casitas de gila guesthouses bed and breakfast new mexico 575-535-4455

Southwestern Guesthouses on 265 Acres
near Silver City, New Mexico
overlooking Bear Creek and the Gila Wilderness

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Red Harvester Ants in Southwest New Mexico


red harvester ants

The largest and oldest Red Harvester Ant Colony at Casitas de Gila; located on the west side of Bear Creek just below the Casitas, midway up the slope between the first and second creek terraces above the floodplain

Hike almost anywhere below 6,000 feet elevation in Southern New Mexico where the ground has a few feet of soil cover, and especially where some grass is present, and you will probably come across circular, barren areas, some up to 30 feet in diameter, that are typically devoid of all or almost all vegetative growth. Upon closer examination, one soon notices that these barren areas all contain a central low mound of clean, well sorted, coarse sand to granular pieces of quartz and rock. Pondering these strange features in the early morning, a cool, cloudy day late in the Fall or early Spring or during the hottest part of a Summer day, it may not be immediately evident what produced them. But stand there long enough and the answer will eventually become suddenly and perhaps painfully clear as the first of them begin to make their way up your pant leg and start to bite and sting! Yes, these ARE ant nests! An ant colony to be correct, home of Pogonomyrmex barbatus, New Mexico’s Red Harvester Ants. And what interesting little creatures they are!

There are 44 genera and over 200 different species of ants in New Mexico, but perhaps none have been studied as much as the Red Harvester Ant. One of the reasons that they have been studied so much is because they are big, about 8 to 10 mm or 3/8ths of an inch! Another is that their colonies make very obvious nests that dot the New Mexico landscape. Larger nests are readily seen on Google Earth’s aerial photos. Several years ago this entomologically-challenged, geology-oriented naturalist found this out after laboriously following his GPS through rugged Mule Creek Country terrain to a number of these puzzling circular features discovered on Google Earth while previewing an upcoming hike.

red harvester ants

Massing of Red Harvester Ants (Pogonomeryx barbatus) warming up on a rock; National Park Service photo

casitas de gila guesthouses

Red Harvester Ant Colony on east side of Bear Creek at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses; this colony has a central mound 9 inches high and 6 feet across encircled by a cleared area14 feet in diameter; colonies such as this are easily seen on Google Earth

It was 18 years ago, when Casitas de Gila Guesthouses were just getting started, that the presence of Red Harvester ants was discovered on the premises. Yes, the hard way, as described in the opening paragraph above! It was soon after that Ants At Work1, a delightful and well-written little book about these fascinating little creatures, came our way. Ants At Work is the result of a 17-year study by Deborah Gordon of 300 colonies of Pogonomyrmex barbatus that were scattered over a 25-acre site in SE Arizona and SW New Mexico. Ms. Gordon began her research in 1985 as a graduate student, continued it as a post-doctoral researcher and later a faculty member at Stanford University.


The facts cited below about Red Harvester Ant colonies are mostly from Deborah Gordon’s book, Ants At Work.

Red Harvester ants live in large underground colonies consisting of a queen and several thousand attending worker ants. Once reaching mature status, at about five years of age, a colony consists of an essentially stable population of about 10-12,000 ants. Each colony has only a single queen who will produce all the ants born in that colony for her entire life and the life of the colony, which commonly lasts for 15 to 20 or more years. When the queen finally dies, the remaining worker ants, whose lifespan is only a year or less, soon die off also, with the result that the entire colony dies, leaving an empty colony nest that is never occupied again.

red and black harvester ants in New Mexico

Photo of a Red Harvester Ant and a Black Harvester Ant in their winged alate form, near Tucson, AZ during Summer Monsoon mating season. Photo by Charles Hedgcock, Charles Hedgcock Photograpy, Tucson, AZ, Wikimedia Commons

Colonies begin to propagate new queens and fertile males, called alates, on an annual basis when a colony reaches about five years of age. At that time a new colony is produced when a single, winged “queen” alate from one parent colony is fertilized by a winged male alate from a different parent colony during the annual Summer Monsoon swarming and mating season. Once mated, the queen flies off to a new location, leaving behind her one-day-stand mating male, who will die within a couple of days, if he is not eaten first by a horned toad, bird, or other insect. Once the mated queen lands, she runs around for a short time before dropping her wings, and now, on the first night after mating, digs a hole some 12 to 18 inches deep, enters the hole and blocks off the entrance, never to emerge above ground for the rest of her lifespan, unless the colony decides to move. Within a few days she lays her first batch of eggs which will hatch within about 6 weeks in the form of tiny, worm-like larvae, which soon turn into pupae, that look like ants enclosed in a papery case. When the ants finally emerge from their pupal case, they do so as full-sized adults that do not grow anymore. Thus, a new colony is born.

red harvester ants in New Mexico

Red Harvester Forager Ant carrying a millet seed to the Studio Colony Nest

Colonies of Red Harvester Ants depend on plant material, primarily in the form of seeds as their main food source, which is sought out and brought back from the areas surrounding the colony by outside-the-nest worker ants, where it processed and stored for winter use by inside-the-nest worker ants. About 25% of the colony works outside during the day; the rest stay inside tending to the nest. Colony worker ants can be divided into four groups based on the type of work they do: Patrollers, Foragers, Nest Maintenance Workers, and Midden Workers. Patrollers determine the area to be harvested each day by scouting the area surrounding the nest for food and marking trails by emitting a chemical scent to these food sources which the Foragers will then carry back to the entrance of the nest. Nest Maintenance Workers pick up the food at the entrance to the nest and carry it down into the nest where it is processed and stored, and also bring up sand from the nest below that is added to the ever-growing mound of coarse sand and granules surrounding the entrance to the nest. Midden Workers work on the surface of the mound surrounding the entrance of the nest sorting and moving refuse, debris, and waste material brought up from inside the nest into trash heaps called midden piles which are generally found at the edge of the mound.

harvester ant mound

Mound of coarse sand and granule-sized rock with two entrance holes

harvester ant colony

Closeup of colony mound entrance with ants with typical coarse sand and granules of rock comprising mound and Red Harvester Ants on cottonwood leaf

Below the external mound of sand and granules lies a cone-shaped nest that tapers downward consisting of a mass of ¼ to ½ inch chambers with curved ceilings and walls connected by tunnels of varying widths. The chambers in the upper part of the nest that connect directly to the nest entrance hold the 25% of the colony that works outside the nest. The lower chambers are dedicated for various uses, some as living chambers for the Nest Maintenance Workers, some as food storage chambers with neatly stacked seeds, others are brood chambers for the young, the larvae carefully laid out on the floor of the chamber, and the solitary chamber holding the queen. The nest extends downward about as deep as the surface mound is wide, about 10 inches for a 2-year old colony and 5 feet for a 6-year-old colony.


Red Harvester Ant colonies can be found over most of the land around the Casitas. The largest colonies and oldest colonies, however, are found in Bear Creek Canyon, scattered at intervals over and along the first and second terraces above the floodplain, where vegetation tends to be more abundant and dependable from year to year than on the hillsides or on the flats surrounding the Casitas. Below is a photo essay of representative Red Harvester colonies from the largest and oldest to smaller and younger colonies at the Casitas.

The Largest and Oldest Colony at the Casitas

large red harvester ant colony

Largest and oldest Red Harvester Ant Colony at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, designated L7-3 on Casitas Self-guided Nature Trail; mound is 19 inches high, 9-10 feet in diameter at base and is surrounded by 30 foot diameter cleared area; the colony is at least 20 years old

By far the largest and oldest Red Harvester Ant colony at the Casitas is a colony located just below the Casitas on the west side of Bear Creek, with the center of the mound lying about 11 feet above normal creek level, midway up the slope between the first and second creek terraces above the floodplain. The central mound of the nest is cone shaped, measuring 9–10 feet in diameter and about 19 inches in height. The mound is composed of well-sorted coarse sand to granule size particles of sand and rock averaging .11 inches in diameter, which is typical of colony mounds throughout the Casita property. Surrounding the mound is a ring of bare ground, cleared of all vegetation, the outer edge of which measures 30 feet in diameter.

harvester ant colony

Photo of largest and oldest colony taken July 9, 2001

harvester ant colony

Same view of largest and oldest colony taken November 5, 2015; note 60-ft. cottonwood trees in background not present in 2001 photo

Age of this monumental colony is at least 20 years, and it is still active. The colony was first observed when we bought our land 18 years ago, and although measurements of its size were not made at the time, it was considered the largest colony mound observed on the property. Because of its impressive size, it was designated as Stop L7-3 when the Casitas de Gila Self-Guided Nature Trail was established in July 2001. As shown in a photo taken at that time, the size of the mound is estimated to be at least 5 tor 6 feet in diameter which, based on Gordon’s research, would suggest an age of at least 6 years.

During the 12-foot flash flood of September 22, 2014, Bear Creek came up to the lower edge of the mound.

Second Oldest Colony at the Casitas

bear creek new mexico

Photo of second largest and oldest colony located on east side of Bear Creek across from the Casitas and built on floodplain; colony was submerged under 4 to 5 feet of water and mound washed away during September 22, 2014 flood

Downstream, and on the opposite (east) side of the Creek from the Oldest Colony, is the Second Oldest colony known on the property. This colony is interesting because, based on its size, it was established on the floodplain itself about 10 years ago about 7 or 8 feet above the creek, following the Great Flood of February 2005, when Bear Creek switched from the east to the west side of Bear Creek Canyon in front of the Casitas. During the 12-foot flash flood of September 22, 2014, this mound was submerged for several hours beneath 4 or 5 feet of rushing water which washed away all of the central mound. The colony survived, however, as most ants can survive underwater for 24 hours or more, and as the October 2015 photos show, was well on its way to rebuilding the central mound.

A Middle Aged Colony at the Casitas

harvester ant colony

Photo of middle-aged colony with 6 foot diameter mound and 14 foot diameter cleared area

Near the north end of the Willow Walnut Trail, on the west side of Bear Creek, lying about 13 feet above creek level, a typical middle-aged colony is found on a wide, old, creek terrace surrounded by grass and mesquite. The cleared area around the central low mound is about 14 feet in diameter and the central mound is about 6 feet in diameter and 8 inches high. This colony would be at least 6 years old.

A Young Colony at the Casitas

young harvester ant colony

Photo of young colony; note almost lack of mound and cleared area

A few yards south of the middle-aged colony a young colony is found. Lacking a peripheral cleared area and an obvious central mound, only the concentrated deposits of the telltale coarse sand and granule sand and rock material surrounding the inconspicuous entrance to the nest identify this as a Red Harvester Ant Nest. Age of this colony is less than 5 years, perhaps 2 or 3 years old.

Encountered away from the nest, Red Harvester Ants are not aggressive and will rarely attack or bite the strolling or resting hiker, but will simply carry on with their perceived personal mission, whatever that may be. However, for the preoccupied hiker or obliviously engaged birder who unwittingly pauses within their cleared area, or near the entrance of a not-so-obvious young colony such as this one, for more than about 30 seconds, it will be, shall we say, a most memorable learning experience. Soon, those open pant legs will become the center of attraction for a host of the colony’s Patrollers, Nest Maintenance, and Midden Workers who will do their collective best to remove you from their premises! The actual bite of the Red Harvester ant itself may or not be all that painful, sometimes going unnoticed . . . for awhile . . . but after a few hours will eventually produce a large welt from the venom it has injected in the various parts of one’s lower anatomy. Depending on one’s own chemistry and allergic reaction, these welts can be either itchy or burningly painful . . . or both. But eventually, like maybe in three to five days (as is the case with this humble naturalist), they will suddenly disappear. Taking good hot showers seems to speed the process of recovery and during the interim of healing will act both as a temporary palliative on the welts as well as a provider of rather unusual exotic sensations!


