William H. Calvin's HOW THE SHAMAN STOLE THE MOON (chapter 5)
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William H. Calvin
How the Shaman Stole the Moon

Copyright ©1991 by William H. Calvin.

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The View from an Anasazi Cave

To me the most interesting thing about man is that he is an animal who practices art and science and, in every known society, practices both together.
     Jacob Bronowski, 1967

Caves play a large role in our concepts of the prehistoric past. We talk of "cavemen" or, if we like fancy words with which to slander an opponent, "troglodytes" (Latin for cave-dwellers). The cave-dwelling cultures span quite a spectrum, even as one goes north up the Dordogne River valley in France. Downstream is Cro-Magnon (the site for which the people were named), not even a proper cave but more of an overhang, a "rock shelter" that isn’t really enclosed against the cold winds but at least stays dry in a rainstorm. Such sheltered areas are often found with fire pits and lots of charred animal bones — but not much in the way of ruins, the remains of dwellings that were regularly inhabited. One supposes that Cro-Magnon provided seasonal shelter for a wandering band of hunter-gatherers in the last ice age.

     Archaeologists love rock shelters; the floors tend to build up higher and higher over the years, what with pieces of the overhang collapsing and windblown soil collecting and compacting. Digging down, the archaeologist finds a series of layers that can be dated (usually using radiocarbon methods on the organic matter). In these layers are cultural artefacts such as stone tools.

This Anasazi deer figure is pecked into the cliff wall and outlined with a white pigment. Note the spear and its lack of perspective.

Stick figures (above) are not common in Anasazi rock art. More typical are the triangular-shaped torsos with short legs and arms (below)

     Upstream from Cro-Magnon is Lascaux, a subterranean cavern of considerable extent containing some of the finest of Ice Age art. Many European caves have carvings and drawings of objects, though not on a wide range of subject matter. The subject always seems to be a topic of considerable interest to the adolescent boys — who are, after all, the most likely cave explorers. Typical subjects are nubile women, virile hunters, and challenging game animals — but not nursing babies or young children at play. One suspects that the intended audience was also exclusively young and male.

      Yet despite this impoverishment in subject matter, such caverns as Lascaux in the Dordogne, Niaux in the Pyrenees, and Altamira on the north coast of Spain nonetheless contain serious art by most standards, with a careful use of color and texture (such as using the cracks and ridges in the rock face to lend dimensionality to the representation of a suitably situated bison).

     In the American Southwest, rock shelters often have Anasazi ruins under the overhang. The Indians built houses and ceremonial rooms (kivas) there and farmed nearby plots to supplement their hunting-and-gathering diet. The same "cliff dwellings" often have an Anasazi art gallery nearby. To see them may require hiking for a few days, as is the case with one of my favorite places, Anasazi Valley.

Red "monster" (left) with human face threatens Giacometti-like slender figures (in white at right) in this unusual scene from Anasazi rock art.

Anasazi handprints are sometimes found by the dozens, in either a red or green pigment, and some are decorated. Quite a few handprints feature extra fingers, probably created by moving one finger to make a second impression. Note the two sprays of paint (left), probably made by dashing a paint container at the wall.

A GULLY THAT BECOMES A CANYON is one way to describe Anasazi Valley. It cuts deeply into a high mesa, thanks to the rainfall running off some local mountains. The meandering stream cut deeper and deeper into the sandstone. After Anasazi Valley has twisted and turned dozens of times, the stream eventually reaches the even larger canyon carved by a river.

     Anasazi Valley has the reputation for being the place that archaeologists go for their vacations. If you really want to soak up the atmosphere that the Anasazi lived and breathed, without the overlay of recreational vehicles and gift shops that has developed at the well-worn Anasazi sites such as Mesa Verde, you spend a week hiking down Anasazi Valley. Or even two weeks, if you want to go all the way down to the river and back. You cannot see even a part of it in an ordinary day hike. You’ve got to be serious about your Anasazi, and willing to walk for a week, before you get to see this paradise.

These twin spirals are made with mud, adhering to a smoke-blackened rock face forming the rear wall of a small kiva.

     I went down with Don Keller, an archaeologist at the Museum of Northern Arizona’s research division. He’s a specialist in the Anasazi, and has spent whole seasons digging in Anasazi Valley (and coping with the damage done by looters). Ken Theissen, a geologist, was also along and helped straighten out my confusions about the rock layers and the enormous forces that bent and twisted them.

