The Gila Cliff Dwellings is one of the most remote national monuments in the country. The site is located on the edge of the Gila Wilderness, the nation’s first designated wilderness area, surrounded by the Gila National Forest, a total of 2,710,659 acres. Though the cliff dwellings are only 45 miles north of Silver City, it takes over an hour to navigate the winding road through the forest. There is one road in, one road out, though in total it creates a loop known as the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway. Gas up before you go. Gas stations are not plentiful. Keep an eye out for bicyclists. This route, part of the Tour of the Gila, is extremely popular with cyclists. A leisurely pace is encouraged. The drive is part of the experience. There is minimal development, amenities, power lines or people. The landscapes are worth savoring. It is truly a wilderness area, with numerous places to pull off to appreciate the breathtaking views. For part of the journey the road runs alongside the Gila River, which is one of the longest undammed rivers in the continental United States.
Many different types of terrain are found in the Gila Wilderness. The northeastern and far eastern sections of the Wilderness consist of high mesas and rolling hills, ranging in elevation from 5,000 to 8,000 feet, punctuated by deep canyons cut by the Gila River. The far western and southwestern sections of the Gila Wilderness consist of high mountains, particularly the Mogollon Range, with the highest elevation reaching 10,895 feet. Native vegetation includes Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, aspens and a variety of ferns. The area encompasses the drainage basins of both Mogollon Creek and Turkey Creek.
This rugged area has sustained human life for a long time. People flourished in the region. Advanced civilizations emerged…and collapsed. The Gila Cliff Dwellings Monument, though a modest 553-acres, represents a 2000-year old tapestry of cultural development. From Archaic rock shelters, early and late pit houses, pueblo dwellings and an Apache gravesite, many people have considered this area home for thousands of years. They built semi-permanent shelters as well as large villages, with clear evidence of trade networks suggesting multiple spheres of influence, from Chaco to Mexico. When the Mogollon moved out of the region, nomads from the north migrated to the area. The fertile archaeological resources, including the unknown treasures remaining to be discovered in the unexcavated TJ Ruin, may someday provide us with better insight into the evolution of life in the southwest, a subject of ongoing study and debate.
There are many theories about what transpired to the many groups that have lived on virtually every waterway in the southwest for the last several thousand years. The “Great Drought” of 1276-1299 is frequently referenced as a primary cause for dislocation. There is ample evidence to confirm drought conditions that went on for decades, but perhaps it was part of a larger climatological trend. What we know for sure…something bad happened in the 1200s. The 150-year period between 1150 – 1300 AD coincides with migration from Chaco and Mesa Verde, the establishment of Bandelier, Puye, and Gila cliff dwellings, and the Zuni moving to the top of El Morro for forty years. From north to south, everyone was on the move. There is also debate about when the Athabaskan (Apache and Navajo) people arrived in the southwest, but the range of 1200-1400 could be indicative of migratory pressure extending far beyond this region.
A massive volcanic eruption on the Indonesian island of Lombok in 1257 AD has recently been cited as a potential culprit in the drastic climate change in the late 1200s. Calculations show that the Samalas eruption was one of the biggest of the last 12,000 years. It belched more ash and rock than any other volcano since roughly 1600 BC, inhibiting sunlight, with devastating effects worldwide. In Greenland, the Viking settlements bit the dust in the late 1200s. Their demise is attributed to a decrease in temperature, more sea ice, and shorter growing seasons. Europe experienced massive crop failures for decades from the late 1200s to the early 1300s with associated famine. In the southwest two large, advanced civilizations dissolved simultaneously.
The cause, or causes, of the “Great Abandonment” is a matter of ongoing research and debate, but the impact was widespread and prolonged. It permanently impacted the region. Large villages and cities that had thrived for centuries were abandoned within a matter of decades. Refugees migrated in small family groups across the southwest, with many seeking refuge in places with access to water and a distinct defensive advantage, from cliff dwellings to mesa tops. There is evidence of large scale massacres, mutilation of bodies and possible cannibalism. Perhaps the troubles up north compelled the Mogollon families to move to the cliffs. Perhaps climate change and ensuing famine made survival an issue for everyone.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings is the only National Monument with Mogollon sites. The community was part of what was Mogollon territory, on the periphery of the Mimbres branch. The ruins of interlinked cave dwellings span five cliff alcoves about 200 feet up the northwest side of Cliff Dweller Canyon. The cliff dwellings are approximately ¼ mile above the canyon’s confluence with the west fork of the Gila River. The dwellings were built between 1275-1300 AD. The cliffs contain 40 rooms of various sizes, constructed with small, flat stones set in adobe mud mortar.
