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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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Among the canyon’s many enigmas, one of the most profound is its prehistory—who lived here, and when, and how, and why. At first blush, the Grand Canyon looks like a perfect place for ancient peoples to have occupied, for the Colorado River is the most abundant and reliable source of water in the Southwest. Yet before the river was dammed, it unleashed recurring catastrophes as it flooded its banks and scoured out the alluvial benches where ancients might have been tempted to dwell and farm. For all its size and geological variety, the canyon is deficient in the kinds of natural alcoves in which prehistoric settlers were inclined to build their villages. And—as Bill, Greg and I discovered that May morning—it can be fiendishly difficult to navigate. “The canyon’s got a lot to offer, but you have to work hard for it,” says National Park Service archaeologist Janet Balsom. “It’s really a marginal environment.”

And yet the Grand Canyon is riddled with prehistoric trails, most of which lead from the rim down to the riverbed. Some of them are obvious, such as the routes improved by the park service into such hikers’ boulevards as the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails. Most of the others are obscure. Archaeologists have largely left them to be explored by a few fanatically devoted climbers.

The archaeology of other Southwestern regions—New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, for instance, or Colorado’s Mesa Verde—has yielded a far more comprehensive picture of what it was like a millennium or so ago. Says Balsom: “You have to remember, only 3.3 percent of the Grand Canyon has been surveyed, let alone excavated.” Only in the past 50 years have archaeologists
focused significant attention on the Grand Canyon—sometimes digging in places so remote they had to have helicopter support—and only recently have their efforts borne much fruit.

Broadly speaking, archaeological evidence shows that humans have roamed the canyon for more than 8,000 years. The dimmest hint of a Paleo-Indian presence, before 6500 b.c., is succeeded by rock art and artifacts from a vivid but mysterious florescence of Archaic hunter-gatherers (6500 to 1250 b.c.). With the discovery of how to cultivate corn, bands of former nomads started building semipermanent villages on canyon terraces sometime before 1000 b.c. Two millennia later, by a.d. 1000, at least three distinct peoples flourished within the canyon, but their identities and ways of living remain poorly understood. From a.d. 1150 to 1400, there may have been a hiatus during which the entire canyon was abandoned—why, we can only guess.

Today, just one group of Native Americans—the Havasupai—lives within the canyon. And even though their elders can recite origin stories with unblinking self-assurance, the tribe presents anthropologists with puzzles every bit as vexing as the ones that cling to the vanished ancients.

The blank spaces in the timeline, the lost connections between one people and another, confound experts who only slowly are illuminating the lives that were lived so long ago below the rim.

The Grand Canyon has frustrated Western explorers from the beginning. The first Europeans to behold it were a splinter party from Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s monumental Southwest entrada of 1540-42. Their commander dispatched them to chase down a rumor about “a large river” to the west. “Several days down the river,” some Hopi informants had told them, “there were people with very large bodies.”

Guided by four Hopi men, this party, headed by one García López de Cárdenas, took 20 days to reach the Grand Canyon—at least twice as long as it should have. Apparently, the Hopi were leading Cárdenas’ men the long way around to divert them from their own vulnerable villages.

Cárdenas’ guides took the soldiers to a point on the South Rim not far from where the three of us slid off the precipice that morning in May 2005, choosing one of the few stretches where no trail led into the canyon. Misjudging the scale of the gorge, the Spaniards thought the river below a mere six feet wide, instead of more than a hundred yards. Cárdenas sent his three nimblest scramblers over the edge to find a way down, but after three days—during which they got only a third of the way—they returned to report that the descent was impossible. Cárdenas, who was hoping to find an easy route to the Pacific, turned back in exasperation.

The first U.S. explorer to reach the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon was a government surveyor, Lt. Joseph C. Ives, who did it with guidance from Hualapai Indians in 1858. He was no more pleased than Cárdenas. The entire region, he swore in his official report, was “altogether valueless.” That judgment did not prevent John Wesley Powell from boating down the Colorado River in 1869, nor a wave of miners from invading the canyon in the 1880s, nor the establishment of the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908 and National Park in 1919.

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