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Exploring Tsankawi Ruin Clues to an ancient culture found on New Mexico’s Parajito Plateau

In the penetrating heat of early July, storm clouds brewed to the south. Summer monsoons had yet to arrive in northern New Mexico. The temperature stood at 95 degrees as I left the truck with full water bottles. It was mid-day, and I would see no one on the trail.

I was looking for Tsankawi, which in the Tewa language means “village between two canyons at the clump of sharp, rounded cacti.” I would find the cacti and the village itself, but I was not prepared for the cave rooms or the dazzling white rocks and sunken, embedded trail on the cliff’s west side, which is an outlier of Bandelier National Monument. I sought the presence of ancient Pueblo people and to learn more about Adolph Bandelier himself, one of the Southwest’s earliest and most astute archaeologists.

For years I had wanted to understand the ancestral Puebloans who had left Chaco Canyon and later Mesa Verde to migrate south and east. By 1300, the Colorado Plateau was empty of people who had lived here at least a 1,000 years. Drought, environmental depletion of wood and game and clan violence had probably started the migrations, but where had they gone and why? For decades national park rangers had spoken of the Anasazi or the ancestral Puebloans as simply “vanishing.” Now, we know better.


Since 1990 and passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), units of the national park system, especially in the Southwest, have been required to consult with area tribes about issues including interpretation of prehistoric sites. The myth of the vanishing Anasazi had been discarded because of lively contact with native people who have shared a variety of stories about their ancestors’ movements. In the 1400s, Tsankawi became home to ancestral Tewa Pueblo people. Tewa may have been spoken at Mesa Verde.

As anthropology and archaeology began in the Southwest in the late 19th century, many myths needed to be corrected. Homesteading pioneers could not believe that the Native Americans they encountered could have had relatives who built such magnificent stone structures. The ruins all across the Southwest had to have been constructed by another race, perhaps by descendants of MesoAmerican civilizations. So we have odd place names.

No Aztecs lived at Aztec, New Mexico. Cortez never came to Cortez, Colorado, and the emperor Moctezuma, with his gold cups and plates and feathered headdresses, did not set foot in Montezuma County.

One of the few archaeologists who began to study native languages and to ask questions of local Indians was Swiss-born Adolph Bandelier. He sought to learn from indigenous Native American residents. He preferred facts to fables, and he knew that truth could come from artifacts found deep in stratified soil and from centuries of oral tradition. His work preceded NAGPRA consultations by a century. His novel The Delight Makers (1890) remains one of the best re-constructions of early Pueblo life.

Writer and photographer Charles F. Lummis traveled with Bandelier and wrote: “We went always by foot ... up and down pathless cliffs, through tangled canyons, fording icy steams and ankle-deep sands, we travailed; no blankets, overcoats or other shelter; and the only commissary a few cakes of sweet chocolate and a small sack of parched popcorn meal. Our lodging was the cold ground.”

When they could, they sought shelter under trees, but Bandelier eventually found the intact cliff dwellings in Frijoles Canyon that now bear the name Bandelier National Monument.

“We were wet and half-fed and cold by night, even in the ancient, tiny caves. But the unforgettable glory of it all!” reminisced Lummis.


In July heat I could have used some of that wet and cold as I hiked the path toward Tsankawi. National Park Service rangers now tell some of the same stories of survival and Pueblo persistence Bandelier described in his novel. The Delight Makers portrays summer storms, mountain lion shrines, the return of war parties, witchcraft, prayer plumes and a vivid description of silently pursuing an enemy with a bow and notched, flint-tipped arrow.

On the trail I saw storms coalesce and, high up on the cliffs, centuries of Pueblo rock art in geometric patterns and anthropomorphic designs. The farther I hiked, the more solitude I encountered as other noises fell away until it was just the sound of my boots scuffling in the white sands along the trail. I thought about Bandelier’s linguistic gifts and how he had learned both Keres, spoken at Cochiti Pueblo, and Tewa, spoken at San Juan Pueblo, now re-named Ohkay Owingeh.

Along one cliff face, I found multiple carved petroglyph spirals, and I wondered if tribal historians at San Ildefonso Pueblo could use those glyphs as a mnemonic device to help tell stories about clan migrations. Near it I found a broken black obsidian point or arrowhead still amazingly sharp. I buried it in loose soil. One cave room had its original painted walls and plaster. I topped out on the mesa to find broken pottery sherds and the village of Tsankawi with its 275 ground-floor rooms, largely unexcavated, unlike Tyunyi in Frijoles Canyon where most visitors go.

Bandelier National Monument includes 3,000 archaeological sites and evidence of trade items such as copper bells, live parrots and seashells from the California coast. An internal New Mexican trade consisted of salt, cotton and turquoise.

Standing near Tsankawi Ruin, I looked to the east to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains 20 miles away. I thought about Bandelier trying to learn the prehistoric past by spending eight years talking to living Pueblo peoples. Upon publication in 1890, his book “was quickly recognized by anthropologists and archaeologists as a classic of both science and literature.”

He had achieved his goal, yet when he died in 1914, it would be another decade before white Americans respected Native Americans enough to grant them citizenship in 1924. How ironic that Native Americans having lived here for thousands of years did not earn citizenship until the third decade of the 20th century.


Finally, with my water bottles almost empty, I turned to go. As I walked north off the mesa, the sounds of highway traffic intruded, and I saw in the distance the security fences and buildings of Los Alamos where a team of scientists invented the atomic bomb in 1945 and changed the world.

As my eyes swept the Parajito Plateau and the distant mountains, I wondered which civilization would last longer, theirs or ours? Would we one day also live in cave rooms? Will climate change force our own internal migrations?

No answer came from the cliffs, but on the far horizon at the edge of my sight I saw more dark doorways.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.

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