Long-Hidden Sites Discovered in the Southwest May Change Views of Ancient Migrations

apache mountain spirit dancer

A type of site never before described by archaeologists is shedding new light on the prehistory of the American Southwest and may change conventional thinking about the ancient migrations that shaped the region.

The sites, discovered in the southern mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, are remote Apache encampments with some often “disguised” features that have eluded archaeologists for centuries.

And their discovery is surprising not only for their seclusion but also for their age, because some sites appear to date back hundreds of years before Apaches were thought to have migrated to the region.

“[T]he dates suggest that Apache groups were present in the southernmost Southwest in the 14th century, long before the arrival of Europeans, countering long-held notions that the Apache were late arrivals from the Plains,” writes Dr. Deni Seymour, research associate with New Mexico’s Jornada Research Institute and the University of Colorado Museum.

Peloncillo Mountains Arizona picture
A well-preserved platform cache built and used by ancestral Apache, along with rock art and other artifacts, was found in the Peloncillo Mountains in remote southeastern Arizona. (Photo: BAlvarius)

The sites are called platform cave caches, where small, uniquely constructed platforms were built in rockshelters to secretly hold a stash of goods for later use, Seymour writes in the Journal of Field Archaeology, where she describes the finds.

The structures were sometimes “disguised” by rocks and other features in the caves, and typically included a ring of stones layered with ersatz shelves made from local desert plants, like ocotillo or yucca, and secured on the top with grasses, branches and stones.

The Apache practice of caching goods in caves — like pottery, basketry, food and, in later years, weapons and ammunition — has turned up in accounts from 19th century Native Americans and settlers, but no evidence of the custom had ever been found before.

Seymour notes that such secret stashes were necessities for itinerant people like the ancestral Apache, whose livelihoods often came from raiding other bands or foraging in places that were frequently under the control of other groups.

This may explain why the newfound caches were discovered only in remote mountain spots, and in areas far outside the boundaries of other, more sedentary farming groups, like the Mogollon, Mimbres or Hohokam.

But, the author notes, the sites do fall within the historic range of particular Apache bands, including the Mescalero of southern New Mexico, and the Chiricahua in Arizona, who offered one of the last and longest resistances to European-American control.

The most convincing evidence of the sites’ origin, however, is the fact that many include uniquely Apache artifacts, such as pottery and rock art.

One of the best-preserved platform caches Seymour found, in Arizona’s Peloncillo Mountains, features fragments of a ceremonial headdress, a ritual staff or “wand,” and four pictographs that depict Apache “mountain spirit masks” drawn in charcoal. [Read about a related find: “Hallucinogenic Plants May Be Key to Decoding Ancient Southwestern Paintings, Expert Says“]

“The distinctly Apache imagery illustrates some continuity in symbolic expression through time and provides a means for archaeologists to definitively apply a cultural affiliation to associated material culture, in this case, the platform cache,” she writes.

In the case of the Peloncillo site, radiocarbon dating of yucca fibers used to build the cache were dated to the 1600s.

But grass samples from another platform cache just a few kilometers away, at a site called Whitlock Mountain, returned two sets of dates from the mid-1400s — more than 200 years before ancestral Apaches were conventionally thought to have migrated into the southwest from the Great Plains. [Read about clues to a more ancient migration: “Nearly 9,000 Artifacts Uncovered in California Desert, Spanning 11,500 Years of History“]

The new platform caches add to previous research  Seymour has conducted in Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains, where another Apache camp — this one without a cache — was dated to the 14th and 15th centuries.

So while experts have long surmised from historic accounts that Apaches migrated to the Southwest after the 1680s, she concludes, “such interpretations are not sustainable when considered in the context of this new archaeological evidence.”

apache mountain spirit dancer
Rock art found near an ancestral Apache platform cache appeared to depict four masks of Mountain Spirit Dancers, like those used in some modern Apache religious ceremonies. (Photo:

The new dates “open a host of new possibilities regarding the end of prehistory,” Seymour writes, suggesting that the years leading up to European contact may have been marked by interactions — either peaceful or not — between the itinerant Apaches and more sedentary groups, and that those relationships may have been long-standing by the time the Spanish appeared.

Taken together, she says, the new data provided by the platform caches “provide a basis for reevaluating long-held views about the end of prehistory and the arrival of ancestral Apachean groups in the heart of the American Southwest.”

