The Apishapa phase is the name given to distinctive archaeological sites found primarily in southeastern Colorado that Native Americans occupied between AD 1050 and 1450. The Apishapa phase is related to both contemporaneous and more recent archaeological sites located in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. Archaeologists do not know which modern Native American tribes represent the descendants of the people who lived in Apishapa phase sites, although some scholars believe that they may be the Caddoan-speaking tribes of the Plains, including the Pawnee.
University of Denver archaeologist Arnold M. Withers coined the term Apishapa phase in 1954 after the Apishapa River, a major tributary of the Arkansas River that flows from the Spanish Peaks northeast toward the town of Fowler, Colorado. The Apishapa River cuts a deep canyon into the open grassland of northern Las Animas and southeastern Pueblo Counties. It was along the rim of that canyon that the first professional investigations of Apishapa phase sites took place.
Archaeologists now know that Apishapa phase sites occur throughout a broad arc extending from the town of Kenton, Oklahoma, nearly to Colorado Springs, Colorado (Fig. 1). Major concentrations of Apishapa phase sites occur along the Dry Cimarron River in northeastern New Mexico; in the maze of shallow canyons in western Baca County; along the Purgatoire and Apishapa Rivers and their tributaries in southern Las Animas County; and along Turkey Creek, a northern tributary of the Arkansas River in Pueblo County.
Apishapa Phase Architecture
Archaeologists were drawn to Apishapa sites because of their spectacular architecture. The first site intensively studied by archaeologists, known as the Snake Blakeslee site, contains the remains of two multiroom stone structures, along with several one-room structures, all perched on the rim of the Apishapa Canyon. First visited in 1930 by University of Denver archaeologist Etienne B. Renaud and excavated in 1949 by Columbia University graduate student Haldon Chase, the buildings at Snake Blakeslee were constructed from massive stone blocks. In some rooms, upright stone pillars or posts up to 1.5 meters (5 feet) high supported the roof (Fig. 2). The upper walls and roofs of Apishapa phase buildings likely were built from wooden poles covered with clay, a construction technique known as jacal. Animal hides, bundles of grass, or boughs may also have been used to cover the buildings’ wooden frameworks.
The Cramer site, another Apishapa Canyon site investigated by Renaud and later by University of Nebraska State Archaeologist James H. Gunnerson, contained a massive structure made up of three rooms connected by curving walls that separated different work areas. The largest of the rooms at Cramer measures 7.5 meters (25 feet) across (Fig. 3). Gunnerson interpreted that large room as a ceremonial building. Other archaeologists have interpreted Apishapa phase sites as defensive in nature, due to their frequent occurrence on isolated mesas or on the rims of deep canyons.
As research expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, especially on lands administered by the US Army at Fort Carson and the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site, archaeologists came to realize that the buildings at the Cramer and Snake Blakeslee sites are atypical examples of Apishapa phase architecture. Foundation slabs set vertically in the ground are a common feature of Apishapa structures and most are circular or oval, but their size, position on the landscape, and number of rooms vary widely. Archaeologists now interpret Apishapa phase buildings as family homes or, in the case of larger buildings, as communal work areas, rather than as ceremonial buildings or fortifications.
Archaeologists have also discovered Apishapa sites without architecture, including locations in open plains settings and in deep alcoves in sandstone cliffs. Those alcoves, also known as rock shelters, mostly provided natural protection from the elements, but Apishapa phase households sometimes built walls or other structures inside them. Sites in the open plains were used primarily as buffalo hunting camps.
Apishapa Phase Lifeways
In the 1950s and 1960s, archaeologists thought that the Apishapa phase represented a local example of a widespread sociocultural pattern known as the Plains Village tradition. Plains Village tradition sites occur throughout the Great Plains, from the Missouri River in North Dakota to the Canadian River in Texas and Oklahoma. Plains Village tradition groups built substantial timber-frame houses close to river floodplains suitable for growing corn (maize) and other domesticated crops, stored surplus food and other items in underground storage pits, and manufactured distinctive stone and bone tools and pottery vessels. In addition to raising maize, they also hunted buffalo and other large mammals. Thus, archaeologists interpreted Apishapa phase sites as permanent villages where families lived for much of the year, farming during the summer and traveling periodically to the open plains to hunt.
Detailed studies of artifacts and the remains of plants and animals now show Apishapa phase sites were not populous permanent villages, but were instead occupied repeatedly and for brief periods by small groups of people. Apishapa phase households did hunt buffalo, but they also hunted a wide variety of smaller animals. Corncobs and kernels occur on Apishapa phase sites, but the remains of wild plant foods are more abundant and farming tools are lacking, indicating that cultivated crops were a dietary supplement, rather than a staple. Archaeologists now view Apishapa phase people primarily as hunter-gatherers who moved seasonally between houses located in different ecological zones.
Apishapa phase sites contain small numbers of imported artifacts. Pottery vessels made in the Southwest, as well as farther east in the Plains, occur on some sites. Stone tools manufactured in the Texas panhandle are found on others. Shells from the Gulf of Mexico have been found on a few sites. These imported items may have been traded from one group to another, or they may indicate that Apishapa phase people periodically had contact with people from distant regions.
Petroglyphs, or rock art images pecked into boulders or cliff faces, frequently occur near Apishapa phase sites. Some of these images may be contemporaneous with the Apishapa phase, while some may be slightly older. Common motifs include bison, deer, and other animals, as well as human figures with knobby knees, outstretched arms, and oversized fingers. Meandering lines and other abstract elements co-occur with depictions of animals and people. Groups of petroglyphs depicting animals and humans may represent hunting scenes.
Archaeologists have good evidence that the ancestors of the people who built Apishapa phase sites had been living in southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico for 1,000 years or longer. However, the reasons why they left the region in the early AD 1400s are not known. Climate change, especially widespread drought, as well as warfare may have been factors.