Ruins and Secrets

Probing the Grand Canyon’s mysterious prehistory

You may notice some reorganization and some new design elements in this issue. It’s not a redesign; we like our classic look. But Brian Noyes, our art director, has freshened up the magazine typographically to make it easier to read and, we like to think, more inviting.

One new editorial offering is “Interview,” a question-and-answer session with an expert who has recently discovered, achieved or created something of note in our areas of interest, especially the sciences, the arts and (in the broadest possible terms) history. In this issue, Senior Editor Laura Helmuth talks to Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago, who recently discovered a transition fossil that links fish and land-dwelling animals. We have a few other new editorial ideas in the works as well.

You’ll also find a new magazine-within-a-magazine, “Around the Mall,” now home to “The Object at Hand” and the Secretary’s letter as well as an added page of Institution happenings. We think you’ll find it interesting even if you’re not headed for Washington, D.C. in the near future.

And those of you who received your magazine in the mail may have noticed that it was not wrapped in the usual white paper. We’re going to try to do without the wrapper and thus save nearly 50 million pieces of paper a year—over time, a lot of trees.

David Roberts, who wrote our article about the earliest denizens of the Grand Canyon (“Below the Rim,” p. 54), first visited that extraordinary chasm when he was about 8 years old. He didn’t really get it. “I think the scale of it is too huge,” he says. So photographer Bill Hatcher had to talk him into joining an exploration, for Smithsonian, of its prehistoric trails—a part of the Grand Canyon that few ever see. This time he got it. “One of the things that’s really surprising to me,” says Roberts, “is that this is a place with over four million tourists a year, but the archaeology is still just barely getting sorted out. It’s sort of amazing that one of the iconic national places to visit has such a mysterious prehistory.”

One of the duo’s first stops was a Havasupai Indian village on the canyon floor. “We immediately went to the tribal chairman, Rex Tilousi, and explained who we were. And you know what finally got to him? It was the name Smithsonian—he knew that Smithsonian was an important magazine. At one point he said that if it had been another magazine, he would have told us to get lost. So he slowly warmed to us, and we got to have the experience of going to the ruins and the secret places, which was just wonderful. But even then, he said there was plenty of stuff he wasn’t going to tell us. There was plenty of ancient lore that none of us white boys had any right to know about.”

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