MYSTERY OF THE ANCIENT
If you travel much in the Four Corners region, you become fascinated with the Anasazi Indian culture and the mystery that surrounds their sudden departure over 700 years ago.
I recently saw a TV program on PBS called “Mystery of the Ancients” that theorized the Anasazi Indians were driven to their spectacular cliff dwellings around 1250 A.D. because of conflict or war. This theory is not fully supported by all southwest anthropologists many of whom support the drought theory (climate change forced the Anasazi to move). The PBS program demonstrated how a valley community of lofty settlements was able to communicate with each other which may have increased their defensibility, offering proof to their link as a single tribal entity.
My wanderings in the Canyonlands support the theory that the Anasazi were in a desperate attempt to protect their lives. One canyon near Comb Wash west of Blanding, Utah proves this point emphatically. This region features many mesatop ruins that were visible via line-of-sight. One such ruin, open to the public is renovated and is located just off Highway 95 near Mule Canyon. Further south other ruins acted as communication links, supporting the theory of a greater community of people.
The archetypal defensible position, however, is located in another canyon near Highway 95 in the Cedar Mesa region. Where two sheer canyons join, a defensible settlement still stands that acts as a “last stand” and bears witness, in the author’s opinion, to the desperate attempt of the Anasazi to save their lives. When standing upon this sandstone fortress, images of savage battles and prolonged sieges flashed through my mind. Of all the Anasazi ruins that I have visited, this fortress and what it represented gave me the creeps.
To approach the Anasazi Fortress, you must follow a thin bridge of Cedar Mesa sandstone that bridges two 400 foot-high canyons. You must first drop down several rock ledges to access the long bridge, then walk for several hundred yards on the spectacular promontory before you start ascending again to the Fortress. The ruins are tucked under a ledge out of view near the top of a pinnacle that is surrounded on three sides by the chasm. With an additional scramble up a crack (rated 5.6 with stemming moves?) you can climb to the top of the pinnacle to gain views of the entire mesa and canyons below.
Pottery shards litter the ruin site. It is a long hike from the river bottom below. I could envision the arduous task — clay pots balanced on one’s head — carrying water to the site.
The most convincing evidence that this site was a Fortress is on the long, narrow bridge to the site. Halfway across the span, a short ledge impedes your progress. You must climb up a few feet to continue. Roughly piled across the entire airy walkway is a wall of rocks. The crumbled wall is eroded, but when new, must surely have been the first defense wall to the Fortress. Behind the wall, within the safety of the walled boundary, are numerous water pools in the rock — eroded over the eons by natural melt-freeze processes. However, unlike all other water pools on sandstone I have ever seen, several of the larger ones had been dammed up — the remnants of the dams plain as day — full, they could hold a lot of water. After a brief rain, the Anasazi would have been stocked with water for several weeks, if not months, depending on the number of people holed up in this fortress.
We spent time carefully exploring this site, breathing in the pungent smell of pinion pine and juniper and imagining what life might have been like living in constant fear of invasion from marauding enemy tribes. I cast my vote — based on what I have seen — that the Anasazi were plagued with war or some other human induced situation. One fact remains — Anasazi dwellings remain inaccessible to this day and offer hikers a glimpse into a people worried for their lives.
Copyrighted by Joshua Gerak, 1996
If you are interested in exploring this or other sites in the four corners region, contact Josh with Adventure Trekkers via email. They teach environmental low-impact hiking and mountain biking in the four corners region.