The word sustainability is everywhere these days. You hear it in the grocery store, on the news, and maybe even at work; it is becoming ever more important in our changing world. Sustainability, for those who are unfamiliar, is the idea of creating economic, technological, and cultural systems that will allow humans to flourish indefinitely without damaging the environment or biodiversity. This could be through recycling used materials, reducing carbon footprints by using locally sourced materials, or using renewable resources. Climate change, pollution, and other environmental concerns loom, and society is slowly coming to grips with the idea that our behaviors need to be modified. This adoption is difficult, seeming progressive and new in the eyes of many, but we are not the first culture by far to practice sustainability.

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Water Jar, ca. 1930, ceramic, H: 10.25 in. x W: 12.75 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, Gift of Dorothy Campbell, Cooperstown, NY, N0085.1995.

Three to four thousand years ago, the Zuni Pueblo people settled in the southwestern United States, near the modern day borders of New Mexico and Arizona and live there still. Since the beginning of their known history, they have been farmers, a surprising fact considering their desert surroundings. Because of this the Zuni developed sustainable practices to allow for water storage in a non-ideal environment.

In a desert, water becomes an extremely precious resource, and for this reason containers such as this Zuni water jar were made. The bulbous form of the jar is typical of Zuni and Pueblo pots. On the underside there is depression allowing the pots to be balanced on the head as a method of transport, rather than having to carry them in their arms.

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Water Jar, ca. 1930, ceramic, H: 10.25 in. x W: 12.75 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, Gift of Dorothy Campbell, Cooperstown, NY, N0085.1995.

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Zuni Water Carriers by Edward S Curtis 1903.

Sustainability is part of the very fabric of this water jar, even if the Zuni may not have defined it as such. The clay from which the jar was made was locally mined, usually by family groups, and sculpted by the women of these families.[1] In a modern context, this sort of locally sourced material is exactly in-line with sustainable practices. The construction method of the jar itself was also sustainable, with broken pots ground to a fine powder and then being used as temper in the clay of new pots.[2] This recycling of pot sherds helped with the workability of the clay, and may have also affected characteristics of the fired vessel.[3] In the picture of the bottom of the Zuni jar you can see black and brick colored inclusions which may be pot sherds used as temper.

This sort of recycling is a sustainable practice. In the past few decades, recycling has been one of the main avenues to promote sustainability, with municipal recycling programs being almost ubiquitous throughout the country, though according to the EPA, in 2013 only 34.3% of household waste is recycled.

Sustainable practices, and modifying the way our society operates is becoming ever more important. Climate change is happening, and the human race as a whole must change the way it operates to make sure we continue to have a working world to live in. Those changes are difficult, but maybe if we look to how the Zuni, and other traditional cultures, shaped and sculpted sustainable practices into their lives for inspiration we can craft a better future.

By Lynds Jones

Works Cited

[1]  Brody, J. J. Beauty from the Earth: Pueblo Indian Pottery from the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Philadelphia: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1990.

[2]  Brody, J. J. Beauty from the Earth: Pueblo Indian Pottery from the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Philadelphia: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1990.

[3] http://www.tulane.edu/~kidder/Anth%20461/ceramic%20terms.html#Temper

[4] http://www3.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/

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