Terraced Hills - Cerros Trincheras


Cerro de Trincheras, Sonora, Mexico
By Matt Peeples from Tempe, Arizona, USA (Cerro de Trincheras  Uploaded by PDTillman)
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Note: This article was written in the mid-1950's. The Tohono O'odham were then known as the Papago. The author's spellings of Tohono O'odham place names and dieties have been retained.
There are many cerros trincherras in Northern Sonora, Mexico, and Southern Arizona. Tumamoc Hill, (Tohono O'odham for horned toad), just west of downtown Tucson, is one of the cerro trinchera sites.
Fortified Hills in Baboquivari Valley
by Frank A. Tinker
From: The Desert Magazine, December 1956
Photographs by the author
Map by Norton Allen
Sketches by Charles Keetsie Shirley
I first heard of the fortified hills from Bill Carr, former director of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. Bill, whose opinion I valued highly, admitted that he could not ascribe a definite purpose to the terracing of these isolated mounds in the Baboquivari foothills near the Arizona-Mexican border, and the libraries only had scant bits of information which could be considered authoritative on these puzzling structures of a forgotten desert tribe.

A Papago Indian village in the Baboquivari Valley.

I had to find out for myself. One February morning Tom King, a long-suffering partner on similar excursions, and I motored down Highway 86 to Sells in the sharp, still cold of an Arizona dawn. We drove through town and entered the graded dirt road which leads southward over the sand hills into the Papago Indian Reservation’s Baboquivari Valley, and just beyond the town’s last gray wattle dwelling we passed a pair of coyotes idling in the first sun.
To the east the Baboquivari range stood dark against the early light and halfway down its serrated outline rose Baboquivari Peak, center of the legends and universe of the broad-faced, easy-going Papago people. Southwest across this swelling valley floor were the low peaks of the Alvarez range.
Our road touched briefly at occasional groups of adobe and wattle houses, the winter villages of the tribesmen. In the summer the people now migrate to the cotton fields of the river valleys. But, neither the peaceful valley scene nor its people seemed related to the violence and warfare suggested by the fortifications toward which we drove.
Topawa, the first village we passed, has a new mission church. Komelik, the second identical scattered group of gray dwellings a few miles south had a deserted adobe chapel which squatted on the flat sand plain among the creosote bushes. Its age gave it more charm than the newer, larger building at Topawa. Three miles south is Supi Oidak, a narrow, foot-and-hoof packed caliche pavilion running between two short rows of aged wattle dwellings with winter-shagged ponies standing mute behind them.
At San Miguel, 23 miles south of Sells, the road ended in a gentle semicircle, and the way then became a wagon track heading east. We ascended the gentle grade of the bajada which rises from the main valley wash to the foothills below Aguirre peak. It was on this gentle slope that the Papago and those before them had made their villages and fields before the present century brough the end of violence and the means of cultivating the broader flat lands along the wash.
After a slow half hour drive over the barely discernible track we reached the butte of Haak Muerto, the best preserved of the fortied hills on the American side of the border. Actually, there are half a dozen other fortified hills in the Sells area and an uncounted number in the Altar valley across the border in Mexico.
The Navajo artist, Charles Keetsie Shirley, prepared this concept of the construction of the pre-historic walls from such meager information as is available.This black hulk has the most extensive terracing of any in Arizona, however. Its name, which means dead Haak, bespeaks violence. According to Papago legend, this was the place where the old lady Haak, symbol of evil, was dispatched by Echtoi [I’itoi KD 2011], the good creator. The setting for this murder was well chosen.
We left the car beside a wash which ran past the north foot of the volcanic mound, still two miles west of the Baboquivari’s foothills. Following the wash to the base of the butte, we found two exploratory shafts being sunk by a pair of sourdoughs who were camped under canvas in a palo verde grove nearby. In all their digging and exploration they had not come across any shaped rock or other artifacts which might have helped identify the purpose of the hill’s defenses.
And defenses indeed they appeared to be. As we passed the northwest corner of the oblong butte, we saw the whole western slope and the terraced fortifications which latticed it, from ground level to a final parapet about 600 feet above.
My first thought was, “What a lot of work it must have been!” Considering the arduous methods of construction called for, these walls and terraces must have served some very important purpose.
Zigzagging up the moderate west slope, the walls were made of head-size chunks of native rock fitted together with little semblance of care. The uneven barricades ran from 10 to 100 yards in one direction before veering off at another angle. J. W. Hoover, writing on the cerros de trincheras, or entrenched hills, in the Geographic Review fifteen years ago, reported that he had counted 12 walls down this northwestern slope. Since they followed no discernible pattern I could not verify the number, but altogether they presented a formidable obstacle to anyone bent on storming the hill against opposition barricaded behind those rocks.
The face of the hill is nearly a quarter of a mile wide, and the walls sporadically run the length of it, following the natural contours and taking advantage of the large outcroppings and shelves of rock as they occurred. This was certainly no small job for a tribe which must have been limited in numbers by the dearth of suitable fields and the resultant scanty food resources.
Map of Baboquivari Valley by Norton AllenTom and I discussed the fortifications from a military standpoint, since that was our common background, and it was a temptation at first to side with the anthropologist, Ellsworth Huntington, who stated in a paper written in 1919 that these terracings primarily had an agricultural use rather than one of defense. We started up the hill and found definite evidence of a leveling of the soil between the lower walls. These had been explained by some authorities later, namely Carl Sauer and Donald Brand of the University of California, as possible house sites of the pit variety, but frankly I disagree.
As for defense, the walls themselves offered a modicum of protection against a frontal assault, which would be the only kind of attack to be met I this manner. They were low and loosely constructed, and from pictures taken several decades ago they do not appear to have degenerated with age.
Haak Muerto, like the other fortified hills in he Sells area, apparently was on the outer fringe of a civilization which had its center in the Mexican valleys of the Magdalena and Altar rivers. The fortifications apparently had been built by the same peoples, those to the north being the outposts and therefore of inferior construction. One of the sites found in Mexico, Las Trincheras, (the trenches), has been called the most elaborate prehistoric structure in the northern states of that country. Terraced along these same general lines, the Mexican hill has walls nine feet high, with abutments 15 feet broad. Atop Haak Muerto, the terraced temples I had seen among the thorn thickets of Yucatan – certainly not similar in purpose or origin, but markedly alike in basic design – came to mind.
It may have been that Haak Muerto and other Arizona sites were built along lines accepted as the standard design rather than the site’s actual defense needs. The Papago tell stories of recent battles occurring here, one during the Civil War days when their own tribe used the place for defense against an unnamed Mexican enemy. If these stories are true – and the Papago sense of time is amazingly vague – the battles which ensued here must have been very short. There is no apparent way the besieged hill could supply itself with water or food. Any serious attacker merely would need to camp on the plain below and wait for thirst to break the morale of the defenders above. This being so, the hill may have served more as a rallying point than as a fort in the usual sense. And, too, attacks from Apache and the marauding tribes preceding them usually were transient, skirmishing raids rather than assaults in force, and preparations for an actual siege would not have been necessary.
Tom and I followed the walls to the top of the slope which was yellow with dried grass. The rocky soil showed definite signs of agriculture at the lower levels, but near the top the incline steepened and the very nature of the terrain would have made cultivation very difficult. The arrangement of the walls did not indicate that water retention had been their purpose, either. Finally, the parapets on the summit of the butte certainly looked like observation and command posts.

