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Below the Rim

Humans have roamed the Grand Canyon for more than 8,000 years. But the chasm is only slowly yielding clues to the ancient peoples who lived below the rim

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In 1933, three Civilian Conservation Corps workers building a trail in the canyon took an off day to explore a remote cave. As they were hunting for Indian objects inside it, they later told their boss, they discovered three figurines, each made from a single willow twig. It seemed that the objects, each less than a foot in height, had been secreted away in one of the most inaccessible niches.

Since then, more than 500 such figurines have been discovered. On a windy, rainy day, Bill, Greg and I stopped by the Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection, where curator Colleen Hyde pulled about a dozen of these split-twig figurines out of their storage drawers.

They ranged in length from an inch to 11 inches, but all had been made by the same method. Each artist had taken a stick of willow or skunkbush and split it lengthwise until it was held together only at one end, then folded the two ends around each other until the second could be tucked inside a wrapping formed by the first. The result appears to be an effigy of either a deer or a bighorn sheep, both of which would have been an important source of food.

In recent years, many of the figurines have been carbon-dated, yielding dates ranging from 2900 to 1250 b.c.—squarely in the late Archaic period of this region. Except for a pair of broken projectile points, they are the oldest artifacts ever found in the Grand Canyon. The Archaic hunter-gatherers—people who had yet to discover corn or pottery or the bow and arrow—held to this rigorous artistic tradition for nearly 17 centuries, or about as long as the span from late Roman statuary to Jackson Pollock.

Across the Southwest, only two areas are known to have produced split-twig figurines. A cluster centered in canyons in southeastern Utah consists of effigies wrapped according to a different method, producing a different-looking animal, and they are found only in domestic contexts, including trash dumps. But all of the Grand Canyon figurines have been discovered in deep caves in the Redwall Limestone stratum—by far the most difficult geologic layer in the canyon to climb through, because its sheer precipices lack handholds and footholds. In these caves, the objects were placed under flat rocks or small cairns, and no accompanying relics have ever been found. There is no evidence that Archaic people ever lived in these caves, and some of the caves are so difficult to get into that modern climbers would have to use ropes and hardware to do it. (Because there must be dozens, or even hundreds, of figurines yet to be discovered, the park service forbids exploration of the caves in the Redwall band, should anyone be bold enough to try.)

And yet no one knows why the figurines were made, although some kind of hunting magic has long been the leading hypothesis. Among those we saw in the museum collection were several that had separate twigs stuck into the bodies of the sheep or deer, like a spear or dart.

In a 2004 paper, Utah archaeologists Nancy J. Coulam and Alan R. Schroedl cite ethnographic parallels among such living hunter-gatherers as Australian Aborigines to argue that the figurines were fetishes used in a ritual of “increase magic,” and that they were the work not of individualistic shamans, but of a single clan, lasting 60 generations, that adopted the bighorn sheep as its totem. These hunters may have believed that the Grand Canyon was the place of origin of all bighorn sheep; by placing the figurines deep inside caves, under piles of rocks, they might have sought to guarantee the continued abundance of their prey. That the caves sometimes required very dangerous climbing to enter only magnified the magic.

Coulam and Schroedl’s theory is both bold and plausible, yet so little is known about the daily lives of the Archaic people in the Grand Canyon that we cannot imagine a way to test it. The figurines speak to us from a time before history, but only to pose a riddle.

The riddles of the Grand Canyon are not confined to prehistoric times, either, as a trip among the present-day Havasupai makes clear. They live 2,000 vertical feet below the rim, on Havasu Creek. As an old trail plunges through four geologic layers, the reddish sandstone walls broaden to accommodate the ancient village of Supai in one of the most idyllic natural oases in the American West. A few miles upstream, one of the Grand Canyon’s most powerful springs sends a torrent of crystalline blue-green water down the ravine. (The people here call themselves Ha vasúa baaja, or “people of the blue-green water.”) The calcium carbonate that gives the creek its color renders it undrinkable, but the Havasupai draw their water from an abundance of other springs and seeps on the edges of their village.

By the time of their first contact with Europeans, as it happens in 1776, the Havasupai had long since adjusted to a seasonal round that defies logic but seems to have worked superbly for them. In spring, summer and early autumn they lived in the canyon, planting and harvesting. Then they moved back to the rim, where, at an altitude of more than 6,000 feet, they camped in the snow and spent the winter hunting and gathering.

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