“When all things were new…a giant being known as Cloud Swallower swallowed men and devoured cloud breaths of the beloved gods and the souls of the dead. Thus snow ceased to fall in the north and the west. Rain ceased to fall in the south and the east. And the valleys below soon dried up. Then other supernaturals, the gods of war and grandmother spider destroyed the dreaded swallower of clouds, but fearing that never again would the waters refresh in their canyons the ancients who dwelt in the cliffs fled away to the southward and eastward, save those who perished aforetime. They are dead in their homes in the cliff towns, dried like their cornstalk.”
-Zuni myth as told by Charles River Editors in “The Pueblo of Yesterday & Today”
I bookended an exploration of the cliff dwellings of the Sierra Ancha Wilderness of Arizona with visits to Besh Ba Gowah Pueblo Park & Museum and Tonto National Monument cliff dwelling Visitor Center. Each features a different kind of fortified village built by the “Salado” people — people of the Salt River. The idea was that I wanted to see the architecture of the local pueblo people interpreted before, and have questions answered after, I went flinging off into the wilderness to form my own assumptions. I also offer this writing as a prelude to three subsequent pieces I will share about three different gorgeous cliff dwellings I visited during my journey in the Sierra Ancha.
I wanted to understand why a regional people who historically lived in pit houses would have evolved architecture like “pueblo” compounds with three foot thick perimeter walls and “cliff dwellings”, stone castles hidden in inaccessible caves high in remote canyons, and then suddenly abandon them sometimes within one or two generations. Archaeologists and anthropologists make the answers to these questions very confusing by giving names to the people of the time based on pottery style, geography, and burial methods. In the region of central Arizona near the Sierra Ancha Wilderness scholars use words like Salado, Ancha Tradition, Hohokam, Anasazi, Sinagua, Mogollon, polychrome pottery vs. plainware pottery, and burial styles. It can leave the mind reeling when it starts to become clear that geographical regions, pottery and masonry styles, burial styles, and agricultural skills overlap considerably amongst the people from a far reaching geographical area in the four corners area of the Southwest.
In order to make sense of the scene I decided to take a step back and adopt the attitude of the modern indians who reject the names scholars give to “the old ones”. To ask a modern Yavapai indian, “What ever happened to the ancient Hohokam?” The Yavapai may say, “You’re talking to him.” Its important to look at the big picture. Like United States today, as the needs for resources changed, people moved around. There became a blending of people and cultures, a melting pot, and there were conflicts and cooperation amongst people with different traditions, political feuds. Instead of myopically labeling people of regions or traditions it makes more sense to look at what was happening at the time and defer to human nature for common sense answers. Groups of people did not move around in blocks like chess pieces on a delineated board. As in everything we have to accept in the adult view of the world, there were shades of gray. Some people blended and adapted. Some militantly defended their own ways and people. This is how people are. It was ever thus.
So here are the broad strokes to explain the advent and sudden abandonment of the pueblos and cliff dwellings of the Sierra Ancha (where I was) and other regions of the Southwest. By the year 1200 the American Southwest had already been experiencing cycles of drought, the water table dropped and people were getting stressed out. In many zones it became increasingly difficult to sustain a comfortable lifestyle. There was less arable land and there started to be competition amongst neighbors for resources. People started to move around. They started to move villages to higher locations where rainy mesas could be dry farmed (using rainwater instead of irrigation) and into the major river valleys where water was perennially abundant. Villages were placed in defensible locations and fortified with stone walls. Villages got bigger.
Above are image of the “echo chamber” from inside and outside the ceremonial pit at Besh Ba Gowah.
The Anasazi realm in particular was a major civilizations and population center that relied on agriculture in a region that was severely adversely affected by the climate change. The many people at the lower end of the top heavy hierarchical society began to starve and the the power structure collapsed. The Anasazi then had a diaspora. Most migrated to new regions of the southwest taking their culture with them.
The Anasazi were not the only migrants at the time. The early 1200s was a time of a lot of movement. By the mid 1200s the arable regions of central Arizona were positively teaming with people from all over the Southwest. There was extreme population density in areas around the Salt River and Verde River. This is a mountainous region and there would have been people everywhere, on lowland plateaus, on mesa tops, along riverbanks, in canyons. Everyone had to live somewhere safe and sometimes the best option was a defensible manmade fortress on a high bluff or in a cave on a cliff where goods could be safely stored for use and trade.
From what I can tell from my exploration of some of the cliff dwellings of the Cherry Creek Canyon area of Sierra Ancha Wilderness, water was the ultimate trump. Where there’s water there’s life, and where there’s no water, get out of there and find some. The last occupied cliff dwelling in the region was in Pueblo Canyon which is by far the biggest, I personally counted 50 rooms, and even today it has abundant water flowing over the cliffs. Some people think that some of people in adjacent canyons abandoned their cliff dwellings and congregated in Pueblo Canyon before abandoning the Sierra Anchas all together in the mid 1300s.
Two different kinds of roasting pits at Besh Ba Gowah, clay lined and stone lined.
By the mid 1300s the availability of water in the Sierra Ancha Wilderness must have become very limited and it is probable that people of the canyons emptied out into the Salt River basin and around Roosevelt Lake where Tonto National Monument now stands, again, leading to even more intense population density. The people who farmed near the Salt River held out until the 1400s, but then, even they had to move on and abandoned the pueblo dwellings of the region.
I don’t like to call the remains of the homes of these “Salado” people “ruins”. I prefer to try to understand them as living communities, not as relics of a bygone mysterious era. I don’t look at them as ruined. I look at them as mostly still there. Sitting in the rooms I can relax in the cozy protection from wind, heat and rain. I can hear water dripping from a nearby seep. I can imagine waking up in the corner of the room and assembling my gathering sack to descend into the canyon to forage for wild grapes, or emerging from my pueblo field house to tend the corn crops.
I look forward to showing you the beautiful cliff dwellings I explored in the Sierra Ancha Wilderness. Those stories are to follow. Please “Follow” my blog to receive notification when they post. I promise you will be glad you did. These places are tremendously beautiful pieces of American cultural heritage. You will want to see them and get a look at the beautiful canyons that cradle them.
Day One: Devil’s Chasm
In the dark I pulled over on the first and only wide space on the 20 mile cliffside jeep road, fearing there may not be another, and thought, this would be a good place for “the old ones” to have made a home in these mountains. I made my bed in the back of the jeep and went to sleep. In the morning I woke up, looked out the window and saw that somebody already had that idea. I was parked next to some low stone walls, the remains of a pueblo building. I soon came to realize that this valley and its tributary canyons were teeming with abandoned pueblos and cliff dwellings. The Sierra Anchas had been a bustling hub of civilization. Real estate was at a premium. The 1200s definitely would have been a seller’s market. The problem was that nobody wanted to sell and the people kept coming…