A centuries-old Native American burial site has been uncovered along U.S. Highway 60 in Superior, including the remains of at least nine people and evidence of 40 rooms that once stood there.

The human remains, discovered about five miles west of the Oak Flat Campground in the Tonto National Forest, will be repatriated to the Gila River Indian Community, on whose ancestral lands the remains were found, said Todd Pitezel, state repatriation coordinator for the Arizona State Museum on the University of Arizona campus.

The remains — discovered between this spring and October — likely date to the 14th century and represent the Salado people, who were made up of a mix of cultures. The U.S. National Park Service said the Salado are an extension of the Hohokam, who used irrigation canals to farm in the Salt and Gila River valleys, beginning thousands of years ago. The Hohokam and Salado population there decreased drastically between 1350 and 1450, likely because of drought. Those who remained are the ancestors of today’s Gila and Salt River communities, says the Arizona Museum of Natural History.

The Gila River Indian Community “views any burial disturbances as a desecration to the Huhugam,” the O’odham name for their ancestors and living relatives, Barnaby Lewis, Gila River Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, said in a statement. “However in this modern day, it is unavoidable and we take great strides to protect our ancestors with privacy and respect.”

The remains will be reburied on the Gila River reservation.

Many Hohokam and more recent Apache artifacts are scattered throughout that area, archaeologists say, including on the 2,400-acre parcel above a massive copper deposit that could be acquired by a foreign mining company this week.

The bill to privatize the parcel, which includes land sacred to Native American tribes, was tucked into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act by legislators last week. A final U.S. Senate vote is expected no later than today.

The presence of the Gila River Indian Community’s ancestors in the area is one reason the tribe opposes the mining project, Lewis said in the statement.

“Overall, the community opposes any mining project, including the one proposed by Resolution Copper in the Oak Flat area. This mining project in particular will be destructive to the environment,” the email said.

The recent finding at U.S. Highway 60 is the biggest settlement discovered in Superior, said Scott Wood, heritage program manager with the Tonto National Forest.

“It’s the only one like it in Superior that we know of, and certainly the largest one we know of,” he said.

Anna Neuzil is project director for EcoPlan Associates, the archaeological consultants performing the archaeological review for the Arizona Department of Transportation. Neuzil said ADOT officials will not allow her to discuss the findings with the media.

The review comes in advance of a $45 million highway-improvement project, part of a package of ADOT projects approved for the next five years. It will modernize and widen a five-mile stretch of highway between Florence Junction and Superior, ADOT spokesman Dustin Krugel said in an email.

The burial site will be destroyed by the project, but first archaeologists will ensure that all human remains have been collected and repatriated, and will document all other historical artifacts found there, such as decorative pottery, tools and structures, Wood said.

The environmental studies done in advance of the ADOT project have “given us a very good look at a cross-section of the history of human occupation in that part of the Queen Creek drainage,” Wood said.

LAND-SWAP CONNECTION

Opponents of the controversial land-swap measure say the recent finding is further evidence of critical archaeological sites in and around the Oak Flat area set to be conveyed to Resolution Copper Mining, which is jointly owned by U.K.-based Rio Tinto Group and Australia-based BHP Billiton Ltd.

“What it points to is the haste and the inappropriateness of what’s being done,” said Roger Featherstone, director of the Tucson-based Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, which has been fighting the land swap since it was first introduced in Congress in 2005.

John Welch, a former historic preservation officer for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, told Science magazine this week that the parcel contains important archaeological artifacts.

“This is the best set of Apache archaeological sites ever documented, period,” he said.

Resolution Copper spokesman Dave Richins said the mining company will comply with all federal regulations, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, if it finds archaeological sites on the site. But he disputed claims of the great archaeological significance of Oak Flat.

“I think there should be a robust review of the historic and archaeological record at Oak Flat and let the facts tell the story instead of the rhetoric,” he said Thursday.

Wood said Oak Flat has been deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as a traditional cultural property, based in part on surveys that Resolution’s own subcontractors performed. That process showed more than a dozen prehistoric and Apache sites on the parcel.

But Wood said the issue is broader than the historic sites because Oak Flat is still actively used by Native American people, including members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe who consider Oak Flat to be sacred.

“In terms of the strictly archaeological remains, they (Resolution) have stated that they will follow the law and conduct mitigation data-recovery operations on the sites that will be impacted,” he said. “The real concern is the fact that we’re talking about an active cultural landscape that’s still in use by the Apaches. That part, you can’t do data recovery on.”

Contact reporter Emily Bregel at 807-7774 or ebregel@tucson.com. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel