Ancient river and Ancient People
The headwaters of the Gila river begin in southwestern New Mexico. After a 650 mile trip across southern Arizona, the Gila joins with the Colorado river, and soon spills into the Sea of Cortez.
The Gila drains an arid desert watershed of more than 60,000 square miles. It’s the last undammed river in New Mexico and has been named as an endangered river.
Indigenous peoples have lived along the river for at least 2,000 years, establishing complex agricultural societies before European exploration of the region began in the 1500s.
The river is pronounced Hee-La, and rhymes with Sheila. Here are a number of other names for the river:
Apache de Gila
Brazo de Miraflores
Hah-quah-sa eel (Yuma language)
Keli Akimel (Pima language)
Native groups of Mogollon, Mimbres, Pima, and Yuma people have lived on the banks of the Gila River since before the arrival of Spanish explorers.
Popular theory says that the word Gila was derived from a Spanish contraction of Hah-quah-sa-eel, a Yuma word meaning “running water which is salty”.
Indigenous Mogollon and Mimbres people were responsible for creating large, complex civilizations along the Gila between 600 and 1450 c.e. These native civilizations depended largely on irrigated agriculture, and to that end, crafted over 200 miles of irrigation canals fed by the Gila.
Of significance are the Gila cliff dwellings along the west fork of the Gila river headwaters. The Mogollon people lived in these cliff dwellings between 1275 c.e. and 1300 ce.e (Pueblo Era III). Archeologists have identified 46 rooms in the five caves, and believed they were occupied by 10 to 15 families. It is not known why the dwellings were abandoned.
The dwellings were a perfect place for human living. The caves provided adequate shelter, while the wooded area concealed the homes. Impressively, the wood found in these shelters has proven to be original. Dendrochronology (tree ring dating) determined that the wood used in the dwellings was cut down sometime between 1276 to 1287.
All images and graphics by Dano. Use with permission and attribution.