     After a day spent backpacking down a side canyon that had been transformed by grazing cattle, we were rewarded by a grand sight — Anasazi Valley itself. And this first view came complete with a cliff dwelling halfway up the far wall. Turkey Pen Ruin got its name from an unusual enclosure that the archaeologists uncovered, where the Anasazi had apparently penned up a turkey or two. They may well have valued birds for their feathers rather than their flesh. Parrots have also been found in Anasazi ruins such as Chaco Canyon’s Pueblo Bonito, showing that the Anasazi traded with Central America. I suspect that turkey feathers were a poor man’s substitute for those of the brightly colored parrots. The Pueblo people’s prayer sticks, often left in shrines in the hillsides, are adorned with bird feathers.

Anasazi "Kokopeli" petroglyph with serpent petroglyph visible below. The hunchbacked flute player plays a role in the Pueblo legends.

     Turkey Pen Ruin was built on several levels, as we discovered the next morning after breakfast. The floor of the canyon itself was used to build many rooms, nestled under the overhang provided by the alcove. It was surely where the people did most of their cooking, where the children played, where the turkey was kept. But a path leads up the sandstone to a set of steps cut into the rock, and the moderately agile can make it up to a long shelf inside the alcove, no more than one room deep, something like the second balcony in an opera house. A kiva is near one end, and is so large that it completely blocks passage (and a modest sign requests that the visitor not climb atop the kiva).

     The view from this ledge is beautiful but limited: Anasazi Valley twists and turns, thanks to the entrenched meanders, and one cannot see very far up or down the canyon. The peaceful green bottom lands, now thick with trees and scrubs, were likely cleared by the Anasazi for fields on which to grow corn.

     It started to rain as we explored the ruin, but we were in no danger of getting wet; it would take hurricane-force winds to drive the rain far enough back under the overhang to reach the dwellings. Our campsite, however, was across the stream in a small clearing, and we remembered all of the sleeping bags left out to air. But several people were still in camp, and we saw them putting things away for the rest of us. I, as usual, had decided to leave my tent behind rather than carry the extra weight in my backpack, and I began to worry whether the rain might become a regular thing during the coming week. It was, after all, the summer monsoon season.

     When I gingerly lowered myself back down the cliff to the sandy floor of the alcove, I saw that there are more pictographs than I first noticed. There is nothing like that kind of rock art at Mesa Verde (and if there were, they’d have to put up glass to shield it).

"Tally Marks" are seldom vertical; these dozen marks ascend and are capped by a thirteenth mark.

HIKING DOWN ANASAZI VALLEY required constant stops, to look under the overhangs on each side of the widening valley. Many of the overhangs would make good rock shelters, but this isn’t the Dordogne — Anasazi Valley has real amphitheaters in great numbers, good housing at essentially each meander. The overhangs are still a good place to shelter from the midday sun, and they had flat walls for the Anasazi artist — walls protected over the centuries from rainfall and sunshine.

     All sorts of pictographs and petroglyphs are to be seen under overhangs. Some of the art depicts men on horseback, a clear giveaway that the Anasazi didn’t draw it since North America lacked horses and humans together until the Spanish reintroduced the horse after 1540. Such art is likely Navajo, or even due to the Anglo cow herders of the last century. The themes of Anasazi art are not realistic: their humanlike figures often involve distortion on a grand scale. Barrel chests tapering to narrower hips, with little feet and pinheads. Hand prints are the most realistic depiction, since they had a model to trace. And there are occasionally straight lines in a row, looking for all the world like tally marks. Their meaning is unknown, and I couldn’t preferentially find groups of six or twelve. No clenched fists, either.

SPLIT-LEVEL RUIN is housed in an enormous alcove, looking south down Anasazi Valley. The stream wanders by, not far from the alcove, and the sandy floor between stream and alcove provided us with a lovely campsite. A light rain had started in the early morning light and I had spread my poncho over my sleeping bag and tried to get back to sleep.

     The rain had gotten more and more serious, and I kept regretting the tent that I’d left behind. The rain dripped onto the ground cloth and drained under the sleeping bag. So while my top was dry, the moisture was wicking up from below.

     Finally, I realized the obvious solution: move from the campsite into the Anasazi alcove. The drip line was easy to see, and back of it the sandstone was totally dry. Not exactly level, but I’d given up on sleep by then. I spread the sleeping bag out on a rock to dry and started to explore the alcove in the new light of day.

     The alcove housing Split-Level Ruin is a football field wide, and its depth considerable. As usual, there is a very high ledge that seems impossible to reach, yet it has evidence of grain storage structures. I’ll bet that is where the Anasazi kept the seed corn, that essential supply for producing next year’s harvest, to protect it in times of famine. At the east end is a collection of old timbers and the suggestion of an old structure, which I walked down to explore.

