Ruins of a lost world

The Sierra Ancha Wilderness is a rugged landscape of deep canyons, and seemingly a difficult place to live. Yet for two centuries this area was inhabited by the Salado people, a group potentially related to the northern Pueblo culture that populated the wider area. Floodplain agriculture and mesa hunting provided resources, while populations were concentrated in stone pueblos and cliff dwellings. These people and their culture began to fragment in the early 1300s and disappeared completely by 1450, leaving behind traces of their life only in archaeological evidence such as ceramics and charcoal and the occasional stone structure.

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Last weekend I went in search of some of these abandoned cliff dwellings. Some are well-protected and easily visited, but others keep their secrets close. Our long and dusty journey into the mountains down a dirt road brought us to an uncrossable stream, and we set off on foot to explore some of the canyons you see in the background of this photograph.

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Scrambling up these steep canyons, I began to wonder at the logistics inherent in a cliff lifestyle. Unreliable water sources, cliff-side traverses and loose slopes, and multi-mile walks to agricultural floodplains. Why live in such an inhospitable and difficult-to-access place?

We climbed up through bedrock and cliff ledges. The cliff dwellings remained hidden, well protected by the canyon’s sharp turns and sheer sides.

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And then one appeared. On the north side of the canyon, a set of stone and mud structures appeared, perched underneath a small indentation in the rock where two stratigraphic layers came together.

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Crossing the canyon directly was impossible – a deep chasm with sheer cliffs separated us. We instead traversed the ledge further up the canyon, behind a waterfall, and then made a final scramble up.

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The buildings was of stone and mud, with large wooden beams used as roof and floor supports. Here you can see a 700-year old handprint preserved in the mud, indicating the work-intensive method of construction.

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Another nearby canyon, much narrower, held an even more impressive surprise. The approach was through the bedrock of a stream and up slippery manzanita-choked slopes. A final bend in the canyon revealed a fortress-like structure, balanced carefully on a narrow ledge.

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The logistics of construction seemed nearly impossible. Long journeys would have been needed to carry rock and mud from the floodplain below, and the long pine timbers used as cross-beams and floors for these multi-level structures would have had to been carried from elevations thousands of feet higher on the upland mesas.

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Defending these places would have been a simple task. The dwellings had a wide view of the canyon and no access routes except along a single narrow ledge. Nearby seeps could have provided water, and the cliff overhang prevented access from above.

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The beams used in construction date somewhere between 1280 and 1350 A.D., established via tree-ring methods led by the archaeologist Emil Haury at the University of Arizona. His 1934 investigation into this region (The Canyon Creek Ruin and the cliff dwellings of the Sierra Ancha) remains one of the most in-depth studies of the region, involving long field expeditions under conditions far more challenging than we experienced. This Arizona State Museum publication records more recent information.

So what happened to the Salado people? No one is completely sure, but it seems likely that a series of extreme climate events (several long and prolonged droughts) in the early 1300s made their lifestyle inviable (e.g. Waters et al., Graves et al.). Perhaps the cost of acquiring resources to support a complex civilization outweighed the costs, as Joseph Tainter had earlier suggested in The Collapse of Complex Societies. In the end, all that remain to use are ruins and mysteries.

A few miles brought us back to our car, and an easy gasoline-powered trip out of the desert and back home. On the trip back out, I began thinking about what these silent places meant to me. And I think they felt like a warning to us – and to our resource-intensive lifestyle in the contemporary southwest.

In the first photograph of this post (actually taken on the way home), you may have noticed a piece of paper left on the car windshield. Someone else was apparently thinking the same thing about the ease of travel and life in the desert.

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Only in Arizona.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. darchangeli says:

    Thanks for a very interesting blog. Knowing next to nothing about cliff dwelling societies, the following question may be naive. Since it seems that the main advantage of cliff living was security, has there been research investigating that possibility that over time as human populations grew, societies evolved, and wild animal populations shrank, that the need for security from animals and other humans became less? So that ultimately the benefits of cliff dwelling no longer outweighed the difficulties that your post speculates about and, cliff dwellers dispersed to less challenging topographies?

    1. bblonder says:

      Thanks, Dante! I don’t know that much about cliff dwellings either, so let’s speculate together. 🙂 I certainly think a lot of the benefit of structure and centralized living is reduced risk from animals. But I also think that most of the animal populations that would have posed a serious problem for people were mostly extirpated by historic times, e.g. the loss of most megafauna in the northern hemisphere by the end-Pleistocene (Lorenzen et al. 2011)and the loss of many species in Egypt by ~4000 years ago (Yeakel et al. 2014). It seems to me that the more important issue with cliff dwellings is variation in danger levels from other humans, which might indeed be brought on by climate fluctuations or political causes. What do you think?

      1. monomiao says:

        I agree with you that cliff dwelling is more about the attack from other humans. The story of Qiang People ( might give you some ideas about people living in such a harsh environment. The Qiang watchtower and structure of their villages are quite interesting. The location of the area in China where Qiang people live is similar to Arizona in US. Luckier or tougher (?) than Salado people, Qiang people still live in that area and hold their unique culture. I like the last sentence, a wonderful ending for this blog. 🙂

  2. bblonder says:

    What a fascinating lifestyle! I’d love to see some of their villages and bridges one day. Do you think their lifestyle will persist?

    1. monomiao says:

      The urbanization and modernization might bring changes to those villages, but some culture and lifestyle should be able to persist, I think, at least decades. More sadly in recent years, that area is being threatened by earthquake. Let’s see if possible to plan a trip for some summer vacation. Hopefully I can be your guide to there. 😛 That area is one of my favorite places. I went there almost 10 years ago, miss it quite much.

      1. bblonder says:

        When I make it to China we will do that! 🙂

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