Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 1–60

Factors Controlling Pre-Columbian and Early Historic Maize Productivity in the American Southwest, Part 1: The Southern Colorado Plateau and Rio Grande Regions


DOI: 10.1007/s10816-010-9082-z

Cite this article as:
Benson, L.V. J Archaeol Method Theory (2011) 18: 1. doi:10.1007/s10816-010-9082-z


Maize is the New World’s preeminent grain crop and it provided the economic basis for human culture in many regions within the Americas. To flourish, maize needs water, sunlight (heat), and nutrients (e.g., nitrogen). In this paper, climate and soil chemistry data are used to evaluate the potential for dryland (rain-on-field) agriculture in the semiarid southeastern Colorado Plateau and Rio Grande regions. Processes that impact maize agriculture such as nitrogen mineralization, infiltration of precipitation, bare soil evaporation, and transpiration are discussed and evaluated. Most of the study area, excepting high-elevation regions, receives sufficient solar radiation to grow maize. The salinities of subsurface soils in the central San Juan Basin are very high and their nitrogen concentrations are very low. In addition, soils of the central San Juan Basin are characterized by pH values that exceed 8.0, which limit the availability of both nitrogen and phosphorous. In general, the San Juan Basin, including Chaco Canyon, is the least promising part of the study area in terms of dryland farming. Calculations of field life, using values of organic nitrogen for the upper 50 cm of soil in the study area, indicate that most of the study area could not support a 10-bushel/acre crop of maize. The concepts, methods, and calculations used to quantify maize productivity in this study are applicable to maize cultivation in other environmental settings across the Americas.


SouthwestMaize agricultureSoil chemistry

Supplementary material

10816_2010_9082_Fig23_ESM.gif (14 kb)
Supplementary Fig. 1

Weather station location map. (GIF 13 kb)

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High resolution image (TIFF 12982 kb)
10816_2010_9082_Fig24_ESM.gif (15 kb)
Supplementary Fig. 2

Soil pedon location map. (GIF 14 kb)

10816_2010_9082_MOESM2_ESM.tif (12.8 mb)
High resolution image (TIFF 13129 kb)
10816_2010_9082_MOESM3_ESM.xls (91 kb)
Supplementary Table 1(XLS 91 kb)
10816_2010_9082_MOESM4_ESM.xls (438 kb)
Supplementary Table 2(XLS 438 kb)

Copyright information

© US Government 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Research ProgramU.S. Geological SurveyBoulderUSA