Go to Table of Contents.
About This Publication
List of Tables
List of Illustrations
Introduction to the Site
Research Design
Castle Rock Pueblo in a Regional Context
Settlement Organization
Population Estimates
Faunal Remains
Plant Evidence
Rock Art
The Final Days of Castle Rock Pueblo
Oral History
A Native American Perspective


by Kristin A. Kuckelman

The subsistence of the villagers at Castle Rock Pueblo can be reconstructed using information from the plant remains, animal bones, and pollen samples collected at the site. Studying subsistence is important to understanding how people survived in a specific time and place. The evidence from Castle Rock Pueblo indicates that the villagers obtained and used a variety of resources typically used by Puebloan peoples during the latter half of the A.D. 1200s in the Mesa Verde region. These resources supplied necessities such as food, shelter, fuel, and tools. Information and interpretations regarding the plant remains, animal bones, pollen samples, and artifacts collected at Castle Rock during the first two years of excavation are included in The Sand Canyon Archaeological Project: Site Testing (Varien 1999*2). Information and interpretations regarding the plant remains, animal bones, and artifacts collected during all five years of excavation are included in the present report, in the sections titled "Plant Evidence," "Faunal Remains," and "Artifacts." In this discussion of subsistence, I synthesize the information from those other contributions into a brief account of the subsistence practices of the villagers of Castle Rock Pueblo.

Water Resources

Even though there was little direct evidence of water use at Castle Rock, it is safe to assume that water, the most essential of all subsistence resources, was procured and used for drinking, cooking, washing, pottery making, and construction (mortar, adobe, and plaster mixing). Evidence of two earth-and-rubble dams (Database Map 513) was found in an intermittent (seasonal) drainage along the northeast edge of the site. These dams would have stopped or slowed the flow of runoff from a large expanse of exposed bedrock north, northwest, and northeast of the head of that drainage. During and just after a rain, or during snowmelt runoff, water would have backed up behind these dams. In this way, the villagers maximized the opportunity to use rain and snowmelt for domestic purposes. However, water would have been available from this source only infrequently in this semiarid climate.

Additional water must have been available somewhere nearby for the estimated 75 to 150 villagers at Castle Rock to have survived there for 20 years. McElmo Creek lies approximately 600 m (2,000 ft) south of the site. It is not known whether this creek was a permanent water source at the time Castle Rock was inhabited; irrigation water has supplemented its flow since the late 1800s. An early explorer reported that the creek bed was dry in July 1874 (Jackson 1959*1:319, 1875*1:July 30 entry). It is safe to assume, therefore, that a more dependable water source, such as a spring, was available at not too great a distance and that the villagers hauled most of their water from that source in ollas during all but the wettest seasons.

Plant Resources

Castle Rock residents used many plants that grew in the general vicinity of their village. The plant remains identified from collections made during excavations include remnants of food, fuel for fires, and building materials. Most plant remains recovered were charred, because uncharred plant material does not often survive for hundreds of years except in dry cave environments. The evidence indicates that the Castle Rock villagers, like other ancestral Puebloans in the Mesa Verde region, ate maize (Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), and squash (Cucurbita pepo). These cultivated crops probably made up a large part of the villagers' diet, especially maize, which was found in many different places and contexts at the site—in hearths, in middens, on a kiva bench, and in collapsed roofs. Wild plants also provided important foods. Fruits of the prickly-pear cactus (Opuntia) and broadleaf yucca (Yucca baccata) were eaten, as were seeds of goosefoot (Chenopodium), pigweed (Amaranthus), Indian rice grass (Stipa hymenoides), purslane (Portulaca), woolly wheat (Plantago), and stickleaf (Mentzelia). Most of these wild plants still grow in the area today.

Most of the evidence of maize at the site was in the form of kernels. But other parts of the maize plant, such as cobs and stalks, were found as well, and their presence indicates that the fields where the maize was grown were located nearby. The floodplain of McElmo Creek was within 200 m (600 ft) of the village and, as today, would have offered the best soil for farming in the immediate vicinity. This floodplain sediment is much deeper, more fertile, and less rocky than other sediments in the vicinity, and the floodplain would have been near water for crop irrigation. During the A.D. 1200s, the McElmo floodplain adjacent to Castle Rock was aggrading, and agricultural potential was high (Force and Howell 1997*1:32).

