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This article aligns with the following National Science Education Standard:
Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives—Science and Technology in Society

This article also aligns with the following National Geography Standards:
12. The Processes, Patterns, and Functions of Human Settlement
17. How to Apply Geography to Interpret the Past


Hupobi is one of 17 extensive ruins in the Chama region of northern New Mexico. Its 10 eroded blocks of 900 ground floor rooms and another 300 second-floor rooms are distributed around three open plazas. The site was occupied from the mid-1300s to the mid-1500s. Hupobi's prehistoric dwellers practiced dry-farming agriculture to meet the challenges of the hot, arid environment. The exact cause for abandonment of the site remains a subject of much debate.

The ancient inhabitants of Hupobi handed down to the modern Tewa Pueblos of northern New Mexico a rich cultural heritage. Today, more than 30,000 tribal members in 19 pueblos across the state speak their traditional languages of Keres, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, or Zuni, as well as English. They live and work in their home villages and in the cities of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Los Alamos. Their children keep alive the culture of a resilient agricultural people who lived in settled communities centuries before the arrival of the Spanish explorers.

Aerial view of Hupobi as it looks today

Aerial view of Hupobi as it looks today
BLM, Taos (n. mex.) Resource Area

At the Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico, staff and students collaborated with the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management to develop a cooperative educational project focusing on the agricultural and architectural technologies of the Hupobi Pueblo some 500 years ago. The group created a multimedia computer exhibit for display in the Gateway to the Past Museum outside of Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Students with direct ancestral ties to the people of ancient Hupobi conducted the research and interpreted their findings. The exhibit they set up informs visitors of the permanence, beauty, and technical skills of their living heritage. Subsequently, teachers at the school wrote a culturally relevant science curriculum focusing on dry-farming agriculture. Four activities from the curriculum are featured on "Exploring Ancient Water Ways."

As students explore the natural methods carefully selected over centuries by the Hupobi people, they learn about ways to farm without harming the environment, without relying on fossil-fuel-driven machinery, and without rerouting natural resources across great distances. These lessons give students a new perspective on finding solutions to current problems. How can today's agricultural sector better use limited water supplies? Is it possible to adapt ancient techniques to help conserve this still-precious resource?


The deserts and high mesa areas of the Southwest presented several challenges to prehistoric inhabitants. Given the difficulty of their environment, these peoples adapted quite well. In building their homes and growing their crops, they showed a keen understanding of how to work in harmony with the natural world.

In the beginning, they experimented with various techniques in their quest to survive. One of the more successful was a method called dry-farming agriculture.

Most of the Southwest, with the exception of the high mountain areas, is hot and arid, receiving little rainfall. The area is also characterized by large expanses of flat, unprotected valley plains containing very poor soil. Small mountain ranges occasionally interrupt the valleys. These mountain ranges usually encompass narrow canyons that do not contain enough space for planting large fields.

The success of a growing season depends not only on rainfall, but also on how much of that rainfall percolates through the ground to the roots. Penetration of the water below the surface is known as infiltration. The infiltration rate describes the amount of moisture that sinks into the soil within a given time period.

Soils in the Southwest generally consist of loose sands and gravels, called alluviums, that do not trap or retain water well. These alluvial soils tend to be very shallow. Although a "shallow" soil sounds as though it would let more water reach plant roots, this is not the case in desert soils.

The Rio Grande Valley usually receives two major periods of precipitation. The spring rains of April and May are characterized by slow, drizzling rain that allows for good infiltration. Although spring rains bring necessary moisture to the seeds, they are less important than those that arrive in late summer. These rains bring moisture in the hottest part of the season, when it is most needed. They arrive in torrential downpours that dump tremendous volumes of rain in a very short span of time. This pattern makes infiltration difficult.

Alluvial soils are very porous, with many air spaces between the grains of sand or gravel. Despite this, when the rain comes down rapidly, these spaces fill up and no more water can infiltrate the ground. The excess runs off on the surface and washes away. This is why arroyos (streams that remain dry except during the rainy season) fill up and flood so frequently in late summer.


