An Exploration Of The Relationship Between Mobility

And Sedentism In The American Southwest And Mesoamerica Essay, Research Paper

In Anthropology a false notion occurs in that hunters and gatherers are mobile and agriculturalists are sedentary. There are many examples of Native North American tribes and cultures that exhibit mobile agriculturalism, opposing early archaeological preconcieved notions of a unilineal settlement continuum from mobile to sedentary. The model from mobile hunting and gathering to sedentary agriculture should be thought of as a universal, variable and mutil-dimensional phenomenon. The American Southwestern culture of the Hopi and the Mesoamerican culture of the Raramuri are two fascinating examples of the incorporation of both mobility and sedentism as subsistence strategies.


The concept of mobility must be thought of in terms of being a property of individuals who may move in many different ways: alone or in groups, frequently or infrequently, over short or long distances, daily, seasonaly or annually (Kelly). Binford differentiated between residential mobility, movements of the entire band or local group from one camp to another, and logistical mobility, foraging movements of individuals or small task groups out from and back to the residential camp (Binford). Binford later on added another dimension to mobility, territorial or long-term mobility, either a conservation measure or a response to subsistence stress where cyclical movements of a group among a set of territories occur (Binford). Lastly, intentional or unintentional permanent migration from a former territory usually caused by population growth is another important facet of mobility. Mobility must be looked at as both behavioal and cultural, “in that cultural conceptions of the environment affect the way a locality is treated” (Kelly 45). Other factors that must be looked at are foraging strategies, age and sex division of labor, religious, kinship, trade, artistic and personal obligations.


Sedentism is seen by most anthropologists as a process “whereby human groups reduce their mobility to the point where they remain residentially stationary year-round” and sedentary settlement systems as “thoses in which at least part of the population remains at the same location throughout the entire year” (Kelly 49). Sedentism has emerged at different places around the world in association with both hunting and gathering and farming adaptations (Hard and Merrill). For many years, sedentism was thought to be incompatible with a foraging lifeway, reexamination of the archaeological record of certain areas in North America including the Northwest Coast, the Midwest, the Southwest, and Mesoamerica are changing this contrived notion. Most anthropologists and archaeologists focus on the “sedentarization process because reduced mobility precipitates dramatic changes in food storage, trade, territoriality, social and gender inequality, male/female work patterns, subsistence and demography as well as cultural notions of material wealth, privacy, individuality, cooperation and competition” (Kelley 43).


In current Southwestern archaeology the interrelated issues of agricultural commitment, sedentism and mobility are currently being researched and studied in a detailed manner, in order to assess the true reliance on agriculture and the duration of residential settlements by the community. “Villages may have been permanent over many years, occupied year round for a few years, occupied seasonally, reoccupied at intervals in either of the two preceding cases, or may have encompassed different mobility patterns among member households” (Fish and Fish 93). Archaeologists who are studying the American Southwest are reevaluating the concept of sedentism, and may think that the agriculturalists, who occupied the pueblo villages and lived in the pithouses, were much more mobile than previously thought of (Kelly, Fish and Fish). Historically the culture groups from the Southwest have always been diverse, practicing mobile foraging to intensive irrigation, yet the transition to agriculture and sedentism was never geographically uniform, completed or irreversible. A combination of environmental, demographic, cultural and economic factors either facilitated or inhibited mobility and/or sedentism in this culture area.

Ernest Beaglehole conducted a general study of Hopi economic life based on two Second Mesa villages, Mishongnovi and Shipaulovi. Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole conducted the fieldwork in the summers of 1932 and 1934. They found that although Hopi economic life is based on the production of agricultural products, the environment is such that other types of secondary production including hunting, herding and gathering play considerable roles in the economy of this people. The Hopi do engage in logistical mobility especially after harvesting when a period of free time exists to either use for salt expeditions, visits to the Navaho or Rio Grande Pueblos for sociability and trade, or formerly, hunts for antelope, deer, and mountain sheep were arranged. The gathering of wild plants is carried out by both sexes, individually or by small household groups, by taking expeditions or journeys to distant desert locations. The Hopi, being a very ritualistic people, hold spring gathering parties to collect the different one hundred and fifty indigenous wild plants that are located in their environment. Another important resource for the Hopi is salt, where any responsible man in the community may arrange for an expedition of about two weeks in length in order to obtain this important resource. Another resource that the Hopi must obtain through a four-day expedition is the gathering of timber and firewood from the Black Mesa forests. The wood is used for craft activities, cooking, housebuilding and to keep the kivas hot enough to force the ritual bean seeds to sprout, therefore frequent trips must be made.


