These five caves were inhabited by the Mogollon people until the thirteenth century.
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Route 11, Box 100
Silver City, NM 88061
ph.: (505) 536-9461, 536-9344
Web site: www.nps.gov/gicl/
Southwestern New Mexico has long been known not only for its beautiful scenery but also for the many archaeological sites that have preserved the rich cultural heritage of pre-Columbian America. The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, situated in the isolated canyon of the West Fork of the Gila River inside the 3.3-million-acre Gila National Forest, is one of these sites. The word “Gila” possibly derives from an Apache word meaning “mountain.”
The people who inhabited these dwellings and whose culture flourished in the area between 300
Archaeologists have concluded that the Mogollon culture was closely linked with the Mesoamerican civilizations of Mexico and Central America. These civilizations were the first in the Americas to develop skilled farming and organize highly developed societies. Starting around 3500
The rugged mountain villages of the Mogollon were usually located near streams. Using tools made of wood and stone, they cultivated corn, beans, squash, tobacco, and cotton. Their pit houses were built of log frames, set into holes ten to sixteen feet long and two to five feet deep, roofed with reeds, saplings, and mud, and linked to the surface by ramp-like passages. The largest of these houses, now known as kivas from a Hopi word meaning “old house,” were mostly used for ceremonies or meetings, or, as has recently been suggested, for steam baths, from all of which women were probably excluded. There were also food storage pits lined with stones to protect against rodents. As the making of pottery jars became widespread, these storage houses became rarer.
The earliest Mogollon pottery, from around 300
The overlap among the Mogollon, Hohokam, and Anasazi cultures has made it difficult to define their distinctive characteristics and their evolution. It is true that they shared agricultural practices, pit houses, and coiled pottery. However, the differences among them can be shown clearly in the development of architecture. In this respect the Anasazi culture seems to have had considerable influence on the other two. The Anasazi began to build above ground after 750
There is considerable archaeological evidence to suggest that both types of Anasazi dwellings influenced Mogollon architecture once the Mogollon, too, began constructing houses above ground after 1100. According to the tree-ring dating of the roof beams found inside them, the Gila Cliff Dwellings were built around 1280. They consist of five caves, containing a total of forty-two rooms. Earthen roofs were built inside the caves, as well as stone walls that can still be seen today in the larger caves. The T-shaped doors of the dwellings are a strong indication of Anasazi influence.
The Mogollon appear to have used these dwellings for only about twenty years, abandoning them around 1300. It has been suggested that an influx of the Anasazi into the area may have forced many of the Mogollon to move northward, toward the land now occupied both by the Zuñi (descendants of the Mogollon), and by the Hopi (descendants of the Anasazi). During the thirteenth century, the Hohokam and the Anasazi also abandoned their cliff dwellings. One theory suggests that severe droughts starting around 1200 and affecting the whole Southwest region may have forced all three peoples to go farther afield to find better sources of food, perhaps even to return to hunting. A second theory postulates that the Mogollon had to fight for their territory against the Gila and Mimbrenos Apache groups who settled in the Silver Creek area near the Gila Cliffs.
The Apache arrived in the Southwest between 800 and 1000
The Apache were reluctant to accept the Spanish as their masters but did not join in the uprising. Instead they went on conducting raids on the Spanish settlements and hiding out in the nearby caves, including the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The Apache remained a constant irritant to the Spanish until 1821, when New Mexico came under the authority of a newly independent Mexico. This arrangement lasted only twenty-seven years, until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which transferred the region and its inhabitants, the Zuñi, the Hopi, the Apache, and the Navajo, to the United States. These peoples’ understandable suspicion of this occupation by another foreign power turned to outright hostility with the influx of prospectors and miners seeking gold in the Mogollon Mountains during the late 1860’s.
From the 1860’s to the 1880’s chiefs such as Mangas Coloradas, Victorio of the Mimbrenos Apache, and the legendary Geronimo of the Chiricahua Apache led revolts against the Americans. It was during the uprisings of 1881-1886 that Geronimo and his warriors took refuge in the canyon of the Gila Cliff dwellings. Geronimo had grown up in the area and knew the mountains and canyons well. The Americans managed to quell the rebellions and forced many of the Indians of the Southwest onto the reservations that still exist today.
From the late 1870’s archaeologists began to excavate ruins in Arizona and New Mexico. The archaeologist Adolph F. Bandelier followed the Gila River south from Arizona until he came upon the ruins of the Mogollon dwellings in the Gila Cliffs in 1884. Bandelier concluded that the caves had been inhabited by a group connected in some way to the Hopi or Zuñi. In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt signed a bill that designated the cliff dwellings as a National Monument. The half million acres surrounding the monument were designated as the Gila Wilderness Area by the federal government in 1924, the first such area of preserved wilderness in the United States.
It was not until the 1920’s and 1930’s that the inhabitants of the caves began to be seen as a distinct group. The term “Pueblo Indians,” which had come to be applied to the Hopi and Zuñi in reference to their traditional buildings, was extended to the earlier inhabitants of the region until the 1930’s, when certain archaeologists began to use clearer terminology for each culture. Research carried out by such institutions as the Museum of New Mexico and the Gila Pueblo in Arizona made enormous advances in the study of prehistoric Indians. The archaeologists at Gila Pueblo at this time established concretely the existence of two distinct cultures: the Hohokam, with the largest explored site at Snaketown, Arizona, and the Mogollon of Arizona and New Mexico.
Although the Gila Cliff Dwellings are not as spectacular as the Mesa Verde of Colorado, they are among the few remnants of the region’s past to have been preserved. The dwellings have generated insights into a sophisticated culture that flourished more than a thousand years ago, and they can still evoke admiration for a people who survived in an inhospitable terrain without any of the advanced technologies that help to sustain the inhabitants of New Mexico today.
Chilton, Lance, et al. New Mexico: A New Guide to the Colorful State. Albuqerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984. Provides an informative general history. Cordell, Linda S., and G. Gumerman, eds. Dynamics of Southwest Prehistory. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989. A collection of insightful essays that highlight the debate among archaeologists about the development of the early peoples of the Southwest. Martin, Paul. Digging into History: A Brief Account of Fifteen Years of Archaeological Work in New Mexico. Reprint. Chicago: Natural History Museum, 1969. A detailed study of a Mogollon site at Reserve, New Mexico, not far from Gila Cliffs. Outlines the way of life of the Mogollon people.