Ancestral Puebloan Ruin in Greater Canyonlands. © Scott Smith

A Largely Untapped Library of Human History

SecretsofthePast_CoverImage_900pxThe deeply incised canyons and stark sandstone mesas of Greater Canyonlands were once home to dinosaurs, from the giant diplodocus to small dog-sized carnivores. And they have hosted human life—families, bands, clans, and tribes—for as long as people have inhabited the New World. One thousand years ago, Greater Canyonlands teemed with residents; the canyons and mesas saw a denser population than they have since. Tens of thousands of archeological sites reveal the lives of these Ancestral Puebloan people who farmed corn, beans, and squash and decorated the cliffs with striking and mysterious artworks.

Greater Canyonlands has an archaeological legacy both visible and robust—a record of prehistory unrivaled in North America. The spare landscape and the dry climate preserve and yield traces of the past long lost in most other places. Throughout much of Greater Canyonlands, there are an average of 24 archaeological sites per square mile. This treasure trove of scientific knowledge can help unlock the mysteries of human adaptations to the deserts of the West.

In a report on the cultural resources of Greater Canyonlands, noted southwest archaeologist Jerry Spangler summarized these resources as “a largely untapped library of 12,000 years of human history.”


Petroglyphs in Indian Canyon. ©Scott Smith
Petroglyphs in Indian Canyon. ©Scott Smith

Beginning nearly 12,000 years ago, Paleo-Indians moved through and lived in the Greater Canyonlands region in relatively small numbers.  Two of the earliest Paleo-Indian sites in North America lie along the Green River within Greater Canyonlands.

As the Ice Age gave way to warmer climates, the Green River corridor and nearby springs remained a lush refuge for Late Pleistocene mammals: mammoths, mastodons, camels and sloths, and the massive short-faced bears and saber-toothed tigers that preyed on them.  Such concentrations made ample, if not easy, prey for Ice Age hunters with their stone weapons.

During the Archaic period, large animals became fewer and humans in Greater Canyonlands adapted to become efficient harvesters of plants and seeds while hunting small mammals like rabbits and deer. As the massive ice sheets melted away, the raging Green and Colorado Rivers emerged as formidable barriers to social and economic exchange.

The Paleo-Indian hunting culture gradually gave way to farming cultures in the Archaic Period.  Thousands of dry caves and alcoves in Greater Canyonlands preserve evidence of adaptation of human populations to changing climates over 10,000 years.  One site, Cowboy Cave in Horseshoe Canyon, offers a dramatic example.  Deposits dating back 15,000 years show dung left by mammoth, bison, horse, camel, and sloth, and run through 10 millennia of human occupation.  Excavations at the cave yielded the oldest rock art in Utah with a known date, and unfired clay artifacts dated to between 7,400 and 5,000 B.C., the earliest found on the Colorado Plateau.

Growing Populations

Ruins in Labyrinth Canyon. © Scott Smith
Ruins in Labyrinth Canyon. © Scott Smith

About 2,000 years ago, the introduction of agriculture, ceramics, and the bow and arrow from the south enabled people to more successfully adapt to life in the arid canyons.  Populations grew rapidly as the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont cultures became established and dominated the region.  This period produced an unparalleled concentration of archaeological sites in Greater Canyonlands.

Around 900 A.D., the Colorado River suddenly ceased to be a barrier to northward migration.  A massive migration of Ancestral Puebloan farmers swarmed into Utah, reaching hundreds of miles beyond their ancestral homelands.  Most of the archaeological evidence in Greater Canyonlands comes from this interval between A.D. 900 and 1300: scores of cliff dwellings along the Colorado River corridor, “forts” along the Green River (defensive outposts or early warning stations), and diverse rock art styles that signify distinct cultural identities.

The Key for Adapting to Climate Change?

The Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont cultures disappeared even more abruptly than they emerged.  In the late 13th Century, burgeoning populations encountered drier, hotter conditions that produced inconsistent crop yields, hunger, social strife, general chaos, and rapid abandonment of the farming lifestyle—and abandonment of much of the region.

Similar shifts occurred more or less simultaneously throughout North America. That brought broad and deep changes to the Native cultural landscape just prior to the entry of Europeans. Deciphering the details of this great tragedy in the remote canyonlands of Utah may shed light on how this widespread catastrophe devastated the farming cultures of North America–and could perhaps yield insight into how modern populations might react to and deal with climate change.

Spanish and European Arrival

Europeans entered the region in the 1700s when Spanish explorer-priests rode north from New Mexico.  The two branches of the Old Spanish Trail skirted Greater Canyonlands just to the north and south, defining and acknowledging the region’s ruggedness and remoteness by avoiding it.

The remote and undeveloped nature of Greater Canyonlands protects historical sites that span the full history of the boom-and-bust West—beginning with mountain man Denis Julien’s first Anglo-American inscriptions along the Green and Colorado rivers in 1836, to John Wesley Powell’s epic journeys in 1869 and 1872 and the Mormon Hole-in-the-Rock expedition of 1879-1880.  Pioneer wagon roads, sawmills, and ranch structures tell the stories of isolated family ranches and early homesteaders.  As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch used Robbers Roost and nearby canyons along the Dirty Devil as hideouts, a key stop along The Outlaw Trail.

Check out the slideshow below, featuring highlights from our publication Secrets of the Past in a Rugged Land: the archeological case for protecting Greater Canyonlands.


Greater Canyonlands in southern Utah is not only one of the last great untouched frontiers of the American West. It is also a remarkably well-preserved library of almost 12,000 years of human history – from Ice Age mammoth hunters to ancient cliff dwellers, to infamous outlaws. Photo © Grant Collier.
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