     There wasn’t much remaining of the ancient dwelling, except for the view they had from their doorway. Because the Anasazi picked alcoves that faced south, the view from their dwelling was always of the southern skyline, the source of winter warmth.

     The view from inside an alcove is restricted, but in a lovely way. The cliffs across the canyon form an elevated horizon. The sky above your head is, of course, obscured by the overhang. Following the overhang down to the left, the alcove overhang and distant cliff horizon meet in a corner of sky. So you see a crescent of sky, pinched down to an acute corner in the southeast.

     And the same thing happens to the right corner of sky: the overhang to the west comes down and meets another cliffy horizon in the southwest. When they were snug back inside the alcove, the Anasazi saw the world around them as a crescent of sky.

AS I LOOKED at the crescent of sky ending in the two acute corners, it dawned on me: southeast and southwest were very important directions to the Anasazi. At pueblos such as Hopi and Zuni, they don’t use our familiar north-east-south-west but rather the same solstice sightlines as Stonehenge. The cardinal directions to which they referred all others, just as we might make a construction such as "south-southeast," are

  • the northeasterly direction of summer solstice sunrise (about 60° from true north, in these latitudes; 90° is east, 180° is south, 270° is west, 360° is north again),
  • the southeasterly direction of winter solstice sunrise (about 120° hereabouts),
  • the southwesterly direction of winter solstice sunset (240° ), and
  • the northwesterly direction of summer solstice sunset (300° ).

The view from an arbitrary rock shelter.

     Were the crescent corners in two of the cardinal directions? There was only one way to find out, and it involved getting wet again. I ventured out into the rain and ran over to where my backpack was sheltering under its raincover. The side compartment had my pocket transit, which looks like a hefty pocket compass and functions as a combination of magnetic compass and elevation-measuring instrument. It’s typically used by geologists for rough measurements when out hiking. I ran back into the dry alcove, the little instrument clutched close.

     I climbed back up to the timbers and sat down to make the measurements on the crescent corners of skyline. I sighted to the right corner in the southwest. The bearing was about 215° around from true north. Now I knew that winter solstice sunset is at about 240° at these latitudes, but that’s with a level horizon, and they’d have never seen the sun reach the level horizon because the high corner would have cut off their view while the sun was still high in the sky, probably an hour before sunset seen from the top walls of the canyon. One has to compensate for that elevated horizon.

     Next I measured how high the corner was elevated from the horizontal, determined by a little bubble level inside the instrument. About 9°, which means that the sun wouldn’t set in the corner at all; it would be 20° high in the sky when reaching 215° .

     Then I tried the left corner of the crescent of sky seen from the timbers. It was elevated by only 18°, meaning that the solstice sunrise should occur in the southeast at about 140° for my theory to be correct. And sure enough, the corner was about 140° . So the left corner was where the Anasazi who lived here saw the sun rise on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice.

     One corner nearly works, but the other is way off — they wouldn’t have seen the sun set in the right corner later that day. But obviously, the directions of the corners depend on where one stands within the alcove. Perhaps, I reasoned, if I moved over toward Split-Level Ruin itself, the southwest corner might come closer to the sun’s path through the sky on the day of its southernmost journey. Maybe there is a "right place," where both crescent corners are cardinal directions.

     And as I walked over towards the ruined kiva at Split-Level Ruin, I could see that the southwest corner was dipping lower and lower as the more of the cliffs across the way came into view. Their intersection with the alcove overhang line became lower and lower, but my sightline was also swinging around farther to the west — where the sun is lower. Of course, the southeast corner of the crescent was also changing a little as I walked east.

     I stood out in front of the ruined kiva, and measured the southeast corner first. It was now at 141° and elevated 18.5°, right on the sun’s path through the morning sky if my little instrument was correct. That suggested that a number of places in the alcove between the timber pile and the ruin probably had the winter solstice sunrise in the left crescent corner.

     Then I measured the southwest corner of the crescent of sky: 228° and elevated 8.0° , a few degrees below the sun’s path. But somewhere close to the ruin, likely in front of it (so that the right corner moves back to 232° and 8° high) where the slope is now eroded away, the sun should rise on the day of the winter solstice in one corner of the crescent and later set in the other corner of the crescent.

     That is the favorite time of year in Pueblo ceremonial calendars. Maybe they built their kiva up and out to get to the right place, in the manner of rear decks on split-level residences of familiar suburbia?

