A Remarkable Recovery: Cotton Pollen Identified from the Haynie Site

Posted February 21, 2024

A Remarkable Recovery: Cotton Pollen Identified from the Haynie Site

By Susan C. Ryan, Executive Vice President of Crow Canyon’s Research Institute

Have you ever stopped to think about how we interact with cotton in our daily lives? We use cotton coffee filters, paper, ropes, bandages, bedding, towels, clothing and so much more and the crushed seeds of cotton are used in a multitude of products including soaps, cosmetics, margarine, and biofuels. Even U.S. currency is made with cotton fibers. We cannot imagine our lives without this incredibly beneficial plant!

Cotton is one of the earliest domesticated non-food crops in the world. The oldest evidence for the use of domestic cotton comes from the Indus Valley in present-day Pakistan. Mehrgarh, the oldest known agricultural village in the Valley, contained evidence of cotton seeds and fibers dating to approximately 6,000 before present. Residents worked with wild cotton plants over the generations to select plentiful bolls, longer fibers, and fibers that could be easily removed from their seed heads.

In the Americas, cotton was first domesticated in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico, between 3,400 and 2,300 years ago. Throughout the centuries, cotton was deemed a sought-after commodity and exchanged far and wide. Mesoamerican elites projected power by adorning themselves with woven, colorfully dyed textiles and offered cotton products as gifts and payments.

The oldest known example of domesticated cotton macrobotanical remains (visible plant parts) in the U.S. Southwest comes from the Eagle Ridge Site in present-day southern Arizona and dates to the fourth-century A.D. However, there is evidence of cotton pollen from archaeological sites in southern Arizona dating as early as 1,250–800 B.C. The increasing discovery of sites dating to the late Archaic period suggests cotton agriculture was part of the economy in some of the first farming communities in the Southwest. Cotton products, including yarn and woven textiles, were traded throughout the landscape via extensive social networks for centuries.

Cotton (Gossypium hopi) was introduced to areas north of the Mogollon Rim (a topographical and geological feature cutting across the northern half of present-day Arizona) around A.D. 700. All known examples of cotton textiles from the northern Southwest have been recovered from the Chinle and Tsegi drainages of northeastern Arizona, including Antelope House in Canyon de Chelly, and date to the Pueblo I period (A.D. 750–950).

In 2016, the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center initiated the Northern Chaco Outliers Project, a multi-year research initiative focused on the Haynie site, a large ancestral village occupied from the 6th through 12th centuries A.D. This project was designed to generate data necessary to address questions fundamental to understanding a series of broader anthropological research topics. Data collected in the field and laboratory provide insights into human-environment relationships though time, social stratification and equality/inequality, the role of public architecture and community centers, and identity formation. By engaging in this research, Crow Canyon researchers and Indigenous partners shed light on how past human behaviors can teach us about the successes and challenges modern societies face throughout the world as we strive to create change for the betterment of humanity.

In 2023, with the assistance of Susie Smith, Crow Canyon’s palynologist, we learned the residents of the Haynie site had access to cotton starting in the 9th century A.D. Two cotton pollen grains were recovered from floor surfaces of rooms dating to the Pueblo I (A.D. 750–950) and Pueblo II periods (A.D. 950–1150). Smith identified a single grain of cotton pollen from a sediment sample collected from the adobe floor of Structure 1073, Pueblo I period surface room on the western side of the village. A second grain of cotton pollen was recovered from Structure 1042, an early Pueblo II period surface room, also located on the western side of the village. This room was equally remarkable for containing hundreds of maize pollen grains, most likely an indication maize pollen, or maize plants harvested during their pollination stage, were stored here.

It is unlikely the cotton pollen recovered from the Haynie site represents agricultural production in the surrounding Lakeview community, as cotton needs warm growing conditions—between 90–95 degrees Fahrenheit—to mature. Instead, the grains most likely hitched a ride on cotton yarn, a boll, or textile imported from present-day Utah or Arizona by vast social networks.

The recovery of cotton pollen from the Haynie site is remarkable for three reasons.

– First, no examples of cotton textiles (or cotton macrobotanicals for that matter) have been recovered from the Mesa Verde region dating to the Pueblo I period until now. The presence of cotton pollen affords us the opportunity to reevaluate when cotton first appeared in the northern Southwest, pushing back our initial assessment by one-to-two centuries.

– Second, the ability to detect pollen in Structures 1073 and 1042 indicates excellent preservation, likely due to the quick infilling of the structure following depopulation. Cotton pollen grains can be difficult to detect due to preservation challenges as cotton flowers bloom in a successive spiral pattern around the plant. The flowers are open for a single day and then fall off. Thus, cotton pollen is most likely to be found on the ground surface where the flowers fell, not necessarily in contexts a great distance away from agricultural fields.

– Finally, we have gained new insights into ancient social networks during the 9th and 10th centuries as cotton products were traded from areas to the south and west to the Mesa Verde region. Residents of the Haynie site no doubt treasured their cotton imports, including clothing, blankets, straps, yarn, and much more.

As you go about your day, I challenge you to be mindful of how cotton is incorporated into your daily routine and ponder the importance of this plant to humans in the past, present, and future.

Photos Courtesy of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center:

Structure 1073, a Pueblo I period (A.D. 750-950) masonry surface room, at the Haynie site. Pollen samples were collected from sealed contexts on the floor surface. Photo courtesy of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.

Moccasin Gray jar on the floor surface of Structure 1073, Haynie site. Pollen samples were collected from below the jar. Courtesy of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.

Location of Structure 1073, a Pueblo I period (A.D. 750-950) surface room, in relation to other nearby structures, Haynie site. Photo courtesy of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.