Past Lives

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Peo­ple have been living in the South­west for more than 13,000 years. With spec­tac­u­lar pho­tos by Larry Lin­dahl, The An­cient South­west: A Guide to Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Sites, by Gre­gory McNamee, show­cases some of the ru­ins th­ese civ­i­liza­tions left be­hind: Casa Grande in Ari­zona, the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mex­ico, Chim­ney Rock in Colorado, and Hoven­weep in Utah. On the cover in a photo of a ves­sel housed at the Luna Mim­bres Mu­seum in Dem­ing; cour­tesy Río Nuevo Pub­lish­ers.

Peo­ple have been living in the South­west for more than 13,000 years. Hun­ters and gath­er­ers of the Clo­vis, and later Fol­som, cul­tures were fol­lowed by what many ar­chae­ol­o­gists call the Bas­ket­mak­ers. The Bas­ket­maker cul­ture be­gan in the north­ern South­west be­tween 500 and 200 BC; its peo­ple left scat­tered pit­house set­tle­ments. Be­tween AD 700 and 900, which co­in­cided with Europe’s Dark Ages, South­west­ern peo­ple be­gan build­ing Pue­blo vil­lages, and have con­tin­ued to do so. The most elab­o­rate ru­ins date to the pe­riod of Europe’s high Mid­dle Ages.

Just as to­day’s Na­tive Amer­i­cans do not have one monolithic cul­ture, their an­ces­tors cre­ated many dif­fer­ent civ­i­liza­tions. Th­ese peo­ple in­clude the Ho­hokam, who lived near what is now Tucson and Phoenix, and who thou­sands of years ago built ir­ri­ga­tion canals to wa­ter their corn and bean crops. Later, the Mo­gol­lon peo­ple set­tled to the east, fa­mous in an­cient times and among mod­ern col­lec­tors for their black-and-white pot­tery. The an­ces­tors of many of to­day’s Pue­blo peo­ple lived in an area stretch­ing from what is now Taos and So­corro, to Du­rango, Colorado, to St. Ge­orge, Utah, to Hol­brook, Ari­zona. Their aban­doned towns and cities can be seen at Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Ban­de­lier, and many other places. To the north­west were the Fre­mont peo­ple, who lived in smaller set­tle­ments and left spec­tac­u­lar rock art. Other civ­i­liza­tions flour­ished far­ther west and south.

Dif­fer­ent styles of ar­chi­tec­ture and pot­tery and var­ied agri­cul­tural tech­niques char­ac­ter­ize South­west­ern civ­i­liza­tions of the last 1,500 years. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists sus­pect that the groups did not share one lan­guage or reli­gion. Mod­ern Pue­blo peo­ple trace their an­ces­try to one or an­other of th­ese groups,in tra­di­tions passed down orally from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion.

With spec­tac­u­lar pho­tos by Larry Lin­dahl, The An­cient South­west: A Guide to Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Sites, by Gre­gory McNamee and re­leased by Río Nuevo Pub­lish­ers, show­cases some of the ru­ins th­ese civ­i­liza­tions left: Casa Grande in Ari­zona, the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mex­ico, Chim­ney Rock in Colorado, and Hoven­weep in Utah. The text de­scrib­ing each site is suc­cinct, but pho­tos tell much about the builders of the ru­ins: the care with which they laid their walls, how they sited their cities in the land­scape, and how the build­ings have fared since their in­hab­i­tants left.

The geo­graphic set­ting of each site is more spec­tac­u­lar than the last: ki­vas sil­hou­et­ted against a moun­tain range, tow­ers cling­ing to cliffs or perched on desert hills, mesa-top ru­ins. Some pho­tos bring the viewer very close to a van­ished peo­ple: At a few cliff dwellings, such as Be­tatakin and Keet Seel in Ari­zona, it seems as if the in­hab­i­tants left only a few hours ago to hunt or tend their crops. Pho­tos of rock art, from geo­met­ric de­signs of the Mo­gol­lon peo­ple, to a pos­si­ble paint­ing of a su­per­nova at Chaco Canyon, to the dis­qui­et­ing spirit fig­ures of the Fre­mont cul­ture, il­lus­trate the va­ri­ety of artis­tic tra­di­tions among an­cient South­west­ern­ers.

In­ter­spersed among the book’s ar­chi­tec­tural and land­scape pho­tos are cameo images of ar­ti­facts found in ex­ca­va­tions and caves: wicked stone pro­jec­tile points, a turquoise-in­laid shell that looks very much like mod­ern Zuni jew­elry, boldly painted pot­tery, a clay dog, and a small carved moun­tain lion. Th­ese pho­tos help us see how the an­cients viewed the world around them. Show­ing the great span of the South­west’s artis­tic tra­di­tion is a photo of small deer fig­ure made of twigs that dates from two to four thou­sand years ago and was found in a cave in the Grand Canyon. Fiber is rarely pre­served in ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites, but pho­tos of rare san­dals and cot­ton fab­ric demon­strate the care with which an­cient peo­ple dressed.

