The Salado: A Crossroads in Cultures
Jet Middaugh
Anthro 7, Spring 1998


The Salado represent a culture which was centered in the Tonto Basin in the Superstition Mountains, about 80 miles east of Phoenix, Arizona. This culture appeared about 1150 AD and disappeared about 1450 AD.

The Salado geographical area is comprised of high desert, mountains and river valleys. The Salt River, after which the Salado were named, was the heart of the Salado territory and a major source of water, arable farmland and trade routes to other tribes in the area. The Salado were in the center of the three major recognized cultures of the Southwest of this time period: the Anasazi to the North, The Mogollon to the East and South, the Hohokam to the West and Southwest.


There is some argument about whether the Salado should be considered a distinct culture. During the 1920s, Harold Gladwin first began investigation into what appeared to be a culture distinct from the Hohokam and Mogollon. While working at a Hohokam site, Casa Grande, Gladwin discovered polychrome pottery and above ground architecture unlike anything previously associated with the Hohokam. He believed this to be the influence of an invading culture. Later, while excavating Gila Pueblo about 80 miles East of Casa Grande, he discovered this same polychrome pottery and architecture and concluded that this culture was the source of the invasion into Hohokam territory (Reid 1997:235). After years of investigation, Gladwin proposed that the Salado peoples were a mixture of cultures who migrated into the Tonto Basin over a period of years. Gladwin felt that the origins of the Salado came from the Little Colorado River region of northeastern Arizona, bringing Mogollon architecture and pottery traits with them, which they modified as they moved farther South. He believed that another migration, of Anasazi peoples, arrived later bringing more formalized pueblos and further influencing the polychrome pottery style which has come to be termed Salado (Reid 1997:238).

Archaeologists have been arguing vehemently over whether the Salado were a mixture of Hohokam and Mogollon, Mogollon and Anasazi, Anasazi and Hohokam, or just a subset of a single cultural tradition (Cordell 1997:414). Cordell argues against the Salado as a distinct culture, but rather as a subset of the Hohokam. "It appears more productive to relate the changes in the Hohokam area to a structural reorganization of Hohokam society and Hohokam participation within a pan-southwestern system of interaction (1997: 416)". Reid, on the other hand states that "What seems clear is that the Salado were not a regional variant of the Hohokam Culture (1997: 258)". As becomes obvious after studying the available information, the Salado were a melting pot of cultures. As visitors and immigrants came through the Salado area, their practices, lifestyles and customs were adopted and adapted based on practicality, applicability and necessity to the Salado peoples.


There is ample evidence that the Tonto Basin was occupied long before the appearance of the Salado culture. Several Paleo-Indian mammoth kill sites are located very close to what is currently defined as Salado Territory. The Lehner, Naco and Double Adobe Sites are all well documented, with bones of numerous mammoth showing clear evidence of human predation (Reid 1997: 33,34). Clearly, humans were in the area 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. As the Paleo-Indian period drew to a close and the Archaic way of life took over, small bands of hunter/gatherers almost certainly passed through the Tonto Basin area. It is not until about 100 AD, however, that tangible evidence appears of any kind of settlement. Pottery sherds dating to this period begin to appear. These early pieces of pottery most closely resemble that of the early Mogollon.

By about AD 700, small groups of Hohokam apparently moved into the Tonto Basin from the Phoenix Basin area. Their arrival marked the beginning of canal irrigation and maize cultivation in the Tonto Basin. Why the Hohokam moved into these higher elevations is not known, but evidence exists that climatic conditions were favorable to Hohokam farming methods at that time. The Hohokam established settlements along the Salt River. These settlements exhibit the characteristics of Hohokam settlements in the Phoenix Basin: clustered arrangement of houses around courtyards, with each courtyard associated with specific cremation cemeteries and trash mounds. Hohokam red-on-buff pottery and ritual paraphernalia is also in evidence. (Reid 1997:245).