The early inhabitants of Hupobi developed special farming methods to increase the amount of land that could be planted and to decrease the amount of soil lost with each rain. Check dams, along with other flood control mechanisms, helped stop the erosion of thin topsoil. Hupobi farmers would place a small line of rocks across the path of the channels where runoff typically flowed. This interruption in the flow allowed soil that had been picked up by the water to resettle and be deposited behind the rock line. As the waterflow slowed, it lost its ability to carry sediment. This created new plots of soil to be planted, and it protected areas farther downstream. At the village of Hupobi, the ancient inhabitants set up check dams on all the terraces that paralleled the nearby river.

Another technique common throughout the Southwest involved placing rock borders around individual agricultural plots. These grid gardens served both to identify plots and to protect the soil from being carried off with each rainstorm. On some prehistoric fields, a thin layer of gravel or small stones would have been spread over the area. This gravel mulching provided one more method of slowing down the runoff and protecting the soil from erosion. It also slowed water evaporation, insulated plots from frosts, and reflected heat during the hottest part of the summer. Thus, a dry farm plot would be more likely to yield a crop, and the people of Hupobi could harvest maize, beans, and squash in the fall.




Stephen L. Fosberg

The remains of an ancient Hupobi grid garden.
The remains of an ancient Hupobi grid garden.

The waffle-garden, another dry-farming technique, was a square plot, anywhere from one to four meters per side, surrounded by a clay or adobe wall that rose 30-50 cm above the ground. The overall pattern resembled a giant breakfast waffle. The waffle plot may have had a gravel mulch as well. Both methods served to hold the water in the soil longer, to retard evaporation, and to increase chances for crop success. Waffle-garden agriculture has been practiced and documented historically at Zuni Pueblo, in western New Mexico. It is likely that the inhabitants of Hupobi practiced it in addition to their grid gardens.

Crop success also depends on whether the slope containing the field faces northward or southward. Slope direction, or aspect, dictates how long it takes for winter snows to melt and how many hours of daily sunlight the area receives. Ultimately, aspect determines the length of the growing season.

Historic photo of Zuni waffle-garden
The Zuni people developed this waffle-garden design, which is still used today as an ecological method of conserving water.


Museum of New Mexico. Photo by Jesse Nusbaum, 1911

The daily maximum temperature of the soil also differs significantly between a north- and south-facing slope--as much as 10° C. That difference has a significant effect on young seedlings that depend on the soil for heat until they break through to the surface.

This information was not lost on the inhabitants of the Hupobi, who made careful observations of the natural world. Because maize requires at least 120 frost-free days to grow, farmers almost always chose to plant it on the south-facing slopes that would provide additional daylight and a longer growing season.


The technologies and architectural practices each culture develops depends upon their environment and the physical and social needs of the group.

At Hupobi, the residents chose to gather together in multilevel homes built in an apartment-like fashion. Adobe dwellings with stone foundations surrounded a central rectangular courtyard. The people also built round, underground ceremonial rooms called kivas, additional storage rooms, and public areas. They developed adjacent agricultural fields and erected pens for domesticated turkeys. The early Spanish explorers named such settlements pueblos, the Spanish term for towns.

The buildings were made of coursed or puddled adobe rather than adobe bricks. This soft, mudlike plaster was layered over a foundation of stones in courses (applications) to the desired height. The resulting structure was strong enough to allow for two and even three stories. Outside ladders were used for entry into the upper levels.

Long logs of peeled pine, called vigas, supported the roof. Shorter lengths of cedar branches were layered over the logs. These latillas supported a yucca or grass mat, which became the roof. A thick layer of mud offered further protection from rain and insulation from heat and cold. Wooden gutters, or canales, drained water from the flat roofs during heavy rains. The rooms were painted with a white plaster and the floors were of hard, packed soil.

These architectural details reflect the materials at hand in the surrounding environment. The mountain areas provided tall trees for vigas, and the people could harvest the cedar branches and other vegetation nearby. River water and the composition of the site's soil allowed the people to build with adobe, which absorbs the sun's heat, keeping rooms cool during the day; during winter's cold nights, adobe gives off heat, keeping rooms warm.

As a settled agricultural community, the people could securely store their harvests and their tools within their dwellings. Clustered within a settlement, they pooled their talents to help one another.

Other Native American communities in the Southwest also adapted their lifestyles, including architecture, to their environment. In Mesa Verde, Colorado, visitors today can explore the homes of other Pueblo tribes that are based on cliff dwellings. These homes were built into cliffs protected by rock overhangs, often facing south to be warmed by the sun, and featured many of the architectural details that the people of the Hupobi also developed a few centuries later.