Here at Casitas de Gila we have been feeding the wild birds between 50 to100 pounds of birdseed a month, year-around, for some 18 years now, for the enjoyment of our guests as well as ourselves. Behind the office and our Casa we have established a feeding station where we sit each morning having a cup of tea while discussing our tasks for the day, and watching what we have come to call the Casa Birds just outside the window. For both of us, watching the comings, goings, and annual return of the wide variety of species that change through the seasons here has become a morning ritual of never-ending pleasure.

feeding birds at Casitas de Gila Silver City

Bird Feeding Station at Casa

young harvester ant colony

One or two year old Studio Colony in foreground, Casa Studio on left. Looking north towards Bird Feeding Station at Casa (hidden behind juniper) with Turtle Rock in background

About 70 feet to the west of the Casa Bird Feeding Station is the Studio, where occasionally we find time to engage in some creativity. One morning this summer, while looking across the canyon to see if the Bighorn Sheep were on the cliffs, a progression of Red Harvester Ants was observed marching along double file in what appeared to be a well-established trail in front of the Studio door, with some ants heading south away from the Studio, and others heading north towards the Casa. Many of the ants heading south appeared to be carrying something in their mandibles, while all of the ants heading north carried nothing. Ah-hah! A Red Harvester Foraging Trail! Where does it go? Following the trail to the south about 40 feet, the nest was soon encountered. It was obviously the nest of a young colony as indicated by the lack of a distinct mound and only the familiar heavy scatter of coarse sand and granule-sized particles of rock to mark the entrance to the nest.

After spending some time photographing the colony’s nest, as well as some of the Foragers that were returning with pieces or whole seeds of some sort, it seemed appropriate to follow the foraging trail northward to possibly discover the source of the food the ants were carrying. Following the trail past the Studio there were places where the ants had literally worn a path 1 to 2 inches wide through the rocks, weeds, dead juniper twigs and grass covering the ground. Eventually the trail ended . . . surprise, surprise . . . at the Casa Bird Feeding Station, or perhaps now more appropriately named, the Casa Bird and Ant Feeding Station. How long this had been going on is not known, but the age of the colony nest is probably only one or two years.

Watching the ants select their next forage seed at the feeding station was interesting. Their criteria for selection was not obvious by any means. Occasionally two ants would spy the same seed at the same time and they would battle over it and around it for a minute or two, like lilliputian wrestlers, before staggering away, both of them leaving the seed behind. Millet seeds and small pieces of cracked corn seemed to be preferred.

ants foraging

Two Studio Foragers on the foraging trail between the Casa Bird Feeding Station and the Studio Colony; the Forager below is heading to the Studio Colony carrying a millet seed; the Forager above is heading to the Casa Bird Feeding Station to pick up more food

ants foraging

“It’s mine! No, I found it first.” Two Forager Ants fighting over a millet seed before both of them go off in different directions leaving it behind


(Note: this section has been written for Children and Eternally Young Naturalists everywhere. The events are true and were observed and documented exactly as reported here.)

After watching this foraging frenzy of the Red Harvester Ants at the Casa Bird Feeding Station for a while, the Humble Naturalist decided to trace the foraging trail back to the Studio. About half way back, a lone Forager Ant was spotted carrying a very different, and seemingly much heavier, load than the other Foragers. It was carrying a whole Sunflower seed. Now the adult Red Harvester Foraging Ant averages about 9 mm (1/3 inch), but the seed that this ant was carrying was longer than it was, measuring 10.4 mm (4/10 inch) long. The measured weight of an average Sunflower seed in the wild bird seed is 0.3g (0.01oz), whereas the average weight of a Red Harvester worker ant is 5.5 mg (.0002oz)2. Thus, this lone Forager Ant was transporting a seed roughly 50x its own weight. In comparison with humans, this would be the equivalent of a 160 lb human transporting 8,000 lbs or 4 tons of sunflower seeds. Now the distance from the Casa Bird Feeding Station to the entrance of the Studio Colony Nest is 110 feet. Since a 6-foot human is 1800 mm and the length of an average Red Harvester Ant is 9 mm, the human is roughly 200x longer than the ant. Thus, to equal the 110 feet traveled by the ant, the human would have to transport that 4 tons of sunflower seed some 22,000 feet or 4.2 miles.

harvester ants

Forager Ant pushing its Sunflower seed along the trail to the Studio Colony

At first the Humble Naturalist thought that the Forager Ant was actually carrying the Sunflower seed along the trail. However, a lengthy series of close-up photos documenting its journey back to the Studio Colony Nest showed that for the most part not only was it pushing the seed along the ground, but it was using appropriate physical engineering principles in doing so. Sunflower seeds have a distinctive shape, namely that of a flattened tear drop, with a slightly bulbous, rounded blunt end and a sharper, more pointy, thinner end, with a pronounced raised rim around the flattened edges of the seed. As the photos show, the Forager Ant for most of the journey did not carry the seed but rather pushed it along the ground by first grasping the narrow axis of the blunt end with its mandibles to stand the seed vertically on the rim surrounding its edge, and then, with the upturned pointy end facing forward much like single runner on a skate, shoving the seed down the trail. By pushing the seed in this manner, and tilting it from side to side, Forager Ant was able to steer the seed over, around, and through the never-ending obstacles of pebbles, twigs, and vegetative material along the trail. Occasionally, when encountering a big pebble or twig, it would switch to the other end of the seed, and grasping the pointy end, drag it over the obstacle, and then resume pushing from the rear. After analyzing numerous photos of Forager Ant’s homeward journey, it was obvious that this Forager Ant had been an honors student in Physics 101 at the Red Harvester Ant Foraging School.

harvester ants

When the going gets tough, a tough Forager keeps going . . .

harvester ants

Despite all obstacles, Forager Ant just keeps pushing . . .

harvester ants

Upon reaching the edge of the colony nest, Forger Ant switches ends on the Sunflower seed to cross the coarse sand and granules thrown out by the Nest Maintenance Workers

Repeated measurement of Forger Ants carrying a single piece of millet or corn from the Casa Bird Feeding Station to the entrance to the Studio Colony Nest gave consistent speeds of roughly 10 feet per minute, or 0.11miles/hour, completing their journey in about 11 minutes. The speed of the Forager pushing the Sunflower seed was not measured at the time, nor was the act of a Forager Ant bringing home a whole Sunflower seed ever seen repeated, but obviously Forager Ant had been moving much slower, perhaps 1/3 or 1/4 the speed of the millet-carrying Foragers, thus taking between 30 to 45 minutes from Bird Feeding Station to Studio Colony entrance.

Eventually, however, after a rather tortuous, physically challenging journey on the trail, Forager Ant reached the Studio Colony Nest. Now, with a impressive final show of strength and speed, Forager Ant attempts to deposit the Sunflower seed right at entrance to the nest, where it is immediately thwarted by an alert Nest Maintenance Worker Ant who grabs ahold of the Sunflower seed and apparently tells Forager Ant, “Not so fast, Forager, that seed is way too big to fit down the hole. Take it away.”

harvester ants

Now, finally at the entrance to the nest, Forager attempts to deposit the Sunflower seed; however, it is met by an alert Nest Maintenance Worker who grabs ahold of the seed and tells Forager that the seed is too big and must be taken away

harvester ants

Dejected at having been turned away after such a long and arduous journey, Forger pushes the Sunflower seed away from the entrance

Dejected beyond belief that its beyond-the-call-of-duty, extreme foraging effort is not appreciated, Forager Ant drags the sunflower seed a short distance away, stops, pauses for a few seconds, and then turns and makes a second attempt at taking it to the nest entrance. Again, and in no uncertain terms, Forager Ant is stopped by the ever-alert Nest Maintenance Ant and told once more to take the seed away. With dejection now having turned to hardly concealed anger, Forager Ant starts to haul the Sunflower seed away, but instead, overcome with rage, throws it against a big pebble, and stalks away in a totally uncharacteristic and unheard of state of rebellious, non-collective Red Harvester Ant Colony Consciousness, emitting faint ant obscenities and obnoxious pheromones as it disappears into the weeds.

harvester ants

Unwilling to give up without a fight, Forager turns and pushes the Sunflower back to the nest entrance, approaching from a new direction

harvester ants

Once again Forager Ant is stopped by the Nest Maintenance Worker before he can deposit his seed at the nest entrance and is instructed to take it away; enraged Forager Ant throws the Sunflower seed against a rock and stalks away


The abandoned Sunflower seed was patiently observed by the Humble Naturalist for quite some time to see what would happen next, and although a few ants came and smelled it, they made no attempt to move it. Returning to the nest an hour or so later, it was discovered that the Sunflower seed had been removed from the rock were Forager Ant had thrown it. What happened to the Sunflower seed is unknown. Most likely is that the Nest Maintenance Worker Ant instructed a Midden Worker Ant to take it to the Midden Pile off to the side of the Mound, but, despite a short search, it couldn’t be found. As to Forager Ant? Also impossible to say, but it is highly likely that soon after the disruptive event, a parable about a radical, Overachieving Forager Ant who brought back food too big to fit through the entrance of the nest would become part of the colony’s teaching curriculum for schooling young ants after they emerged from their pupae in the brood chambers for many years to come.




  1. Deborah Gordon, 1999, Ants at Work, The Free Press, Simon and Schuster, 182 pp.
  2. Robert A. Johnson, 2002, Semi-claustral colony founding in the Seed-harvester ant Pogonomyrmex californicus: a comparative analysis of colony founding strategies, Oecologia, 132:60-67. Springer-Verlag.

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The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Many Questions, A Few Clues, Emerging Answers

Part 2 of 2

gila cliff dwellings new mexico

We Are Chacoan

The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, located 45 miles north of Silver City in the middle of the Gila Wilderness, is a unique cultural site in Southern New Mexico. Yet, despite 131 years of study and research since the great anthropologist Adolph Bandelier visited the Cliff Dwellings and the nearby TJ Ruins in 1884, and the subsequent discovery of many important clues as to its origin and abandonment, the site is still little understood, its mystery securely wrapped in the silent stones.

gila cliff dwellings silver city

Drawings of Gila Cliff Dwellings made in 1885 during visit by Adolph Bandelier and Lieutenant G. H. Sands. Note T-shaped door. Fig. 11 In Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument by P. Russell, 1992, Southwest Cultural Resources Center Professional Papers No. 48.

Part 1 of this Blog presents many of the significant facts and data surrounding the Cliff Dwellings and TJ Ruins that have been discovered over the years, along with key questions that the data raise, plus some partial answers and a few speculations. As previously noted in Part 1, it is unlikely that significantly more data will be recovered from the Cliff Dwellings as they are at this time almost completely excavated at the professional level, with much critical information forever lost to looting and vandalism in the years prior to the establishment of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The TJ Ruins, however, remain essentially untouched and un-excavated. Whenever the TJ Ruins are excavated, it is considered quite likely to this writer that more answers will be forthcoming to the questions raised in Part 1 of this Blog regarding the Cliff Dwellings, which are repeated below:

  • Who were these Cliff Dwellers anyway and what were they like?
  • Where did they come from?
  • Why did they come, and why did they choose to stay in dark, cold caves as opposed to the large TJ Ruin?
  • Were there people living in at the TJ Ruin site at the time, and if so what was their relationship with the Cliff Dwellers?
  • Why did they stay such a short time? (as suggested by lack of adult burials, lack of trash, lack of building modifications and additions), and Why did they leave?
  • Where did they go?

Until the excavation of the TJ Ruins takes place, there is little more that can be learned directly from the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument itself. There is, however, a vast wealth of existing regional Southwest archaeological data and information for what was happening in the Northwest New Mexico portion of the Four Corners Area involving the Anasazi, Chaco and Aztec Cultures from the 10th to the late 13th Century. This data and information, when considered in context with the Gila Cliff Dwellings, offers tantalizing clues and possible answers to the above questions.

Part 2 of this Blog begins with a brief summary of the Rise and Fall of the Anasazi Chaco and Aztec Culture, and uses it to develop a speculative scenario as to the possible origin and abandonment of this mysterious, isolated cultural site of the Gila Cliff Dwellings in Southern New Mexico.


Note: Unless otherwise indicated, most of the facts, data, and information reported in this section
are derived from Lekson, S.A., 2015, The Chaco Meridian1


First Came Chaco . . .

pueblo bonito new mexico

North Wall of Pueblo Bonito (National Park Service historic photo)

Between 850 and 1275 AD, the Four Corners area of the United States (Utah/Colorado/New Mexico/Arizona) witnessed the development of the largest and most advanced Native American culture in the Southwest. This was the Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo Culture which at its peak between the late 11th and early 12th centuries grew to a population that Lekson believes was “something under 100,000 people”, spreading out as much as 250 kilometers (155 miles) from its geographic, cultural, and political center at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon. Pueblo Bonito is just one of 12 major Anasazi Pueblo Ruins in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which is located in the northwest corner of New Mexico about 100 miles northwest of Albuquerque.