At the same time that the Salt River area was being settled by Hohokam, other people were settling in the upper Tonto Basin along Tonto Creek. The pottery in these sites was Mogollon in style, although some Hohokam style pottery has also been found. The burial practices appear to be a mixture of Mogollon and Hohokam. The cultural stew was already beginning. It may be significant to note that, at this time, occupation of the Mimbres Valley in Mogollon territory was breaking down. The Mimbres branch of the Mogollon are best known for their distinctive black-on-white pottery, which appeared in the Mogollon cultural record around 1000 AD. This is also about the same time that the Mogollon changed from pit houses to above ground pueblos. The Mimbres tradition was very successful, which may have been a contributing factor in their downfall. There is speculation that over-use of the land, combined with a prolonged regional drought created a situation which forced the Mimbres to scatter. The Mimbres disappear from their homeland, and at the same time, significant cultural changes occur in the Tonto Basin and at Casas Grandes in Chihuahua.

By about 1150, Hohokam presence seems to have disappeared in the Tonto area, apparently pulling back into the Phoenix Basin. Hohokam pottery vanishes from the archaeological record and the Hohokam pit houses are replaced by an entirely new style, a style which does not appear in the Phoenix area for several hundred years. At some sites, there appears to be a gap in occupation. The Hohokam had left about 950 to 1000 AD, and no one replaced them for some time. At other sites, however, Hohokam settlements seemed to have been replaced virtually overnight. There is no evidence of concurrent occupation at any given site. Enter the Salado.


So, what is it that defines Salado material culture? There are three recognized characteristics that distinguish the Salado: Pottery, Architecture and Burial practices.

Salado Pottery

Salado polychrome pottery appear to be among the most widely traded of all the ceramics of the ancient southwest. Salado pottery has been found as far North as Zuni, as far South as Casas Grandes, and 350 miles East in Roswell, New Mexico (Cheek 1994:133). There are three recognized styles of Salado polychrome: Pinto, Gila and Tonto. All were done in red, white and black.

Salado polychrome potPinto, the earliest, is known for a thin white slip on the insides of bowls, with an organic black paint which was used to paint geometric designs. Shortly thereafter, the Gila polychrome appeared. This style contained bolder designs applied with heavier paint. Gila polychrome were often complex and asymmetrical, and sometimes utilized abstract figures. Certain motifs reappear over centuries and thousand of miles of distance. Some of these motifs still appear on Hopi pottery today (Cheek 1994: 137). Some of the images include snakes, lizards, parrots, stars, the sun, and eyes. Many of these images are duplicated in petroglyphs. (Cordell 1997:417). Striations from polishing were occasionally incorporated in the design (Houk 1992:7). Gila polychrome bowls often display a design called a lifeline, a heavy, broad band of paint around the rim that almost always has a break or gap in it (Cheek 1994:137). No one knows the meaning of this lifeline. Pinto and Gila style polychrome were most often executed on bowls. Tonto, the third type of Salado polychrome included bowls, squat jars and ollas. Tonto differs from Gila in that red was occasionally combined with the white slip and black paint, and sometimes the outside of pots were painted.

Salado pottery was not only widely traded, it was also copied. X-ray and neutron activation analyses has been employed to discover that Salado styles were duplicated hundreds of miles away in places such as Casas Grandes (Houk 1992:8). One researcher, Patricia Crown, has done in-depth studies of ceramics in the Southwest. Her analyses of Salado pottery has led her to conclude that Salado polychromes represented a new religious ideology which she named the "Southwest Regional Cult". (Cordell 1997:417). She attributes the images to symbols for water control and fertility. We will probably never know what these icons meant to the people of that time. Some of the icons which are still in use today are interpreted to have different meanings by different modern Native Peoples.

