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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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We craned our necks, staring at the distant rock formation. “It was like Noah sending out the dove,” Watahomigie concluded.

Looking for rock art, we headed off the trail and up a steep slope choked with brush and cactus. Jones produced a leaf cradling an oily, dark red paste made from hematite, or iron oxide, a clay that Native Americans often used as a paint. One of the Havasupais’ most treasured substances, hematite from the canyon has been found east of the Mississippi River, traded prehistorically over more than a thousand miles.

Jones dipped his finger in the paste, then dabbed a streak on each of our boot soles. “Keeps the rattlesnakes away,” he explained.

As the day wheeled on, we crisscrossed the canyon, with our guides leading us to rock art panels and ruins that few visitors ever see. There were several our guides wouldn’t let us visit. “The ones that are closed, we aren’t supposed to bother them,” Watahomigie said. By “closed,” I assumed he meant having stone-slab doors intact.

His caution implies that the cliff buildings were the work of an earlier people. Archaeologists have debated Havasupai origins for half a century, strenuously and inconclusively. Some insist that a people called the Cohonina became the Havasupai. Others argue that the Havasupai, along with their linguistic cousins the Hualapai and Yavapai, are what they call Cerbat peoples, fairly recent migrants from the Great Basin of Nevada after a.d. 1350.

Like many other Native American peoples, the Havasupai usually say they have lived forever in the place they inhabit. But when we asked Tilousi how long his people had lived in the canyon of the blue-green water, he did not go quite that far. “I wasn’t here billions of years ago,” he said. “I can’t put numbers to the years that have gone by. I will just say, since the beginning of the ice age.”

On our last day in the Grand Canyon, Bill, Greg and I made a pilgrimage to a shrine deep in a little-traveled side valley that, like the Redwall caves guarding the split-twig figurines, had in all likelihood been an Archaic place of power.

As we wound down a faint trail across an increasingly barren landscape, I saw nothing that even hinted at a prehistoric presence—not a single potsherd or chert flake in the dirt, not the faintest scratchings on a wayside boulder. But when we entered a small gorge in the Supai Sandstone stratum, a deep orange cliff loomed on our left about 50 feet above the dry creekbed. Halfway up, a broad ledge gave access to a wall that severely overhung above it. We scrambled up to the ledge.

During the previous 20 years, I had found hundreds of rock art panels in backcountry all over the Southwest. I knew the hallmarks of the styles by which experts have categorized them—Glen Canyon Linear, Chihuahuan Polychrome, San Juan Anthropomorphic and the like. But the Shamans’ Gallery, as this rock art panel has been named, fit none of those taxonomic pigeonholes.

It was perhaps the most richly and subtly detailed panel I’d ever seen. Across some 60 feet of arching sandstone, vivid back-to-back figures were rendered in several colors, including two shades of red. Most of the figures were anthropomorphic, or human-shaped, and the largest was six feet tall.

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