Earth Notes
11:52 am
Wed January 22, 2014

Earth Notes: Early Cotton

A thousand years ago, farmers on the Colorado Plateau were known for their classic crop trio of corn, beans and squash. But, in some places, they were also growing, using and trading cotton.  

Early cotton from the Colorado Plateau
Early cotton from the Colorado Plateau
Credit National Park Service

Cotton is mostly tropical and needs a long growing season and dependable water. Raising it on the plateau — higher and farther north — required innovations like selecting seed; planting in better-watered spots; mulching with gravel; and protecting with windbreaks.

People ate the nutritious, oil-rich seeds, and also valued cotton highly for fiber. They harvested the seedpods, or bolls, then spun the raw material into thread with hand spindles. Then they wove it into cloth, usually on vertical looms.

Clothing and blankets were usually plain weaves, but a few pieces were twills and lacey openwork that showed great skill — pieces that may have been traded or kept for special uses.

Plant parts and pollen, weaving tools, loom holes, and cotton cloth remnants have been found at many sites on the Plateau — including Grand and Glen canyons, Canyon de Chelly, and even Elden Pueblo at 7,000 feet in Flagstaff. Wupatki Pueblo may have been a production center. Wupatkians probably exchanged their cotton cloth for exotic items like shell, macaws and copper bells.

Cultivation and trade of cotton continued into historic times, especially at Hopi and the northern Rio Grande pueblos. The crop was economically important, but also weighted with symbolism: the soft, pure white fiber evoked ever-important clouds and rain.