Prehistoric Waterways

Water, and how to control it, is an age-old consideration for the people of Utah, including some of the earliest Native peoples: the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloans.

Fremont peoples relied on water conveyances only occasionally to water their agricultural fields, while the Ancestral Puebloans oriented their pueblos around water access and retention. These age-old ways of managing water contributed to the rich development of culture and society in Utah’s prehistoric past.

Fremont Waterways

Native American groups, named “Fremontby archaeologists, flourished in Utah from approximately 200 to 1200 AD. The Fremont incorporated agriculture into their otherwise foraging lifestyle; some segments of Fremont society grew the three sisters–corn, beans, and squash–and utilized water sources to maximize food production. The Fremont farming motto seems to be “work smarter, not harder,” and they would take advantage of natural slopes and drainages, and rills to transport water to their fields (Kuehn 2014; Simms, Kuehn, & Harrison, 2018). They occasionally positioned their fields and gardens near natural water sources and runoff (Metcalfe & Larrabee, 1985), and archaeological evidence shows that the Fremont also constructed irrigation ditches to water their crops (Talbot & Richens, 1996). Creating irrigation ditches would have been labor-intensive, but lead to a significant increase in crop production, ultimately allowing the Fremont to thrive in inhospitable landscapes (Kuehn, 2014, Boomgarden, 2015).

Ancestral Puebloan Waterways

Ancestral Puebloans (who used to inappropriately be called Anasazi) lived in the American Southwest, including a large portion of Southern Utah known as the Colorado Plateau, from approximately 550 to 1300 AD (Wright, 2008). The American Southwest had a notoriously variable climate during the Ancestral Puebloan period (Benson & Berry 2015), making access and control of water essential to survival (Wright, 2008). Archaeological evidence of Ancestral Puebloan sites show that prehistoric peoples successfully managed water, and this likely contributed to their prosperity. Ancestral Puebloans often centered their towns around a spring or cistern, such as at the Sand Canyon Pueblo (Bradley, 2008). Other sites, such as the Woods Canyon Pueblo, show evidence of prehistoric reservoirs where pond sediments have been identified along with constructed earthen dams, demonstrating deliberate and successful manipulation of water in prehistory (Wilshusen, Churchill, & Potter, 1997).

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