The most com­mon ar­ti­facts found in ru­ins are bro­ken and whole pots. If the tra­di­tions of mod­ern pue­b­los can tell us any­thing about the past, women made th­ese. It’s in­ter­est­ing to think that it is mainly fe­male artis­tic out­put that has sur­vived the cen­turies in the South­west, whereas in Europe, art from the Mid­dle Ages that has come down to us was made by men in the form of paint­ings and sculp­ture. There, say in the Old World or in Europe, women’s artis­tic skill was di­rected to weav­ing and needle­work, most of which has long since rot­ted away.

Lin­dahl’s pho­tos tell a great deal about an­cient cul­tures. McNamee’s text and the in­for­ma­tion about each ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site would serve as a great guide­book for tour­ing the South­west. The book con­tains a map, a his­tor­i­cal timeline, and a use­ful in­dex. It fea­tures 14 sites in New Mex­ico as well as many in Ari­zona, Utah, and Colorado.

An­other re­cent book, Living the An­cient South­west, edited by David Grant Noble and pub­lished by Santa Fe’s School for Ad­vanced Re­search, an­swers many of the ques­tions that vis­i­tors to ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites might have. How were farm­ers at Chaco Canyon able to sup­port such ex­ten­sive cities? Did vi­o­lence cause the peo­ple of Mesa Verde to aban­don their homes? Can oral his­to­ries of to­day’s Na­tive Amer­i­cans be con­sid­ered re­li­able ac­counts of where peo­ple went when they left the an­cient sites? What are the sto­ries be­hind pot­tery de­signs and rock art?

This book con­tains 18 es­says by var­i­ous au­thors on the ways of an­cient and mod­ern South­west­ern Na­tives. The time frame is a long one. Chap­ters dis­cuss camp­sites built by Ar­chaic hun­ters and gath­er­ers thou­sands of years ago, ex­plore the iconic

Pue­blo ru­ins of the last mil­len­nium, and retell cur­rent Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo sto­ries. Each au­thor of­fers in­sights into the peo­ple who left their ar­ti­facts and ru­ined cities across the South­west, knowl­edge that ca­sual vis­i­tors to ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites of­ten don’t pos­sess.

Uni­ver­sity of Utah an­thro­pol­ogy pro­fes­sor R. Steven Simms writes about those who in­hab­ited the Great Basin: The an­cients lived in the desert West with the nim­ble­ness of long fa­mil­iar­ity. They needed no street signs or maps be­cause ev­ery­thing and ev­ery place had names and sto­ries. Their lan­guages held no word for “wilder­ness.” The peo­ple marked no sep­a­ra­tion be­tween hu­man­ity and na­ture, nor did they pose hu­man­ity against na­ture. The no­tion of “mak­ing a living’ in­volved no distinc­tion be­tween work and play. There was har­mony and bal­ance, but th­ese things were not static. The an­cient peo­ple shaped their wilder­ness. They used it and some­times even used it up. The bal­ance they achieved was not a fi­nal state, but an un­steady re­la­tion­ship be­tween hu­man needs, be­liefs, and the tyranny of cir­cum­stance.

The desert was a chal­lenge to un­told gen­er­a­tions of South­west­ern­ers. The book of­fers us clues as to how they not only sur­vived but flour­ished. To­day, peo­ple ap­ply their pow­er­ful men­tal ca­pac­ity to­ward

de­vel­op­ing elec­tron­ics and soft­ware. An­cient peo­ple ap­plied that same in­tel­li­gence to grow­ing crops in an in­hos­pitable cli­mate, fash­ion­ing pro­jec­tile points, and find­ing just the right ma­te­ri­als and shapes for cooking pots.

Some chap­ters give us a glimpse of world­views not shared by set­tlers of Euro­pean de­scent. Barn­aby Lewis, tribal his­toric preser­va­tion of­fi­cer for the Gila River In­dian Com­mu­nity, and An­drew Dar­ling of South­west Her­itage Re­search, ex­plain how the O’od­hams de­scribe space and time. An­i­mal spir­its com­pose songs and teach them to hu­mans in a dream. This tribe’s Ori­ole song fol­lows a cir­cuitous route from the Gila River all the way to the Gulf of Cal­i­for­nia. Trails, thou­sands of years old, are still vis­i­ble in the Ari­zona desert.

Trails were also im­por­tant for Pue­blo an­ces­tors in North­ern New Mex­ico. Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­sity an­thro­pol­ogy pro­fes­sor James E. Snead ex­plains how, although early ar­chae­ol­o­gists con­cen­trated mostly on dig­ging up ru­ins on the Pa­jar­ito Plateau, their mod­ern suc­ces­sors are look­ing at those vil­lages’ re­la­tion­ship to the land­scape. Sci­en­tists have mapped many square miles of agri­cul­tural fea­tures: fields, dams, wa­ter di­ver­sions, shel­ters, and look­outs. They have also be­gun to re­al­ize how an an­cient and ex­ten­sive sys­tem of trails con­nects the aban­doned pue­b­los. In some places, pathways are worn deep into the soft vol­canic tuff of the Je­mez Moun­tains. In other places peo­ple carved steps and pecked pet­ro­glyphs onto cliff faces to mark trails.