The Mimbres people were a subset of the Mogollon. They settled in the Mimbres Valley and created small settlements on adjoining waterways. They are famous for their unique, painted pottery. At the headwaters of the Gila, a critical tributary in an arid region, the Mimbres population neighbored other branches of the Mogollon culture. For example, the TJ Ruin is a Classic Mimbres phase pueblo, which we know to be true based on the pottery. However, the cliff dwellings are Tularosa phase, which is the name ascribed to the prehistoric population that resided near the present town of Reserve, about 50 miles further north. As a result, the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument provides archaeological information that may provide clarity about the relationships between the different cultural branches.
For centuries, protection of Gila Cliff Dwellings was a product of geography. Sheltered in six caves, the mud-and-stone architecture was protected from the wind and water that reduced a nearby mesa-top site to rubble by the 1880s. The remote canyons of the Gila River forks are rugged, heavily forested, with steep canyons. After the Mogollon moved out, the Apache moved in. The Apache kept everyone else out until the late 1870s. After the Apaches were expelled from the headwaters of the Gila River, shipped in freight cars to Florida, the rough terrain limited the number of people who ventured into the area for a few more years. Then gold and silver was discovered and people streamed into the hills hoping to strike it rich.
The first recorded visit to the ruin was published in 1878. Within six years the site was completely ransacked. In 1899 the Gila River Forest Reserve was established under the McKinley administration. The Reserve withdrew public land on the headwaters of the Gila from further settlement until 1906. In 1907 Theodore Roosevelt permanently withdrew the archaeological site and 160 surrounding acres from private ownership. His proclamation also prohibited damaging or removing prehistoric artifacts.
The region is at the northern perimeter of the Mogollon people’s sphere of influence, with Hohokam to the west and the Ancestral Puebloans to the north. Although Southwestern archaeologists were aware of sites in the Mimbres Valley, their importance was overshadowed by the richness of neighboring Pueblo ruins. Nearby sites, including Chaco Canyon, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, and Pueblo Bonito, attracted numerous archaeologists, with funded excavations and publications eager to present their findings. The Mimbres sites were ignored until the 1920s and 1930s.
Analysis of the artifacts found at the Gila Cliff Dwellings indicate two periods of use. It was used as a cave shelter by a pre-500 AD Archaic/Cochise Culture and later repurposed during the Tularosa Phase of the Mogollon Pueblo Culture (1125–1300 AD). Archaeological research suggests that the Cliff Dwellings were constructed for 8 to 10 families that moved in as a group. Based on tree ring data, they built the dwellings over an 11 year period of time, between 1276 and 1287. Based on the abundance of Tularosa Phase pottery, they probably came from an area 50 miles to the north, in the vicinity of Reserve. The T-shaped entrances on some of the exterior walls are also indicative of northern influence. It is an architectural feature associated with Chaco Culture or some level of Ancestral Pueblo contact, which could easily occur while trading with one another. Numerous objects indicative of wealth and trade were found at the site, including shell jewelry from the Pacific, macaw feathers, and the skull of at least one live macaw (presumably from Mexico).
Several mummified bodies were found, though most were lost to looters and private collectors prior to the monument being established. In 1912, a burial ground was found. A mummified infant, later referred to as “Zeke,” was unearthed. The discovery gained national attention and increased the monument's popularity and traffic, which increased interest, and generated funding for additional preservation efforts. The mummy is the only known mummy to be acquired by the Smithsonian from the monument.
The Dwellings have withstood the test of time. They were well built. The inhabitants had access to a diverse diet of local game and wild plants. They cultivated vegetables, like maize, beans and squash. They left a lot of that behind when they moved on, including several varieties of corn, three types of squash, and several types of beans. The amount of corn cobs left behind was so vast that it was often cited in early studies and reports. However, despite the abundance of water and game, they didn’t stay long. They moved elsewhere 20-30 years later, around 1300 AD.
Though many people are familiar with the Ancestral Puebloans (aka Anasazi), they weren’t the only dominant player in the southwest. The Mogollon were dominant in what is now southern New Mexico, southern Arizona and northern Mexico. The Hohokam neighbored the Mogollon in what is now southern Arizona.