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Deni J. Seymour (2013). Platform cache encampments: Implications for mobility strategies and the earliest ancestral Apaches Journal of Field Archaeology

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  1. […] COLORADO—Sites known as platform cave caches offer evidence that the Apache arrived in the southern mountains of Arizona and New Mexico more […]

  2. RayM

    Interesting stuff, archeology has gotten more fascinating since the scientists involved have written on their evidence of what happened in America, rather then their speculation. Maybe this will be added to a 1491 reissue?

  3. […] Long-Hidden Sites Discovered in the Southwest May Change Views of Ancient Migrations Long-Hidden Sites Discovered in the Southwest May Change Views of Ancient Migrations | Western Digs […]

  4. Stan Maliszewski

    This is a Major contribution to the literature, and history of the Southwest…Thank You, Deni for your tireless efforts.

    Stan Maliszewski

  5. emily saupitty

    As a young girl my Grandmother (an original allottees who had been given land at the age of 6mos. from the US government) would tell us stories handed down from our families for generations. One as my grandmother and I were laying on the bed I began to ask her questions. My curiosity began to build as I grew older, especially about the Apache people. One of the questions that I had asked her was “Grandma, were did we come from?” and she replied and said what do you mean? I then said ” were did the Apache people come from?” As she laid there and thought for a moment ….her words came out and said when I was a little girl my mother told me that the Apache people came from under the water . Then silence came over the room as I laid there thinking about the answer given to me….my mind began to imagine people walking out from a huge lake of water thousands of people walking onto dry land. As I grew older and began to read the word of God ….especially when the world was flooded in Noahs day and only a few were chosen to be spared from the wrath that came upon the earth. It all began to make sense to me……the Apache people would only tell of the history verbally to their children as handed down from generation to generation. As I pondered on that one question to my grandmother, who by the way, was blind in one eye from infancy. That story in itself could only be imagined from the way the Indians were treated especially the Apache people running and hiding for their life. Their Babies hurt and even dropped by their mothers ….while fleeing from the men who wanted their scalps for bounty of $100.00 for the men, $50.00 for the women and $25.00 for the children. This alone would turn a heart cold,….but not the American Indian …it turned their heart to the creator to ask him to forgive these people for what they were doing to this nation for greed. And now we have a president and its administration that owes the Native American billions of dollars and now were does congress send our money to help aide…..to countries who hate the American people how stupid can one be >>>”to love those who hate you!”

  6. Prehistoric Apache

    […] Full article here. […]

  7. Deni

    Thanks for including the news write up on the Apache Platform caches. I would like to point out that the earliest dates are in the AD 1300s (the 14th century) not the 1400s, though there are dates in the 1400s as well. The series of chronometric dates run from the AD 1300s up to the 1800s and samples are on grasses, leaves, and on associated pottery.

  8. […] Komunikat prasowy w serwisie Western Digs […]

  9. earl harvey

    I lived in the Dragoon Mountains from 2010 to2012 and during my exploring near the old Butterfield stage station and in Texas Canyon to the North, I located a couple of rock shelters w/ cache areas. the contents had been removed however. I did meet w/ a local resident that had 2 items found hidden in the surrounding rocks. I was able to hold and look at them. One was a cloth rear saddle decoration. It had beadwork and seemed to be for a doll horse, being 3 in.by 12in. Item 2 was an 1849 colt pocket revolver,still loaded and wrapped in old dried out leather. I love Cochise Co.AZ w/all its history and hope to return soon and continue exploring, if I find anything related to native American history,i will contact the Amerind Foundation in Dragoon,AZ

  10. Hillsboro History

    You can read about one of the last episodes of resistance here:

  11. Dan Wells

    What exactly leads one to believe that the platforms were constructed by Apache, and not just reused by them? It’s entirely possible that all the early dated materials were already present in the caves when the Apache found them.

  12. juan lopez

    I think they went as far as El Paso Texas and even into Chihuahua Mexico

  13. Astrotraveler

    Not great scholarship, really. The “Apache” are not a single culture, but rather numerous disparate cultural groups (speaking different, mutually unintelligible and historically unrelated languages in some cases). It should come as no surprise whatsoever that one or more of these many disparate unrelated groups may have deeper roots in the region than others who clearly arrived much later. Because there’s really no distinct Apache culture, history or ethnicity, and the group is a group only because westerners chose to categorize these different groups as a single group based solely on the fact that they occupied the same general region and were generally hostile, this research seems pointless and the conclusions rather meaningless.

    1. juan alopez

      That’s because their culture was kept secret. They were very secretive

  14. rick ronquillo

    love this web site and all they report on,thank you.

  15. Scott Norris

    You should credit, in this article, the sculptor who created this image of an Apache dancer