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What is Tonto National Monument?

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  • Written By: Grayson Millar
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 29 August 2016
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Located near Phoenix, Arizona, in the Tonto National Forest, the Tonto National Monument has been registered as a United States historical place since 1966. Situated on the northeastern portion of the Sonoran Desert, the monument houses cliff dwellings that were constructed by the Salado people during the 13th century and were inhabited by them through the 14th century and into the 15th. Tonto National Monument's cliff dwellings remain in good condition, and visitors are welcome to explore them.

What is now the Salt River valley originally was — as far as can be — determined, occupied by Hohokam settlers around the year 850. Not much is known about the Hohokam, but it is believed that the Salado culture supplemented the Hohokam around 1150. It is presumed that the original Hohokam settlers, followed by the Salado, were drawn to the region that is now the Tonto National Forest by the presence of the Salt River, which, as a natural source of water, offered many essential resources, as well as by the mesas and hillsides that provided prickly pear, agave and other naturally occurring vegetation. In fact, the Salado Culture received its name early in the 20th century from the "life-giving" Rio Salado, or Salt River.

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The area's resources also attracted rabbits, deer and various animals and fowl that allowed the Salado Culture to hunt game and enjoy a varied diet. The Salado, like the Hohokam before them, initially dwelled in the Salt River Valley, but it is speculated that naturally occurring erosion and a growing population ultimately forced them up into the cliffs and hills above the valley. The rugged cliffs and hillsides overlooking the river valley proved to be a functional location for settlement. Shallow caves in the cliff walls furnished shelter from the elements while retaining proximity to the naturally occurring resources below.

The Salado cliff dwellings that are preserved at Tonto National Monument are constructed from rocks and mud and, in their initial state, were similar to modern day apartments with multiple rooms, some with two levels, terraces and functional rooftops. Indeed, the larger section, now known as the Upper Cliff Dwelling, had 32 rooms, and eight of them had two stories. The Salado occupied these dwellings for about 300 years before departing in approximately 1450. Very little is known about the Salado Culture or why the people abandoned the cliff dwellings housed in Tonto National Monument. They are known only through their ruins, which are a continuous area for archaeological investigation.

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