Note about the name: The Mogollon culture was named after Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollón, Spanish Governor of New Spain from 1712 – 1715. Though the culture bears his name, he had nothing to do with them. They moved on centuries before the Spanish arrived in the new world.
The Mogollon Culture is one of what is broadly defined as the Oasis-American Cultures. They developed agriculture early due to the proximity of reliable water sources in an otherwise arid environment. Domesticated corn from 3,500 BC was found in Bat Cave, Arizona. Extensive trade existed between the populations in the southwestern portion of what is now the United States and Mexico. The trade routes facilitated rapid spread of agricultural techniques and seed. However, the Mogollon relied primarily on hunting and gathering until about 900 AD.
Dependence on farming seems to have increased by the 10th century, based on the water control features that are commonplace at Mimbres sites from the 900s through the early 1200s. Increased farming may have been necessary to sustain an increase in population. The nature and density of Mogollon villages evolved quickly over a few centuries. The earliest settlements were small hamlets, composed of several pithouses (houses excavated into the ground surface, with stick and thatch roofs supported by a network of posts and beams, and faced on the exterior with earth). By the 11th century the populations of hamlets had grown into villages. Pueblos, as New Mexicans recognize them, became common. The establishment of cliff dwellings in the southwest increased in the late-1200s through the mid-1300s.
The Mogollon culture was cohesive from approximately 150 - 1400 AD. Archaeological sites attributed to the Mogollon culture have been found in the Gila Wilderness, Mimbres River Valley, along the Upper Gila river, Paquime and Hueco Tanks. At the headwaters of the Gila, Mimbres populations adjoined northern branch of the Mogollon culture. If TJ Ruin was abandoned when the folks from Tularosa arrived, why not just take over the pueblo? Why build in a cliff? If people still occupied TJ Ruin, what was their relationship with their northern cultural cousins?
Note about the name: Mimbres means “willows” in Spanish. It is the name given to a cottonwood and willow-lined river in southwestern New Mexico. The spectacular pottery found in and around the Mimbres River Valley was also called Mimbres. Soon the people who made the pottery were referred to as Mimbres, with archaeologists referring to Mimbres people and Mimbres culture. We don’t know what these people called themselves or whether their unique pottery defined their identity in some way or simply made for an awesome trade commodity.
The Mimbres occupied the isolated river valleys of southwestern New Mexico from about 1000 to 1250 AD, which is to say we really don't know what they were doing prior to 1000 AD. Their settlements were concentrated on the banks of the Mimbres River. The Mimbres are known for their exceptional pottery, which has been described as some of the best in the world, making their culture intriguing to art historians and collectors as well as archaeologists and anthropologists.
The Mimbres Culture was centered along the Mimbres River which forms the western boundary of the Black Range. Their settlements extended to the upper Gila River and parts of the upper San Francisco River. The exact nature of the relationship between the Mogollon Culture and the Mimbres is unknown, but the Mimbres are generally considered to be a distinct group within the Mogollon sphere of influence. What is known about the Mimbres is based primarily on two periods. The Three Circle Phase from 825 – 1000 AD is defined by pit houses. The Classic Mimbres period from 1000 and 1130 AD was the zenith of their cultural development and population. These two phases represent distinct differentiation in architecture and pottery design from other branches of the Mogollon culture. Classic Mimbres phase pottery and designs were imitated on Santa Fe Railroad's "Mimbreños" china dinnerware from 1936 to 1970.
The largely unexcavated TJ Ruin is 1.5 miles east of the Gila Cliff Dwellings at the edge of a 100-foot-high bluff overlooking the Middle Fork and West Fork of the Gila River. The saltbush and native grasses obscure the low mounds of adobe and stone ruins. Based on the limited excavation, there were 227 rooms in 5 separate apartment-like blocks, with three Great Kivas, 4 communal pit structures and a partially enclosed plaza. The value of the site is that it is the last large, unexcavated, pristine Mimbres Pueblo site and it was continuously occupied for at least 900 years between 500 - 1400 AD. Towards the end of the Mimbres Phase (1000–1150 AD) there is an increase in Reserve/Tularosa pottery (1000-1300 AD), followed by an influx of pottery associated with the Salado Culture (1150–1450 AD).
New Mexico Nomad