Salado Architecture

Salado architecture consisted of pueblos - above ground structures of masonry or adobe combined with cobbles or rocks. The architectural style most resembles that of the Anasazi and Mogollon, however the building material, usually adobe and rocks was more common to the Hohokam. Salado architecture had some unique features: covered corridors, upright stone slab foundations and floor levels of varying height. Buildings generally had no windows, and often no doors. Entry was usually through the roof. Houses were usually used for storage and sleeping and day to day activities were most often conducted outdoors, with rooftops and courtyards being work/play/social areas. Food was dried, ground, cooked and prepared outdoors except in inclement weather. Residential compounds usually consisted of several rooms with each room being occupied by a nuclear family. Compounds were often surrounded by a wall, similar to Hohoham residential patterns, except that the Hohokam compounds consisted of pit houses. Many Salado compounds are located directly over prior Hohokam residences. Extended families, or several families probably shared a compound. Most compounds contained a central plaza or courtyard and there were usually one or more granaries located in the courtyard. These were beehive shaped structures woven of basketry material and then covered with mud to provide dry storage for foodstuffs. The size of the granaries suggests that they were for communal storage.

Salado house The Salado, like the Anasazi, built multi-storied structures and, by 1250 to 1300, cliff dwellings began to appear in Salado territory. This occurred about the same time that the Gila polychrome displaced the Pinto style, giving rise to speculation that an Anasazi migration may have arrived and been integrated into the Salado culture. Some of the cliff dwellings were constructed with T shaped doorways like those found in many Anasazi cliff dwellings. Some of these doorways are also found in Mogollon pueblos, such as Casas Grandes. At some Salado sites, these doorways were later modified to an L shape. The Anasazi and later Mogollon practice of incorporating Kivas into residential compounds was not adopted by the Salado.

Platform mounds were built at regular intervals along Tonto Creek and the Salt River. These appear to have had a variety of purposes: ceremonial sites, burial mounds, food distribution centers, and some appear to have had homes of elite located on them. The locations along the rivers are key, since the mounds appear to anchor the irrigation canals, a vital resource for the Salado. The Salado irrigated about 2000 acres of land, mostly cultivating corn and beans, but also cotton, squash and amaranth. (Cheek 1997:138) (Houk 1992:14). Twenty of these large platform mounds have been found in the Tonto Basin. These are usually about 10 to 12 feet high and cover an area about half the size of a modern football field. Construction of these mounds would have required organized effort over a long period of time. This generally implies a class structure or civic/religious organization which can employ or coerce a large working class for manual labor. By locating their homes on top of these mounds, the elite would have been able to control access to water, arable land and food distribution. The Hohokam, renown for their platform mounds, generally constructed ball courts in association with the platform mounds. To date, no ballcourts have been discovered in Salado territory, however. There is some disagreement as to whether the Hohokam introduced platform mounds to the Salado or vice versa.

Two sites currently being excavated, Pillar Mound and Schoolhouse Mound, are offering insights into Salado culture and organization. Pillar Mound is about 700 years old and was apparently abandoned when a flood destroyed nearby irrigation canals. The absence of certain artifacts and debris suggests that Pillar Mound was not a residence, but rather a ceremonial center. Most significant at this site is a series of tall stone pillars. These were first thought to be just roof supports. However, further investigation has shown that the pillars are lined up such that they are solstice markers. For an agricultural people, a ceremonial center integrated into the irrigation system, the lifeblood of their subsistence, and having a tangible marker for the planting seasons would have been vital. Schoolhouse Mound, on the other hand, was definitely a residence area. The number, size and apparent function of many of the rooms indicates that this also served as a warehouse and distribution center for food. This L shaped mound is 300 yards long and has 115 rooms. Giant baskets, granaries and large storage vessels in some rooms differentiate them from obvious residential areas. The mounds first appear about the same time as the great drought of 1276 to 1299. This is probably more than coincidental. Dealing with this economic and environmental stress would have required organized effort, and would have enabled the elite to engage the cooperation of people desperate for survival. The mounds represent consolidation of resources, power and possibly of religion.

There were several large Salado towns of 150 to 450 rooms which housed as many as 1500 people. Other urban centers consist of dozens of separate compounds of thirty to 100 rooms each. Not all of these were located along the river system. Besh Be Gowah, in Globe was one of the larger Salado communities. Based on the type and number of artifacts discovered there, it is believed to have been a major trade center, bringing finished and unfinished goods from as far away and Casas Grandes, the Pacific and Gulf Coasts and Anasazi villages to the North. There appears to have been an artisan class resident at Besh Be Gowah.

