Ancestral Puebloans-Part 4: Hovenweep

This is part 4 of an evolving series. 

Click here for part 1, here for part 2, here for part 3.

Hovenweep National Monument was established in 1923. A lesser-known assembly of Ancestral Puebloan relics, it straddles the border of southwest Colorado and southeast Utah and is one of those hidden, out-of-the-way gems with enduring gravity, pulling us back repeatedly. Our fourth journey happened in early May of this year.

Hovenweep is composed of six different sites, thought to harbor approximately 2500 inhabitants between 1200 and 1300 AD. Five outlying communities are chiefly accessible by four-wheel drive dirt roads or hiking trails. The main attraction is known as Little Ruin Canyon and lies near the handsome Visitor Center built in an emblematic southwestern style that resembles the former pueblos.

Hovenweep Visitor Center

A two mile hike allows relatively easy access to the round, square, and D-shaped towers characteristic of this locale. The route parallels the rim of the canyon, but also dips down into it. Legendary western pioneering photographer, William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), is credited for naming it Hovenweep, translatable as “deserted valley”, in the Ute/Paiute language. In 1874, he explored the region as a member of the famous Hayden Expedition which also enabled him to take the first photographs of Mesa Verde.

Sunrise and moonset

The early morning light bathes the ruins in warm tones

Close-up of one of the most intriguing ruins of Little Ruin Canyon, the “Eroded Bolder House” (I call it the shell)

During our last two expeditions, we camped at the comparatively compact campground composed of 31 sites. A footpath connecting it to the nearby Little Ruin Trail encouraged repeat excursions. Ever since our first acquaintance, we have been enchanted by the local plants. Dark-green juniper and piñon pine, fragrant sagebrush, sword-like yucca, and colorful cacti were omnipresent and punctuated by smaller, more delicate wildflowers attractive to hummingbirds and other pollinators. A profusion of cliffrose dotted the rocky scenery and perfumed the air with their sweet scent. Despite the severity of the environment, the fauna was no less diverse than the flora: insects, lizards, birds, and mammals were amply represented.

Datil Yucca (many subspecies of this versatile plant exist)

Cliffrose lining Little Ruin Canyon

Penstemon after the rain

Collared Lizard

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher also liked to hang out in Little Ruin Canyon

During the Ancestral Puebloans’ era, every material usable for food, fire, and clothes was harvested. Yucca alone delivered food (flowers), fiber (leaves), needles (leaf tips), and soap (root). Cactus pads were eaten. Stringy juniper bark provided fiber, padding, diapers, and toilet paper. Pine seeds represented high-energy morsels. Whether or not the pueblo dwellers lived in harmony with the land is interesting to ponder. There is evidence that, even after building stone houses, they temporarily moved from one settlement to the next, perhaps to allow the soil periods of recovery by letting it lie fallow. It is likely that they rotated crops. I can’t help thinking that a civilization who read the heavens for celestial signs would have failed to heed the lessons of the earth. Was it a prolonged dry spell that finally overrode all foresight and planning, and resulted in their departure 700 years ago? The walls of Hovenweep alone know.

Lest we are left with overly romantic notions — life was harsh, life expectancy short. Hunger and thirst? Daily concerns. Armed conflict? Likely. Cannibalism? Possible. The Ancestral Puebloans were human beings with human foibles. But they also inspire and invite us to return time and again, and to immerse ourselves in this intriguing world still open to interpretation. Their exodus, their remarkable relics, their picturesque petroglyphs and pictographs raise more questions than answers, and their secrets survive.

Who were these Ancestral Puebloans?

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:…teil-4-hovenweep/

13 thoughts on “Ancestral Puebloans-Part 4: Hovenweep

  1. That eroded boulder house would keep me engaged and fascinated for hours.

    I love the wonder and mystery of how these people lived and survived in such a harsh landscape. Perhaps it wasn’t harsh back in those days and provided more edible plants and water sources than we currently see? There was certainly plenty of rock for building purposes. And why did they suddenly disappear 700 years ago? Disease, famine, drought?

    Or did they set off on a long journey to find a more hospitable landscape with a better water supply?

    I guess we will never know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your guess is as good as any. We probably will never know for sure, but drought, famine, and warfare are the reasons most commonly surmised.
      I think precipitation might have been higher then, but it was never a lush landscape.
      I agree, the boulder house is thoroughly intriguing.
      Thank you for traveling along with me, Vicki.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This series was fantastic Tanja. Such a intriguing way of life. As much as I love the land there, I can’t imagine living in it as they did. Even though it is beautiful, it is harsh and unforgiving. You made my heart long for the desert.

    Liked by 1 person

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