ALDA Hello and welcome to Scientific American Frontiers. I'm Alan
Alda. This week -- a rare treat. And I mean so rare that it's simply
unique. We're going back in time to a place where Native Americans
lived a thousand years ago, and which has remained almost untouched
right up until the present day. Who'd have thought, in a country
containing nearly 300 million people, that there would be even a
square inch of land that wasn't thoroughly examined?
ALDA (NARRATION) But in a remote corner of Utah, it seems there's
an entire canyon that contains the remains of ancient settlements
that have never been explored.
ALDA So in this program, we're doing the exploring. In television's
first detailed look at the site, we'll go into the canyon with the
archeologists as they begin to assess what they're dealing with.
We'll see the priceless finds they've already stumbled across --
sometimes literally. And we'll try to work out who these ancient
people were. That's all coming up in tonight's episode, The Secret
ALDA (NARRATION) Native Americans called this plateau Tavaputs --
"sunrise". Our crew is cautiously picking its way down a cattle
trail from the Tavaputs plateau, into a deep canyon. It'll take
about an hour to drop down the thousand feet into the valley below.
We've come to a remote corner of eastern Utah, to a rugged country
of high plateaus and deep canyons. Our destination Range Creek
canyon. Our guide in the canyon will be Duncan Metcalfe, an archaeologist
from the University of Utah. In 2002 Range Creek was bought from
a cattle rancher by the federal government and the state of Utah,
but that doesn't mean the public has free access. As we'll see,
figuring out how to preserve and protect what's inside the gate
is going to be a major challenge. It's fair to say that, for the
number and state of preservation of its archaeological sites, Range
Creek may be unique in North America.
METCALFE This is our third year of work in Range Creek. The first
year we only spent 7 days in here and recorded 77 sites. That's
a phenomenal rate. I've been working in archeology for about 25
years, and I've seen perhaps half a dozen sites that I knew were
absolutely undisturbed -- half a dozen. Here so far we've seen over
200. You can stop anyplace inside this ranch and point to archeological
sites. So down at the end of this sort of view there's this large
rock ridge coming down. If you look up about half way you'll see
a stick pointing up, and it's actually got some adobe around it.
That's an eroded granary. If you look over at this ridge line, which
is the north confluence of Bear Creek, and what's called Waldo's
Rock or Locomotive Rock, there's 8 sites on the south side of it,
and right at the back, on the other side, there's one of these remote
ALDA (NARRATION) Archaeologists call the people who lived here in
the canyon the Fremont. Of all the ancient peoples of America, the
Fremont are among the most enigmatic. Why did they build houses
in such inconvenient places? This circular space is the remains
of a pit house on the summit of a rock pinnacle. Why did they put
their granaries, used for storing food, in such inaccessible sites?
Why did they paint, and draw and carve on rock faces everywhere?
And why did they suddenly stop doing all these things around 1300
A.D.? With the canyon's treasure trove of undisturbed sites, archaeologists
might finally get to answer those questions.
METCALFE There aren't holes in the pit houses, we don't find beer
cans on them, there's no bullet holes on the rock art panels, they
haven't been chalked, there's not historic graffiti on them. They're
ALDA (NARRATION) The water of Range Creek itself would have been
the first attraction of the canyon. The Fremont, who lived throughout
what's now Utah, depended on a combination of hunting and gathering,
and agriculture. Corn was their most important crop. First domesticated
in Mexico 5,000 years ago, it had gradually spread north. We know
the Fremont started growing corn in a big way about 1500 years ago,
when village settlements began to appear. In Range Creek, it seems
the storage of corn became a major preoccupation.
METCALFE If you look up at that large block of stone, that sort
of monolith by itself, about center and half way up it, on a small
shelf, you'll see the remains of, looks like a 2-bin -- I actually
think it's a 3-bin -- granary. This is one of the easiest ones.
It's not real far up and it's not real far down from the top. You
can just imagine the amount of work that went into constructing
them. They're made out of mud and stone. All the mud had to have
come out of Range Creek, which is on the other side of the valley
floor from here -- it may have been a little bit different a thousand
years ago. All the stone, all the mud, had to be carried up to that
location to build that, as well as the timbers that are used in
ALDA (NARRATION) So far the archaeologists have identified 38 granaries,
many completely inaccessible, but some not so hard to reach. Take
"Lost Cow" granary so called because the rancher ran across
it while checking a side canyon for a missing cow.
