Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
by Jerrold VanNocker
Who were the people that lived here? Was it an ancient race of dwarfs? In 1913 the idea of an ancient race of dwarfs building the Cliff Dwellings was speculated by a writer in a popular magazine of the time. This explanation even was included in official Forest Service literature for a brief period.
After these dwellings were abandoned and long before any scientific study of this site, people explored and dug among these ruins.
In the late 1800’s it was prospectors looking for Indian gold and relics that sifted through the grounds. Even after the Gila Cliff Dwelling were named a national monument, the relic robbing continued. While archeological research was conducted at the site in the 20th century the ruins have never been completely excavated by modern archeology. Given the romanticized historic accounts, the removal of artifacts, incomplete excavation and artifacts attributed to the site but of uncertain orgin, its amazing anything is known about the builders of these Cliff Dwellings.
Today, archeologists attribute the Dwellings to the Mogollon people who occupied the surrounding area during the same period as the habitation of the Cliff Dwellings. Timber dating clearly demonstrates construction of the dwellings from 1270’s until the 1280’s. Other evidence suggests 30 years of occupation at the Gila Dwellings. Interestingly, the building dates and their occupancy correspond to the time of the Great Drought of the late 1200’s. In the 1250’s the Ancestral Puebloans to the north were abandoning their mesa-top pueblos and cliff dwellings. A few people have speculated the Gila Dwelling was a refuge for native groups brought together due to the drought. The creek below is fed by snow melt from the mountains and flows even when the river dries up. During the great drought the creek may have even stopped flowing, perhaps this may explain why after 30 years of occupancy the dwellings were abandoned.
Arriving at the last cave we venture upward via a small stair case, entering the the ruins through a hole in one of the dwelling walls. At the top of the stairs we turn around and are greeted to a marvelous view of the canyon: to our left are the ruins of two Kivas.
Pre-Columbian Kiva's may have been used for spiritual activities just as today some modern Pueblo communities maintain Kivas for religious ceremonies.
It is in this last cave where the residents of this cliff dwelling carried out the functions of their lives.
When I was here in the 70's it was still possible to examine the corn crib (granary), complete with small little corn cobs; the corn, long ago, digested by rodents. The guide tells us visitors are no longer allowed near the corn crib. He explained, " visitors pilfered the cobs and the granary is now only half full".
The official explanation is that 10-15 families lived here in the Gila Cave Dwelling, but I learn from one of the volunteers an alternative explanation.
Gila Cliff Dwellers page 3