10,000 Years of Landscape Architecture by the Ancient Cultures of Utah
Utah is the only state in North America where a majority of the population belong to a single church; approximately 62% of the state population being members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or LDS (Mormons), whose world headquarters is located in Salt Lake City. How predictable it would be for me to write about the Mormons and the holy land they found in the state, but less so to look at the 10,000 years of ancient cultures in Utah - people who built homes in mountains and palaces deep in cliff faces with straw.
Seeking the Very Ancient Origins Of Utah
Utah is the 45th state in the western United States, admitted on January 4, 1896. And with a population of more than 3 million people in a 2016 census, it is the 13th-largest by area and 10th-least-densely populated of all the states. Bordered by Arizona to the south, Idaho to the north, Colorado to the east, Wyoming to the northeast, and Nevada to the west, it also touches a corner of New Mexico in the southeast.
Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America built by the Ancestral Puebloans in Mesa Verde National Park in the southwestern corner of Colorado, in the Southwestern United States. (Lorax/CC BY SA 3.0)
The Mesa Verde region spans from southeastern Utah to northwestern New Mexico and the first nomadic Paleo-Indians arrived there around 9500 BC. Following vast herds of big game, they camped beside rivers and streams, but after 9600 BC the area's environment grew warmer and drier, forcing people to leave the region. Paleo-Indians began inhabiting the mesa again around 7500 BC. Development of the atlatl (spear throwing device) during this period made hunting smaller game easier, as the region's big game had vanished from the landscapes.
Example of a ceremonial ‘atlatl’ spear thrower discovered Peru. Lombards Museum. (Lombards Museum/CC BY 3.0)
6000 BC marks the beginning of the Archaic period in North America and the early Archaic hunters inhabiting outlying areas of the Mesa Verde region began harvesting a wider variety of plants and animals than the earlier Paleo-Indians had, yet they remained nomadic.
Rock shelters and rock art found on mountain and mesa tops and in canyons was developed over the next 4000 years and the introduction of corn to the Mesa Verde region around 1000 BC ended nomadism. People began residing in pithouse settlements and the Archaic Mesa Verdeans transitioned into what archaeologists call the Basketmaker culture. Early attempts at domesticating plants eventually developed into sustained agriculture and marked the end of the Archaic period around 1000 AD.
Rock art at a National Historic Site near the needles area of Canyonlands NP in SE Utah. (Jim/CC BY 2.0)
Basketmaker II people are categorized by their having combined foraging and farming skills, use of the atlatl, and the production of finely woven baskets. By 300 AD, corn had become the staple food source of the Basketmaker II people's diet; they had abandoned wild food sources for domesticated crops.
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Basketmaker II "two rod and bundle" basket (ca 1 to 700 AD), Zion National Park. (Public Domain)
750 AD marks the beginning of the Pueblo I period, which is characterized by major changes in the design and construction of buildings and the organization of household activities. As local populations grew, Puebloans found it difficult to survive on hunting and foraging and became increasingly reliant on domesticated corn. This shift from semi-nomadism to a sedentary communal way of life hugely altered ancestral Pueblo society and customs and the Pueblo II Period is marked by the growth and outreach of communities centered around the main houses of Chaco Canyon.
From Master Hunters to Super Successful Agriculturalists
By 1050 AD, agricultural prosperity had increased so much that people moved to Mesa Verde from the south. During the late 11th century, they built check dams and terraces near drainages and slopes in an effort to conserve soil quality and preserve field water runoff. The Ancestral Puebloan culture developed from the Oshara Tradition, who developed from the Picosa culture, and their territory spanned the present-day Four Corners region of the United States, comprising southeastern Utah, northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado.
Cutthroat Castle in Hovenweep National Monument. This site contains ruins left by ancient cultures in Utah and southwestern Colorado. Source: Hovenweep National Monument/CC BY 2.0
The Ancestral Puebloan’s maintained a complex social and trade network which stretched across the Colorado Plateau. It linked hundreds of communities and population centers with a range of living structures: from small family pit houses to larger clan houses called grand pueblos, and the people retreated to cliff face dwellings if under attack.
An advanced knowledge of celestial sciences has been found in their architectural formats and the sacred ‘kiva’ was a congregational space used for ceremonial purposes which played a central part in the cosmology and religion of the ancient communities. Three UNESCO World Heritage Sites located in the United States are credited to the Pueblos: Mesa Verde National Park, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and Taos Pueblo. The first of these sites protects some of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites in the United States.
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The Chaco Canyon ‘Chetro Ketl’ great kiva plaza is a vast circular depression outlined by a stone wall with a great sandstone cliff towering in the background. (Public Domain)
Mega droughts around 1150 AD led to a temporary cessation of great house construction at Mesa Verde and severe droughts between 1130 AD and 1180 led to a rapid depopulation at Chaco Canyon. People increasingly migrated to Mesa Verde, causing major population growth with settlements of six to eight hundred people in size. It is estimated that at the beginning of the 13th century approximately 22,000 people lived in the plains west of the mesa but the last tree felled for construction on the mesa was cut in 1281 and a period known as the "Great Drought” forced the last inhabitants of the mesa out around 1285 AD.
In 1540 AD, the southern Utah region was explored by Spanish explorers. They were led by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and looking for the legendary Cíbola. That is when 10,000 years of fighting an ever changing climate changed to an altogether harder struggle; but this time the adversary included gold hungry knights on horseback. The rest is history, as they say.
Top Image: Fallen Roof Ruin, Road Canyon, Utah. This is just one of the many architectural features left by ancient cultures in Utah. Source: snowpeak/CC BY 2.0
By Ashley Cowie
Adams, Karen R. (2006), Through the Looking Glass, in Nobel, David Grant, The Mesa Verde World: Explorations in Ancestral Puebloan Archaeology, School of American Research Press, pp. 1–7.
Ancestral Pueblo culture. Encyclopædia Britannica.
Charles, Mona (2006), The First Mesa Verdeans: Hunters, Foragers, and First Farmers, in Nobel, David Grant, The Mesa Verde World: Explorations in Ancestral Puebloan Archaeology, School of American Research Press, pp. 8–17.
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Wilshusen, Richard H. (2006), The Genesis of Pueblos: Innovations between 500 and 900 CE, in Nobel, David Grant, The Mesa Verde World: Explorations in Ancestral Puebloan Archaeology, School of American Research Press, pp. 18–27.