Prehistoric Irrigation in Central Utah: More Than at First Glance with Dr. Steve Simms

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Thursday April 1

4:00 PM  –  5:00 PM

Thursday, April 1, 2021 4:00 p.m. MDT
Online Webinar


In 1928, Noel Morss was shown “Irrigation Ditches” along Pleasant Creek on the Dixie National Forest near Capitol Reef National Park, Utah by a local guide who contended they were ancient. Steve Simms and crew relocated the site and mapped the route of an unusual mountain irrigation canal. The canal is 7.2 km long originating at an elevation of 8,000’ and terminating at 7,100’. They conducted excavations and employed OSL and AMS 14C showing historic irrigation and an earlier event between AD 1460 – 1636. This age is late but consistent with a fragmentary abandonment of farming and continuity between the ancient and modern tribes in Utah – something first explicitly noted in the 1980s. Geomorphic evidence indicates the canal existed prior to this time, but they cannot date its original construction – perhaps Fremont?

Less than half of the system was hand constructed, minimizing capital costs while accepting higher maintenance costs. They conducted experimental modeling of the costs of the system, and the results indicate irrigation should be common where possible and serve to hedge risk, rather than make production more efficient. This holds implications for irrigation north of the Colorado River and farming during the Little Ice Age.

For the purposes of this presentation, Dr. Simms moves beyond the reporting to some broader implications. Irrigation at Pleasant Creek between AD 1460-1636, supposedly after the termination of farming north of the Colorado river, serves as a mundane symbol of cultural continuity between the ancient and modern tribes. Less emphasis on bounded archaeological taxonomies, turning names into things, enables a more behaviorally realistic view where non-Puebloan peoples interacted with Ancestral Puebloan/Fremont peoples. A milieu of farmers in pueblos, villages, and hamlets among a diversity of lifeways and identities, the “fierce and indomitable” non-Puebloan peoples may have a long history in the Southwest.

The webinar is suitable for lifelong learners from high school students to adults.  The lesson is free.



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