Geoarchaeology, Geomorphology, and Radiocarbon Dating in Tularosa Canyon Provide Key Insights into the Peopling of the Tularosa Basin from the Last Ice Age to the Historic Settling of Tularosa

Dr. Vance Holiday with the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment is both an archaeologist and a geomorphologist. In recent years, Dr. Holiday has been focused on the Tularosa Basin, where he and various colleagues have been studying the landscape geoarchaeology of the Tularosa Basin, examining the relationship between Paleoindians (the First Americans) who made use of the ancient lake beds and shorelines, such as around Lake Otero, between 10,500 and 13,500 years ago. Over time, Lake Otero’s size withdrew to the present area of Lake Lucero but once covered much of the area inclusive of the White Sands found at White Sands National Monument, White Sands Missile Range, and Holloman Airforce Base, agencies that have been supporting his research efforts. 

In May of 2018, Dr. Holiday and Brandon Fennerty (U of A Graduate Student) were introduced to the exposures of the Rio Tularosa floodplain deposits by David Greenwald, Director of Jornada Research Institute. Here, the alluvial sequence represents over 5000 years of deposition with a series of “black mat” deposits exposed. The “black mat” deposits represent highly concentrated layers of vegetation that once grew in a wetland environment, where water either stood or moved very slowly through the canyon. Each layer represents vegetation that was buried by later deposition perhaps from flood events or changing dynamics of the river. Then, the geomorphological sequence exhibits a return to a wetland environment represented by reeds, tulies, water grasses, and riparian species, only to be buried again, decayed, and forming yet another dark, organic band of plant material, a peat band of compressed vegetation. This sequence appears to have occurred over several millennia from approximately 4000 years ago until perhaps 2000 years ago, or shortly before Creekside Village was settled by Jornada Mogollon farmers, who constructed irrigation canals, created terraced fields on the slopes above the creek, and built the first great kiva to be documented in the Tularosa Basin that dates between A.D. 600 and 850. 

Text Box: Dr. Vance Holiday (L), Dr. James Neely (center), and Dave Greenwald (R) pose in front of a stratigraphic profile of the Rio Tularosa floodplain deposits following the Tularosa Basin Conference (May 19, 2019 photo by Brandon Fennerty).

Dr. Holiday again visited Tularosa Canyon this May to collect more samples for dating the deposits and to understand the dynamics of the depositional events associated with the Rio Tularosa. Radiocarbon dating is the primary method of determining the age of the floodplain deposits. Some funds are being provided through ongoing studies and research at White Sands National Monument in an effort to understand the depositional history associated with the late Pleistocene and early Holocene eras. Future plans include examining other profile exposures of the depositional sequence downstream in Tularosa Canyon and exposures where Tularosa Canyon once emptied its bedload of sediments in the Tularosa Basin. Reconstructing the depositional history of Tularosa Canyon will aid the understanding of events that may have affected and influenced the gradual shoreline withdraw of Lake Otero and how environmental changes thousands of years ago affected the animals that relied on the shoreline vegetation and the people who hunted them following the last ice age.  Lake Otero, and other paleolakes found in similar settings, often contained non-potable water due to evaporates and minerals, but discharge from the surrounding mountains and streams, like the Rio Tularosa, may have provided a source of fresh drinking water for the Paleoindian groups and supported a variety of plants important to both humans and native fauna. 

Ongoing research by Jornada Research Institute in Tularosa Canyon through its association with a number of noted arid-lands researchers, including Dr. James Neely, Jornada Research Associate (in photo),  is developing a history of water use associated with the canyon. Current studies include research at Creekside Village and the Twin Kivas Site, and a historical documentation of the Tularosa Acequia system and nomination to the National Register of Historic Places being prepared by Gerry Raymond and David Greenwald. When completed, Greenwald and his research associates will prepare a Historic Landscape Study report that documents the land-use in Tularosa Canyon that covers the past 13,000 years. Tularosa Canyon is literally an “outdoor” laboratory, one that Greenwald has been studying for the past 20 years. The recent Tularosa Basin Conference, held in Tularosa, included several papers that focused on related topics to those mentioned above. The conference is open to the public and is a good source to learn more about the Basin and its surrounding natural and historic resources. 

For further reading, access the following article on line: 

Paleoindians, Paleolakes and Paleoplayas: Landscape Geoarchaeology of the Tularosa Basin, New Mexico by Vance Holiday, Allison Harvey, Matthew T. Cuba, and Aimee M. Weber 2018

Or, available at the Tularosa Basin Museum of History gift shop or by contacting

Reconsidering the Mesilla Phase in the Tularosa Basin: Changing View Points on Subsistence Strategies, Socio-Political Organization, and Residence Patterns Based on Preliminary Studies at Creekside Village by David H. Greenwald