Monday, March 14, 2011

Canyon of the Ancients

Back today from a weekend at Canyon of the Ancients in SW Colorado. Bill Priedhorsky, fearless leader of the previous canyoneering experience, organized this one as well. I will add, he did a great job. There were probably 40 of us, and we all managed to arrive on Thursday night, get up in the morning and be organized into troops (like baboons) to go out on expeditions. One group led by Momo (sound like a good baboon name? Sorry Momo, I couldn't resist....) went off on an eleven or twelve mile hike through the newish national monument called Canyons of the Ancients, up the Sand Canyon route. The rest of us went with archeologists on a private tour of the Kelly Place property (the B&B where we stayed, check out their website: to see exceptional ruins in pristine condition. There were two archeologists, a young energetic newly minted PhD named Joel, and an old long-winded codger with a bushy beard and thick glasses named Jim Colleran. I wiggled my way into the group that looked like it would be going with Jim. What a character! I fell in love with him before we'd stepped off the sandy bottom onto the trails.

Jim and Bill, Fearless Leaders

We climbed natural stairs in the sandstone for a hundred feet up to a 'level' and walked along the base of steeper cliffs reminiscent of Arches and Moab. There were 'alcoves' in the rock, naturally occurring deep shelters in which the ancestral puebloans built their cliff dwellings. Hiking up to those was somewhat treacherous. Along the way we stopped often to see some interesting artifacts on the trail, places where they had sharpened their stone tools on other stones leaving long slim grooves, pottery shards, depressions that indicate a long filled kiva, mounds telling of buried house walls and other interesting bits that the untrained eye would simply swoop over. In the alcoves we learned of different building styles, how to roughly tell whether it was built locally or with Chacoan influence, whether it was old or more modern, 800 AD vs 1300 AD.  Mesa Verde, the entire mesa, is visible at the east end of the canyon, so we speculated whether or not they had used smoke signals or light signals for long distant communication. In the arroyos I looked for, but didn't find, evidence of dams. Jim said the Anasazi built all kinds of damns, they saved every precious drop of water they could, but evidence of them has long vanished in subsequent floods. 

He told of a nearby 'find' where 19 people had been cannibalized. The bones were scraped, boiled, the marrow removed, and the gourmands' caprolites (turds) were found in the fireplace ashes. When you eat a human, there are enzymes the body cannot process and the enzymes end up in the poop. Sure enough, those were present. We found many shards of different types of pottery. A bowl is one painted on the inside, a jar is painted on the outside. If there is painting on both sides, it's still a jar. Go figure....

Ruins on the Sand Canyon Trail

We learned about the many uses of Yucca fibers, how they were extracted from the leaves, and how modern pueblo people still use them for fine paint brushes. The old ones made ropes, sandals, wove material, and probably had dozens more uses for the tough little fibers. They raised turkeys and had domesticated dogs. They split turkey feathers and wove the fuzzy edges of the feathers into warm blankets. Jim was a wealth of information and his enthusiasm was contagious. He was also an amazingly strong man. He carried a full pack with emergency gear and plenty of extra water in case someone didn't bring enough. It was no 'girly' pack. 

We hiked down the trails stopping at various sights, the last of which was a very deep alcove with only the smallest ruin at one end. It was pretty modern and the rest of the alcove had a large deep sand floor. The blackened ceiling spoke of maybe 10,000 years of periodic human occupation. Every one of the sites had a spectacular view of the opposing snow covered mountain range, a sunny warm southern exposure, a kiva or two, and no obvious source of flowing water. It amazes me that not only did people survive here, but their populations got large enough to spread out and even, perhaps, surpass the region's ability to support them all. An ecological lesson we should keep in mind with our 7 billion-plus population on the planet right now. 

Hiking along the canyon edge