The Haynie Site and the San Juan Basin Cotton Mystery

One of the more fascinating archaeobotanical stories from the central Colorado Plateau and the San Juan Basin is the rare evidence of cotton textiles and spinning tools, but the absence of botanical remains, that could prove people were farming cotton. Fragments of cotton cloth and worked fiber are especially visible in the well-documented records from Chaco Canyon Great Houses and north of Chaco at the large San Juan River communities of Salmon and Aztec. Yet, no cotton seeds, boll fragments, pollen, or other microfossils have been recovered from decades of research and thousands of samples analyzed. No botanical cotton remains have been recovered from the Great Houses and farming communities around Chaco Canyon, as well as from the extensive Salmon Ruin archaeobotanical studies. There is also no botanical evidence (with two exceptions) of cotton from decades of archaeological excavations across the Four Corners region including Crow Canyon Archaeological Center project excavations at several large pueblos, the Basketmaker Communities Project, and other sites. Why weren’t the Four Corners farming cultures growing cotton? The climate was challenging for this tropical crop, but over millennia, cotton agriculture moved north from the southern deserts and the cotton plant adapted from its native perennial biology to an annual life cycle. Recent pollen research from the western portion of the Haynie site (5MT1905) was completed as part of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center’s Northern Chaco Outliers Project. Two samples produced cotton pollen from early Pueblo Period room blocks which, in addition to being a first for the region, is one of the oldest dates for cotton botanical remains from the central Colorado Plateau. In this presentation, Susie reviews the archaeobotanical record of cotton, introduces cotton biology, and discusses some of the questions and issues surrounding the absence of cotton from the San Juan Basin.