CHAPTER XII. THE CLIFF DWELLERS


Up: Contents Previous: CHAPTER XI. THE METEORITE MOUNTAIN Next: CHAPTER XIII. THE MOQUI INDIANS


[page 167]

IN the cañons of the Colorado river and its tributaries are found the ruins of an ancient race of cliff dwellers. These ruins are numerous and are scattered over a wide scope of country, which includes Arizona and portions of Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. Many of them are yet in a good state of preservation, but all show the marks of age and decay. They are not less than four hundred years old and are, in all probability, much older. Their preservation is largely due to their sheltered position among the rocks and an exceptionally dry climate.

The houses are invariably built upon high cliffs on shelving rocks in places that are almost inaccessible. In some instances they can only be reached by steps cut into the solid rock, which are so old and worn that they are almost obliterated. Their walls so nearly resemble the stratified rocks upon which they stand, that they are not easily distinguished from their surroundings.

The cliffs are often sloping, sometimes overhanging, but more frequently perpendicular. The weather erosion of many centuries has caused the softer strata of exposed rocks in the cliffs to disintegrate and fall away, which left numberless caverns wherein this ancient and mysterious people chose


[page 168]

to build their eyrie homes to live with the eagles. The houses are built of all shapes and sizes and, apparently, were planned to fit the irregular and limited space of their environment. Circular watch towers look down from commanding heights which, from their shape and position, were evidently intended to serve the double purpose of observation and defense.

In the search for evidence of their antiquity it is believed that data has been found which denotes great age. In the construction of some of their houses, notably those in the Mancos Cañon, is displayed a technical knowledge of architecture and a mathematical accuracy which savages do not possess; and the fine masonry of dressed stone and superior cement seem to prove that Indians were not the builders. On the contrary, to quote a recent writer, ‘‘The evidence goes to show that the work was done by skilled workmen who were white masons and who built for white people in a prehistoric age.’’ In this connection it is singular, if not significant, that the natives when first discovered believed in a bearded white man whom they deified as the Fair God of whose existence they had obtained knowledge from some source and in whose honor they kept their sacred altar fires burning unquenched.

The relics that have been found in the ruins are principally implements of the stone age, but are of sufficient variety to indicate a succession of races that were both primitive and cultured and as widely separated in time as in knowledge.

The cliff dwellings were not only the abodes of their original builders, but were occupied and deserted successively by the chipped stone implement maker, the polisher of hard stone, the basket maker and the weaver.

Among the relics that have been found in the ruins are some very fine specimens of pottery which are as symmetrical and well finished as if they had been turned on


[page 169]

CLIFF RUINS, CAñON DEL MUERTO.

CAñON DEL MUERTO.


[page 171]

a potter's wheel, and covered with an opaque enamel of stanniferous glaze composed of lead and tin that originated with the Phœnicians, and is as old as history. Can it be possible that the cliff dwellers are a lost fragment of Egyptian civilization?

The cliff ruins in Arizona are not only found in the cañons of the Colorado river, but also in many other places. The finest of them are Montezuma's Castle on Beaver creek, and the Casa Blanca in Cañon de Chelly. Numerous other ruins are found on the Rio Verde, Gila river, Walnut Cañon and elsewhere.

The largest and finest group of cliff dwellings are those on the Mesa Verde in Colorado. They are fully described in the great work1 of Nordenskiold, who spent much time among them. The different houses are named after some peculiarity of appearance or construction, like the Cliff Palace, which contains more than one hundred rooms, Long House, Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, etc.

He obtained a large quantity of relics, which are also fully described, consisting of stone implements, pottery, cotton and feather cloth, osier and palmillo mats, yucca sandals, weaving sticks, bone awls, corn and beans.