The numerous Pueblo ruins in Chaco Canyon and the surrounding area have been the focus of extensive and still-ongoing formal archaeological research since 1896. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside a portion of Chaco Canyon as a National Monument. Additional lands were added over the years. In December 1980, the small National Monument became the Chaco Culture National Historical Park to protect the more than 2,400 archaeological sites within the Park’s boundaries.

chaco culture new mexico

NPS Map of Chaco Culture National Historical Park showing location of major Great Houses

Pueblo Bonita ruin

Looking East from cliff across Pueblo Bonito. Note Great Houses, Great Kivas, and Plaza with Chaco Wash Arroyo in middle distance (National Park Service photo)

After more than a hundred years of archaeological investigations, it is clear that the so-called “Chaco Phenomenon”, a term coined by archaeologist Cynthia Irwin-Williams in 1972, was indeed just that. What took place there was unique in Southwest U.S. archaeology in every sense of the word: from its magnificent and massive 4- to 5-story exquisite stone buildings known as Great Houses, and huge, above and below ground circular-shaped Great Kivas adjoining large adjacent open plazas, to the nearby scattering of small, one-story, single-family Unit Pueblos with a small kiva, to an extensive road system leading to many of the 150 identified surrounding smaller “Outlier” villages as much as a 100 miles or more away, each with their own Great House and Great Kiva and surrounding smaller Unit Pueblos. Indeed, there was nothing like it either before or after what has been collectively referred to as the Chaco World or the Chaco System.

Chetro Ketl New Mexico

Looking Southeast across Chaco Wash Canyon from overlook. Chetro Ketl Great House in foreground. Note multi-story walls and Great Kivas (National Park Service photo)

chaco canyon new mexico

Looking South at Pueblo del Arroyo (National Park Service photo)

In the past two decades, somewhat of a consensus has been emerging regarding a basic understanding of the architecture, social, religious, economic, and political components of the Chaco World. Key aspects of this understanding that are considered important relative to answering the questions posed above regarding the Gila Cliff Dwellings are given below.


pueblo bonito great house new mexico

Multi-story wall of Pueblo Bonito Great House. Note fine stone masonry, roof vigas in wall, and door in corner (National Park Service photo)

Casa Rinconada

Great Kiva at Casa Rinconada. Note T-shaped door in wall on left (National Park Service photo)

In Chaco, named for its location in Chaco Canyon, architecture was of two main types: 1) massive and magnificent Great Houses soaring up to 5 stories high, built of finely worked, thick stone masonry with unique T-shaped doors for all to see, with adjacent, equally large and impressive Great Kivas, bordering large open plazas; and 2) nearby scattered single family, small, 5 or 6 room Unit Pueblos of rough stone masonry and mud, commonly with an adjacent small kiva.

Architecture in the Outlier villages was very similar to that of the major Chaco sites located in Chaco Wash except on a smaller scale: a Great House and Great Kiva with nearby scattered single-family Unit Pueblos.


Chaco Shell Bracelet

Chaco Shell Bracelet, 1050-1100 AD; Shell, Glycymeris gigantean, is from Baja California Sur/Gulf of California Chaco Culture (National Historical Park Museum photo)

Chaco turquoise beads

Chaco Turquoise Beads, 1050-1100 AD, Chaco Culture (National Historical Park Museum photo)

Chaco copper bell

Chaco Copper Bell with Tinkler, from Great House at Pueblo Alto, 1020-1240 AD; loop molded separately and later fused to body. Tinkler (clapper) is made of either stone or clay. These copper bells came as trade goods from Mexico. (Chaco Culture National Historical Park Museum photo)

Chaco culture was stratified, with a very distinct class structure. Chaco was not an egalitarian commune, as was thought by many early on. There were Nobles, Elites, or Lords who lived in the Great Houses and did important things and thinking in the Great Houses; and then there were the Commoners, peons or serfs who lived in the small unit pueblos and labored to build the great buildings and roads, to serve the Nobles, and to toil endlessly in the fields to produce the food for the Chaco system.

The Nobles did no manual labor, nor did they build the Great Houses. The lack of hearths in the Great Houses suggests they didn’t do their own cooking either; food was probably prepared for them by servants or slaves in the plazas where large cooking pits have been excavated.

It was easy to tell the Nobles: they wore exotic jewelry of marine shells and Scarlet Macaw feathers – lots of feathers – and copper bells imported from Mexico, plus turquoise jewelry from Chacoan mines near Outlier villages to the east. And while they sat in the splendor of their Great Houses, talking to their Scarlet Macaws, they drank Cacao (chocolate), also imported from Mexico, from unique and exclusively-Noble cylinder-shaped pottery mugs. and laid plans for their next building or road project. Another important annual decision involved deciding which of the outlier villages that did not get enough rain for their crops that year, but had remained faithful to the Chacoan Code of Rules, deserved to be issued grain from the Chaco Great House storage bins.

The commoners, on the other hand, were typical of all commoners throughout history: born to a lifetime of work from dawn to dark, or born to serve, and if they worked and served well, and above all obeyed the Nobles’ rules, possibly they, too, could acquire a bauble of marine shell or a piece of turquoise, but, except for the extremely good, probably not a macaw feather.




Quetzalcoatl in feathered serpent form as depicted in Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th Century)

Xipe Totec

Illustration of Aztec god, Xipe Totec as shown in Codex Borgia

Christy Turner2 in his 1999 book Man Corn, Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest writes extensively about archaeological and ethnographic evidence that the Chaco World and other Southwestern Native American cultures “received, imported, adopted or adapted elements of Mexican Indian religion or cosmology”. This evidence is seen in rock art (petroglyphs and pictographs), scenes on Mimbres pottery, paintings on kiva walls, and religious paraphernalia and practices, especially those that bear resemblance to two ancient Mesoamerican deities, Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent and Xipe Totec, “Our Lord the Flayed One”, both of which are associated with ritual sacrifice.



Most archaeologists in working on the nature of Chacoan and other prehistoric Southwestern economies have focused on localized subsistence economies, those based on food (maize, squash, and beans), pottery, rocks (obsidian for projectile points) or human labor. Exotic objects found in Chacoan ruins, such as Scarlet Macaw feathers and skeletal material, marine sea shell jewelry, copper bells, and turquoise, generally received little attention or mention, being considered nothing more than trinkets for “would-be Elites”.

There was a subsistence economy in the Chacoan World, an economy that basically functioned within a 150 km (90 miles) radius of the Chaco Center in Chaco Canyon, where Chaco served as central warehouse and redistribution center to outlier villages, which functioned, perhaps, in some form of a “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, or maybe “render unto Caeser the things that are Caeser’s … or else” basis.

There was also, however, what Lekson (2015) calls a “political-prestige economy” which was based on exotic materials and objects such as macaw birds and feathers, marine shell objects, copper bells, jet frogs, cacao, and turquoise. Most of these materials and objects were wearable or easily portable symbols of nobility, office, rank, wealth, and most importantly, Power. This prestige economy could be used in establishing alliances, and extending the Chacoan policy outward to great distances, distances as much as 250 km (150 miles), which lay far beyond the practicalities and logistics of subsistence economies.



While many earlier archaeologists spoke in their own terms of a political hierarchical/class structured society at Chaco, it was not until Lekson (2015) was introduced to the concept of the Postclassic Mesoamerican Altepetl that he felt he had found a political/social/governing system that closely fit the diverse data gathered from over a hundred years of research and excavation of Chaco. As Lekson describes: the altepetl (plural altepeme) consisted of a ruling class of several (6 or 8) ruling families and their associated commoners within a defined agricultural territory. There could be a hierarchy of altepemes with Major Nobles and their Commoners and Secondary Nobles with their Commoners. In this system the Commoners were obligated to contribute a certain amount of goods (crop harvest for example) or labor (building the Great Houses were the Nobles resided) to their Noble families. Major Nobles would live in a larger, centralized or “urban” altepetl such as the magnificent Great House centers of Chaco Canyon, while their Commoners lived in nearby Unit Pueblos. Secondary Nobles would rule over smaller altepemes in the surrounding countryside, the so-called Chaco “Outliers”, living in smaller Great Houses, which would be surrounded by a number of Unit Pueblos where the Commoners lived. In this system, just as Commoners paid tribute in goods or labor to their Noble families, Secondary Nobles were obligated to pay tribute in goods or services to the Major Nobles. While there was a Chief Noble or King, the kingship did not pass down by blood heritage when replacement was needed, but rather the successor was decided upon by the half dozen or so Major Noble families, and generally not chosen from the outgoing Noble family.


Then Came Aztec . . .

Chaco began somewhere around 850 AD and experienced a golden age period of infrastructure and population growth between 1020 and 1125, when construction of buildings ceased. Around 1080 something triggered a decision to move the capital from Chaco Canyon to some 90 km (54 miles) north to what is now known as Aztec Ruins National Momument on the Animas River. The Aztec Ruins are in many ways very similar in architecture and layout to Chaco Ruins with Great Houses, Great Kivas, surrounding complexes of unit Pueblos, as well as some new building designs of circular tri-walled structures. Construction began at Aztec around 1100, about the same time as the building of the Great North Road commenced that would connect Chaco to Aztec, and by 1125, the new capital or center was essentially completed. Aztec functioned as the central seat of power in the Chacoan World until 1275, when a final collapse and abandonment of the Chacoan World took place.

aztec ruins new mexico

Aztec Ruins in the Fall

aztec ruins new mexico

Aztec Ruins with Great Kiva (National Park Service photo)


As stated in Part 1 of this blog, the last part of the 150 year time period, between 1150 and 1300 has long been considered a time period critical to the understanding of two of the greatest mysteries in the archaeology of the Southwest. These mysteries, sometimes referred to as The Great Collapse or The Great Abandonment, concern the time period when two of the three largest and most evolved Southwestern Native American Cultures, the Mogollon and the Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi), experienced major change and societal upheaval. This upheaval was both widespread, long-term, and chronic throughout their domains, ultimately resulting in the eventual collapse of these two advanced cultures’ social structure, and the subsequent abandonment of their villages and larger population centers. The cause (or causes) of this collapse and abandonment has been the subject of strong and often vitriolic ongoing debate for decades.

Early on in the research of the Chocoan World, archaeologists began to consider chronic drought with accompanying starvation as the primary cause for the collapse and abandonment. In recent years other possible causes have been proposed, such as introduction of new religious beliefs, depletion of resources such as deforestation and subsequent erosion of agricultural lands, and possible warfare or rebellion.

The following sections will discuss several lines of recent research which, when combined, offer strong evidence for a proposed climatic root cause and a resulting political/societal upheaval scenario that led to the collapse and abandonment of the Chaco World. Following that, the proposed scenario will be used to suggest further answers to the key questions raised in Part 1 of this blog about the Gila Cliff Dwellings. We begin with a close look at climate data for the past 2,000 years in New Mexico.


For several years now, as any follower of contemporary news has noticed, there has been a lot of concern over Climate Change and what it means to current civilization. For any student of earth history, Climate Change is nothing new. The Earth’s Climate (as well as its geology, geography, and resident life) has always been in a state of dynamic change, and it always will be. In this section we will take a quick look at the last 2,000 years of Climate Change in New Mexico and its affect upon its prehistoric cultures.

Climate, as defined by Merriam-Webster, and as used here, refers to “the average course or condition of the weather at a place usually over a period of years as exhibited by temperature, wind velocity, and precipitation.” Paleoclimatology is the study of climate change in prehistoric times. Measurement of temperature, and precipitation in the prehistoric past can be determined by a variety of climate proxies. Proxies for ancient wind patterns also exist, but are much less precise; for example, study of a down-wind deposit of volcanic ash from a known or suspected volcanic eruption.


Figure 1 below is a graph from F.C. Ljungqvist’s 20103 reconstruction of global temperature for the last 2000 years in the Northern Hemisphere. The study is based on 30 temperature sensitive proxies, including: historical documents, marine sediment records, lake sediment records, ice core oxygen isotope records, varved sediment records, and tree ring records globally distributed around the Northern Hemisphere between 30° and 90°N.