     Any south-facing alcove is going to have a view that is a crescent of sky with corners somewhere in the eastern and western skies. I suspect many alcoves aren’t deep enough to get the corners to come out in the cardinal directions; Turkey Pen sure wasn’t. But it worked at Split-Level Ruin’s alcove. And it looked as if they’d built their kiva close to "the right spot."

     Breakfast was anticlimactic.

GREEN MASK RUIN was our next campsite, though not intentionally. We had intended to sleep on the opposite hillside, but it rained hard enough to make us regret the usual rule about camping close to ruins: the ruin was the only shelter in the area.

     The original archaeologists had apparently faced this problem before us, and created a suitable campsite under the overhang but away from the ruins. It was just large enough to accommodate our party. And our leader was an archaeologist who knew the site quite well, and could keep us from doing harm. So I stayed dry that night after all.

     The place was comfortable, as rock shelters go; the ruins are in an elevated portion around the corner and look down on the floor where we were. The light was poor, so we put off exploration until morning.

     The evening was memorable. I had gone to sleep even before sunset, up on a slab of rock that angled toward the ceiling. I awoke several hours later after dark, strangely disoriented. I saw firelight and flickering shadows on the cave’s ceiling, just as some Anasazi must have done, a thousand years earlier. Great distorted shadows moved across the ceiling as someone shifted position near the campfire. I heard an ethereal voice and a mandolin.

     I can believe in an Anasazi with an ethereal voice, but I had trouble with the mandolin. The Anasazi, I believe that I can say with certainty, did not possess even a single mandolin. But Don Keller does and, having carried it atop his backpack, he was engaging in an archaeologist’s evening entertainment in the resonant surroundings of a cliff dwelling. I lay there under the flickering ceiling and listened for a half hour before getting up and joining the group. Such are my experiences as a temporary troglodyte.

     The next morning, we explored the ruins and looked up into a corner of the ceiling, well out of reach. There, all by itself, was the pictograph that gave the site its name. It depicted a green face mask, which was utterly unlike any of the Anasazi or Navajo art that we had been seeing. Don said that it is Basketmaker II in style, which in local archaeological usage tends to mean 200-400 A.D.

JAILHOUSE RUIN was up above our fourth campsite, nestled back in the cliff, and you can see where it got its name. There are bars in the windows of the ruin.

     But "paleo-rebar ruin" might be a better description. Just as concrete walls these days are strengthened by creating a rough network of steel reinforcing bars ("rebar") before pouring the concrete, so the Anasazi sometimes created a rough network of saplings, tied together with bark strips, before applying mud to make an adobe wall. Windows were merely created by omitting the mud from an area (or by the subsequent loss of the mud from a section of the network), leaving some reinforcing willows exposed. Many people in the world have no idea what’s inside a wall, and so jailhouse bars do spring to mind.

     We camped alongside the creek just below Jailhouse, but the creek was dried up. And so we hiked downstream until finding a seep, and hauled water back to camp. After dinner, I set off across the sloping slabs of sandstone, contouring around past west-facing Jailhouse Ruin to see the cliffs on the back side of the meander — though the magnificent view upcanyon delayed me somewhat. Once I turned the corner, I was looking downcanyon, to the south, a view that the Anasazi preferred for their cliff dwellings. Tonight the view came with a full moon, rising in the southeast. And soon I stumbled into the most interesting amphitheater that I have yet seen, appropriately named Perfect Kiva.

The storehouse and kiva under the Perfect Kiva overhang, as seen from the possible observer path to the west. The T-shaped doorway is much shorter than the 150 cm height of the average Anasazi male. Rock slabs with grooves from corn grinding (with a flattened stone called a mano) are found at several places in this amphitheater. The echos are such that the sounds of the stroke of the mano must have produced an unusual resonance.

     Except for a small one-room structure along the rear wall with the Anasazi’s T-shaped doorway, the only structure is an underground kiva. The space created by this giant overhang looks to me like an enormous ceremonial area, not a dwelling place. As a stage, it is large enough to perform an opera. If you sneeze, as I did, a great resounding crash answers, then rattles around inside the amphitheater. Several of the rocks in the "stage" have a series of deep grooves in them, created by grinding corn there with a smooth rock. The grooves lead to lips that overhang the floor, so there is space beneath for a basket to catch the ground-up corn. There were dozens of these deep grooves; either they did a lot of ceremonial corn grinding at harvest time, or this was also an everyday workspace, a cool place to spend the afternoon when Jailhouse Ruin was too hot.

