May 16, 2009

Ancient Navajo Smoke Signals Getting a Second Look

Archaeologists are studying how early Navajos used smoke signals to notify others of invaders.

The researchers and volunteers have flare guns and will spread across the Four Corners Saturday to test the ancient alarm system.

There are 200 pueblitos that the archaeologists think were constructed by Navajos to defend themselves against Spanish explorers and rival tribes.

"If you hear an enemy approaching, you climb into these things and pull up the ladder, and you can seal yourself in for a while," said Ron Maldonado, program manager of the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department.

The sites are located where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet, and house the remains of what used to be daunting structures constructed from sandstone. The idea is that Navajos stayed inside the pueblitos and used smoke to launch warnings long distances, said Jim Copeland, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Farmington.

Copeland noted that the smoke signal research has been going on since the 1990's, but since new sites have been found since then, scientists want conduct more research into how the signals were sent.

"We're still trying to confirm long distance and questionable views," Copeland said. "A lot of them are kind of no-brainers. You can pretty much see from A to B, but A to C was sort of questionable and that's the kind of thing we want to test."

The volunteers will spread out to the defensive houses by noon Saturday. Their task is to send smoke signals and look at the horizon for other signals.

The majority of the Four Corners area is called Dinetah, the ancient home of the Navajos. The tribe's creation tale focuses on the region.

"The Dinetah essentially is the emergence place of the Navajo," noted Ron Maldonado, program manager of the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department.

Tree-ring dating shows implies that the sites were created in the early 1700s, stated Patrick Hogan, associate director of the University of New Mexico's Office of Contract Archaeology.

Overall, Hogan noted, researchers are concerned with acquiring more knowledge the early social association of the Navajos and the links within their communities.

"One way to think about linking these larger communities is which defensive sites have line of sight to each other," Hogan said. "They aren't going to have line of sight to all of them. They're going to be in clusters, and those clusters might give us a basis for then defining larger cooperating groups."

Even though there are more than 200 sites that have been found, Copeland is confident that there are more out there.

"Until you walk up on it or someone points you in that direction, it's just sitting out there waiting," Copeland said.


Image Credit: University Of North Carolina


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Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department

University of New Mexico