BARLOW It's right down here.
JONES Oh I see it.
ALDA (NARRATION) Lost Cow granary is a puzzle. It's not completely
hidden, and not very inaccessible. So it's not the best protection
for your corn while you're away hunting, for example. But it is
high enough up to avoid flash floods, and built solidly enough to
BARLOW This structure is made of adobe and undressed stone in layers,
so they've got different courses coming all the way up with adobe
pressed in between. And then at the top there's a series of timbers
that come -- we've got at least six in this one -- they come across,
and then across the other way to form a rectangle, and then there
are stone slabs underneath, and adobe pressed, and then a rectangular
opening, with a lid.
ALDA (NARRATION) It's still about half full of what we won't know
until it's excavated. And they're going to radiocarbon date its
timbers, because the leading theory is that the high, inaccessible
granaries were built when times were hard, towards the end of the
Fremont occupation here. So lower granaries would date from earlier,
easier days. This theory of "higher-later" could apply not just
to granaries, but whole villages.
JONES There are some villages way up high, 900 to 1,000 feet above
the valley floor, on precipices, on cliff edges, clearly a place
where it would be difficult to live -- you're 1,000 feet above your
water and your fields -- and also a difficult place to get to, but
also dangerous. Not a great place to raise children, probably, not
a good place to have grandma scrambling around and risking her life.
So clearly when people are moving into a situation like that, the
thing that worries them, I think, is greater than their fear of
falling off the cliff, or having to climb up and down these cliffs.
And what we're interested in is finding out what that might be.
ALDA (NARRATION) In our next story, we're going to hike up the canyon
sides, to see what one of the high level Fremont villages can show
us. LIVING IN THE SKY
ALDA (NARRATION) A nine hundred-foot climb is usually the kind of
mission that graduate students get assigned, and sure enough Joel
Boomgarden and Shannon Arnold are students from Duncan Metcalfe's
lab at the University of Utah. They stop first just below the top,
to revisit a cave the rancher pointed out on their first survey.
It was typical of the Fremont to be flexible. They were hunters
and farmers, they used deep caves and shallow rock shelters, they
built houses. This cave contains what archaeologists call a cyst,
and it used to contain other things too.
BOOMGARDEN This is the remains of a storage cyst. This box right
here comes around the back. There's another one of the vertical
slabs. You can actually see the mud, packed in the crack over here
still -- keep the varmints out. When we first came up here in 2002,
there was a pretty big chunk of pottery up here. It was the neck
of a vessel and part of the body. It's since disappeared.
ALDA (NARRATION) Whoever took the pottery missed this block of sandstone,
used for shaping wooden shafts, and fortunately did not vandalize
the mysterious lines cut into the wall. The cave is a good candidate
for excavation. A couple of feet of sand has flaked down from the
roof over the last thousand years, covering what undoubtedly was
a floor -- with whatever may be sitting on it. Joel and Shannon
continue their climb to the top. It's not the canyon rim, but a
thin, knife-edge of rock within the canyon, that contains a cave
the archaeologists refer to as the "deluxe apartment in the sky."
The cave was not a casual or temporary shelter. The Fremont put
a lot of work into it a wall in front, a floor inside.
BOOMGARDEN There's different colors of mud packed in here. I can
see at least 5 different colors of mud, so either they couldn't
get all the mud in at once, or it looks like they're just patching
up, making repairs to it at different times, and they're just using
different colors of mud. This site looks definitely defensive. There's
no other reason to haul stuff way up here.
ALDA (NARRATION) Defensive -- perhaps. Inside there's a beautifully
preserved storage bin, now empty. You can see the maker's finger
marks in the adobe. As with all the sites in the canyon, the cave
has not yet been excavated, or even systematically surveyed. The
Fremont really did live up here there's a corn grinding-stone
outside, and corn cobs everywhere.
BOOMGARDEN There's actually more corn right here.
ALDA (NARRATION) In fact there was a whole village up on this rock
pinnacle, probably including grandma and the kids. There are the
remains of half a dozen houses like this circle of stones from
a pit house, perched right next to a thousand-foot drop. It was
clearly very important to be here, but whether it was to fight off
invaders or maybe to be closer to the gods, right now we don't know.