Ljungqvist’s research has yielded substantial evidence that the changes in global temperature shown by the graph in Figure 1 during the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age were experienced throughout all portions of the Northern Hemisphere. Figure1 illustrates how these periods of major climate change can be used to better understand major human cultural endeavors in the historic past. Superimposed on Ljungqvist’s graph are historically documented dates for the Viking colonization and later abandonment of Greenland as recorded in the ancient Viking Sagas, as well as in Icelandic writings at that time. As shown in the graph, and confirmed by the historical records and modern archaeological excavations, we can see how climate controlled the Viking colonization and prosperity during the Medieval Warm Period and subsequent abandonment during the ensuing Little Ice Age.

Also shown on the graph are the dates given by Lekson (2015) for the rise and decline of Chaco and the rise and fall of Aztec. It can be seen that the rise of Chaco around 850 and its subsequent golden age coincided with the warmest part of the Medieval Warm Period, and that the climate entered a substantial cooling period around 1080 a few years before construction stopped at Chaco in 1125. The moving of the Chacoan capital from Chaco Canyon to Aztec began during this time period with construction beginning at Aztec around 1110. The building of Aztec took place rapidly so that by 1125 Aztec was flourishing while Chaco was beginning its decline. From 1100 temperature remained fairly stable globally until about 1250 when cooling increased, gradually bringing the Medieval Warm Period to an end and ushering in the Little Ice Age at 1300. During this period Aztec falls around 1275, bringing to an end the Chaco Phenomenon in the Four Corners area.

temperature graph

Fig. 1: Graph of Global extra-tropical Northern hemisphere (30-90°) decadal mean temperature variations (dark grey line), with 2 standard deviation error bars (light grey shading) after Ljungqvist, 2010. Time periods shown for the Roman Warm Period, Dark Age Cold Period, Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age are Ljungqvist’s. Anasazi Chaco and Aztec Culture dates are from Lekson, 2015; Vikings dates are from D’Andrea and Huang, 2011.



lava bridge in El Malpais

Lava bridge with stunted Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir in El Malpais National Monument (National Park Service Photo)

When considering the paleoclimate for any area, temperature, of course, is only part of the equation, the other major determinant being precipitation. Fortunately, a very detailed record for precipitation at the time of the Chaco Phenomenon is available for Northern New Mexico from the field of dendroclimatology. Dendroclimatology is the scientific method that uses measurements and patterns of tree rings (also known as growth rings) as a proxy to reconstruct past climate. In 1996, an in-depth research study based on tree ring analysis was published which details past precipitation for the El Malpais National Monument Volcanic Field in Central New Mexico for the last 2,200 years. The Malpais is located only 80 miles south of Chaco Canyon.

Figure 2 below is a graph showing above and below average precipitation for the Malpais National Monument volcanic field lava flow area in New Mexico between 0 and 1650. This graph is based on H.D. Grissino-Mayer’s 1996 in-depth study4 of tree-ring width analyses from 248 measurement series of cores obtained from living trees and sub-fossil wood (dead, down and not decayed) from long-lived Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine found in the Malpais. Because of the unique hydrologic conditions in the Malpais lava flow fields, trees growing on the lava flow over the past 2,000 years exhibit a very accurate dendrochronologic record of variations in annual precipitation patterns.

temperature chart

Fig. 2: This graph of annual rainfall in Malpais region New Mexico. Curve is a 10-year smoothed curve of yearly tree-ring width fit to accentuate short-term (less than 50 yr) climate episodes. Horizontal 0 line separates above normal precipitation (Positive standard deviation) from below normal precipitation (Negative standard deviation). After Grissino-Mayer, H.D., 1996. Rise and fall dates of the Anasazi Chaco and Aztec Cultures and drought dates are from Lekson, 2015.

Periods of cyclical drought are an inherent and a defining characteristic of the American Southwest from prehistoric times to the modern present, and can be expected into the foreseeable future. Every culture who has lived there, from the prehistoric past right up to the present, has experienced droughts and dealt with them, with various degrees of success, depending on the particular time period in which they lived there. The ecological concept of Adapt or Perish is particularly appropriate for any culture that has ever tried to live in the American Southwest. In the next section we will focus on how drought or the lack thereof influenced the rise and fall of the Chacoan Phenomenon. But first, a few comments about Figure 2.

Archaeological research on the Chacoan Phenomenon has identified various time periods of drought, some long, some short, some local, some widespread. In looking at the graph in Figure 2 its obvious that fluctuations in precipitation in Northern New Mexico seem to be the rule rather than the exception. However, there have been two periods of drought that most researchers tend to agree on as being significant during the time periods of Chaco and Aztec – the first being an extended period of drought between 1120 and 1150 (some research suggests 1180), and a second major drought period between 1275 and 1300. In comparing these droughts with the rise, decline, and fall dates of Chaco and Aztec, it must be kept in mind that the graph is showing total annual precipitation in which both winter and summer rainfall are combined. Variations in seasonal rainfall (summer vs winter) cannot be determined. This is a critical point in considering the impact of climate change upon the Chacoan Phenomenon because the success or failure of farming and harvests at that time was completely dependent upon the Summer Southwest Monsoon rains, which can be notoriously variable from year to year, both in terms of time and location. How major changes in climate might have affected the Monsoon rains is little known.


This section discusses this writer’s speculative proposition that the two periods of drought shown in Figure 2 could indeed have been the root cause or catalyst that triggered the ultimate collapse and abandonment of the Chacoan World. Central to this proposition is Lekson’s 2015 proposal that the Chacoan political/social/government system as discussed above was essentially a modified version of the Mesoamerican Altepetl System consisting of Noble rulers living in Great Houses governing commoner farmers and labors, who paid tribute or taxes through goods (such as a portion of yearly harvest) or labor.

The Altepetl System as developed in Mesoamerica worked well there for hundreds of years from the Post Classic Period on (900-1519), and with some possible local adaptation by the Chaco Nobles, would have worked well during the height of the Medieval Warm Period at Chaco during the boom years of construction, expansion, and population growth when the climate was warm and precipitation plentiful. Then beginning around 1120 a series of droughts ensued during a period of climate instability for 30-60 years during which summer rains and other weather factors became increasingly unreliable as the global climate began to cool. Dry farming on the mesa tops, which had become possible at the height of the Medieval Warm Period, now became untenable, and the summer monsoon rains, which are always highly variable from year to year in terms of how much rain any specific area will receive, became even less dependable. The Major Nobles now had a problem, one that was not going to go away …

The problem was that their far flung 150-member atlepetl system had been constructed around the concept that in any given year, enough of the individual Outlier Great House altepetls would get enough rain for a successful harvest so that overall, the Total Choacan Summer Harvest would have a sufficient surplus to feed everyone in the Chaco System within the 150 kilometer (90 mile) radius of Great House Outliers, which operated on the Chaco Subsistence Economy. Those Outlier Altepetls that had not received rain from the increasingly less dependable Summer Monsoon did not have to worry, but could remain secure in the understanding that not only would they be fed that winter from the Food Bank Surplus in Chaco Center, but, if necessary, they would also be provided with seeds for the coming year’s planting!

But then, as the droughts increased in frequency and severity, came the years when the critical threshold was reached where the number of Great House Outliers with harvest failures exceeded the number of successful Outlier harvests, and the Food Bank Surplus in Chaco Center could not meet the Overall Demand. The Chaco System and the all knowing, all powerful and heretofore benevolent Nobles’ credibility was failing. What could the Nobles possibly do?

The rest of this speculative scenario is not hard to envision. What is known from the archaeological record as Lekson (2015) relates, and Turner and Turner (1999), and Kohler, et al. (2014)5 document is that during Chaco’s time, and especially in the later decades of the interval between 1020 and 1180, there were instances in the Chaco World of extreme violence ranging from individual killings or sacrifice to massacres of whole communities – from infants to the aged – being executed, dismembered, and in some cases even eaten, their bones then tossed into an empty room or kiva. Was this violence done under orders or direction of the Nobles, or was it just intra-Outlier hunger-driven, mob-violence warfare? A review of the nature of the religious component of the Chaco Culture as discussed above would suggest the former, especially when one considers that 6 out of the 76 sites studied by Turner and Turner were in Chaco Center in Chaco Canyon that included both extreme violence and cannibalism, some of which was found within the Great Houses.

Paquime Ruins Mexico

Paquime Ruins, Casas Grandes, Chihuahua Mexico

It is conceivable that when the suggested Noble-instigated and directed sacrifice, intimidation by dismemberment, and even worse, failed to increase crop production among the farming Commoners, and whole Outlier villages were abandoned as Commoners fled en masse during the night, in terror, to the East, West, and South, that the Major Nobles at Chaco Center may have seen the need for a new course of action. Eventually they may have come to the conclusion that maybe the failing harvests were the result of the climate after all, and not the fault of lazy, incompetent Commoner farmers, and that they should move Chaco Center to Aztec where the year-around waters of the Animas River could be used to irrigate and ensure dependable harvests. Which they did around 1110.

After the move to Aztec, as Lekson (2015) relates, apparently things were more peaceful between 1180 and 1260. Possibly the irrigated fields produced better and more reliable harvests, and, from Figure 2, after 1180 there appears to be an increase in rain until about 1250. If overall conditions did improve during this time, perhaps the Commoner’s faith in the wisdom and power of the Nobles over the weather, as well as the overall Chacoan System may also have been restored. That is until around 1275, when the droughts and precipitous global cooling recommenced in earnest, lasting until 1300. During this time period extreme violence, now more in the form of warfare, is again found in the Chacoan World between 1260 and 1280 (Kohler,, 2014), with communities massing together on defensible mesa tops or within cliff dwellings for safety. The chaos of these times was systemic with the eventual result of complete cultural collapse with both Nobles and Commoners alike abandoning the Four Corners area en masse by the tens of thousands. The Chaco Phenomenon was over.

Casas Grades, Chihuahua

T-shaped door at Paquime Ruins, Casas Grandes, Chihuahua Mexico

Paquime Ruins Chihuahua

Macaw raising pens at Paquime Ruins, Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico

During the period of Collapse and Abandonment of the Chaco/Aztec System around 1275-1280, and perhaps earlier during the move from Chaco to Aztec, Lekson (2015) contends that numerous Noble families headed due south along what he terms the Chaco Meridian where they would resume noble opportunities in the new emerging capital city of Paquime in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico, 670 km (400 miles) south of Chaco Canyon. The evidence for a Chaco/Aztec/Paquime connection is a fascinating story in itself, and is the primary focus of Lekson’s 2015 book The Chaco Meridian.

During those turbulent times, the Commoners that fled or survived during the various Noble inflicted traumas during the latter years of Chaco, and the later warfare during the final collapse of Aztec, either migrated to points unknown or stayed in the general area to found new, more egalitarian, farming pueblos both to the west, south, and east of the Chaco/Aztec region, as represented by the Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma Pueblos of today.


The above summary of the Rise and Fall of the Chaco Phenomenon is a mixture of well-researched and documented archaeological fact, plus a heavy dose of follow-the-dots type reasoned conclusions and assumptions, as well as a little unabashed speculation. Quite often in archaeology, as in geology, the hard data that is found often raises more questions than it answers. And certainly this is the case with the Gila Cliff Dwellings. While there are important evidencial facts and clues from the Chaco Phenomenon which can shed some new light on the Key Questions posed in Part 1 of this blog regarding the People of the Gila Cliff Dwellings, the new evidence, indeed, raises a whole new set of questions.

The Key Questions Regarding the Gila Cliff Dwellers

Who were these Cliff Dwellers anyway and what were they like?

Convincing evidence, as summarized in this blog, supports the argument that the Gila Cliff Dwellers were Chacoan Nobles. Primary evidence for this fact is the abundance of prestige-economy marine shell jewelry, 26 macaw feathers, and 1 macaw skull; plus the architectural evidence in the commanding presence of a T-shaped door that for all intents and purposes says “We Are Chacoan”. If they were Nobles, then the evidence from Chaco also strongly suggests that they probably did not build the dwellings, farm the fields near the TJ Ruins, gather wild edible plants, or cook their own meals … Chacoan Nobles didn’t do such things; they had commoners or slaves to do this work.

Where did they come from?

