Clovis projectile point recovered from the Sayles' Locality at Desperation Ranch. Courtesy of Arizona State Museum

Clovis projectile point recovered from the Sayles’ Locality at Desperation Ranch. Courtesy of Arizona State Museum



The first results are in from this project which was recently highlighted in Western Digs.

In partnership with the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon, archaeologists from Coronado National Forest, and the Argonaut Archaeological Fund (University of Arizona), the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society is undertaking an exciting project to renew investigations at the Cave Creek Midden site (Gila Pueblo Chiricahua 3:16).  Located along Cave Creek, near the town of Portal, Arizona the property was formerly named Desperation Ranch. Although this site received only limited study by the Gila Pueblo Archaeological Foundation, it became the reference site for a long interval of prehistory in the American Southwest-the middle period of the Cochise Culture. Reinvestigation of Desperation Ranch will address several timely questions and is expected to yield significant new information about a landmark site in American archaeology.

Work was done by AAHS and collaborators over several weekends in the fall of 2014 and continued in March 2015. AAHS has committed research funds towards this project and a substantial donation has been made by Rene and Tony Donaldson. The ASM agreed to waive curation fees, and some analysis and backhoe operation was donated by others.

Additional donations are being sought to cover the analysis of radiocarbon, pollen, and stable isotope samples.


Few projects can promise to make substantial contributions to our knowledge of prehistory more so than reinvestigations of those select few sites that steered the earliest concepts about it. Not since 1936 have archaeologists explored the archaeological sequence at Cave Creek Midden, the site that defined the Middle Archaic Chiricahua Stage of the Cochise Culture in the American Southwest (Sayles and Antevs 1941). The Middle Archaic is amongst the least understood and vitally important time periods in the prehistory of the American Southwest (Dean 1987; Huckell 1984; Mabry and Stevens 2013). This is so because it encompasses the apparent human recolonization of the desert borderlands underway by 4000 B.C., followed by the introduction of agriculture (maize) no later than about 2100 B.C. (Merrill et al. 2009), developments that set the stage for different forms of sedentism and village societies in southwestern North America. Archaeological, radiocarbon, and stratigraphic information from Desperation Ranch will provide important new information about the cultural, technological, and paleoenvironmental conditions that accompanied those developments. Interviews with the landowner and a preliminary archaeological survey of the property have identified the precise location of Gila Pueblo’s 1936 excavations. An important aspect of renewed investigations at the site will be to synthesize and publish historical documents, made available by ASM, accompanied by new information.


The archaeology of the Middle Archaic period is famously poor. Throughout the Southwest, sites containing deposits of that age are simply rare, and few have been systematically studied. The prospect of reevaluating the Chiricahua Stage type site stimulates a number of questions. The research questions to be addressed by renewed explorations at Desperation Ranch include:

  1. What is the area, sequence, character, age, and completeness of archaeological deposits at the site;
  1. Does pre 2100 B.C. evidence of maize exist at the site;
  1. How do the stratigraphy, pollens, and fauna inform us about paleoenvironments at the site;
  1. Do older (early Archaic or Paleoindian) cultural or paleoenvironmental deposits exist at the site?

The AAHS Board has appointed Jesse Ballenger (Statistical Research, Inc.) and Jonathan Mabry (Historical Preservation Office, City of Tucson) as Co-directors of the project. The Board retains oversight of the project.


Dean, Jeffrey S.
1987 The Archaic of Southern Arizona. Quarterly Review of Archaeology 8(4):1, 10-14.

Huckell, Bruce B.
1984 The Archaic Occupation of the Rosemont Area, Northern Santa Rita Mountains, Southeastern Arizona. Archaeological Series No. 147(1). Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona, Tucson.

Mabry, Jonathan, and Michelle N. Stevens
2013 Beyond the Cochise Culture: New Views of Archaic Foragers and Early Farmers in Southeastern Arizona. In Between Mimbres and Hohokam: Exploring the Archaeology and History of Southeastern Arizona and Southwestern New Mexico, edited by Henry D. Wallace. Anthropological Papers No. 52, Archaeology Southwest, Tucson, Arizona.

Meltzer, David J.
2006  Folsom: New Archaeological Investigations of a Classic Paleoindian Bison Kill. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California.

Merrill, William L., Robert J. Hard, Jonathan B. Mabry, Gayle J. Fritz, Karen R. Adams, John R. Roney, and A. C. MacWilliams
2009 The Diffusion of Maize into the Southwestern United States and Its Impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 106:21019-21026.

Sales, Edwin B. and Ernst V. Antevs
1941 The Cochise Culture. Medallion Papers No. 29, Gila Pueblo, Globe, Arizona.

Waters, Michael R.
1986 The Geoarchaeology of Whitewater Draw, Arizona. Anthropological Papers No. 45. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Wills, W. H.
1988 Early prehistoric agriculture in the American Southwest. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico.


1936 Gila Pueblo Excavation

1936 Gila Pueblo Excavation

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