High Rolls Cave

Project name: High Rolls Cave
Site type: Prehistoric shelter
Period: Archaic (1500 BC to AD 250)
Project director: Stephen C. Lentz

Insectos, Burritos, y Frajos: Archaic Subsistence and Ceremony in Southern New Mexico

If you stand at the entrance to High Rolls Cave in the Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico, you are probably seeing the same view as some long-ago hunter-and-gatherer. To the west are the flat scrublands of the Tularosa Basin and the gypsum dunes of White Sands. On the horizon lie the gray humps of the San Andrés Mountains. To the north, beyond Fresnal Creek, stand the vertical scarp of limestone and the low overhang of Fresnal Rock Shelter. Farther up the canyon, a conifer forest is punctuated by dolomite outcrops.

OAS archaeologists conducted archaeological testing here in 1996 and 2000, revealing deposits from the middle and late Archaic periods—about 3,500 years ago. The excavations exposed deeply stratified materials, floors, diagnostic artifacts, and features radiocarbon dated to 1500 BC to AD 250. This period is contemporary with other Archaic sites in the area, particularly Fresnal Shelter, a landmark Archaic-phase rock shelter 300 m due north. High Rolls Cave is placed advantageously at the conjunction of four ecozones: the desert environment of the Tularosa Basin, the piñon-juniper woodlands, the montane ponderosa-fir slopes of the upper Sacramento Mountains, and the riparian environment of Fresnal Creek. It gave access to numerous montane resources, as well as the diverse plant communities along the margins of the Tularosa Basin, the riparian zone of Fresnal Creek, and the warm slopes of the tributary canyons.

View from High Rolls Cave On a north-sloping cliff face, the front part of the cave was dynamited in 1949 during the construction of the road to Cloudcroft. Nevertheless, in 2000 expanded testing showed that significant undisturbed deposits were present and that the center of the cave, including the central hearth complex, was intact. Floors were marked by thick layers of organic materials placed there by the occupants to hold down the fine gypsum dust and insulate their bodies from the sharp limestone spalls blanketing the cave floor. In these layers, a 3,000-year-old globed mountain mahogany leaf looked like it just fallen from the tree the year before. This remarkable level of preservation allowed us to collect more than 80 reliable radiocarbon dates, making it one of the best-dated dry-cave sites in the Southwest. Because of the dating sequence, dart point types, Mexican plant species, and distinctive sandal styles, we thought that the people who first occupied the cave had probably came from the south, from the vast stretches of the Hueco Bolson, or even northern Mexico.

Important deposits had already been documented, and we anticipated significant scientific discoveries. During this excavation phase, we encountered many unusual items. There was a yucca pod stuffed with a mixture of goosefoot, pigweed, amaranth and other wild seeds, immediately decreed "the earliest breakfast burrito." This ingenious, tasty food item was apparently sampled, and mysteriously discarded. And who could account for the feces lying longitudinally across a pair of yucca sandals, arranged perfectly side by side, directly above a beautifully rendered, unused chalcedony tool? Was this some elaborate prehistoric joke? At first, not only could we not identify the strange, spherical objects that popped up in our screen, but we were at a loss to explain their presence. Later, we discovered that these odd, nacreous concretions were in fact urinary calculi, similar to human kidney stones, which develop in the viscera of animals and fall out when they are butchered.

One of the afrchafeologists who originally excavated Fresnal Shelter, Pete Eidenbach, still lives nearby. This bearded, beaded mountain man, a veteran of Fresnal Shelter and a local savant, visited us regularly and shared all sorts of lore and colorful anecdotes. He also helped us immensely with our understanding of the local archaeology. During one of the earlier seasons at Fresnal, they exposed a concentration of organic matter that he described as an ancient pool of regurgitate. As it happened, we were having trouble accounting for the many ash-impregnated coprolites (petrified animal or human stools) and ash- and charcoal-laden corn fragments. Later, our research strongly suggested that ash may have been used to flavor the corn, to enhance its nutritional value, or to calm the stomach—ash and charcoal are common folk remedies for parasites and diarrhea. We began to suspect that occasional indigestion may have troubled the Archaic residents of High Rolls, particularly when chewed bug parts showed up in the coprolites. This might explain the purslane we found in botanical samples, which may also have been used as a palliative.

Although there was a stream nearby, fish bones were conspicuously absent. So, what inscrutable factors influenced the prehistoric people's choice to eat insects instead of the abundant native trout in the nearby creek? Research on the dietary practices of the local Mescalero Apaches and other groups suggests that cultural taboos may explain the avoidance of aquatic resources. To this day, some Native Americans believe that fish contain the souls of restless spirits and should not be disturbed. Fishtail sandal drawing by Rob Turner

Besides these anomalies, our excavations exposed deeply stratified deposits, floors, diagnostic artifacts, and formal features. Three main occupations of High Rolls Cave were defined, but it was the main occupation, Stratum 2, that yielded the most information. This thick layer occurred between approximately 1300 and 950 BC. Examples of perishable items recovered from this level, usually missing from archaeological sites, included cordage, sandals, blanket and basket fragments, snares (one of human hair), knots, cordage, wooden artifacts, and feathers. There were also shell beads from the Pacific coast and the Gulf of Mexico, and bones from deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and turkey. We found many diagnostic dart points, suggesting the use of an atlatl, or spear-thrower, to hunt game. Plant remains included cultivated parched and stored amaranth, tobacco, corn, parched and stored acorns and piñon nuts, and abundant quantities of giant dropseed grass, sunflower, yucca, agave, mesquite, feather grass and sotol seeds. Other intriguing finds were a feather bundle and an amulet necklace. Near the center of the cave was a hearth and an activity area whose structure was so obvious that we could easily imagine a domestic scene from 1300 BC. 

