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The People Who Adapted

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017: Spring Trip 2017, Trips.

Art on the Rimrock

From the Mojave Desert, I traveled northeast to the Colorado Plateau, where I camped among pinyon and juniper near the rim of a sandstone canyon. My campsite faced the setting sun across a broad, shallow basin blanketed with sagebrush.

In the morning, I drove farther into the back country, passing prairie dog colonies with their popup lookouts, and followed a trail down from the top of a mesa to a rimrock escarpment. Hundreds of feet below, a creek opaque with grey-green sediment raged, carrying water down from snow on distant peaks.

Near the end of the escarpment, ancient people had made pictures in the sandstone. These pictures are attributed to farmers from a thousand or more years ago who lived in earth houses, whose remains are found all across Utah, often under modern towns and cities.

Village in the Canyon

During completion of an interstate highway, a boy who lived in a canyon in its path told his father about ruins he’d seen on a hill that was being attacked by bulldozers. Eventually, the bulldozers were temporarily halted and a team of archaeologists surveyed and excavated the hill, finding the largest known village site of the mysterious farmers who are believed to have created much of the prehistoric rock art in Utah.

After the village site and its house ruins were excavated and artifacts removed, construction of the interstate highway resumed, almost completely destroying the hill and its ancient village. In partial compensation, the state opened a museum to store and display artifacts and educate the public about the vanished community.

The Canyon

The Art

Anglo settlers have always known this canyon to be rich in rock art.

The People

Apart from the rock art attributed to them, the ancient farmers are known for their earth houses, which archaeologists misleadingly call “pit houses.” This term reflects the Anglo-European bias in favor of technologically advanced societies that attempt to “rise above” nature and dominate the earth. Anglo archaeologists considered the ancient farmers more “primitive” than their Anasazi neighbors who built cliff dwellings far above the ground; in comparison, these primitive farmers seemed to be living underground in pits like animals.

But as I noted last fall in Closing the Circles, these “pit houses” were actually mostly above-ground, and both spacious and comfortable. Unlike the “pueblos” of the Anasazi and modern Indians of the Southwest, these earth houses were not defensive, indicating that their populations had achieved a peaceful existence. The boxy, densely populated “pueblos” with their dark, cramped rooms would more accurately be termed “fortified apartment blocks,” built and inhabited by a society that was out-of-balance, and fearful, like ours.

But most importantly, the earth houses of the ancient farmers were supremely adapted to their environment. These people did not try to engineer their habitat on an industrial scale like the Anasazi – or like our own society.

Of course, the best evidence of this society’s success would be seen not in their houses and other artifacts, but in themselves, their gardens, and the health of the natural ecosystems they inhabited, all of which seem to be lost to us now. But maybe not completely lost – modern tribes may be directly descended from the ancient villagers, and recent excavations in other parts of this area are showing that some of the ancient farmers’ fields and irrigation networks were used continuously into historic times, when they were appropriated by early Anglo settlers.

As the museum exhibit asks, “What can these ancient people teach us?” Unlike us, they put the well-being of the community above that of the individual. They lived in harmony with nature. And instead of trying to control nature, they adapted their way of life to changing conditions in a challenging environment.

As a result, they thrived for a thousand years in this place, sustaining a larger population than we do there, even with our advanced technology and vast wealth. But, also unlike us, they sustained their traditions of hunting and gathering, so that when conditions changed dramatically, instead of fighting nature, they could temporarily set aside their village farming way of life and became nomadic foragers and hunters.

The Girl

For me, the centerpiece of the museum was the multi-media story of a farmer girl who had died at the age of seventeen. From her damaged skeleton, forensic scientists had reconstructed the girl’s appearance and her likely life history, archaeologists had added cultural and societal context, a sculptor had created a life-size likeness of the girl, and a girl from a nearby modern tribe had voiced her long-forgotten story.

I’ve taken the liberty of creating this abridged version of the girl’s story, omitting some technical details and modern perspectives that can be found in the full museum version:

 

The Modern Nation

Anglo homesteaders came in advance of the modern nation, but within a century the nation had caught up. Its bulldozers razed the hill of the village, and its freeway paved the floodplain where the villages kept their farms, so that now the valley and its once-bustling community is merely a passing glimpse from the closed windows of the racing metal boxes rushing urban Americans from city to distant city.

I was told in the museum that Native Americans in the surrounding areas were outraged, and a native elder placed a curse on the Department of Transportation, leading to a series of mishaps and tragedies, and pleas from the government that the curse be removed. And later, laws were passed to prevent this sort of cultural destruction. But laws can be overturned, and arrogant, domineering nations seldom last as long as this community of People Who Adapted.

Homeward Bound

On my way home, I stopped in one of my favorite mountain ranges, at the far eastern edge of the territory of my favorite Indians, the heirs of the ancient farmers. I pushed my little truck dangerously through a raging stream to a clearing under tall green cottonwoods, below a cliff of layered sandstone.

When I got out of the truck, I discovered the ground was covered with shelled pine nuts. The modern Indians had used this very spot to process their harvest, a harvest they’ve sustained for thousands of years!

Crossing the last range of mountains toward home, I drove through a sleet storm at 8,500′:

  1. Jean says:

    Astonishing pics! Thanks for sharing.

  2. I so love learning this, Max.

    Thank you!

    As always,

    Lawford

  3. Mae says:

    Do surrounding tribes know the identity of these “farmers”. Folks who grow food are very important in any culture.

    • admin says:

      My knowledge comes from the Anglo archaeologists and my own observations of the remains. Modern tribes may have legends about the ancient people who left these remains, but if they do, they’re not talking.

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