Because the construction date of the Cliff Dwellings (1276-1287) as known from tree ring dating of the roofing vigas, corresponds exactly to the time of the Great Drought of 1275-1300 and the final Collapse of the Chacoan social and political system, it is considered most probable that the Gila Cliff Dwellers came either from an Outlier to the north or possibly from Aztec. Because of the abundance of Tularosa Phase pottery found in the Cliff Dwellings, the type locality for which is the Aragon/Reserve area 50 miles to the north, a southern Outlier would seem more likely than further north in Aztec. Although, a related fact is that Chacoan Nobles did not make their own pottery, so they could have come from Aztec and simply used locally made pottery, either imported from the Aragon/Reserve area or possibly made 1-1/2 miles away at the TJ Ruin.

Why did they come, and why did they choose to stay in dark, cold caves as opposed to the large TJ Ruin?

Based on the construction dates and suggested short-term occupation of the Gila Cliff Dwellings relative to the current understanding of the time and events of the final collapse of the Choacan social and political system, it is highly likely that the Nobles were fleeing the “Troubles up North” as suggested in Part 1 of this blog. As discussed above, Lekson (2015) makes a strong case that following the final collapse of the Chacoan System many of the Noble families left their failing system of increasingly oppressive rule over the Commoners, and moved south to Paguime at Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico.

Were there people living in the TJ Ruin site at the time, and if so what was their relationship with the Cliff Dwellers?

Only the formal excavation of the TJ Ruin could possibly provide definitive answers to this question. However, the strong evidence that the Gila Cliff Dwellers were Chacoan Nobles, and that Chacoan Nobles didn’t construct buildings, or farm the fields, etc., does support the possibility that the TJ Ruin was inhabited at the time of the Dwellings by someone, perhaps a reduced holdover population remaining from TJ Ruin’s height of occupation, or alternately a group of loyal Commoners of various types who accompanied the Nobles on their flight from the Chaco World who could have taken up residence in the abandoned TJ pueblos and farmed the adjacent fields.

Why did they stay such a short time? (as suggested by lack of adult burials, lack of trash, lack of building modifications and additions), and Why did they leave?

The presence of Noble prestige economy goods such as abundant marine shell jewelry, macaw feathers, and the skull of at least one live macaw being left behind could suggest a very sudden rather than a planned departure from the Cliff Dwellings, as these exotic objects and the T-shaped doors were the only proof of their Noble status. Did the “Troubles Up North” somehow catch up with them, forcing them to flee in the middle of the night? Also, as mentioned in Part 1 of this blog, large caches of stored maize in the form of cobs, were also found in the Cliff Dwellings, also suggesting an unanticipated departure. This sort of complete abandonment of personal goods and stored foodstuffs was a common archaeological discovery in the Aztec area, particularly in the Cliff Dwellings, during the last decades of the Collapse and Abandonment.

Where did they go?

Recent archaeological research at the Paguime Ruins and the surrounding Casas Grande area in Mexico, and the San Juan Basin area surrounding Aztec, have strengthened Lekson’s proposed connection between the collapse of the Chaco/Aztec Culture and the sudden emergence of the Paquime Culture. New analyses regarding the beginning of construction for the initial major buildings at Paquime yield dates of 1250 to 1300, which corresponds to the final collapse at Chaco and Aztec. Looking past the initial observation that the 4- to 5-story Paquime buildings are constructed of adobe while those at Chaco and Aztec are of stacked stone masonry, many architectural similarities between the two areas exist, such as the iconic T-shaped doors of Chaco and Aztec. Also, Paquime was very much involved with the prestige economy, and over time became a major center for the production, manufacture, and distribution of prestige economy goods, such as live macaws and macaw feathers, marine shell jewelry, copper bells, pottery, etc.

Perhaps the final collapse and abandonment of the Chacoan/AztecSystem is best summed up by Lekson (2015), when, after describing how the remaining Commoners moved east and west beyond the Nobles reach to reinvent themselves as communal, egalitarian farming Pueblos, he concludes by saying “scores of noble families, after many generations ruling, wanted nothing of the new egalitarian ethos. They sought new commoners to rule – that was their job on earth. There were no takers in the north, so they moved south – along the meridian.”

Research on ancient north–south trade routes used by prehistoric Native Americans indicates several possible routes leading south along the Meridian that the migrating/fleeing Nobles might have taken between Aztec and Chaco and Paquime. It is quite possible that one of them passed through TJ Ruin and the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

gila cliff dwellings new mexico

We Are Chacoan


1. Lekson, S.H., 2015, The Chaco Meridian. Rowman & Littlefield, 257 pp.,

2. Turner, C., and Turner, 1999, Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest.The University of Utah Press, 547 pages

3. Ljungqvist, F.C, 2010: A New Reconstruction of Temperature Variability in the Extra-Tropical Northern hemisphere During the Last Two Millennia. Geografiska Annaler, 92 A (3): pp.339-351

4. Grissino-Mayer, Henri D., 1996, A 2,129 Year Reconstruction of Precipitation for Northwestern New Mexico, USA, Tree Rings, Environment and Humanity, ed. J. S. Dean, D. M. Meko and T.W. Swetnam, Radiocarbon, pp. 191-204

5. Kohler, T.A. et al., 2015, The Better Angels of Their Nature: Declining Violence Through Time Among Prehispanic Farmers of the Pueblo Southwest, American Antiquity 79(3), 2014, pp. 444-464

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The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Many Questions, A Few Clues, Emerging Answers

PART 1 of 2

Cliff Dweller Canyon New Mexico

Looking north down Cliff Dweller Canyon; Gila Cliff Dwellings on left

After Crossing the West Fork of the Gila River the trail starts up Cliff Dweller Canyon, heading to the towering promontory of Gila Conglomerate in which the Dwellings are located

After Crossing the West Fork of the Gila River the trail starts up Cliff Dweller Canyon, heading to towering promontory of Gila Conglomerate in which the Dwellings are located


The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is located in the center of the Gila Wilderness at the end of NM 15, 45 miles north of Silver City. The site is open year-round, and this year is celebrating its 108th year as a U.S. National Monument. Within the 533 acres of the Monument are 45 archeological sites spanning over 2,000 years of Prehistoric American cultural history. Two of these sites—the Gila Cliff Dwellings (open to the public) and the nearby large and mostly un-excavated TJ Ruin (occasionally open to the public)—establish the Monument’s recognition as the premier archaeological site open to the public in Southern New Mexico.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings are hidden within six south-facing shallow alcoves or caves located about 200 feet up on the northwest side of Cliff Dweller Canyon, about a quarter-mile above the canyon’s confluence with the West Fork of the Gila River. The Dwellings, while relatively small in extent and size, are well preserved and similar to the numerous Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings found throughout the Four Corners Area of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. The Dwellings, built and occupied in the late 1200s, consist of some 40 rooms of various sizes and are constructed of small flat stones set in adobe mud mortar. The alcoves or caves in which the Dwellings are constructed were formed several million years ago by stream action within Cliff Dweller Canyon as it cut downward into the Gila Conglomerate Formation.


Over millions of years this year-round spring-fed creek has cut deep into Cliff Dwellers Canyon, carving out the alcoves or caves in which the Cliff Dwellings were built

Over millions of years this year-round spring-fed creek has cut deep into Cliff Dwellers Canyon, carving out the alcoves or caves in which the Cliff Dwellings were built

By 1878, mining was booming throughout the Silver City area, and the local Wild West was now, with much boot dragging, in the process of being tamed. In a strategic move to avoid jury duty, mining entrepreneur Henry Ailman and four other potential jurors left the mining community of Georgetown near Silver City and headed north for the headwaters of the Gila River on what they purported to be a “prospecting trip”. Upon their return, they reported that they had discovered some stone ruins in caves, the first recorded visit to what later was to become known as the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Six years later, in 1884, the site was visited by Adolph Bandelier, one of the earliest anthropologists to work in the Southwest. Bandelier wrote extensively about the Gila Cliff Dwellings, as well as about numerous other cultural sites in the area, including the first description of what is now called the TJ Ruin, a large 200-room village site located at the top of a mesa on the north side of the confluence of the Middle Fork and West Fork of the Gila River near the present-day Gila Cliff Dwellings Visitors Center. Looting of artifacts at the Cliff Dwellings was prevalent even in the early days of the Cliff Dwellings, as reported by Bandelier, who described the damage already done to the site at the time of his visit by relic-hunters and vandals. These vandals, according to U.S. Government literature, had burned the roofs of the buildings, torn down walls, and carried out extensive excavations in their search for pottery, stone tools, and other artifacts.

Gila Cliff Dwellings

About halfway up the half-mile trail to the Cliff Dwellings the first view of the Dwellings comes into view

For the next 23 years various accounts remain of occasional visits to the Cliff Dwellings by professional archaeologists, soldiers on patrol or mapping expeditions, curious prospectors, cowhands, and the general public. As might be expected, and as was certainly the case throughout the cultural sites in the Southwest, most of these non-professionals took the opportunity to do a little digging on their own for pots and other artifacts, thereby doing incalculable damage to the potential archaeological knowledge that could have been obtained from this unique site.

By 1907 widespread concern over the ongoing destruction of cultural sites in the Southwest had reached sufficient levels that on November 16 of that year the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was established through Presidential Proclamation by President Theodore Roosevelt and was placed under the administration of the U.S. Forest Service. In 1933, administration of the Cliff Dwellings was transferred to the National Park Service. In 1962, following years of additional archeological research, discoveries, and surveys in the area, 373 acres were added to the Cliff Dwellings National Monument, including 53 acres around the huge TJ Ruin. Eventually, in 1975, a cooperative agreement between the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service was signed, assigning administration management of the Monument to the Gila National Forest. As a result of more recent archaeological surveys and studies in the area, it is now known that the 533 acres of the Gila Cliff Dwellings Monument contain 45 archaeological sites of various types.

Gila Cliff Dwellings

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were constructed in 5 of 7 sequential alcoves cut in horizontal layers of the Gila Conglomerate; here, in Cave 1, were found foundations for three storage areas, a larger living area, and a hearth probably used by a single family

Gila Cliff Dwellings

In Cave 2 a T-shaped door provides a 13th Century clue for all to see. The single wooden viga and the round wood-filled hole to the left are all that is left of a balcony that existed below the doorway. Note the thick layer of soot from fires on the roof of the cave.


Primarily from Anderson, 1986 1 and Bradford, 1992 2

    Gila Cliff Dwellings

    In Cave 3 a stairway leads the visitor into the heart of the Dwellings. Note the vigas in the wall that originally supported a roof and possibly a second floor. Vigas such as these were cored to obtain the tree ring data used in dating the Cliff Dwellings.

