest: the ancestral Puebloan in northern Arizona and New Mexico, the Mogollon of southern New Mexico and the Hohokam of central and southern Arizona. Even though the pottery was found in three different cultural areas, all with different religious traditions, the pottery communicated the same, specific set of religious messages.

It was buried with both the elite and non-elite and painted with complex, geometric motifs and animals, such as horned serpents. Instead of celebrating local elites, the symbols in Salado pottery emphasized fertility and cooperation.

“In my view, the fact that the new religion is reflected solely in pottery, a craft not usually practiced by men, suggests that it was a movement that helped bring women together and decreased competition among females,” says VanPool, who is an assistant professor of anthropology. “Women across the region may have been ethnically diverse, but their participation in the same religious system would have helped decrease conflict and provided a means of connecting different ethnic groups.”

Salado pottery dates from the 13th to 15th centuries in which there was major political and cultural conflict in the American Southwest. Brutal executions and possible cannibalism forced thousands of people to abandon their native regions and move to areas of Arizona and New Mexico. Another source of conflict appeared after the female refugees and their children arrived in their new homelands.

“Conflict was defused through the direct action of women who sought to decrease the tensions that threatened to destroy their communities,” VanPool says. “The rise of the Salado tradition allowed threatened communities to stabilize over much of modern-day Arizona and New Mexico, altering the course of Southwestern prehistory. Given that the Salado system lasted from 1275 to around 1450, it was most certainly successful.”

VanPool’s research has been published in Archaeology magazine.