It is estimated that the Tonto Basin may have supported up to 10,000 people (Cheek 1994:138).

Burial Practices

Mortuary practices help distinguish one culture from another. For instance, the Hohokam were known to cremate their dead, whereas the Anasazi and Mogollon buried their dead. The Anasazi generally buried their dead in the flexed position under room floors, trash dumps, rock crevices or even in abandoned storage pits. The Mogollon buried their dead in an extended supine position beneath room floors, presumably the floor of the house/room where the person had lived. The Salado also buried their dead in the extended supine position, but generally used distinct cemetery areas such as plazas or patios. At Besh Be Gowah, for instance, over 150 burials were exhumed from the central plaza. The preparation of the deceased and the mortuary offerings buried with the dead suggest a social structure including elites with substantial material differences. Most graves were simple holes with a few modest offerings. Some graves, however, were clay or stone-lined pits covered with stone or timber caps and contained a wide variety of offerings. These included furniture, effigy vessels, awls, rare minerals, obsidian and turquoise (Bigando 1987:5).


Little is known about Salado religious practices or beliefs. Aside from the existence of platform mounds, some of which seemed to have had ceremonial purposes only, there are few artifacts which can be reliably interpreted as having religious purposes. As mentioned earlier, some of the icons on the pottery have been interpreted as having religious significance. This is speculation on the part of one researcher, and not generally accepted by the archaeological community. The fact remains that the Salado were a desert agricultural people: water was a vital resource and understanding the cycles of the seasons would have been of paramount importance. The function of Pillar Mound as a solstice marker, may indicate that religion was tied into seasonal variation and rainfall. Another site, far distant from Pillar Mound, makes this speculation more credible. Circlestone is a site located at an elevation of 6010 feet, far from any source of water. This stone structure is of a circular design, 420 feet in circumference. From above, this structure has a wheel-like appearance, with crumbling spokes radiating from the center. The structure is built from sandstone rocks fitted together without mortar, employing a flat rock construction technique commonly used by the Anasazi. It does not appear to have been a residence, since virtually no debris has been found in the area. Also, there is no source of water nearby to support human habitation. Circlestone commands a 360 degree view of the sky, and measurements indicate that openings in the structure were placed to mark the winter and summer solstices. Petroglyphs on a nearby cliff face have been interpreted by some to represent stellar constellations, although these have not been substantiated. Casa Grande, a Hohokam site with Salado influences has been identified as another solstice marker site.

It is not unusual for an agricultural tradition to have some means of predicting and measuring the solstices. Whether this was integrated into their religious practices may never be known. We can only make assumptions. Hopefully, further excavations at Pillar Mound and other sites will shed more light on this aspect of Salado life.


The Salado, like other cultures of the time, were dependent on agriculture and the gathering of local wild resources. Many small Salado compounds were located in areas with little or no arable land. These people appear to have subsisted by hunting and gathering and trading with their agricultural cousins in the river basin. The Salado territory includes pine forest at higher elevations, chaparral, and high desert environments. Each of these ecological areas offers a unique set of resources. Analysis of skeletal remains indicates that the Salado were healthy people with fewer conditions related to dietary insufficiencies than many of their contemporaries. In many areas, cultivation of crops, or trade for cultivated foodstuffs, was just a supplement to an already adequate subsistence.

metateLarge metates, located in remote higher altitude sites far from arable land indicate availability of seeds and nuts which could be gathered from local resources. Among the wild foods available were acorn, agave, prickly pear, cholla, pinyon, walnut, wild grapes and yucca. Mesquite and saguaro were used for food, building material and tools. Many non-agricultural sites existed and artifacts found at these sites indicate that subsistence was not a full time occupation, although gathering local resources was an organized activity. At Tonto cliff dwelling, for instance, there was no arable land for cultivation. Hunting, gathering, and trading provided their subsistence. Even here, 26 fieldhouses have been located which were used to either store or protect the wild resources in the immediate vicinity.