Robert J. Hard and William L. Merrill conducted a study to examine factors that motivate residential mobility in an agricultural society. The Raramuri (Tarahumara), a contemporary society of northern Mexico, are a community of residentially mobile agriculturalists, for whom agricultural products constitute nearly 100% of their diet (Kelly). They reside in the mountains and canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental in southwestern Chihuahua, Mexico. The Raramuri depend on stored food year-round and rely on maize to supplement 70%-80% of their diet, yet they are mobile both during the winter and the growing season. Other important crops include beans, squash, potatoes, peaches and apples. The people also gather wild plants such as peppergrass, prickly pear, pigweed, ground cherry, and wild mushrooms. Mice, rats, chipmunks, fish and sometimes deer, also supplement their diet. European livestock consisting of sheep, goats and cattle contribute meat, hides and manure.

Hard and Merrill found that the Raramuri rely on both residential and logistical mobility as major components for their susbsistence strategies. They engage in four types of residential mobility; growing season mobility, winter mobility, wage-labor mobility, and ceremonial mobility. First, during the growing season households move from Rejogochi, a specific Raramuri community living at an elevation of about 1,900 meters, to residences located near maize fields outside of the valley, living there from a few days to several weeks at a time. Most of the maize fields have grain storage facilities and houses near them. At the field sites people from different households work together to complete agricultural tasks like plowing, planting and weeding. Some households relocate to other residences within the valley, in addition to moving to fields outside the Rejogochi valley. In some instances one household owned as many as ten different fields that were scattered in different areas of the valley with houses built adjacent to several of them. Other Rejogochi families relocate their entire homes from one location to another in the valley. Second, some households and their sheep and goats move to a nearby rock-shelter or another house from December to February. The rock-shelters are used more frequently because they remain dry, receive direct sunlight, are located closer to firewood than the valley homes and have springs located nearby. About once a week the men of the community transport 20-kg sacks of dried, unshelled maize to the rock-shelters from the valley below. Third, entire households sometimes relocate temporarily to work for wages outside of the Rejogochi community. Typically the men from the community make logistical trips for a few days to a week to work at the local sawmill, on road construction, as loggers or as farmhands. Fourth, during the winter and spring, Rejogochi households spend a few days and sometimes weeks attending fiestas in Basihuare, where the administrative center and the church for the pueblo are located.

The motivations and consequences of why the Raramuri rely on mobility as a major componenet of their subsistence and residential strategies must be analyzed and examined. It seems that the Raramuri practice residential rather than logistical mobility during the growing season due to their ecology. Their mountainous environment has extreme microclimatic variability so the use of dispersed fields maximizes a household’s chance of subsistence. The Raramuri’s most important motivatin for winter mobility is whether they are caring for sheep and goats during this time of the year. Sheep and goats are “highly susceptible to hypothermia when they become wet in cold weather so they must be sheltered from cold and rain and snow or they will perish” (Hard and Merrill 614). The Raramuri’s mobility and settlement strategies are alos affected by social and cultural factors. They marry exogomous to the valley and have a bilateral inheritance pattern which both promote residential mobility.

Populations must adapt to a complex range of conditions, proving that a simple model of movement in a unilineal continuum from mobility to sedentism is inevitably inadequate. It is important to realize that neither mobility nor sedentism is an inherently better settlement strategy (Hard and Merrill). The dimensions of mobility; residential, logistical, long-term and migration and the way humans choose to be mobile affect all other aspects of human life. So it is important to see that there is much variability in the concepts of mobility and sedentism, rather than looking at them as polar opposites on a continuum.

Literature Cited

1. Beaglehole, Ernest. 1937. Notes on Hopi Economic Life. New Haven; London:

Publication for the Section of Anthropology, Department of the Social Sciences,

Yale University, by the Yale University Press. 2: 88

2. Binford, LR. 1990. Mobility, Housing and Environment: A Comparative Study. Journal of Anthropological Research. 46: 119-52.

3. Fish, Suzanne K. and Fish, Paul R. Prehistoric Desert Farmers of the

Southwest. 1994. Annual Review in Anthropology. 23: 83-108.

4. Hard, Robert J. and Merrill, William L. Mobile Agriculturalists and the

Emergence of Sedentism: Perspectives from Northern Mexico. 1992. American Anthropologist. Volume 94: 601-620.

5. Kelly, Robert L. 1992. Mobility/Sedentism: Concepts, Archaeologica l

Measures, and Effects. Annual Review in Anthropology. 21: 43-66.


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