  1. Field study of the Gila Cliff Dwellings and analysis of the artifacts found in them show two periods of use: a pre-500 AD Archaic/Cochise Culture use as a cave shelter and a much later habitation in the Tularosa Phase of the Mogollon Pueblo Culture (1125–1300 AD).
  2. Tree ring analysis of logs, specifically the date that they were cut for use in the roofs of the Dwellings, gives dates ranging from 1276 to 1287 AD. The results of this research suggest the Dwellings were constructed in a relatively short time, perhaps in as little as 11 years.
  3. Pottery recovered from the Dwellings is almost all Tularosa Phase, and nearly identical to the Tularosa Phase collections reported from the Reserve, NM, area, which date from 1100–1300 AD. This corroborates the tree ring data and suggests limited contact with other areas. Tularosa and Tularosa/Reserve Phase pottery are by far the dominant pottery types recovered in the various archaeological excavations at the Dwellings, suggesting limited contact with other areas. A small amount of Classic Mimbres Phase pottery was also found within the Dwellings, however.
  4. Of special note in the Bradford report is the statement that surveys of sites other than the Cliff Dwellings within the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument land and adjacent areas of the Gila National Forest showed little or no evidence for Tularosa Phase occupation of the area.
  5. Gila Cliff Dwellings

    Once in Cave 3 the visitor is able to follow paths to connected Caves 4 and 5

  6. The duration of occupation of the Cliff Dwellings beyond 1287 is unknown. Evidence of a relatively short duration is suggested by the lack of post-construction modification. There are unfinished floors and no layered, multi-level floors. In addition, there is almost a total lack of room remodeling.
  7. Hearths used for cooking and other purposes found in various rooms of the Dwellings number 8 to 10. Based on an assumed number of 4 to 5 people per household, Anderson suggest a total population at the Gila Cliff Dwellings of between 40 and 60 people who “had abandoned small pueblo settlements to take advantage of the sheltered dry cave near a year-round spring”. On the basis of this and other data, their 1986 report also suggests that “the cliff dwellings housed a relatively isolated settlement, during a time of harsh climatic straits—the well-known ‘Great Drought’ of 1276-1299—when cliff dwellings in other parts of the Southwest, notably the Anasazi area (i.e. Chaco Canyon Culture), offered a haven to refugees in similar circumstances”.
  8. In a related part of their project, Anderson, et. al. conducted a study on the ratio of storage space to living room space within the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The study yielded a ratio of 1:1.9, which was essentially the same as the calculated storage space to living room space ratios from several other known Tularosa Phase pueblo sites existing about 50 miles to the northwest. On the basis of this similarity, Anderson et. al. suggested that the Gila Cliff Dwellings were “a regular village with all rooms and space necessary to sleep in privacy, work comfortably, store food, and hold communal gatherings and rituals.” Further analysis of various room use and the determined sequential occupation of the various rooms led the researchers to further suggest that “the cliff dwellings were taken over by a whole community at once, rather than a move by one family after another”; and further, “supports the inference that the Gila Cliff Dwellings was intended at the outset as a settlement relocation and did not begin as a ceremonial location to which dwellings were appended”.
  9. Gila Cliff Dwellings

    Looking out the opening of Cave 3 towards the cliffs on the other side of Cliff Dweller Canyon

  10. Horticulture and farming of domesticated plants were of great importance to the Cliff Dwellers. This is based on the great diversity and sheer volume of plant remains left behind, which include several varieties of maize (corn), three types of squash, and several types of common beans and tepary beans. The great volume of corn cobs left behind was so impressive that it often received special mention in many of the early studies and reports.
  11. Artifacts other than pottery collected over years from the Gila Cliff Dwellings have yielded data typical of similar collections from other sites within the area of the same time period and portray all aspects of village life in the late 1200s. Notable anomalies in the artifact collections from the Gila Cliff Dwelling are the following:

    Marine shell artifacts: An exceptionally large diversity of marine shell material, used primarily as ornaments, such as beads, pendants, tinklers (bells), and bracelets, was found. These ornaments represented 11 species, 10 genera, and 1 family, almost all of which represent marine species. Taken as a whole, the shell artifacts exhibited a much greater faunal diversity than from similarly aged archaeological sites in the surrounding area.

    Gila Cliff Dwellings

    A group of terraced rooms in Cave 3; note the hearths in the floor

    Marine shell material, used primarily as body ornaments, i.e. jewelry, is found in prehistoric archeological sites throughout the Southwest, indicating long-term and widespread use as a trade item. The three possible original source areas for this marine shell material are the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California, and the Pacific Ocean. Archeological studies of the Casas Grandes (Paquime) Ruins in Chihuahua, Mexico, have shown that this very large prehistoric city (1130-1450 AD) was a major manufacturer and distributor of these types of shell ornaments.

    Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) feathers: A total of 28 Scarlet Macaw feathers are reported from the Gila Cliff Dwellings and have been interpreted primarily as socioreligious objects. In discussing the provenance of the Scarlet Macaw feathers, Anderson state “the obvious source is Casas Grandes (called Paquime in early Spanish reports), by far the largest center of macaw aviculture in the Greater Southwest, located less than 200 miles to the south”. In addition to the feathers, a single Scarlet Macaw cranium and mandible was found in one of the rooms, indicating the presence of at least one live macaw.

Gila Cliff Dwellings

Looking north from Cave 3 into Cave 4 and Cave 5 beyond

Gila Cliff Dwellings

After visiting Caves 4 and 5, a ramp leads visitors out of the Dwellings


The largely un-excavated TJ Ruin is located 1.5 miles east of the Gila Cliff Dwellings at the edge of a 100-foot-high bluff of Gila Conglomerate overlooking the confluence of the Middle Fork and West Fork of the Gila River. A thick stand of saltbush and native grasses covers the mesa top, obscuring the low mounds of the adobe and stone ruins. The limited research that has been done on this large pueblo complex site indicates that there are some 227 rooms in 5 separate apartment-like room blocks, 3 Great Kivas, 4 communal pit structures, and a partially enclosed plaza.

Summary primarily from McKenna and Bradford, 1989 3

  1. Large scale formal archaeological excavations have not been done at the TJ Ruin. All data, synthesis, and conclusions to date are based on surface sampling of ceramic and lithic (stone) materials and mapping of the exposed adobe and masonry structures done during the 1986 field season by archaeologists Peter McKenna and James Bradford of the National Park Service.
  2. Ceramic evidence indicates 900 years of occupation at the TJ Ruin from 500–1400 AD, and that the “majority of the visible site is probably Late Mangus Phase through Classic Mimbres Phase (900-1150 AD).” Towards the end of the Mimbres Phase (1000–1150 AD) there is a suggested increase in Reserve/Tularosa Phases ceramics (1000-1300 AD), followed by a possible minor occupation during the Animas/Salado Phases of the Salado Culture (1150–1450 AD). For reference, in terms of regional archaeology, the type locality for Reserve/Tularosa cultural sites is found in an area lying about 50 miles north of the TJ Ruin and the Gila Cliff Dwellings, while the Animas/Salado Phase type localities lie well to the southwest of the TJ Ruin, suggesting a small in-migration up the Gila River.
  3. In their summary regarding the TJ Ruin, McKenna and Bradford conclude that “the Reserve/Tularosa Phase may have seen an initial period during the late 12th century,(and) perhaps a short, late 13th century occupation like that at the Gila Cliff Dwellings”.
  4. Data from the 1986 mapping and surface collections show that the architectural style and village layout demonstrate features that are more typical of northern Mogollon cultural sites, such as presence of circular-shaped ceremonial Great Kivas and a walled plaza. Of particular archaeological interest is the largest room block, Room Block 1. Room Block 1 measures 60m x 40m, or 2400 sq.m., and is thought to contain 120 rooms. This room block rises 2 meters above the surrounding ground level, leading McKenna and Bradford to suggest that Room Block 1 “may be two stories in places”.
Gila Cliff Dwellings

Looking south from Cave 4 back into Cave 3; note peep holes, door and roof vigas.


A visit to the 700-year-old time capsule of the Gila Cliff Dwellings can be an incredible experience for anyone having an interest in America’s Prehistoric past. Today, unlike many of the larger cliff dwelling cultural sites in the four corners area, where the structures can only be viewed at a distance, the Gila Cliff Dwellings still permit an up-close and personal experience, where the visitor is allowed to walk through the different caves at one’s own pace and peer into the various rooms, nooks and crannies or take guided tours at various times during the day. In addition to the guided tours, Park Rangers are generally present within the Dwellings to point out various aspects of the structures and to answer questions.

Gila Cliff Dwellings pictograph

Here and there pictographs are found, painted within the ruins with hematite (iron oxide pigment). These pictographs are considered to be from the Archaic/Cochise occupation of the caves.

Gila Cliff Dwellings

Within the Dwellings maize (corn) cobs, as shown here gathered into baskets, were reported everywhere by archaeologists excavating the Dwellings down through the years

While much is known about the physical structures and age of the Cliff Dwellings, many questions still remain about the Cliff Dwellers themselves. Much potential information about the Cliff Dwellers was irreplaceably lost by vandalism and looting of artifacts before 1907, when the Cliff Dwellings were at last set aside and protected as a National Monument. Also, many of the early archaeological investigations did not utilize today’s standards for formal excavation and artifact collection, and thus much potential information was either never recognized or was subsequently lost. At this point in time, however, very little of the Gila Cliff Dwellings remains un-excavated, so not much additional information is likely to be forthcoming from the site itself. Thus, numerous intriguing questions remain, questions which perhaps can only be answered from research dealing with the broader regional context of events that were taking place at the time of the occupation of the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

Fortunately, the large 200-room TJ Ruin, located only 1.5 miles from the Gila Cliff Dwellings, remains essentially untouched and un-excavated, except for minor digging by early pot hunters in just a couple of the rooms. Undoubtedly the TJ Ruin will contain much important information that would be useful in the interpretation of the Gila Cliff Dwellings when it is finally excavated.

Most archaeologists who have seen the site have extolled the great value of the TJ Ruin, but not simply because of its possible connection to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Rather, the greater perceived value of the TJ Ruin is that 1) it is the last large un-excavated and un-bulldozed Mogollon Culture, Mimbres Pueblo site that remains in an essentially pristine state, and 2) perhaps even more importantly, because of the indicated 900 years of continuous occupation from 500-1400 AD.


Gila Cliff Dwellings

In front of this probable storage room note the mortar holes used for grinding maize and other seeds

The last part of the 150 year time period, between 1150 and 1300, has long been considered a time period critical to the understanding of two of the greatest mysteries in the archaeology of the Southwest. These mysteries, sometimes referred to as The Great Collapse or The Great Abandonment, concern the time period when two of the three largest and most evolved Southwestern Native American Cultures, the Mogollon and the Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi), experienced major change and societal upheaval. This upheaval was both widespread, long-term, and chronic throughout their domains, ultimately resulting in the eventual collapse of these two advanced cultures’ social structure, and the subsequent abandonment of their large villages and cities. The cause or causes of this collapse and abandonment has been the subject of strong and often vitriolic ongoing debate for decades. It is in this context that the TJ Ruin is thought to offer critical data new information useful in solving this debate.


During and following a visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, most visitors are likely to be left with a lot of Who, Why, and Where questions. The Cliff Dwellings most certainly are impressive and obviously were not a simple undertaking to construct. Below is a short list of what could be considered key questions, with a brief summary of answers based on existing data, some clues that might lead to answers from further research, and some speculation about what further research might show.

Who were these Cliff Dwellers anyway and what were they like?

Gila Cliff Dwellings

Looking south up Cliff Dweller Canyon from Room 4

Archaeological data suggests that the Cliff Dwellings were constructed for 8 to 10 families that moved in as a group, probably at the same time, and built the Dwellings within an 11 year time frame, between 1276 and 1287, based on tree ring data. The Dwellings were well built and designed for all aspects of comfortable, year-round residential village living. The Dwellers seem to have eaten well on a diverse diet of local game and wild plants, but also enjoyed a locally grown abundance of domesticated vegetables, such as maize, beans, and squash. They had children while they were there, as evidenced by several burials of infants that died; but only one adult burial, a young woman, has been found. An interesting clue to this question is that they possessed status objects of imported wealth for that time period, as indicated by the recovered artifacts of abundant and diverse types of shell jewelry, macaw feathers, and the skull of at least one live macaw.

Where did they come from?

Based on the abundance and dominance of ceramic artifacts of Tularosa Phase pottery, it is highly likely that they came most recently from an area 50 miles to the north, perhaps somewhere in the area of today’s communities of Aragon and Reserve, which is the type locality for Tularosa Pottery. One clue that their heritage might have connections somewhere in the past from areas further to the north lies in the architectural feature of at least one, and possibly more, T-shaped entrance doors in the exterior walls of the Dwellings. Archaeological research suggests that the T-shaped door is an architectural indicator of an Ancestral Pueblo Chaco Culture connection or affiliation. (This possibility will be discussed further in Part 2 of this blog, in September.)

Why did they come, and why did they choose to stay in dark, cold caves as opposed to the large TJ Ruin?

Gila Cliff Dwellings

This two story structure in Cave 4 is thought to be a storage room in the lower part with no soot on the interior. The upper floor, however, has soot on the walls with a vent above the door. If wood was kept in the lower room, the upper room would have made a dandy all-in-one smokehouse for making Mule Deer jerky!

It is quite possible that definitive answers to this question may emerge with the eventual excavation of the TJ Ruin, which lies only 1.5 miles to the northeast from the Cliff Dwellings. Until that time a possible clue lies in the fact that only minor amounts of Late Tularosa Phase pottery have thus far been recovered from the TJ Ruin, suggesting that the site was not heavily occupied during the late 13th Century. Present data suggests that the TJ Ruin reached its peak in Late Mangas to Classic Mimbres time (900-1150 AD). If excavations prove this initial data correct, then the question becomes even more interesting, in that why had the large and previously long-term prosperous TJ site apparently been abandoned during the Tularosa Phase (1100-1300 AD)? One speculative answer to the question is that it may be related to the regional issues of collapse and abandonment that both the Mogollon and Ancestral Pueblo were facing at the time.

