The Cliff-Dwellers: The Four Corners Region of Southwestern USA Is Littered with the Remains of the Ancestral Puebloan People and Their Antecedents, Who Inhabited the Region for More Than 10,000 Years before Mysteriously Migrating South. but, as Geordie Torr Discovers, This Unique Archaeological Legacy Is under Threat

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When we think about archaeology and the Americas, our thoughts rarely get past the big three southern civilisations: the Incas, Aztecs and Maya. And that's hardly surprising, given their incredibly impressive architectural legacy: from Macchu Picch u to Tikal and Chichen Itza.

But North America has an even longer history of colonisation, and in the Four Corners region of the southwestern USA, where the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico come together, there is a veritable treasure trove of archaeological sites. The best known are, of course, the remarkable cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, but this whole region is absolutely teeming with rock art and ruins.

FROM BASKETMAKERS TO POTTERS

The first people are thought to have arrived in the Four Corners area around 10,000-12,000 years ago. These so-called 'archaic' peoples were essentially wandering hunter- gatherers.

In around 1000 BC. they began cultivating maize and squash. Agriculture allowed them to settle down and begin building shelters, and this settled lifestyle, in turn, allowed them to develop their handicrafts. Basket weaving became extremely sophisticated and for this reason, the people from this time period are known as 'basketmakers'.

Towards the end of the so-called Basketmaker period, in around 750 AD, they started making pottery. Not long after, they also began to cultivate protein-rich beans and were living in stable villages. These people were once known as the Anasazi, but today, they are more commonly called ancestral Puebloans (see What's in a name?),

By about the 11th century, the ancestral Puebloans' architecture had developed to the point where they were building sophisticated multi-storey cliff dwellings and apartment houses, some of which reached five storeys in height and contained hundreds of rooms. They had also perfected a variety of methods of irrigation and water storage.

However, their efforts to keep drought at bay were sorely tested towards the end of the 13th century, when a long and devastating drought took hold. Thousands died and there is evidence of bitter conflict--among the people themselves and probably also with nomadic groups such as the Utes, who were arriving in the area around that time--and even cannibalism.

They began migrating south en masse--it's unclear exactly what the motivation was, although there were probably several factors at work--and by around 1300, the entire population had gone, leaving behind an archaeological legacy that is stunning in its breadth and sophistication. As well as architectural wonders such as Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, they frequently left behind items such as baskets and cooking pots--probably because they were too bulky to carry.

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RUINS AND ROCK ART

At the height of the ancestral Puebloans' civilisation, there could have been as many as 250,000 people living in the Four Corners region; by comparison, San Juan County, in the southeastern corner of Utah, currently has a population of just 14,000 people.

The ancient population density is reflected in the ubiquity of archaeological sites scattered around the Four Corners. There are many sites that you can easily visit yourself--for example, Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon in Colorado and New Mexico respectively, and Hovenweep National Monument and Newspaper Rock in San Juan County. Others, such as Ruin Park, require off-road vehicles or some hiking.

Alternatively, you can hire a local guide and head out into the back country. Vaughn Hadenfeldt, who runs Far Out Expeditions, has spent more than 20 years exploring and guiding in the Four Corners. Over that period, he has built up an unparalleled knowledge of archaeological sites in the region.

At many of these sites, the rock art is associated with prehistoric travel routes. Hadenfeldt takes me out along an old uranium prospecting road to the base of a huge fiat-topped plateau called Cedar Mesa. …