Back in the lab in Salt Lake City, Joel and Shannon are beginning
what will be the endless task of sorting and cataloging the Range
Creek materials. Eventually there are going to be millions of pieces.
They've literally not yet scratched the surface, but they've stumbled
across some great finds. These corn cobs are very healthy looking,
so when they're dated we'll know times were good then. A corn cob
still on its drying stick. A beautifully preserved cedar digging
stick, used for planting. Rope made with as yet unidentified fibers.
The base of a basket, made with the characteristic Fremont technique.
A raw material cache dried grass and cedar bark. All this is around
a thousand years or more old. Pottery the red ware probably came
from the Anasazi people to the south; plain gray, painted and incised
styles are Fremont. A beautiful and unique spade, made of cottonwood.
It's too soft to dig with, but maybe it was a trowel for adobe.
Many stone blades and arrowheads, some showing expert work. And
a priceless set of arrows, made from reeds, carefully bound with
sinew to prevent splitting, with detachable greasewood foreshafts
that remained stuck in the victim animal or human. So far the
archaeologists have spent three short summer seasons in the canyon.
Winter always gets below freezing one reason the Fremont's stocks
of corn in their granaries must have been so vital. Today, Joel
and Shannon are working in a village that had about a dozen pit
houses, like this. The village is just 30 feet above the valley
floor safe from flash floods, but certainly not as defensible
as the apartment in the sky. The site is simply littered with artifacts
broken pottery, arrowheads, personal jewelry perhaps. Who knows
what treasures -- and what insights into the Fremont people -- lie
underground? So far they've surveyed only 5% of the canyon's area,
and have about 300 significant sites granaries, pit houses, caves,
rock art panels. At that rate there'll be a staggering and unprecedented
6,000 sites here. So how are they going to handle it? Slowly, says
Duncan Metcalfe. In Range Creek, as well as deluxe apartments, we
have the luxury of time.
METCALFE There are lots of things that have to be excavated today,
because if we don't, they'll be bulldozed tomorrow. This isn't one
of those cases. This is a case where we can literally say, let's
think about this, let's think about excavating over the next 20
years -- 10 sites, very, very carefully. At the end of 10 years,
someone else might come in and say, gee, you know, I've got a couple
of research questions I think I could address by doing some further
excavation. Good -- maybe another 5 sites. But preserve the vast
majority of them for when we have... There'll be techniques that
archeologists will have to employ that I can't even imagine, you
know. It's not changing as fast as genetics research, but it is
changing, and we need to preserve the basic library for the folks
in the future.
ALDA (NARRATION) One of the most tantalizing things about the Fremont
is their rock art. They created it everywhere they lived, and the
canyon is no exception, with 50 sites discovered so far. In some
cases it's obvious what the artist was showing animals, like snakes,
or bighorn sheep from the hunt. There are symbols we understand
like the sun and symbols we don't. They showed themselves often,
sometimes richly dressed -- in ceremonial ways, perhaps -- with
deer antler headdresses, or elaborate necklaces, belts and sashes.
It's possible these pictures show leaders or shamans, from the time
when corn growing was at its peak. Evidence from Fremont sites elsewhere
shows that high-ranking men consumed the most corn, probably from
ritual drinking of corn beer. Whatever the art depicts, it all came
to a crashing halt 700 years ago.
METCALFE At about 1300 A.D. there's a change. People stop building
relatively substantial structures, they stop making very fine pottery,
there's a change in basketry. It looks like a pretty firm break.
So is that a group of people coming in and displacing the Fremont,
replacing them? Or is it farming becomes absolutely untenable in
this region, and people stopped farming, and returned to hunting
and gathering, which they'd been doing 1300 years earlier? Which
of those two things happened at 1300?
ALDA (NARRATION) What happened at 1300 is one of the biggest questions
in American archaeology. Sudden change was widespread, societies
collapsed including most famously the pueblo-building Anasazi
people. The promise of Range Creek canyon is that, with its thousands
of undisturbed sites, we can come to understand those momentous
ALDA (NARRATION) Range Creek canyon widens out a little at its southern
end. This is where the buildings are for the ranch that the Wilcox
family ran here. Waldo Wilcox left in 2001, when he sold the canyon
to the government. The family had lived here since1951...