Tom King stands half way up the west slope of Haak Muerto. In front of him and behind, the loose rock walls slant across the entire hill face.

The top of the butte was fairly flat, with eroded ravines, and in one of these we found places where corn grinding had worn depressions in the rock. On the whole, however, there were no extensive signs of former habitation, and we surmised that the hill had been used only as occasion and fancy demanded rather than as a permanent dwelling site. The very trek up the hill should have discouraged the idea of penthouse life in even the most troubled and vigorous tribes.
From the top we got a much better perspective of the hill’s layout. North and east the drop to the bajada floor was steep, to the south almost perpendicular. The west slope was the only way by which the hill conveniently could be scaled, and that was where the walls had been erected.
At one of the parapets I put my foot on the top rock of the wall and leaned forward to peer down the slope. The rock rolled away and crashed down the slope some distance. So I had thus unintentionally undone someone’s work – someone who had lugged this rock up Haak Muerto’s face many hundreds of years ago.
Although their loose construction indicate that they have not been standing long, archeologically speaking, pottery shards found on the hill show that it was inhabited as long ago as the 14th century. It was about this time that a great drouth decimated the tribes in the area. The Hohokam, the mysterious people who probably dwelt here from the time of Christ to 1500, already had developed their system of irrigation by that time and there was an ancient ditch still discernible, running from the south drainage wash of the hill to a charco, or storage pond two miles away. But these enigmatic people rarely built walls of stone and whether the Hohokam, whose practice of cremation has kept us even from knowing what their actual bodily appearance was, built both the ditch and fortifications here would be difficult to say.
It is possible the forts were the work of the Salado people, another tribe which had wandered peaceably into the area from northeastern Arizona in the Middle Ages. The Salado, although they settled amicably among the Hohokam were not assimilated into their culture and later disappeared. Moreover, there is nothing to indicate that they migrated south, where the trincheras of Mexico indicate the center of this civilization was located. To further confuse the matter, some of the pottery found nearby indicates by its design and pattern that there was an entirely unique and different people living here during this early era.
Papago legend says these cavities on Haak Muerto's face were caused when the god Echtoi subdued the evil Haak.We continued to the south ramparts of the butte. Protruding from the main hill are two needle’s eye formations which the Papago say were caused by the old Haak’s head shoving up through the side of the mountain and the god Echtoi’s foot as he slipped while ridding the Indian world of her. This explanation fits the mood of the hill as we found it, since the whole aspect of the place was one of violence and depressing fear, similar in mood to those magnificent ruins of the Maya and Inca which are wonderful and subduing at the same time.
This pitiful refuge, if that is what it was, forced upon us a better understanding of the people who lived here. With a little imagination we could see them grinding a poor life from the unprofitable stretch of sand plain below, so continually in fear of their lives that their very mode of living for generations had been determined by it.
And with this, our visit to Haak Muerto was over. We had satisfied ourselves as to its reason for being, mostly by feeling through the evidence of their labors the personality and times of the people who may so desperately have built it. Before we left the crest of the hill I went back to the parapet and replaced the slab of black rock which I inadvertently had knocked over. Perhaps wind or a shift of the soil soon will topple it again, but I did not want to remember this place as one I had injured. I believe it already has seen enough grief.