September 13, 2019

What an archaeological dig near the Santa Cruz River may unearth about the past

The site was discovered during preliminary work on a new interchange near I-10 and Ruthrauff Road.

Early work on a new interchange at Interstate 10 and Ruthrauff Road unearthed signs of what life was like thousands of years ago in Pima County. Archaeologists are currently working at a site a few dozen yards from the Santa Cruz River. University of Arizona anthropologist Thomas Sheridan offered insight into what they may discover.

“Tucson is really important in the archaeological world as far as the Southwest goes,” Sheridan said.

According to Sheridan, human activity along the river in Tucson traces back 14,000 years. Signs of maize agriculture date back 4,100 years. Evidence that corn farmers turned to field irrigation goes back 3,500 years.

“Wherever there was water in any quantity near the surface, people were living, and have been living for a long time,” Sheridan said. “But unlike today, they had to engage in a natural give-and-take with the river because they couldn’t build big dams. They didn’t have deep, groundwater wells.”

Sheridan said excavations like the current dig should also cause us to reflect on our present day use of our water resources in Southern Arizona.

“The water tables — just in 50 years between 1940 and the 1990s when the Central Arizona Project arrived — water tables and city wells dropped by anywhere between 50 and 200 feet,” Sheridan said. “In my history of Arizona I said that Tucson water users were like trust fund babies plundering their inheritance, because it took millions of years to collect that water and in that 50 years we used anywhere from 7% to 9% of it.”

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