Var­i­ous au­thors ex­plain that trails were — and, for mod­ern descen­dants, still are — not only a way to get from one place to an­other, but a re­li­gious jour­ney. Views along the way must have been an im­por­tant spir­i­tual com­po­nent.

Be­cause of the South­west’s spec­tac­u­lar scenery, it is a shame that this book re­lies mostly on black-and­white il­lus­tra­tions. Noble, the edi­tor, is an ex­cel­lent pho­tog­ra­pher, and the in­clu­sion of more of his work would have added much to the project.

A more sci­en­tific vol­ume than the other two is From Moun­tain Top to Val­ley Bot­tom: Un­der­stand­ing Past Land Use in the North­ern Río Grande Val­ley, New Mex­ico, edited by Bradley J. Vierra and pub­lished by the Uni­ver­sity of Utah Press. The 18 pa­pers col­lected in the book look at ar­chae­o­log­i­cal finds in a new way.

In his in­tro­duc­tion, Sev­erin Fowles of Barnard Col­lege at Columbia Uni­ver­sity ex­plains that stan­dard ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­search of­ten looks top-down at sites: “Iconic images of sites in­evitably present ar­chi­tec­ture as if it ex­isted on a flat­tened x-y plane — the bird’s eye view rather than the typ­i­cal hu­man gaze side­ways at a world of el­e­va­tions.”

A more re­al­is­tic view would take el­e­va­tion into ac­count. He writes: “To­po­graphic lines notwith­stand­ing, the per­spec­tive of our maps is again top down, en­cour­ag­ing us to con­tem­plate hor­i­zon­tal move­ment and the dis­tance be­tween sites as the crow flies rather than as the hu­man scram­bles over an un­even ter­rain: down into canyons, up onto the foothills, far­ther up to the moun­tain peaks.”

The vol­ume’s es­says dis­cuss how an­cient peo­ples made a living at vary­ing el­e­va­tions through­out pre­his­tory: what they hunted, what kinds of weapons they used, the chang­ing types of pot­tery they made, the va­ri­ety of plants they gath­ered in val­leys and up­lands, how lat­i­tude and el­e­va­tion in­flu­enced the types of corn they planted. One re­cur­ring in­sight among th­ese pa­pers is that farm­ing suc­cess in this area de­pends not only on pre­cip­i­ta­tion, but on the length of the grow­ing sea­son. Chang­ing tem­per­a­tures, as well as drought, may well have in­flu­enced habi­ta­tion pat­terns and mi­gra­tions.

Packed as it is with sci­en­tific charts and graphs, the book is not easy read­ing. A glos­sary of par­tic­u­larly ar­cane terms would help lay­men, and even ar­chae­ol­o­gists of var­ied spe­cial­ties, bet­ter un­der­stand the chap­ters.

Each au­thor has a spe­cialty, in­clud­ing pot­tery, stone pro­jec­tile points, tree rings, flora, and fauna — and de­scribes that area of ex­per­tise in great de­tail. Taken as a whole, the book gives read­ers an over­view of how the an­cients lived in, and moved up and down, the land­scape.

“The An­cient South­west: A Guide to Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Sites,” by Gre­gory McNamee and with pho­to­graphs by Larry Lin­dahl, is re­leased by Rio Nuevo Pub­lish­ers. “Living the An­cient South­west,” by David Grant Noble, is pub­lished by the School for Ad­vanced Re­search Press. “From Moun­tain Top to Val­ley Bot­tom: Un­der­stand­ing Past Land Use in the North­ern Rio Grande Val­ley, New Mex­ico,” edited by Bradley J. Vierra, is pub­lished by the Uni­ver­sity of Utah Press.

A turquoise-in­laid shell on view at the Her­itage Cen­ter, Colorado

A san­dal worn by an An­ces­tral Pue­bloan now housed at the Edge of the Cedars State Park, Utah

A dog fig­urine re­cov­ered from a Ho­hokam set­tle­ment in Ari­zona

The “leap­ing sheep” glyph at the Eye of the Sun Arch in Mon­u­ment Val­ley, an ex­am­ple of an­cient rock art in the South­west; op­po­site page, left, the “big house” that lends its name to Casa Grande Ru­ins Na­tional Mon­u­ment is lo­cated in the Ho­hokam heart­land in south-cen­tral Ari­zona; a stone dart at­tached to a wooden shaft, which was then thrown with a carved piece of wood that served as an arm ex­ten­sion, now housed in a mu­seum at the Edge of the Cedars State Park de­voted to An­ces­tral Pue­bloan cul­ture

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