By Pete Eidenbach, For the Alamogordo Daily News
September 11, 2012
When our ancestors first explored Otero Mesa 10 millennia or more ago, the mesa was occupied by a juniper/oak woodland alternating with plains grassland, far different from today’s Chihuahuan Desert grassland and scrub.
Instead of today’s cattle, the mesa was populated by some formidable wildlife. During the day, our ancestors heard the trumpeting of ancient elephants — the mammoth. At night they would have been awestruck by the howls of sabertooth cats, jaguar and dire wolf in the dark night.
Like these fearsome predators, early Stone Age people hunted the large and small prey, from the mammoth and bison antiquus to the abundant deer and antelope species.
These ancestors left few traces on the land. What does remains is doubly precious; it marks the expansion of our species into a new hemisphere and it documents how those ancestors adapted to a new, unfamiliar environment.
And because much of this environment has been under private ownership or private management (grazing lease lands), as a pastoral landscape it remains largely intact as the last remnant of our Chihuahuan Desert grasslands.
During the late prehistoric period, most of the mountain margins and uplands in the Tularosa Basin were occupied by the Jornada Mogollon, a settled agricultural people with close ties to Mexico. The Jornada farmed the upper alluvial slopes along the numerous spring-fed mountain streams that flowed seasonally from the high mountains. They supplemented their farming production with wild products gathered on the mesa and the desert basin, but largely did not occupy or modify these areas to any extent.
In the Tularosa Basin, much of that evidence is buried by alluvial sediments and wind-blown sands that have accumulated over the centuries in this closed basin. Much less sediment has accumulated on Otero Mesa, rendering its record of the past more accessible, but also more vulnerable. The mesa also bears witness to the symbolic and religious life of these early agriculatural people — images pecked into the volcanic rocks of the small upthrust volcanic mountains that punctuate the level Otero Mesa horizon. Similar records were left there by their successors, also — the Apache and even by the Buffalo Soldiers who pursued them.
But more than the past is fragile and vulnerable on Otero Mesa. In contrast to the vast desert basin areas under military control, much of the mesa is open to the public. We, the public, have a choice. We can serve as stewards and protectors of the past and the present environment, or we can exploit and destroy this irreplaceable legacy, leaving little for our children and for their future.
In New Mexico, we human beings generally live lightly on the land. That could change radically as the rest of the world begins to recognize our historical and environmental riches. We need to husband our natural resources as we always have and resist encroachment on this last fragile fragment of our Land of Enchantment.
Dr. Pete Eidenbach has taught anthropology, New Mexico history and the history and philosophy of science at New Mexico State University-Alamogordo since 1986. He trained in archaeology at the University of New Mexico during the turbulent 1960s, and has pursued archaeological and historic research in his adopted home — the Tularosa Basin — for more than four decades. This article was submitted by Otero County for Otero Mesa. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.