Chautauqua focuses on state's pre-Columbian era

Mike Easterling
Alan Osborne of Southwest Seminars in Santa Fe will present a Chautauqua in Farmington this weekend on "New Mexico Before Columbus."

FARMINGTON — Alan Osborne, an Oklahoma native who relocated to New Mexico in his early twenties, can rattle off his extended family history at the drop of a hat. He says that’s because when he was young he spent a lot of time around his two grandmothers, both of whom indulged his questions about how his family wound up settling in northwest Oklahoma.

He figures that strong oral tradition in his family is something he shares with a lot of families in San Juan County.

“I was always wanting to know how old-timers lived and what things were like in the past,” he said.

Osborne — the co-founder of Southwest Seminars in Santa Fe, a nonprofit cultural education organization that offers public lecture series in various aspects of American Indian, Hispanic and Southwest culture and history — will be here this weekend to present a Chautauqua on "New Mexico Before Columbus" that examines several thousand years of history in the state before Europeans arrived. His agency has offered a weekly, Monday night lecture series in Santa Fe for many years, featuring more than 1,100 scholars from all over the world in that time.

But Osborne is particularly pleased to be delivering a presentation here, given the area’s rich cultural history.

“Every chapter of the human experience has been experienced in the San Juan River valley,” he said.

Osborne plans a Chautauqua of approximately one hour, and a question-and-answer session will be included.

“All the research I can share is done by somebody else, but it’s all cutting-edge research,” he said. “I’ll be looking into some corners of New Mexico we don’t often hear much about.”

Alan Osborne says the story of New Mexico is exotic, complex  and multitextured.

As the title of his Chautauqua indicates, Osborne will focus on a time before the 1500s. He plans to focus on three distinct phases — the Paleo, the Archaic and the Pueblo. The Paleo stretches back 8,000 to 15,000 years ago and represents the first period of human habitation in New Mexico. Osborne said that may have been the period when the Clovis technology that was developed in the southeastern United States spread west and ran into the Western Stemmed Tradition, a completely different form of technology, that originated around the Great Basin. The Archaic is the middle period and covers several thousand more years.

“It was a fascinating period of sustainable living for just under 10,000 years — hunting, foraging, gathering, but not domestication of agriculture,” he said. “There was adaptation to the various landscapes in the Southwest, from desert to alpine tundra.”

The final and most recent period, the Pueblo, is the one that has drawn the most attention from researchers, Osborne said. The Pueblo culture may have been common in New Mexico, but it was surrounded by, and sometimes interacted with, other cultures, he said, including the Fremont, the Mogollon, the Plains and the Rocky Mountain. Those dynamics assured that lifestyles in the region in that era were anything but static.

“There have been many migrations here, and many, many linguistic streaks,” Osborne said.

Alan Osborne's presentation this weekend in Farmington will focus on three phases from the state's past -- the Paleo, the Archaic and the Pueblo.

Unlike many other Chautauquas that are sponsored by the New Mexico Humanities Council, Osborne will not assume the role of a character during his presentation. Instead, he will stick to a more traditional lecture approach. He likes to comb through academic journals and other publications for material that most people outside the field have no exposure to and present it in an accessible fashion that intrigues audience members, perhaps prompting them to dive into such studies on their own.

He said new discoveries occur on a regular basis in regard to the pre-Columbian era in the American Southwest, but that is not a time period most people are inclined to give much thought to.

“It’s only when it hits the front page of newspapers” that people pay much attention to it, he said.

San Juan County is home to a wealth of such discoveries, he said.

“I just think that area where you are is one of the richest cultural areas in the United States,” he said. “And I’m sure most scholars would agree.”

Osborne has been trying to encourage people to embrace the past for most of his life. He co-founded New Mexico Elderhostel, a not-for-profit organization that promotes lifelong learning, and has lectured for a slew of state, national and international groups.

A careful examination of history offers numerous benefits, Osborne said.

“The more time we spend thinking about the past … the better equipped we will be to face the challenges of the future,” he said.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: “New Mexico Before Columbus” Chautauqua by Alan Osborne

When: 3 p.m. Saturday, March 12

Where: Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3041 E. Main St.

Admission: Free

For more information: Call 505-599-1174 or visit