With funding from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Severin Fowles and his students at Barnard College will conduct the first archaeological investigations into the origins of Comanche regional influence during the early eighteenth century. Their research will focus on the Taos district of New Mexico, a strategic Comanche trading center and the first reported location of Comanche raiding in 1706. Recent discoveries of extensive Plains-style rock art and tipi encampments suggest that some of the earliest Comanche raiding base camps were located in the hidden confines of the Rio Grande gorge, a large rift valley just west of Taos. One site in particular - La Vista Verde Site - contains the remains of a large tipi encampment surrounded by hundreds of scratched rock art panels depicting warrior's paraphernalia, horse raids, and battle scenes. These are the first such archaeological remains found in New Mexico, and they require careful documentation to establish the chronology, ethnic identity, and underlying military logics of the sites' locations. National Science Foundation funds will support three years of research designed to accomplish four goals: (1) additional archaeological survey within the Rio Grande gorge to expand the sample of Plains-style rock art and tipi sites, (2) detailed mapping of known tipi encampments, (3) documentation of Plains-style rock art panels, (4) creation of an online rock art database, and (5) consultations with the Comanches and other tribes to assist in the interpretation of the materials.
The rise of Comanche regional influence during the eighteenth century was a transformative event in the history of North America. Once in possession of the horse, the Comanches quickly migrated south out of Wyoming, conquered the South Plains, and assumed their position as a fully equestrian society with an unparalleled military that they used to dominate the vigorous new markets then emerging at the intersection of Spanish New Mexico, Spanish Texas, French Louisiana, and a variety of other Native American nations. For over a century, the Comanches dominated trade in horses, captives, guns, and bison across a tremendous region from the Great Plains deep into Mexico. Their military interventions were responsible for halting Spain's colonial aspirations in North America, ultimately paving the way for the United States' takeover of New Mexico and Texas. Moreover, the extensive trade in captives, orchestrated by the Comanches, transformed the ethnic configuration of Southwest communities, resulting in a large populace with mixed Spanish and Native American heritage. Historians now write of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Comanche society as an equestrian empire that shaped the American West.
The broader impacts of this research are many. First, it will produce the first study of Comanche militarism in New Mexico using archaeological evidence that escapes the biases inherent in written documents, which have served as the evidentiary basis for all prior accounts of this key chapter in American history. Second, it will establish the criteria by which Comanche archaeological sites can be distinguished from those of other Plains tribes. Finally, the fieldwork will be undertaken with undergraduate crews from Barnard College, marrying scientific research with training for the next generation of women in archaeology.