Plants were also used as fuel and as construction materials. The fuels found most commonly at Castle Rock were juniper and pinyon wood. Also used for fuel were maize (Zea mays) cobs, sagebrush (Artemisia), rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus), ash (Fraxinus), cottonwood (Populus), and greasewood (Sarcobatus). Evidence indicates that roofing timbers were almost exclusively juniper, but a few pinyon timbers were also used. Juniper trees were probably preferred for construction because they generally have straight trunks and the wood is more rot-resistant than the wood of the pinyon tree. Research on methods of kiva roof construction (Hovezak 1992*1:68) revealed that an estimated 96 to 192 logs were needed to roof one ordinary-sized, six-pilaster kiva similar to most of the kivas at Castle Rock Pueblo. Because one oversized and at least 15 ordinary-sized kivas were constructed at Castle Rock, the construction of kiva roofs alone would have required between 1,536 and 3,072 logs. The tree-ring dating samples from some of these logs indicate that a large proportion of the logs used to roof kivas died many years before Castle Rock was inhabited and thus were probably salvaged from abandoned buildings elsewhere. Other tree-ring samples, however, indicate that at least some of the logs were from trees freshly felled for the construction of kiva roofs at Castle Rock Pueblo.

Pollen samples that were collected during the first two years of testing at Castle Rock were analyzed and discussed in a previous report (Gish 1999*1). These samples were taken from the floors of Structures 204, 302, and 401. The results of the pollen analysis confirm the widespread use of maize by the villagers. The smaller amounts of pinyon and juniper pollen were probably the result of pollen "rain" that occurred naturally during the use of these structures; the pollen indicates that pinyon and juniper trees were common on the landscape surrounding the village. Also present was greasewood pollen, from a shrub that would have grown nearby along McElmo Creek; pollen from this plant might have been carried into the structures with maize grown in fields along the creek.

Many plants were also undoubtedly gathered for medicine, pottery paint dyes, hairbrushes, soap, food flavoring, and other uses, although no direct evidence of these activities was discovered at Castle Rock. A comprehensive summary of the ethnographic uses of various plants identified in the Mesa Verde region will be available on Crow Canyon's Web site. Some ethnographic uses of the plants that were available in the area of Castle Rock can be found in Ethnographic Uses of Plants.

Animal Resources

The animals identified from the bones collected during all five years of excavation at Castle Rock are listed in Table 1 of "Faunal Remains." Many of these animals were probably used for food, and the number and variety of species represented by the bones suggest that the villagers ate the meat of many different animals. Although most animals undoubtedly were procured primarily for food, the inedible parts were probably used for other purposes. Items such as awls, scrapers, and prayer sticks made from the bones of turkeys, deer, and rabbits were found during excavations at the site. Evidence from dry cave sites dating from this period in the Mesa Verde region indicates that inedible parts such as hide, fur, sinew, antlers, and feathers would have been used for clothing, blankets, tools, and weapons, although no direct evidence of these perishable items was collected at Castle Rock. Not all bones collected on the site were related to subsistence; some animals, such as domestic dogs, would have been pets, and others, such as snakes, lizards, and some rodents, could have died naturally at the village either during or after occupation.

The greatest percentage of animal bone collected during excavations at Castle Rock came from jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits, and large birds such as turkeys. The large number of rabbit bones indicates that rabbits were a primary source of meat and probably a more important source of protein than deer. Turkey bones were also numerous, and many eggshell fragments—probably from turkey eggs—were collected from the floor of Structure 122 in Roomblock 103 (Database Map 515). Turkeys were probably raised for their eggs and feathers. Turkey feathers could have been used for feather blankets, for arrow fletching, and for religious items such as prayer sticks. The presence of a complete hawk skeleton in the hearth in Structure 107 may indicate that these birds were raised, kept as pets, or used in ceremonies.


The plant, animal, and pollen remains collected during excavations at Castle Rock Pueblo indicate that the villagers used many wild plants and animals and some domesticated plants and animals for their subsistence. They dammed a drainage adjacent to their village to supplement their water supply, grew much of their own food in nearby fields, and apparently raised turkeys for eggs, meat, and feathers. The natural environment provided water as well as many wild plant and animal resources that were exploited for building materials, fuel, and additional food. The extensive use of wild plants suggests that the villagers had a thorough knowledge of edible and other useful plants in their environment. Recycling of construction timbers was practiced by reusing wood from abandoned buildings, probably located somewhere nearby. Many animals were exploited for food and for inedible materials such as bones for tools, probably hide and fur for clothing and blankets, and feathers for blankets and prayer sticks. Analysis of the human remains encountered during excavation revealed that the villagers were healthy and suffered no major nutritional deficiencies (analysis records on file at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Cortez, Colorado, and Debra L. Martin, personal communication 1998). The remains of the Castle Rock villagers' subsistence system are rich and varied, showing what resources these ancient Puebloans exploited, and the human remains indicate that the villagers flourished in this semiarid landscape.

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