On a family visiting trip we had the opportunity to visit one of my favorite prehistoric sites on earth- Tsankawi, part of The Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, NM. This ancient site is home to early ancestors of modern Pueblo People living in The Rio Grande rift. This incredible geological formation of sandstone canyons layered with basalt and pumice from volcanic activity millions of years ago. This magical place awakens such passion in me for understanding human survival and planned settlement within the landscape. Here was a place deeply connected to human life through extended trade- all the way into Central America, diverse natural resources like clay for pottery, obsidian for tool making, and sacred caves weaving together strong spiritual connection to underground ritual. When I step into these cliffs, I see red sandstone like the kind I grew up with in Oklahoma, layered above with white pumice, both soft stones that human tools shaped into dwellings, temples, and other important shelters for human use.
As I child, I would often explore the land in Oklahoma looking for good places along canyon walls to build “forts”. The rough sandstone often relenting to water and wind erosion, shaped into natural overhangs and hollowed out crevices which easily supported stick and debris shelters I erected. At Tsankawi, the land speaks the same language of sheltering in the rock and getting a good lay of the land from the cliffs. Human instinct is on display within these ruins, echoing the struggles of people to survive in a place where harsh conditions eventually drove humans to abandon these sacred places. In walking through these scattered dwellings and rocky paths worn into the rock over time, I sense the importance of location, cultivation, topography, and management of resources. People lived throughout these canyons in large numbers, working together to eek out crops, design water catchment to store as much rain as possible for the drought time, and good relationship with neighbors to ensure peaceful coexistence and support during lean times.
The bottom land below the cliffs channeled water when rains would come, usually catching the heavy storms, only too briefly dumping many inches in a few hours. The rock escarpments shed these rushing torrents in moments, and without planned gathering points along the canyon floor, the water would wash on down the road (so to speak) without offering much refreshment to the small enclaves of human habitation along the way. Rock channels sent the rainwater down shoots along the cliffs and into catchment basins below lined with basalt rock holding back short lived streams to feed meager crops. The narrow canyon floors not only channel water, but also animals for hunting. In a nearby settlement only a few miles away, we watched a herd of white tail does browsing along the stream bed in search of water and lush grass only found along the shaded canyon floor. Again, the topography creates not only shelter and water, but also food. The animals have to approach the water, and the narrow space leading to it offers a predictable path to hunt.
Today it seems we’ve lost out eye for the land and its abundance. Our recent generations have exploited connivance at the cost of longevity. Though our human ancestors who lived in these remorseless places faced far shorter lifespans and little security, they survived, and the evidence suggest, even thrived in these canyons long ago. It was not until mother nature held the rains back, that the people who lived here were forced to move on. What our ancestors left behind shows complex social structures with great connection to place- an understanding and respect for the natural world, and deep gratitude for the close connection with land, wilderness, and the finite resources available. Still, there is evidence of over harvesting for firewood, over-hunting of minimal wildlife on an already taxed landscape, and eventual conflict over food and water. This continue struggle for balance haunts us today- though we ignore these specters with frightening indifference. Here in New Mexico, water is scarse, and getting scarcer by the day, yet people continue to move in, over develop the land, and push strained resources beyond what’s possible to survive. When are consequences felt?
Our ancestors moved as climate changed, and we will be forced on similar paths soon, many people are already displaced by natural disasters, drought, famine, and desperation to survive. Perhaps if more modern day people, especially in economically dominate places like The United States, took time to look back at our past civilizations right here in North America, they would better understand the tough challenges now facing humanity. The ancestors of Pueblo People in The South West are still alive and culturally relevant, though most colonial imports (white people) are blind to their very presence- beyond what Hollywood chooses to romanticize. Right now, the Pueblos are closed to outsiders as a protection against COVID-19. It was a relief to see all the Pueblo gates closed and locked to tourists from the outside. Though the casinos were alive and hopping- welcoming in Those Who Take the Best Fat.
Our lives on this earth are so short- compared to the vast geological time stretching out across the landscape. Fragments of pottery, chips of stone from tool making, even carved shapes on the canyon walls stand as testament to the ingenuity and determined link to survival that all people posses, but without that connection to land, community, the delicacy of nature and her resources, we are doomed to fail in our severance from the earth we rely on. When water out of the tap is no longer safe to drink, when food is full of poison we ingest- growing cancers in our flesh, when greed removes its hideous mask of opulence to reveal horrid face- pestilence and poverty, then it will be too late. Where once people could move on to better pastures, greener places, we will discover- too late- that we’ve poisoned the whole planet, and no place will offer sustenance or sustainability.
The incredible technology and global connection today should be a boon, but our apathetic consumer conditioning, though slipping, remains a mask stuck in place, dimming our vision, hindering cognitive development, and squandering our dignity as the human race. Why have we fallen so far from grace? Nature continues without us, and without us it will recover in time, millions of years in the future, perhaps a new species of people will come across our ancient ruins and wonder at the stupidity of mankind, his blatant abuse of the planet, himself, and his people. Our micro-plastics, polluted landscapes, and cruel handling of each other will not paint a pretty picture on any canyon walls. What have we abandoned in these modern times to maintain comfort and commodity?