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Transhumance/Seasonal Migration - What we are proposing here is to combine the established archaeological evidence relating to Paquimé and the new Sky Island site with current Tarahumara lifestyles. Today, the gentile Tarahumara grow most of their corn in dispersed fields at higher elevations and transport the dried corn back to their canyon winter homes after harvest. When people move from one established seasonal home to another, it is referred to as transhumance or seasonal migration. This is not a nomadic lifestyle; it is, rather, moving between two specific home sites.

Having personally seen and participated in moving the entire family from the canyons to the mountains in the late spring and then returning to the canyons in the late fall, I can see in a very practical way how this is done. Today, due to limited space available in the Sierra Tarahumara, the distances range from 10 to about 40 very rugged miles. It is easy to see that such a system could have worked as well over a distance of 50 to 75 miles. There are advantages to living in the canyons during the winter and in the mountains during the summer. Specifically, rainfall totals go up significantly from an elevation of 3,000 feet to 7,000 feet, and a much larger area can be utilized.

In a critical new discovery, Tarahumara ethnographic evidence shows that elevations provide the only practical control of root cutworm. The Tarahumaras report that their fields must experience numerous episodes of hard freezing each winter for abundant corn production year after year. It is clear that both the Paquimé and Chaco cultures had a system of outliers to take advantage of the higher elevations for both control of root cutworm as well as increased rainfall.

There are also some additional factors that Anglo-Americans understand well: The mountain climate is much more pleasant and attractive in the summer and there are fewer bothersome insects, especially those that carry disease, at lower elevations.

During the dry, winter months when the temperatures in the highlands are so bitterly cold, living conditions are much more attractive in the canyons or valleys. For the canyon Tarahumara, most of the religious ceremonies and large gatherings take place during the winter months when they are living closer to one another.
My personal experience has allowed me to see in a very practical way that the Paquimé people were most likely using this same system of transhumance as both an agricultural and social strategy. This led me to pursue an extensive review of the published archaeological literature, as well as to interview many of the most currently active archaeologists, to see what could be found on this topic.

For most archaeologists, the primary problem with transhumance is the distance. There are certainly many valid archaeological reasons for this social and agricultural strategy at Mesa Verde/Crow Canyon/Yellow Jacket, Chaco Canyon, Paquimé and many other areas as well. The Tarahumaras have no problem at all with a 40 to 75 mile distance for foot travel with heavy loads.

copyright 2005 - Richard D Fisher -