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Site Highlights: Scenic drive Virtually few visitors Modest entry fee Off the beaten track 1 mile hike Ruins can be explored Great views from cliff Great picnic areas Start point for hikes True wilderness area Dynamite overlooks
Seven centuries ago, the people who traveled to the communities in what is now Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument did so on foot, following trails across mesas and mountains and along the clear streams.
Until recently, the routes were still little more than trails, and the few people who made the trip to the ruins did so on foot, on horseback, and by 4-wheel-drive vehicle.
Today, you can drive to the monument over a paved road. The road ends at the monument.
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is surrounded by Gila National Forest and lies at the edge of the Gila Wilderness, the nation's first designated wilderness area. This designation means that the wilderness character of the area will not be altered by the intrusion of roads or other evidence of human presence.
The park offers a glimpse of the homes and lives of Indians who lived here from the late 1270s through the early 1300s. The surroundings probably took today very much like they did when the cliff dwellings were inhabited.
The earliest ruin that has been found within the monument is a pithouse of a type that was made from about AD 100 to 400. This dwelling, in the open, was circular and had a narrow entrance, 2 feet wide and 10 feet long, on the East Side; the floor was below ground level. People of this period, referred to by archeologists as the Mogollon, grew corn and beans, hunted, and gathered wild plant food. They made plain brown pottery and undoubtedly were skilled in crafts whose products have disappeared. Such things as nets and snares, baskets, and wooden tools last but a short time in open sites.
The monument also is the site for the remains of later structures, those prevalent in the area until about AD 1000. These rectangular structures, unlike their predecessors, were built entirely above the ground. In constructing the buildings, the Mogollon usually used masonry, although some were made of wattle (interwoven twigs). It was around this time that they developed their style of white pottery with black designs.
The term "cliff dwellers" refers to Pueblo people who built their homes in the natural caves. But Pueblo people also built in the open. The monument contains examples of both types of settlements.
The cliff dwellings date to the late 1200s. Seven natural caves occur high in the southeast-facing cliff of a side canyon, and five of the caves contain the ruins of dwellings-a total of about 40 rooms. Walls of the dwellings were constructed of stone from the formation exposed to the cliff, the Gila Conglomerate. Thus, the Indians easily quarried it. Most of the timbers in the dwellings are the originals. Tree-ring dates obtained from these timbers range through the late 1270s and 1280s.
Ancient corn crib
The people were farmers; their fields were on the mesa tops and along the river. They raised squash, corn, beans, and other crops. And they supplemented these with animals that they hunted or snared and with wild plant foods gathered from the forest.
They were excellent weavers and skilled potters, producing handsome brown bowls with black interiors and black-on-white vessels.
Materials obtained by trade with other peoples included pottery, cotton, obsidian for arrow points, and shell for ornaments.
What was their appearance? The women averaged 5 feet, 1 inch and the men about 5 feet, 5 inches in height. They were slight of build, yet muscular. They had dark hair and eyes and brown skin.
Women's clothing consisted of small cotton blankets worn around the shoulders, "skirts" or "aprons" of yucca cord, and sandals plaited of yucca, agave leaves, and bark. The men wore headbands, small cotton blankets draped over their shoulders and probably sometimes tied around their waists as kilts, breechcloths of woven cotton, and plaited sandals. Both men and women probably wore their sandals only while walking on rocky hillsides. Few objects of adornment, such as bracelets and beads, have been found here.
And so these people lived in their cliff houses and riverside village, planting their fields with digging sticks, grinding their cornmeal with metate and mano, fashioning their pottery and cloth, carrying on trade with Indians of other communities, hunting, and gathering wild plants and fruit. For generations, the sounds of their voices and laughter echoed in the canyons. And then there were only the sounds of the streams and birds.
The cliff dwellers had abandoned their homes and fields by the early 1300s. Why they left and where they went are not known. Perhaps they joined other Pueblo Indian villages to the north or south.
The area may have been uninhabited for a period of years after the farming Indians left. In any case, nomadic bands of Apaches then made it their homeland. Later, Spanish colonists settled in the areas to the east and south of the monument, and many of their descendants still reside in the vicinity.
After acquisition of the region by the United States under the terms of the Gadsden Purchase, the Apaches resisted the encroachment of American settlers into their homeland. In the late 1400s the United States Government established a small military camp at Gila Hot Springs to guard local homesteaders.