May 31, 2020

The Prehistoric Residents of Mayer, AZ

The modern town of Mayer, AZ was not the first time this area was inhabited; at least three times previously the area was settled by indigenous, prehistoric peoples. Radiocarbon dating revealed human activity between the 6th century, AD and 1800 AD.

The area was first discovered in March, 1989 and covered 4 acres. It was given the designation “N:12:14.” The site was located north of Highway 69 across from the Main St. intersection. A number of features were found including pithouses, roasting pits, roasting pit dumps and inhumations (human remains.)

The first pithouse, named Feature 1, was “sub-retangular to almost sub-square…with slightly rounded corners and vertical plastered walls,” the archeological study stated. It was dug about 19 inches deep. “A ramped entryway was easily discernible…(and) a portion of the pithouse fell victim to fire, preserving some of the plaster.” The roof, although collapsed, was well preserved. “Furthermore, pieces of daub containing reed or grass stalk imprints and possible hand prints were discovered…”

Thirteen postholes were found. Three pits were found in the interior “that offered no clues as to how they may have been used.” A bowl-shaped hearth was also discovered, just off-center in the pithouse, that was “fair to poorly” preserved.

Metates and fragments were discovered, as well as 12 handstones and other fragments. Additionally, 2 sitting rocks and ceramic sherds were also found. A handful of projectile and utility points were discovered, including an awl. With the abundance of artifacts found, archeologists concluded: “the assemblage of this pithouse apparently was left (on site) when the structure was abandoned.”

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In a second pithouse (Feature 2,) no entryway or hearth were found. However, three other pits were found in the interior. Two of these were considered to be for storage while the third was located next to one of the deeper postholes and its use is unknown. Artifacts here included handstones and manos. Radiocarbon dating of samples from this pithouse found several dates of usage (all AD): the 7th century, the 10th century, the mid-14th century and up to the end of the 17th century. There was evidence that the house burned, but not before it was cleared-out.

The last two pithouses were found one on top of the other. Feature 14, the upper house, had a well-preserved hearth with various flakes and sherds scattered about the floor. These included a lanceolate, a projectile point, and “a highly polished, cervid antler artifact of unknown function. The lower half of a ceramic figurine torso was recovered from the feature fill,” as well. Radiocarbon dating of different samples established dates including the mid-7th, 10th, 16th and 18th centuries AD. There were signs that this pithouse also burned down at some point, but not before it was abandoned.

Just below Feature 14 was Feature 15. It had little discernible floor and no hearth or pits were found. A sample of wood beam found here was dated to around 885 AD. 

Under the floor of this pithouse a mysterious burial was found. It was a male, probably between 35 and 45 years old. His arms and legs were fully extended in a “spread-eagle” fashion. Items found next to the body included: a basalt projectile point immediately adjacent to the right humerus, a ceramic vessel next to the skull along with 2 more at the lower legs. 

Three other inhumations were discovered here including one body that suffered burning. “Apparently the body was lying on the pitch house floor when the structure burned,” the study suggested, “but there were no indications that the individual burned alive.”

Another body, found near feature 1, was an isolated burial near an early formative pithouse. Due to the weathering of the bones and rodent gnaw marks, it was suggested the bone was exposed for at least three years before it was buried.

Another partial inhumation showed signs of osteoarthritis and periodontal disease. This male was thought to have been between 25 and 45 years old.

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All told, the N:12:14 site yielded 125 milling tools, 3 abraders, 1 3/4 axe, 2 polishing stones, and one capstone. An ornamental pendant was found “in the early stages of manufacture when it was…discarded.” Two separate argillite pipe fragments were found; one seemed to be used since it had residue in the stem. This residue was not tested.

“Evidence indicated that the Early Formative inhabitants of the Big Bug creek sites cultivated corn, squash, and beans. Corn and "little barley" were recovered from Colonial Period contacts,” the study surmised. “These groups subsisted on a mixed economy based on cultivating corn, beans, and squash, complemented by exploiting wild and encouraged foods. Resource procurement zones spanned great distances, suggesting the long-term maintenance of exchange routes and interaction with populations as distant as the Tucson basin.” 

Archeologists are sure that more evidence exists under Mayer waiting to be found. Indeed, signs of indigenous habitation along Big Bug creek stretches from Mayer all the way to Cordes Junction! 

Population levels ebbed and flowed in prehistoric Mayer, but the banks of the Big Bug Creek offered a popular place for prehistoric, indigenous people to live.



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“Life Along Big Bug Creek in the Early Years—The SR 69 Cordes Junction to Mayer ArchaeologicL Project,” Compiled by: Walter R Punzmann, Margerie Green, Lourdes Aguila, Amy Phillips. Archaeological Consulting Services, Ltd. Cultural Resource Report No. 105; August 1998. PP 59-82, 298-300, 311, 315, 328-329, 331, 368, 398.

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