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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Only in Arizona.