New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies


Project name: Padoma
Location: San Juan Mesa
Site types: Base camps, field camps, quarries, tool-maintenance and -manufacture sites, possible foraging sites, homesteads
Period: Late Paleoindian through Formative, early twentieth century
Project director: Steven Lakatos

The Padoma Project: Earth, Wind, and Playa

The sustained prevailing winds of southeast New Mexico and the elevated setting of San Juan Mesa are ideal for generating electricity from wind energy. The San Juan Mesa archaeological inventory was conducted in advance of the construction of a wind-generated power plant consisting of 125 turbines, access roads, a transmission line, a substation, and an operations building.

San Juan Mesa is an escarpment of caprock providing offering relief on the otherwise nearly featureless landscape of the Llano Estacado. The mesa encompasses over 5,000 windswept acres with a variety of microecological zones, including playas, grasslands, and springs. To the west and north, the mesa edge is defined by sheer, craggy cliffs. To the east these cliffs gradually give way to a gentle grassy slope. In the past, its marginal environment, remoteness, and lack of profitable mineral and timber resources relegated the mesa to use by highly mobile Native America groups, homesteaders, and, finally, generations of cattle ranchers. The variety and consistency of these natural resources sustained transient hunters, foragers, and homesteaders for over 11,000 years. The Padoma crew

The OAS crew inventoried 740 acres on San Juan Mesa and recorded 37 sites and 590 isolated occurrences, including 1,077 artifacts and features. Much of the artifact assemblage is comprised of 1,024 chipped stone artifacts. Historic Euroamerican metal, glass, and ceramics, and isolated features such as burned caliche, cairns, and cobble alignments were also recorded.

One goal of the project was to explore fundamental questions concerning temporal/cultural affiliation and site type and function from an under-reported portion of New Mexico. In addition, broader regional questions concerning settlement, subsistence, and land-use patterns were addressed. The extent and environmental variety of the project area provided an excellent sample to refine or amplify our understanding of enduring economic strategies associated with logistically mobile organizational systems from the late Paleoindian through the Formative period.

Six temporal components from the late Paleoindian period to the early twentieth century were identified. The sites fit into two broad categories: multiple-activity sites and limited-activity sites. Multiple-activity sites, common across the project area, include base camps, field camps, and homesteads. Limited-activity sites, identified predominantly in the western portion of the project area, include quarries, tool-maintenance and -manufacture locations, and possible foraging locations.

Evidence of Native American occupation and use during the late Paleoindian, early Archaic, late Archaic, and Formative periods was common. Most of the sites represent short-term limited-activity or special-use areas associated with hunting and gathering, lithic resource procurement, or tool maintenance. In addition to special-use sites, larger residential or habitation sites with structural remains were identified. Remains of homesteading and hunting activities are evidence of Euroamerican use of the area during the early twentieth century.

Two Late Paleoindian components were identified based on two Hell Gap– or Agate Basin–like projectile point bases. Breakage patterns characteristic of impact fractures suggest rehafting activities. Four Middle Archaic components are identified based on projectile point styles similar to San Jose or Elam types. Evidence of late Archaic components was more common. Five late Archaic components were identified based on corner-notched projectile points similar to San Pedro, Armijo, Ensor, or Williams styles. In addition, three isolated late Archaic projectile points were recorded.

Formative-period components were characterized by brown ware pottery and arrow points, recorded at base camps, field camps, and near playa lakes or mesa edges. Formative-period components were spatially associated with preceding occupations, indicating exploitation of a similar resource base over several periods.

Eight late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century Euroamerican components were identified, including four residential complexes, three artifact scatters, and two field camps. Historic records suggest the vicinity surrounding San Juan Mesa had been settled by the late 1880s, followed by attempts at homesteading during the early twentieth century. By 1916 these homestead entries had been canceled or revoked, and the land returned to the public domain.

Overall, the results of the survey confirmed our expectations about the relationship between site function and site setting. Multiple-activity sites were found near dependable water sources and in protected areas, while field camps were found in diverse settings, commonly at the edge of the mesa or near a playa lake. It was more difficult to predict this relationship with limited-activity sites. For example, quarries, predicted in erosional settings, were also identified in depositional environments, and tool maintenance and manufacture also took place at base camps and field camps.

The vast expanses between elevated settings and permanent spring or seeps on the Llano Estacado have tethered mobile populations to locations like San Juan Mesa for millennia. Therefore, rather than seeing the sites or the project area as isolated examples of past human activity, this and similar geologic features are should be considered as interrelated parts of a larger, persistent cultural landscape.