The New Mexico Archaic / The Oshara Tradition

Tony Baker

updated August 25, 2000

The transition from the Paleoindian tradition to the Archaic tradition is as striking in the Central Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico as it is anywhere in North America. In fact, the words "abrupt change" probably should be used instead of "transition". Supporting this statement, Irwin-Williams wrote, "the tool assemblage of these earliest Archaic cultures differs so greatly in technology, typology and functional classes from those of the preceding Cody and other Paleo-Indian phases, that there is evidently no generic connection between them" (1973:4).

All that Irwin-Williams wrote is correct, but the most obvious and unstated difference is the type of lithic material used. In the Rio Grande gravels in the area from Socorro to Santa Fe, there are abundant micro and cryptocrystalline materials in the form of chalcedonies, jaspers, obsidians, and petrified woods. The Paleoindians used all of these materials for their tools, plus they imported other extremely fine-grained material from hundreds of miles away. An assemblage from a Paleoindian site in this area has most of the colors of the rainbow: e.g. reds, pinks, browns, yellows, whites, and blacks. The color of an Archaic assemblage is primarily black. Consider the following table 1.

Projectiles (whole & fragments) in the Baker Collection
Number% Other Materials% Obsidian% Basalt% Whole
3800-2800 BP
San Jose
5200-3800 BP
6800-5200 BP
7500-6800 BP
pre 8000 BP

Based on this table, which shows the abrupt change in lithic material used across the Paleoindian-Archaic boundary, one can see how even an uninformed individual could separate assemblages into Paleoindian and Archaic traditions. Also, worth noting is the gradual return to the use of other materials and obsidians as the Archaic evolves through time.

A thirty-year-old explanation for this abrupt change in lithic material usage is that the Paleoindians left the area and were replaced by a different people from the West (e.g. Arizona, Nevada, and California). Irwin-Williams wrote: "It is believed that these earliest phases of the Oshara (Archaic) development represent the first penetration of western-based groups, which entered the eastern portions of the Southwest upon the withdrawal of the Paleo-Indian big-game hunters" (1968:50). I still support this explanation based on the parallel archaeological assemblages I have seen in the numerous museum collections in these southwestern states.

Why did these two different people select different materials? I am not going to suggest it was because the Archaic had a fetish for the color black. I propose these people were selecting a material that was extremely tough to comply with their hafting strategy. Basalt is one of the toughest materials and happens to be black. I propose their hafting strategy was one of point permanency and resharpening. In different words, they fixed their point to the shaft in a way that made it very difficult to remove and install another point. To compensate for this, they created a thick point of durable material that would survive impact and only have to be retouched (resharpened) in the shaft to return it to service. Obviously, I am suggesting that this is different from the Paleoindians who, I believe, had a hafting strategy of break and replace. To support this I ask the reader to consider the last column in the above table. The lowest percent of whole points (this includes refurbished points) in the Baker collection is from the Paleoindian tradition2. This is because these points were thinner and made of brittler materials, which meant they would break at the haft easier. Therefore, fewer Paleoindian points were discarded or lost while they were whole.

The Individual New Mexico Archaic Phases
click on the images for more images and information
The Armijo (3800-2800 BP) portion of this WEB page will be developed in the future.

The San Jose Phase (5200-3800 BP) contains the lowest percentage of projectiles made from black rocks (basalt and obsidian) in the Baker collection. The significance of this is unknown, but the greater variation in lithic material employed seems to parallel the larger variation in point morphology. Possibly, this larger variation in material and morphology is the result of lumping by the author instead of the peoples of the San Jose Phase.

San Jose points are characterized by an expanding stem, which is usually concave, and frequent serrated blades. The lateral and proximal edges of the stem are always medium to heavily ground. Irwin-Williams noted the stem to blade ratios (length) were shorter than those of the earlier Archaic points (1973:8). Personally, I believe the stem to blade ratio observation is just a product of the earlier points being thicker and therefore the blades were shorter because they could be resharpened a few more times .

Click on the image and this will link you to the San Jose page with images of 10 additional San Jose points plus this one.

The Bajada Phase (6800-5200 BP) lasted 1600 years (34%) of the Archaic period based on the weak dates presented here. This makes it the longest in duration of the four Phases. It is possible it lasted even longer based on the number of points that have been found. In the Baker collection, Bajadas represent 57% of the points from the four groups.

A Bajada is a stemmed point with sloping shoulders. The lateral edges of the stem are usually parallel and the proximal edge is always concave. The proximal and lateral edges of the stem are always heavily ground.

Click on the image and this will link you to the Bajada page with images of eight additional Bajada points plus this one.

The Jay Phase (7500-6800 BP) represents the earliest Archaic points found in the Central Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. It is a stemmed point with sloping shoulders. The proximal edge is convex to nearly straight. The proximal and lateral edges of the stem are heavily ground. The convex base, higher quality workmanship, and size distinguishes the Jay from the Bajada.

The Jay is the largest of the Archaic points. Some of the larger ones are similar in size to the Agate Basin or Hell Gap points, however they tend to be 1-2 mm. thicker. These points have also been found in the Panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas by my Grandfather; he called them "Bottle Necks."

Click on the image and this will link you to the Jay page with images of nine additional Jay points plus this one.

Proceed to
The San Jose Phase (5200-3800),
The Bajada Phase (6800-5200 BP),
The Jay Phase (7500-6800 BP),
References, or
return to
Paleoindian & Other... Home Page


1 The dates in the table are from Irwin-Williams' 1973 article, The Oshara Tradition: Origins of Anasazi Culture. Since that time there has been precious little work done on the New Mexico Archaic which Irwin-Williams named the Oshara in a paper presented at the 1968 SAA meetings in Santa Fe, NM (1968:50). I agree with her first four (4) phases, (Jay, Bajada, San Jose and Armijo) belonging to the Archaic. Her fifth phase, the "En Medio" or Basket Maker, I choose to classify as Anasazi.

2 The percent whole numbers of the Paleoindian tradition and Jay cultures are really 3.6% and 9.2%, respectively. These sample percents are statistically different at an alpha of 0.07. However, the null hypothesis can not be rejected with an alpha of 0.05.