People have lived in and around the San Juan River for over 12,000 years, since the last ice age when Sleeping Ute Mountain was adorned with a 300-meter thick year-round ice cap. The first cultures known to occupy the region were paleo-indians, nomadic hunters who preyed on the ice age "megafauna," (a big word for big animals) like mammoths, that occupied the region. Evidence of these people is scant, but a peleo-indians projectile point--far larger than those used by later cultures--was found atop Lime Ridge not far from the river.
The combined pressures of hunting and a warming climate caused massive ecological changes at the end of the ice age 10,000 years ago. Sixty five percent of the megafauna went extinct, and evidence of paleo-indians disappeared. Around six thousand years ago, once a warmer climate was in place, evidence indicates Archaic cultures moved into the region. Like the paleo-indians before them, the Archaic people were primarily hunters and gatherers of wild plants. It's believed we see evidence of archaic cultures in some of the oldest rock art at lower Butler Wash.
Corn is first documented in our region 3000 years ago. Although corn never formed a central staple of Archaic peoples' diets, its presence suggests an exchange of ideas and seeds with cultures to the south and marks the beginning of a broad transition to agriculture. This transition, which largely occurred later with the Basketmaker Culture between 500 B.C. and 700 A.D., would profoundly alter landscapes and lifeways in the four corners region. With the shift to agriculture came a shift to a more sedentary lifestyle. People began building pithouses dug several feet into the ground topped with wood and mud. Food was stored in pits dug into the ground and lined with slabs. The Basketmakers also made baskets, sandals and other textiles out of various plants, especially yucca.
The Basketmaker time period is probably best represented along the San Juan River in the form of rock art. The Butler Wash panel contains life-size San Juan anthropormorpic (another big word meaning human-like) figures carved into the rock very intricately in addition to the archaic rock art mentioned above. It is thought that the Butler Wash Panel held a religious or spiritual connotation to the people that lived there as the anthropormorphic figures are thought to be shamanistic representations. Squash and beans began to supplement corn and helped to fuel a population increase and helped to facilitate another transition.
Around 900 A.D. pithouses began to be replaced by masonry structures. Kivas, sometimes square, sometimes round, would be integrated into the room blocks. Kivas were areas where religious ceremonies would take place but also probably served as a room for every day activities as well. Kivas typically have a thatched roof on top with a hole in the center and a ladder leading down into the kiva. The shift to pueblo construction was accompanied by the introduction of new crops and farming styles, all suggesting a radiation of ideas from peoples to the south. People began living in multi-family groups, agriculture was in full swing and the four corners region, including the San Juan River area, became entwined in a broad regional economic and social system whose reach extended to Mesoamerica.
Drought, exhausted croplands and natural resources, religious and other factors likely contributed to the unraveling of the regional socioeconomic systems beginning in the 12th century. Pueblos began to be built in highly defensible though inconvenient locations, like high alcoves of Chinle Wash. By the 13th century, migrations out of the San Juan River area had begun, and regional pottery styles began showing up far to the south--near what is today Winslow Arizona and even further south off Arizona's Mogollon Rim. The many pueblos of the San Juan River area were entirely vacant by the early or mid 14th century. Descendants of the Ancestral Puebloan people of the San Juan River eventually found their way to Hopi, Zuni and locals farther south.
We can trace this rich history along the river, where habitation sites, rock art panels and ancient roads and trade routes provide glimpses into the transition from hunter gatherer cultures into an extensive regional agrarian civilization whose sophistication and depth can't be overstated. This is the human history of this landscape before "history" began--many would argue that by virtue of its magnitude and scope it is the central story to this landscape's human history. We would likely agree.