WILCOX C'mon, Sarah.
ALDA (NARRATION) ...when Waldo's dad, Budge, moved down from the
neighboring Tavaputs plateau. Here's Budge Wilcox with his pack
mules. Here's Don, Waldo's brother, at Lost Cow granary. Although
there's been ranching in the canyon since the 1880s, there was no
road access until just before the Wilcoxes arrived. That's what
preserved the canyon's historic remains that and the respectful
attitude of the Wilcox family, especially towards the many burials
in the canyon.
WILCOX I believe in treating people the way I want to be treated,
and when I die I don't want somebody digging me up and picking the
gold out of my teeth. And my dad told me, when we come here, that
we own the land, but we don't own the dead people that's there.
Leave them where you find them.
ALDA (NARRATION) We invited Waldo to take a ride and point out some
of his discoveries. After 50 years of hunting, and chasing lost
cows, he knows the historic sites better than anyone.
WILCOX We're going to go up the little canyon here, and out on top
up by the Fortress. I want to go right up over the top there.
ALDA (NARRATION) Waldo climbed onto this spectacular rock pinnacle
one day when he was out hunting. His dogs had chased a mountain
lion all the way up to the top.
WILCOX Right there's the way you get up. There's that pile of rocks.
ALDA (NARRATION) The lion got the better of the dogs, but Waldo
made a discovery rocks piled up at the access points, seemingly
either as barriers or as missiles to bombard invaders with. That's
why he calls it the Fortress. There was a village perched up here
maybe the most precariously sited in the canyon. You can see the
telltale stone circles of collapsed pit houses.
WILCOX That's a big old pit house right there. Probably the governor
lived there. Stay just underneath, and there's some granaries right
here somewhere. OK, there's one of the granaries right there.
ALDA (NARRATION) Was this complex defensive, built to protect precious
corn supplies as agriculture began to fail? Was it to fight off
foreign invaders? Or was it perhaps a religious colony? One day
archaeologists may be able to tell us. Next we head across to an
enormous rock painting that Waldo had seen only from below.
WILCOX See that yellow and white shield? And a man of some kind,
just to the right of it.
ALDA (NARRATION) There's also a suicidally positioned house.
WILCOX Down below there's some poles from a house. That'd be a pit
house right there. I didn't know that house was there, where they
lived. That's the first time I've seen that.
ALDA (NARRATION) Next, an apparently unreachable granary, again
with what's probably house remains.
WILCOX See the granary? That's a good one there. Nobody's ever been
in there. I'll bet on that.
ALDA (NARRATION) It's really only from this vantage point that you
can appreciate how precarious and dangerous the Fremont houses and
villages were. Whatever drove these people up the cliffs and onto
the rock pinnacles must have been a powerful force. Waldo's been
fascinated for 50 years.
WILCOX I don't know if you enjoyed it, but I sure as hell did.
ALDA (NARRATION) In his time in the canyon, Waldo got to know a
lot of Fremont rock art. He's taking us to one of his favorite examples.
WILCOX Some of them's hunting scenes, and other ones are probably
something to do with their religion. I think they was a religious
people -- very religious. It's right over in them rocks right there.
ALDA (NARRATION) Here, close to the creek, the Fremont used a rock
overhang as a shelter, and it's now a sad site. A second road connected
into the canyon in 1961, and it soon had consequences that Waldo
WILCOX This is what's left of a pit house. They piled these rocks
up to protect themselves from the wind. But it's been all dug out.
People's been looking for pottery and stuff here. And it's so close
to the gate that it's been destroyed. I seen it for the first time
in 1941, and the bottom was all smooth, and that's one way you can
tell if they've... anybody's been there looting it, because they
leave it uneven.
ALDA (NARRATION) On the overhang above the looted house, ghostly
figures of the people who lived here not vandalized, but slowly
fading into the rock face.
WILCOX What they painted it for I don't know, and I don't know that
anybody'll ever know, but they left it for us to look at anyway.
And I hope it can be protected.
ALDA (NARRATION) Preserve it, and solve its mysteries the twin
challenges that lie ahead for Range Creek canyon.