Natural springs have long been centers of biodiversity and cultural significance. David Sabata recently completed his master’s degree from Northern Arizona University, where he studied springs within the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument. Science Moab host Kristina Young spoke with Sabata about how springs can be used to understand human settlement across the landscape.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Science Moab: You study ‘culturally significant areas.’ Can you explain what those are?
Sabata: My field is usually called cultural resource management, and the idea is that archaeologists will discover places of traditional significance so we might protect them and hopefully learn from them. Unfortunately, over time what I’ve realized is that this has meant that places of significance to archaeologists have become emphasized and that those values might not always reflect the values of the Indigenous descendants of the peoples we like to study.
SM: What made you want to focus on springs specifically?
Sabata: The Paiute women that I worked with emphasized the importance of water places for their settlements’ subsistence. In the semi-arid West, the paramount importance of water for the survival of humans becomes readily apparent. At the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument where I was working, I quickly learned that 90-something percent of animal life also depended on these springs. Biodiversity and cultural significance became of intense interest to me. So I hypothesized that areas around native springs would have a lot more culturally significant diversity and more archaeology. I tried to develop an approach by which we could assess the significance of these places to help prioritize land management actions such as preservation or even ecological restoration.
SM: You talk about culturally significant biodiversity and I was wondering if you could explain what that means.
Sabata: In approaching this question, I consulted a number of ethnography sources on Paiute, Pueblo and Navajo plant use. In order to assess the significance of these plants, I decided to count the uses of the plants. I accumulated more than 1,000 uses of 70 general plants that I encountered during my surveys to help calculate the significance of these spring sites. Juniper, while incredibly common, is also incredibly significant. But a cottonwood might be 1,000 times as rare as a juniper on the landscape. Even though I only counted 40 uses of a cottonwood, those uses tend to be ceremonial, so plants associated with water take on this elevated importance in cultures.
SM: How much biodiversity do the springs in this region hold?
Sabata: The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument alone has documented over 1,200 species of plants, so it has incredible biodiversity. It’s the largest protected area in the United States. The animal diversity is high, one study of bees yielded more than 600 species. So we really have no idea what the biodiversity is with respect to these smaller creatures; some found in the vicinity of some of these springs might be the only ones of their type out there.
SM: In these areas of culturally significant biodiversity around the springs, did you see a relationship between culturally significant areas and archaeological material culture?
Sabata: I hypothesized that there would be a greater abundance of culturally significant biodiversity and archaeology in the vicinity of springs and that both of those things would reflect the cultural significance of these places. I visited about 75 of the 150 named and mapped springs in the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, as well as a few unnamed seeps and springs. I found about 50% more culturally significant biodiversity in the vicinity of springs and about 50% more archaeology in the vicinity of springs.
To learn more and listen to the rest of David Sabata’s interview, visit sciencemoab.org/archaeologyandsprings/.
Local researcher studies ancient cultures through water