The traditional Navajos built round dwellings covered with mud or dirt roofs. The older-style hogans were framed with branches protected by skins or vegetation. Later homes were constructed with stone walls, as communities became more permanent and dependent upon agriculture and the raising of sheep. Farther south, where desert conditions necessitated protection from the heat, the Pima and Papago tribes of Arizona developed a wattle and daub construction. They made foundation with brushy vegetation or reeds covered with mud. The Yaqui people built ramadas, open-sided roofed structures that let in cooling breezes.

Sleeping/Cooking Room
Air Vent
Store Room
Sleeping Room
Small Window
Angled Window

Rising solar heat warms south-facing rooftops, creating outdoor work areas during the winter months.
Cross section of an idealized pueblo

Cross section of an idealized pueblo

Beyond the basic sizes and shapes of these traditional dwellings, the climate and materials of each environment influenced the decoration and furnishings of the homes. The food and styles of food preparation and storage were also dependent upon the environment. But contact with other groups and the technical advances of each generation changed how people viewed what was a necessity for their lifestyle.

Contemporary Pueblo tribes continue to take pride in their ancestral homes. Taos Pueblo, north of Hupobi, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in North America. The modern descendants of the people of the Hupobi may live in individual homes furnished with all the modern conveniences, but the heart of the traditional pueblo remains the centuries-old community buildings constructed around a plaza and plastered annually with fresh adobe.


The development of environmental technology is a key adaptation of all successful communities. Living with the land to nurture all beings and to sustain its natural resources requires a thoughtful balance of respect for the Earth and for humanity's desires. In seeking to achieve this balance, we can look for examples established by peoples of long ago. The scientific insights that they cultivated through observation over generations can provide possible solutions to current problems. The indigenous inhabitants who live and practice agriculture in the Southwest today bear witness to the success of these earlier peoples. As modern agriculture expands into areas where water is not naturally plentiful, could we apply the ancient agricultural techniques of the Hupobi?


Students at the Santa Fe Indian School, a tribally governed secondary school for 570 Native American students from across the Southwest, receive a contemporary education while emphasizing the values and goals of their home communities. The five high school juniors who worked on the Hupobi Heritage Project are from San Juan and Santa Clara Pueblos, located north of Santa Fe. To represent fully the vitality of Hupobi Pueblo, they created a multi-media production that includes illustrations, animation, 3-D replications, video segments, and sound. A computer platform adds the interactive aspect, allowing the viewer to choose from an electronic menu of "chapters" on Hupobi agriculture, architecture, technology, trade, and history. The program challenges visitors to participate in the choices the Hupobi people made as they contended with the environment each day.

With modern technology, students could better document and explain their ancestral ways. They videotaped their elders, created movies for computer use, mastered the complexities of database and word-processing programs, and refined their English writing and speaking skills. The students' work on this project also gave them insights into the careers of photography, videography, history, archaeology, anthropology, museology, and resource management. More than l00,000 people per year visit the Ghost Ranch Museum complex; those visitors will be judging the interns' work in a real-life performance assessment.

Most importantly, students gained renewed respect for their cultural heritage, its technology, and its language.

A technical description of the Hupobi Heritage interactive display is available for readers who would like to know more about the computer technology involved in the project. To request a copy, please write to Doreen Bailey, Ventures in Technology, Santa Fe Indian School, P.O. Box 5340, Santa Fe, NM 87502.

students and teachers from the Santa Fe Indian School Screen displays from the interactive computer program

Screen displays from the interactive computer program, part of the multimedia exhibit at the Gateway of the Past Museum, near Abiquiu, New Mexico. (left) These students and teachers from the Santa Fe Indian School created the computer program.

Courtesy of Santa Fe Indian School.


TepeeTribes of the Great Plains lived on horseback, with their tepees trailing behind them. Tanned buffalo hides provided covering for the tepees.

IglooConstructed of snow blocks and insulated with hanging firs, the igloo could be a simple shell for one person or a cluster of bubbles linked by inner passageways for many families.

The Iroquois felled trees from forests of the Northeast. A structural frame of saplings was covered with bark sheets or sewn reed mats. The communal "long house" was often more than 30 meters long.
long house