There appears to have been an abundance of leisure time, which enabled the Salado to develop certain crafts to a high level of sophistication. In addition to pottery, the Salado were excellent weavers and stone workers. Some Salado artifacts found include woven yucca sandals, beautifully woven cradleboards, grass hairbrushes, belts, kilts, ponchos, breechcloths, baskets, rope, and pot rests (Houk 1992:13). Pieces of woven textiles, in addition to wads of cleaned and uncleaned cotton, have been found at Salado sites, indicating that looms must have been used, although none have been found. Of great interest was the discovery of a piece of plaid cloth, one of the few samples of true plaid found in the Americas.

cotton shirtAlso discovered at a Salado site was a beautifully woven cotton shirt with lacy, intricate designs of interlocking scrolls and triangles. A mysterious bundle of Saguaro spines was found and determined to be tattoo needles. Paintings on faces of effigy vessels indicate what some of the facial and body tattoos may have looked like.


As mentioned earlier, Harold Gladwin first suggested in the 1920s that the Salado were a melting pot, a crossroads of cultures. Subsequent researchers proposed different ideas, but accepted theory has come full circle back to Gladwin's original idea. Most archaeologists now feel that the Salado were a mixture of cultures brought together by environmental factors which forced people to change territory and adapt to new environments. These "pioneers" were apparently more amenable to trying new and different ideas and techniques that might be more practical in their new environment. Their location, bordering on the three major culture groups of that time, gave them a wonderful opportunity to adopt the best of each. They may well have taken pride in the fact of their diversity and used it to their advantage in trading with various groups. Rather like the Swiss, they seemed to have had relationships with several different cultures, but were subservient to none. The fact that they did not adopt the kivas of the Anasazi or the ballcourts of the Hohokam is indicative that they also did not adopt the same religious practices of these two groups. The Salado apparently had their own, independent religious and ceremonial practices.

So what happened to the Salado, where did they go? No one is sure. It seems clear that the Salado were severely impacted by environmental catastrophes which devastated much of the Southwest between 1400 and 1450. Tree ring data from the Tonto Basin show that devastating floods were followed by prolonged drought. All of the cultural groups of the Southwest experienced population drops, abandonment of cities and general breakdown of cultural patterns and traditions. It seems that the long term stress brought on by the environment factors virtually destroyed some of these cultures. The Salado disappear.

There is evidence of warfare between Salado villages as resources became more and more scarce. Besh Be Gowah and Gila Pueblo were villages about 2 miles apart. They existed in peace for over 2 centuries. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Besh Be Gowan may have attacked and destroyed the Gila Pueblo some time after 1400. The village was burned. Human remains indicate that many of the villagers were killed and their homes burned with the bodies in them. There were not enough survivors to bury the dead. Other villages appear to have been abandoned suddenly. Even easily portable artifacts were left behind. Were they driven out, or were they so weak and desperate that they could only carry absolute necessities?

No one knows where the survivors went. Some speculate that they migrated to Casas Grandes in Mexico, others suggest that they went North and became integrated into the remnants of the Anasazi, to become the ancestors of the Hopi and other pueblo peoples. We may never know. As with their origins, their ultimate fate is a mystery. They came from nowhere and everywhere, they dispersed to nowhere and everywhere. Most likely, they scattered, joining various groups depending on where they thought they could best survive.

Some modern day Native Americans can point to the Anasazi, Hohokam or Mogollon as their ancestors. Not so the Salado. They have left behind tantalizing remnants of their once thriving culture, but we have yet to determine their ultimate fate.



Cheek, Lawrence W.

1994 Ancient Peoples of the Southwest AD 1250. Arizona: Arizona Department of Transportation

Cordell, Linda

1997 Archaeology of the Southwest. Colorado: Academic Press. University of Colorado

Bigando, Jr. Charles R.

1987 Besh Be Gowah Archaeological Park Interpretive Guide. City of Globe, Arizona.

Houk, Rose

1992 Prehistoric Cultures of the Southwest: Salado. Tucson, Arizona: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association

Reid, Jefferson and Whittlesey, Stephanie

1997 The Archaeology of Ancient Arizona. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press.

Swanson, James A. and Kollenborn, Thomas J.

1986 Circlestone, A Superstition Mountain Mystery. Arizona: Goldfield Press.