We troweled through the early winter of 2000. On a freezing December morning, I wrote in my site journal, "There are large icicles dangling from the roof of our site, while, across the canyon, Fresnal appears virtually tropical." This gave rise to a very simple working model: since one side of the canyon was hot most of the year, and the other was cold, the neighboring sites were probably used seasonally. Indeed, preliminary data indicated variation in the types of plants that were consumed and animals that were hunted, also hinting at a seasonal use of these sites. Presumably, after a long winter, groups collected spring ricegrass and brought it to Fresnal, enjoying its warmth and access to Fresnal Creek. When dropseed grass was ready to be harvested, it was brought to High Rolls, sheltering its inhabitants from the brutal summer sun. Also, stored foods would have been better preserved in the cooler cave. After laboratory analyses, we were able to establish a clear bimodal distribution between the seed grasses. When added to the high counts of bones of immature deer and other seasonal taxa, we concluded that the shelter and the cave were not two sites, but spring and summer components of a large base camp.

There appears to be ample evidence of ceremonial practices at High Rolls Cave, especially within the botanical assemblage. Plants with ritual connections that were found in the cave include datura (Jimson weed), corn pollen, tobacco, purslane, portulaca, and morning glory. Numerous seeds of Nicotiana rustica, a Mexican variety of tobacco, bore signs of having been cultivated. Also present were tobacco leaves rolled into cylindrical forms resembling cigarettes (frajos, in New Mexican slang). Tobacco has traditionally been used for recreational, ceremonial, or medicinal purposes. For Native American people in general, the ceremonial use of tobacco brings fog, clouds, and rain, gives luck for ceremonies, and heals and nourishes people. Tobacco is used during initiation ceremonies and political meetings; induces the growth of flowers, crops, and other forms of food; and produces sacred visions of the spirit world. Puffs of smoke appeal to the clouds, producing rain and fertility (Winter 2000:45).

Corn pollen, which was evident in every period of occupation, is traditionally used by Native Americans for ceremonial purposes. The sheer abundance of corn pollen in the cave suggests that some may have been distributed as a sacrament to bless or cleanse the space, or for burials: prehistoric and historic Pueblo burials are frequently consecrated with corn pollen. Of possible ritualistic use was a cache of projectile points from a pouch or, more likely, an amulet string (Haury 1950). The feather bundle, similar to those recovered from other sites in the Southwest, may have belonged to healers or shamans. Wild tomato, another species present at High Rolls, was used medicinally and also ceremonially by prehistoric and historic Native American groups (Moermann 1986), as was ephedra, a stimulant commonly used throughout the New World. Also found were three ochre-impregnated specimens of cordage. Webster (2004:19) believes they were used in ritual or mortuary settings.

We were very excited about many of the findings at High Rolls Cave and their potential for contributing significant information to the prehistory of the Southwest. The cultigens found at High Rolls, particularly tobacco and amaranth, predate by centuries similar finds from elsewhere. With the discovery of early maize, High Rolls Cave joins Fresnal Shelter, Ventana Cave, Bat Cave and a handful of others as one of the earliest corn sites in the Southwest.

By the late third century AD, populations moved down to the Mesilla-El Paso phase sites in the Tularosa Basin, and for several centuries the cave remained vacant. We found no traces of pottery from later Mogollon peoples or materials from historic Plains groups. In the late 1800s, cowboys rested under the cool overhang when driving their herds to summer pastures. In the twentieth century, the cave sustained sporadic use by picnickers fleeing the scorching lowlands, and between 1910 and 1931, locals scrawled graffiti in pencil on the back walls. During the construction of US 82, workers discarded lunch bags, cigarette packages, and blasting caps in the cave. In the 1960s a hippie occupied the site for a while and then disappeared. The excavation pits have been backfilled, and all that remains of the many centuries of prehistoric occupation of High Rolls Cave is a smooth, level floor of brown dirt.


Haury, Emil W.
1950 The Stratigraphy and Archaeology of Vientiane Cave, Arizona. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Moermann, Daniel E.
1986 Medicinal Plants of Native America. Vols. 1 and 2. Technical Reports Number 19. University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, Ann Arbor.

Webster, Laurie D.
2004  Clothing, Baskets, and Knots from Salmon Pueblo: A Perishable Perceptive on Salmon, the Middle San Juan, and that "Chaco Thing." University of Arizona, Tucson.

Winter, Joseph C.
2000 Traditional Uses of Native Tobacco by Native Americans. In Tobacco Use by Native Americans: Sacred Smoke and Silent Killer, edited by Joseph C. Winter, pp. 9–58. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.