Many well-preserved mummies were found buried in graves that were carefully closed and sealed. The bodies were wrapped in a fine cotton cloth of drawn work, which was covered by a coarser cloth resembling burlap, and all inclosed in a wrapping of palmillo matting tied with a cord made of the fiber of cedar bark. The hair is fine and of a brown color, and not coarse and black like the hair of the wild Indians. Mummies have been exhumed that have red or light colored hair such as usually goes with a fair skin.


[page 172]

This fact has led some to believe that the cliff dwellers belonged to the white race, but not necessarily so, as this quality of hair also belongs to albinos, who doubtless lived among the cliff dwellers as they do among the Moquis and Zuñis at the present day, and explains the peculiarity of hair just mentioned.

These remains may be very modern, as some choose to believe, but, in all probability, they are more ancient than modern. Mummies incased in wood and cloth have been taken from the tombs of Egypt in an almost perfect state of preservation which cannot be less than two thousand years old, and are, perhaps, more than double that age. As there is no positive knowledge as to when the cliff dwellers flourished, one man's guess on the subject is as good as another's.

An important discovery was recently made near Mancos, Colorado, where a party of explorers found in some old cliff dwellings graves beneath graves that were entirely different from anything yet discovered. They were egg-shaped, built of stone and plastered smoothly with clay. They contained mummies, cloth, sandals, beads and various other trinkets. There was no pottery, but many well-made baskets, and their owners have been called the basket makers. There was also a difference in the skulls found. The cliff dwellers' skull is short and flattened behind, while the skulls that were found in these old graves were long, narrow and round on the back2 Rev. H. M. Baum, who has traveled all over the southwest and visited every large ruin in the country, considers that Cañon de Chelly and its branch, del Muerto, is the most interesting prehistoric locality in the United States. The Navajos, who now live in the cañon, have a tradition that the


[page 173]

EXPLORING THE CAñON.

ON THE RIM TRAIL.


[page 175]

people who occupied the old cliff houses were all destroyed in one day by a wind of fire3. The occurrence, evidently, was similar to what happened recently on the island of Martinique, when all the inhabitants of the village of St. Pierre perished in an hour by the eruption of Mont Pelée.

Contemporaneous with the cliff dwellers there seems to have lived a race of people in the adjoining valleys who built cities and tilled the soil. Judged by their works they must have been an industrious, intelligent and numerous people. All over the ground are strewn broken pieces of pottery that are painted in bright colors and artistic designs which, after ages of exposure to the weather, look as fresh as if newly made. The relics that have been taken from the ruins are similar to those found in the cliff houses, and consist mostly of stone implements and pottery.

In the Gila valley, near the town of Florence, stands the now famous Casa Grande ruin, which is the best preserved of all these ancient cities. It was a ruin when the Spaniards first discovered it, and is a type of the ancient communal house. Its thick walls are composed of a concrete adobe that is as hard as rock, and its base lines conform to the cardinal points of the compass. It is an interesting relic of a past age and an extinct race and, if it cannot yield up its secrets to science, it at least appeals to the spirit of romance and mystery.

Irrigating ditches which were fed from reservoirs supplied their fields and houses with water. Portions of these old canals are yet in existence and furnish proof of the diligence and skill of their builders. The ditches were located on levels that could not be improved upon for utilizing the land and water to the best advantage. Modern engineers have not


[page 176]

been able to better them and in many places the old levels are used in new ditches at the present time.

Whatever may have been the fate of this ancient people their destruction must be sought in natural causes rather than by human warfare. An adverse fate probably cut off their water supply and laid waste their productive fields. With their crops a failure and all supplies gone what else could the people do but either starve or move, but as to the nature of the exodus history is silent.

Just how ancient these works are might be difficult to prove, but they are certainly not modern. The evidence denotes that they have existed a long time. Where the water in a canal flowed over solid rock the rock has been much worn. Portions of the old ditches are filled with lava and houses lie buried in the vitreous flood. It is certain that the country was inhabited prior to the last lava flow whether that event occurred hundreds or thousands of years ago.