One of the reasons that has been given for the Great Abandonment is a changing climate in the form of persistent drought. One clue that drought might not have been a major factor at the TJ Ruin is the fact that during their stay at the Cliff Dwellings the Dwellers ate well on an apparent abundance of domestic crops as stated above. Those crops were certainly not grown in narrow Cliff Dweller Canyon but rather along the Gila River, possibly in the vicinity of the agricultural fields of the TJ Ruin, near the confluence of the Middle Fork and West Fork of the Gila.

Also, if the TJ Ruin was largely abandoned when the Cliff Dwellers arrived, why didn’t the Cliff Dwellers stay there, where abandoned dwellings might have been available and where they would be close to fields for growing crops. So, if the answer was not to shelter from a deteriorating climate, and there was not a problem of living space at the TJ Ruin, why did they choose to live in the dark, cold caves?

Gila Cliff Dwellings

After completing a visit to Caves 4 and 5, one can exit the dwellings by retracing the path back through Cave 3 or by climbing down a traditional pueblo ladder

In the past 15 years there has been a persistent highly, and often times hotly, debated line of research that indicates that the time period of 1150 to 1300 was marked with significant societal collapse and warfare in the Ancestral Pueblo/Mogollon world. The evidence is in the form of retreat of villages to more defendable sites such as cliff dwellings and craggy mesa tops, plus the discovery of large scale massacres, mutilation of bodies, and even cannibalism at various sites throughout the Southwest. This evidence will be presented in greater detail in Part 2. Review of this evidence, however, can certainly lead one to the plausible speculation that the Cliff Dwellers lived in their caves for reasons of safety. Apparently bad things were happening in the Ancestral Pueblo/Mogollon world, and as a result large groups of people were migrating away from the troubles to safer places. Were the Gila Cliff Dwellings such a place, if only a temporary one, in their migration away from these 13th Century “Troubles Up North”?

Were there people living in at the TJ Ruin site at the time, and if so what was their relationship with the Cliff Dwellers?

Definitive answers to this question, of course, only become possible with the complete excavation of the TJ Ruin. Even then, it may well be that the necessary data is not there. In the meantime, such questions do make for interesting speculation. Here are a few. Take your pick, or develop your own!

  • It could well turn out that with future excavation of the TJ Ruin, evidence would show that there were lots of people still living there at the time of the occupation of the Cliff Dwellings and that the Cliff Dweller immigrants were either turned away for some reason (the “no room at the inn scenario”) or that the Cliff Dwellers didn’t choose to live with the TJ people (the “didn’t like the neighborhood scenario”).
  • Much archaeological evidence is now emerging concerning the magnitude, timing, and routes of the extensive human migrations taking place between 1150 and 1300. Could it be that the Cliff Dwellings, built for 8 to 10 families, were simply constructed by the residents of TJ Ruin as essentially a prehistoric guesthouse or Inn to accommodate the waves of traveling migrants that were passing through?
  • Or, looking again at the social collapse that was taking place up north, could it be that the Cliff Dwellers were actually living at the TJ Ruins on a part-time or full-time basis while at the same time building the Cliff Dwellings as a possible defensible retreat out of fear that the Troubles Up North might follow them south to the Gila.
  • And the speculations go on and on …
Gila Cliff Dwellings

After exiting the Dwellings, a half-mile hike down a loop trail to the west brings the visitor back to the parking area

Why did they stay such a short time (as suggested by lack of adult burials, lack of trash, lack of building modifications and additions), and why did they leave?

As stated earlier, there is no evidence of occupation of the Cliff Dwellings beyond 1287, and the possibility of further evidence being found at the Cliff Dwellings is not likely. Again, what is known is that during this time period large scale migration of Ancestral Pueble and Mogollon Culture people was taking place, whether because of chronic climatic adversity or because of social upheaval or some combination. In Part 2 these factors will be considered further. Suffice it to speculate here that whatever caused the Cliff Dwellers to migrate south from the Aragon/Reserve area in the first place might have still been in existance, forcing them onward in their journey of migration.

Where did they go?

In the early days of Southwestern archaeology, the question of where the Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) Culture of the Chaco Canyon area and later the local Mimbres Phase of the Mogollon Culture went when they abandoned their homeland was typically considered an unsolvable mystery, where the standard answer given was basically “they just disappeared”. Recent research in the past two decades, however, has yielded important and far reaching answers to this question, some of which will be discussed in Part 2. Basically, the broad answer that seems to be emerging is that all of these people didn’t leave their homeland, only some of them did, migrating in various directions, while others stayed behind and evolved into new cultures.

—To Be Continued in the September Blog—

Gila Cliff Dwellings

Looking west up stream from the Cliff Dweller Trail bridge over the West Fork of the Gila River


  1. The Archeology of Gila Cliff Dwellings, Keith Anderson, Gloria J. Fenner, Don P. Morris, George A. Teague, Charmion MccKusick, 1986, Western Archeological and Conservation Center Nation Park Service U.S dept of Interior Publication in Anthropology No. 36
  2. Archeological Survey Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, James Bradford, 1992, Southwest Cultural Resources Center, Professional Papers No. 47
  3. The TJ Ruin Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monumnent, Peter J. McKenna and James E. Bradford, 1989, Southwest Cultural Resources Center Professional Papers No. 21


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A Hike Into the Rugged Gila Wilderness


The Gila Is Calling and Again I Must Go …
– For All Who Have Been There –

rain creek trail new mexico

Rain Creek Canyon as viewed from Sacaton Road


The Gila Wilderness was designated and set aside as the first Wilderness Area in the U.S. Forest Service system on June 3, 1924. This important achievement in conservation policy was largely the result of the continuing efforts of Aldo Leopold, one of America’s great naturalists and conservationists, who at the time worked with the National Forest Service in New Mexico and Arizona. Situated in Southwest New Mexico, this wild, extremely rugged landscape retains an amazing natural and cultural history – from its fiery creation from super-volcanoes 34 and 28 million years ago, to its initial use for hunting and foraging by the Southwest Archaic Culture, to later habitation by the ancient Mogollon Culture and the more recent Apache Culture, to pioneer settlers and miners in the late 1800s.


rain creek trailhead

Turn-off from Sacaton Road for Rain Creek, Trailhead ¼ mile ahead

Many people upon hearing of the legendary rugged, pristine beauty and history of the Gila Wilderness in Southwest New Mexico are intrigued, but typically put off visiting because they think that it would require several days of strenuous hiking, camping, or extended pack trips by horse to do so. Actually, this is not the case as there are numerous short, day-hike trails of easy to moderate difficulty, especially on the southwest side of the Wilderness, which will allow the time-challenged or physically-challenged visitor to experience the unique essence of the Gila while providing enticing magnificent vistas of some of the highest and most rugged interior portions of this incredible landscape.

One of the best of these trails is the Rain Creek Trail, Gila National Forest Trail 189, which has an easily accessed trailhead located just 22 miles from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. Depending upon one’s ambition and physical condition, two easy to moderate day-trip destinations and a third more strenuous option are possible day hikes on the Rain Creek Trail.

Rain Creek Trail Kiosk

Rain Creek Trailhead kiosk

The first hike is a two-mile round trip from the trailhead. This hike slowly descends 400 feet along an easily-followed trail into Rain Creek Canyon to terminate at a lovely lunch and turn-around spot where the trail crosses Rain Creek. Numerous gorgeous vistas of the upper reaches of Rain Creek Canyon and the lofty Mogollon mountain peaks beyond are presented at intervals along the way.

The second hiking option is a three-mile round trip that continues a little further up the canyon after crossing Rain Creek to a second great lunch spot at a small, level camping site on an old Creek terrace on the east edge of Rain Creek. Here, one is offered a marvelous upstream view into the Gila Wilderness interior. If it is a hot day, and one feels the need to cool off, a short off-trail jaunt down the Creek will lead to a natural, smooth rock water slide emptying into a crystal clear pool!

The third option is available for experienced hikers in good shape who aspire to high places and have lots of energy to spare after taking lunch at the second lunch spot on Rain Creek. After continuing a short distance upstream from the second lunch spot, Rain Creek Trail begins an arduous, steep and rocky 850-foot ascent from Rain Creek to the east rim of the Canyon. This part of the trail is extremely rough, involves numerous switchbacks and covers a distance of approximately one mile. Some day hikers may not want to cover the full mile up to the rim of Rain Creek Canyon, especially when considering that the return hike out will require a one-mile ascent of 400 feet from the first lunch spot on Rain Creek to the trailhead. However, a short half-mile, 400-500 foot ascent hike towards the east rim of the Canyon will provide a marvelous view to the north of the cliff-lined upper reaches of Rain Creek Canyon and the soaring 10,000 foot peaks of the Mogollons beyond.

After reaching the east rim of Rain Creek Canyon, the Rain Creek trail continues on for approximately another three miles to a junction with the West Fork Mogollon Creek Trail, GNFT 224, on the West Fork of Mogollon Creek, before continuing another three miles east to its terminus and junction with the Mogollon Creek Trail, GNFT 153. But, of course, those are hikes for extended day and overnight excursions.


hiking in southwest new mexico

Traveling north on southern end of Sacaton Road traversing Low Mesa portion of Sacaton Mesa with Mogollon Mountain Range on right

The drive northwest on U.S. 180 from the Gila River Bridge between the communities of Cliff and Gila to the Leopold Vista Overlook rest stop at theGrant County/Catron County border offers a spectacular view of the southwestern end of the Gila Wilderness within the Mogollon Mountain Range that parallels the highway some five to eight miles miles to the east. Lying between U.S. 180 and the fault-uplifted front of the mountains is the dominating landform known as Sacaton Mesa. Technically speaking, this landform is not a mesa, but is a classic example of a very large, cone shaped alluvial fan, composed of thick sequences of silt, sand, and gravel sediment that have been carried out of the mountains by the numerous streams that have drained this part of the Mogollon Range over the last several million years.

The old Sacaton Road is a county-maintained gravel road which provides good year-around access to some of the best hiking trails in the southwest portion of the Gila Wilderness, such as Upper Little Dry Creek Trail, GNFT 180, Sacaton Creek Trail, and the Rain Creek Trail, except during rare periods of extended or extreme precipitation, when portions of the road can become quite muddy. Sacaton Road dates from pioneer days and runs close to the mountain front, parallel to and about seven miles east of U.S. 180 between the Gila River and communities of Cliff and Gila on its southern terminus and the Leopold Vista Overlook rest stop on U.S. 180 on the Grant County/Catron County border.

In all probability, Sacaton Road had its beginnings as an important foot trail created and used by the Mogollon Culture people over a thousand years ago to connect numerous small villages that were situated at intervals along the front of the Mogollons where major creeks flowed out onto Sacaton Mesa. Much later the Apache would have used these same trails in their seasonal comings and goings to and from the Gila Wilderness in their perennial pursuit of game, fish, and useful plants. With the coming of Anglo settlers and miners to Pinos Altos and the greater Grant County area in the1860s, Federal troops also used this route in pursuing the Apache, who, following raids on the settlers and miners, would use this ancient trail to escape to their lofty safe havens within the Gila Wilderness and the Mogollon Mountains.

By the 1880s, large cattle ranches were being established throughout the Sacaton Mesa area by hardy pioneer families such as the Shelleys and the Rices. Stage coach routes soon operated regularly along what was now being called the Sacaton Road, connecting the mining towns of Cooney and Mogollon north of Glenwood with the prosperous and booming mining town of Silver City to the south. And, inevitably, in time, automobiles began to lurch and rattle over this venerable yet still rough-as-a-cob Sacaton Road.

sacaton mesa new mexico

Traveling north on Sacaton Road one mile south of steep half-mile grade on road connecting the Low Mesa portion of Sacaton Mesa to the High Mesa portion of Sacaton Mesa. Site of the infamous Sacaton Mesa Run.

Sacaton Mesa New Mexico

Traveling north on Sacaton Road along High Mesa portion of Sacaton Mesa. Apex of Sacaton Mesa alluvial fan in center of photo at top of light green triangle against mountains.