It is claimed that the Pueblo Indians and cliff dwellers are identical and that the latter were driven from their peaceful valley homes by a hostile foe to find temporary shelter among the rocks, but such a conclusion seems to be erroneous in view of certain facts.

The cliff dwellings were not temporary camps, as such a migration would imply, but places of permanent abode. The houses are too numerous and well constructed to be accounted for on any other hypothesis. A people fleeing periodically to the cliffs to escape from an enemy could not have built such houses. Indeed, they are simply marvelous when considered as to location and construction. The time that must necessarily have been consumed in doing the work and the amount of danger and labor involved—labor in preparing and getting the material into place and danger in scaling the dizzy heights over an almost impassible trail, it seems the boldest


[page 177]

OUR CAMP IN CAñON DE CHELLY.

CHIN LEE, CAñON DE CHELLY.


[page 179]

assumption to assert that the work was done by a fleeing and demoralized mob.

Again, it would be a physical impossibility for a people who were only accustomed to agricultural pursuits to suddenly and completely change their habits of life such as living among the rocks would necessitate. Only by native instinct and daily practice from childhood would it be possible for any people to follow the narrow and difficult paths which were habitually traveled by the cliff dwellers. It requires a clear head and steady nerves to perform the daring feat in safety—to the truth of which statement modern explorers can testify who have made the attempt in recent years at the peril of life and limb while engaged in searching for archæological treasures.

Judged by the everyday life that is familiar to us it seems incredible that houses should ever have been built or homes established in such hazardous places, or that any people should have ever lived there. But that they did is an established fact as there stand the houses which were built and occupied by human beings in the midst of surroundings that might appall the stoutest heart. Children played and men and women wrought on the brink of frightful precipices in a space so limited and dangerous that a single misstep made it fatal.

It is almost impossible to conceive of any condition in life, or combination of circumstances in the affairs of men, that should drive any people to the rash act of living in the houses of the cliff dwellers. Men will sometimes do from choice what they cannot be made to do by compulsion. It is easier to believe that the cliff dwellers, being free people, chose of their own accord the site of their habitation rather than that from any cause they were compelled to make the choice. Their preference was to live upon the cliffs, as they were fitted by nature for such an environment.


[page 180]

For no other reason, apparently, do the Moquis live upon their rocky and barren mesas away from everything which the civilized white man deems desirable, yet, in seeming contentment. The Supais, likewise, choose to live alone at the bottom of Cataract Cañon where they are completely shut in by high cliffs. Their only road out is by a narrow and dangerous trail up the side of the cañon, which is little traveled as they seldom leave home and are rarely visited.

To affirm that the cliff dwellers were driven from their strongholds and dispersed by force is pure fiction, nor is there any evidence to support such a theory. That they had enemies no one doubts, but, being in possession of an impregnable position where one man could successfully withstand a thousand, to surrender would have been base cowardice, and weakness was not a characteristic of the cliff dwellers.

The question of their subsistence is likewise a puzzle. They evidently cultivated the soil where it was practicable to do so as fragments of farm products have been found in their dwellings, but in the vicinity of some of the houses there is no tillable land and the inhabitants must have depended upon other means for support. The wild game which was, doubtless, abundant furnished them with meat and edible seeds, fruits and roots from native plants like the piñon pine and mesquite which together with the saguaro and mescal, supplied them with a variety of food sufficient for their subsistence as they do, in a measure, the wild Indian tribes of that region at the present day.


Notes

1. The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde, by F. Nordenskiold, Stockholm. 1893.

2. . An Eider Brother of the Cliff Dwellers, by T. M. Prudden, M. D. Harper's Magazine, June, 1897.

3. Pueblo and Cliff Dwellers of the Southwest. Records of the Past, December, 1902.

Up: Contents Previous: CHAPTER XI. THE METEORITE MOUNTAIN Next: CHAPTER XIII. THE MOQUI INDIANS




© Arizona Board of Regents