Sacaton Mesa consists of two parts: the High Mesa to the north and the Low Mesa to the south. Joining the two is a half-mile section of winding road which drops abruptly from the level surface of the High Mesa a vertical distance of some 200 feet down the steep side of a ridge to the near level surface of the Low Mesa below. It was here that a hair-raising and poorly-kept-secret sport soon developed, that while little known today, was, apparently, one the biggest local fun, yet highly competitive, things going at the time: The Sacaton Mesa Run!


hiking in gila wilderness

Cautionary signs at the start of the Rain Creek Trail were found not to apply for the 1.5 miles of the trail covered on this day hike

It was a brilliant July 20, 2015 morning as the two intrepid hikers set out from the trailhead kiosk marking the beginning of the Rain Creek Trail. Although caution signs warned of damage to the area by the Mogollon-Baldy Complex Fire of 2012, and stated that the trail was not maintained and difficult to find, such was not the case for the portion of the trail covered on this day. To the contrary, only minimal signs of fire were to be seen, and then only visible to a visitor familiar with the area. Likewise, the trail itself was in good shape, easy to follow with no difficult spots encountered.

vegetation in the gila national forest

Typical vegetation of the Juniper and Pinon Pine Zone at the beginning of trail. Cane Cholla, Desert Scrub Oak, and Beargrass in bloom in foreground, with Piñon and Juniper on the distant slope

The Rain Creek Trailhead is situated at the very edge of the east side of the apex of the Sacaton Mesa alluvial fan at an elevation of 6,240 feet. Immediately after leaving the kiosk the trail heads east along a south-facing slope to soon cross a major fault zone, leaving behind the sedimentary alluvial silt, sand, and gravels of Sacaton Mesa with its characteristic vegetative abundance of Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), to pass onto the layered volcanic bedrock deposits of rhyolite and andesite lava flows and pyroclastics, and the thick deposits of rhyolite welded tuffs that comprise the Mogollon Mountains.

vegetation in the gila wilderness

Once the trail begins to head north up Rain Creek Canyon, magnificent panoramas of the interior of the Wilderness greet one at every turn. Pinon Pine, Banana Yucca, Turpentine Bush, Beargrass, and Desert Scrub Oak line the trail.

gila national forest

Rain Creek Trail sign marking entrance into theGila Wilderness about 1/3 of a mile from the trailhead

After initially heading east for about a third of a mile, the trail abruptly rounds the nose of a ridge to head northeast. Here, a strategically placed wooden signpost announces the entrance into the Gila Wilderness, which is now spread out in a vast, magnificent panorama behind the sign. From this point on, the trail continues to head in a north-northeast direction, gradually descending 400 feet along the steep western side of Rain Creek Canyon to eventually intersect Rain Creek, one mile from the trailhead. During this descent the trail passes through a typical Upper Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem dominated by scattered Piñon Pine (Pinus edulis), Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana), and Desert Scrub Oak (Quercus turbinella), with intervening areas of scattered grasses, Turpentine Bush (Ericameria laricifolia), Cane Cholla Cactus (Cylindropuntia spinosior), Beargrass (Nolina microcarpa), Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia chlorotica), Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata), Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri), and Parry’s Agave (Agave parryi).



Parry's Agave

Two Parry’s Agave plants: one on left is now completely dead following its blooming in recent past; one on right is now in unripened fruit stage and will soon die

Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus

Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus with unripened tuna (fruit) crowning upper pads

Hiking down towards the creek, many of the above plants were observed in various stages of flowering and putting out fruit. The Banana Yucca, which was noted as being in the flowering stage in the May 2015 Blog on the Sheridan Corral Trail, was now well past the time of flowering and fruiting, and the succulent fruits, if they had formed, had already been devoured by the animals and birds. Other plants, such as the Cane Cholla, Pancake Prickly Pear, and Parry’s Agave, had also already flowered and had recently developed fruit that had not yet begun to ripen. The Beargrass was mostly past flowering and many had fruit in the last stages of ripening. Some of the Sotol were still flowering.

beargrass berries

Beargrass berries were considered an important food source by Native Americans

beargrass in gila forest

Beargrass in fruiting stage with four-foot racemes heavy with fruit drooping over the trail offering healthy snacks to passing animals, birds, and hikers

Beargrass berries are small, ranging from 1/8th to 3/16th of an inch in diameter, but they are extremely abundant, and easily stripped from the numerous three to four foot racemes growing from the crowns of the plants. On this day, fruiting Beargrass plants were numerous along the the trail. A sampling of these berries confirmed what Native Americans have known for centuries: they are quite edible raw, and perhaps, over time, might even be considered tasty!

Ethnobotanical studies have shown that, with the exception of the Turpentine Bush (which was probably used for medicinal purposes), all of the above plants, including the Pinon Pine, Alligator Juniper, and Desert Scrub Oak, were used extensively as food by the Native American Indians in Southwest New Mexico, either in the form of flowers, fruits, seeds, roots, or stalks. In addition to food, many of these same plants were used for a variety of utilitarian purposes including basketry, clothing, medicine, cordage, dwelling construction materials, hunting and fishing equipment, weaponry, and sometimes ceremonial items.

As is true for most plants in mountainous areas, each of the above plants have both a certain range in elevation in which they can grow and a variable timing of seasonal flowering, fruiting, and seed setting that is dependent upon temperature and moisture, which in turn is a function of both elevation and ground slope direction and exposure to the Sun.

pancake prickly pear cactus

Bugs Bunny masquerading as a Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus, surrounded by Beargrass, Banana Yucca, and Desert Scrub Oak

With a range in elevation of over 6,000 feet, the Gila Wilderness and the surrounding Gila National Forest is home to over 1,500 different species of plants, over 300 species of birds, over 80 species of mammals, over 40 species of reptiles, some 30 species of fish, and about 10 species of amphibians. Like the plants, many of these species are found only within specific elevation ranges, which have been used to define several distinct ecosystems including the High Chihuahuan Desert Zone (4,500-5,000 feet), the Juniper and Pinon Pine Zone (5,000-6,500 feet), the Pine and Oak Zone (6,500-8,000 feet), the Fir and Aspen Zone (8,000-9,500 feet), and the Spruce and Fir Zone (9,500-11,000 feet).

Archaeological evidence has shown that beginning with the earliest periods of habitation by the Southwest Archaic Culture, the southwest portion of the Gila Wilderness essentially functioned as Nature’s multi-level General Store for countless generations of New Mexican Native Americans right on up to the time of the final capture of the Apache Chief Geronimo in 1886.

edible plants in the gila wilderness

Edible plants abound at all levels within the Gila Wilderness, such as here on the upper west side rim of Rain Creek Canyon where they flourish between the smooth pinnacles of light-tan welded volcanic tuff in the background and the jagged wall of an andesite dike in the foreground

It is known that seasonal camps, as well as more permanent villages, existed along the southern front of the Mogollon Mountains on Sacaton Mesa wherever perennial streams flowed south from the high interior mountains to empty onto Sacaton Mesa. The canyons cut by these streams would have afforded the easiest and best trail routes and camping spots for foraging, hunting, and fishing at various levels within the Wilderness for at least eight months of the year, beginning in early Spring at the lowest elevations and gradually progressing to the highest elevations by late Fall. Without question, for the Native American people of Southern New Mexico, the Gila Wilderness General Store was the consummate food source, a multi-level store of unlimited variety, and one whose shelves were never empty.



gila wilderness new mexico

The Gila is Calling and Again I Must Go …

rain creek trail gila national forest

The riparian forest at the point where the the trail crosses Rain Creek

After descending about 400 feet in elevation from the trailhead down the west side of Rain Creek Canyon, the trail abruptly leaves the Alligator Juniper and Desert Scrub Oak zone and enters a narrow, 100-400 foot wide riparian forest that borders both sides of Rain Creek. This riparian forest consists of a diverse mix of deciduous and conifer trees, including Velvet Ash (Fraxinus velutina), Arizona Walnut (Juglans major), Rocky Mountain Maple (Acer glabrum), Blue Stem Willow (Salix irrorata), Emory Oak (Quercus emoryi), Netleaf Oak (Quercus rugosa), Arizona White Oak (Quercus arizonica), Alligator Juniper, Ponderosa Pine (Pinus scopulorum) and Douglas Fir (Pseudosuga menziesii), with a dense understory of numerous additional species of shrubs, grasses, and perennial and annual flowering plants.

Immediately upstream from where the trail crosses the creek, a large Velvet Ash provides an idyllic, well-shaded spot for an early lunch or possibly just a short respite to refresh on the east bank of the Creek. To pause here for even a short time, especially around noon on a cloudless day, is to experience one of Nature’s Magical Places. For here, relaxing in the shade beneath the old tree, one soon notices an amazing rock formation on the opposite side of the Creek now resplendently lit by the high contrast light and deep shadow of the noon day Sun. Geologically, one quickly recognizes the formation as an exceptional example of a highly-shattered, vertical wall of andesite that exhibits numerous, multi-directional, sharp angular joint planes before plunging into the creek. But on this day, there is much more present than that … here, in a magical moment, one realizes that they have entered one of Nature’s rare impromptu outdoor art galleries, and are now witnessing a most masterful exhibit of Nature’s stone sculpture, in this case, exquisitely executed in the style of the once avant-garde art movement known as Cubism.


Nature’s sculpture exhibit of Andesite Cubism

"Girl with a Mandolin" Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso’s 1910 Cubism oil on canvas painting “Girl with a Mandolin”

From the crossing spot, the Rain Creek Trail now leads upstream on the east side of the Creek. Numerous wildflowers abound along this section of the trail, their blossoms dancing in the shafts of bright sunlight filtering down through the dense canopy of dark green foliage overhead. At about 0.3 of a mile from the crossing a sudden view of the creek at a bend in the trail reveals the presence of an inviting smooth bedrock water slide emptying into a deep pool of crystal clear water. A short investigation shows that here there is no easy access down to the pool, but, fortunately, good access exists just a short distance up the trail.

gila national forest hiking

The view upstream from the second lunch spot

From the pool overlook, the trail continues for another 0.1 of a mile along a relatively level ancient creek terrace about 40 feet above the creek before veering away to the east to begin the steep 850 foot climb up the east side of Rain Creek Canyon. Just to the west of where the trail veers to the east is a flat area that juts into the creek, which shows repeated use over the years as a favorite overnight camping spot for hikers making extended backpacking trips into the interior of the Wilderness. Large trees shade the central portion of the camping area making it a second lovey spot to rest and have lunch with easy access to the Creek about 20 feet below, and a short hike downstream along the creek to the rock water slide emptying into the deep pool seen earlier from the trail. Immediately to the north of the tree-sheltered lunch spot the tree and ground vegetation thins to reveal a magnificent view of the upper reaches of Rain Creek Canyon and the high mountains of the Mogollons beyond.

On this day no attempt was made to begin the steep ascent of the east side of the Canyon, but instead terminated right where several old trail signs on trees mark the beginning of the ascent. It was time to return. Although the trip in had only covered 1.5 miles, it had taken about 2 hours including stops. While there would be fewer stops going back, the trip out still took another 2 hours, in part because of dawdling along the way taking photos, but also because of the required 400 foot ascent in elevation in the last mile before reaching the trailhead.

As always, it had been a wonderful day in the Gila!

vistas in southwest new mexico

Panorama from Rain Creek Trailhead looking southeast across Sacaton Mesa to the Silver City Range (center distance) and Burro Mountains (far right distance)



Unlike most day hikes into the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness which start at low elevations and end at higher elevations, this hike starts at an elevation of 6,200 feet and then immediately descends 400 feet in elevation to Rain Creek before beginning a slow climb upstream to the second lunch or rest stop at an elevation of 5,900 feet. Thus, the Rain Creek Trail is an easy to moderate hike in, which makes it tempting to go further and attempt the strenuous ascent of the steep switchbacks going up the east side of the Canyon. While the distance for ascending the east side of the Canyon is not prohibitive for a day hike, the physical and energy requirements are challenging. Thus, one might keep in mind how, at the end of a long day, the return climb out of the canyon has a way of somehow becoming twice as long and as steep as it did on the way in that morning!

Normally, access to the Rain Creek Trailhead is excellent, lying only ¼ mile off Sacaton Road. Sacaton Road is, under normal conditions, a well maintained County Road. However, at certain times of the year, when there is significant and prolonged precipitation, portions of the road can become extremely muddy to becoming virtually impassable. Hence, visitors to the area are strongly advised to inquire locally before setting out on this hike.

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