     Several others had joined me by this time, and we explored the kiva itself. At Mesa Verde, one sees kivas that look reconstructed. Perfect Kiva is well named. Its kiva is not centered, being closer to the eastern corner of the alcove; it also is set out well in front, not to the drip line but farther forward than any notion of symmetry might suggest. It is a square subterranean room that several dozen people could conceivably occupy, if no one had to breathe. It has a wooden roof, heavily constructed with a dirt covering, looking from the outside like a raised square of stage — though with a one-person square hole, through which one emerges via a ladder. Or enters.

     That ladder hole is also the smokehole. There is a ventilation shaft on the south side, like a proper kiva, but it is primarily to keep the fire going. The fire pit and deflector plate (so that the air sucked down the shaft is deflected upward) are beneath the ladder. Lots of smoke rose from the fire pit. I suspect that the primary function of the fire was to produce a "smoke-filled room," enveloping the newcomer as he descended the ladder.

     Even without a fire and smoke, descending the ladder into the kiva is an experience; leaving the moonlit world above, one seems to be entering an entirely different kind of world, insulated from the ordinary and the everyday. It is dark, even after you adapt somewhat, and the dust from the dirt floor smells dry. There are some benches around the walls of many kivas, and often they have some ceremonial niches in the walls. I wasn’t able to find the sipapu, the little hole in the floor representing the entry from the underworld, out of which all good Anasazi emerged in the beginning. Somehow, I imagined the kiva itself as the underworld, so striking was the contrast with the moonlit alcove.

     Added to this was the sound of a pair of feet tapping on the kiva’s roof. Someone’s idea of an embellishment, with a typical Indian dance rhythm. The roof doesn’t seem to be constructed as a drum but who knows what it sounded like during an Anasazi ceremony.

     Such was my second night as a troglodyte. The Anasazi may have lacked television, but their sense of drama was well developed.

THE NEXT MORNING before breakfast, I returned to the ceremonial stage with camera and pocket transit. Was Perfect Kiva like Split-Level Ruin, situated for a good view of the winter solstice sunrise and sunset?

     Again I saw the cliff-dweller’s world view: a crescent-shaped piece of blue sky, framed by rock. Was the left corner the southeasterly direction of winter solstice sunrise? No — you could see almost due east when standing near the kiva ladder. Oops.

     But the right corner was more promising, a nice candidate for winter solstice sunset: there was a deep V-shaped notch at 13.6° elevation, at a bearing of 226.3° from true north. That right corner was exactly on the sun’s calculated path across the sky on the day of the winter solstice. If you move away from the kiva ladder, the notch changes several degrees (as the V is formed by two rock surfaces at different distances from the observer). For watching winter solstice sunset in the corner notch, the kiva is clearly in the right place if my compass is correct. But the skyline is such that the solstice sun will first set behind a dome on the distant horizon, and then reappear briefly in the V, only to disappear again. On the solstice, if you stand at the right place, it probably does not reappear.

     So where would sunrise be, on the winter solstice? Maybe the Anasazi here used something different than did the Anasazi at Split-Level Ruin, with its convenient crescent corners. In the southeast, you see a ridgeline across the valley when standing at Perfect Kiva’s entry. This ridgeline appeared like a staircase, with a series of downsteps as one looks from east around to south. Might one of the downsteps be the location of winter solstice sunrise?

     The third downstep is at about 135° from north and elevated 15° from horizontal: right on the sunrise path through the sky on the shortest day of the year. Furthermore, the step down was rounded and exactly a half-degree tall, just the size of the rising sun. So you could position the sun such that only a thin rim was visible, framed by the rounded downstep for a moment before rising further. It would look much like a solar eclipse ending, all the better for drama.

     The pocket transit measurements aren’t reliable enough to say that the kiva is exactly the right spot from which to get the crescent view, but it is certainly close. So the solstice sun would rise from the staircased ridgeline, move across the winter sky, set behind that dome, and then reappear briefly in that corner notch (except on the solstice). Within several weeks, the sun would clearly rise atop the rounded downstep, then set above the V-notch without even being obscured first; to keep sunrise obscured into that nice thin rim, you’d have to move right by two paces.

     Another kiva with "the right view." I was beginning to think that dramatic qualities might serve as a good guide, at least in the prospecting stage of archaeoastronomy. Physicists have long tended to talk of their theories as "beautiful" or "elegant" — implying that such esthetics provided a guide for further exploration ("Any theory that elegant can’t be all wrong!") while recognizing that beautiful theories can also be killed by a single ugly fact. Perhaps archaeologists, out prospecting for new sites, ought to consider taking a drama critic along.

THE ALCOVE at Perfect Kiva also allows you to play an interesting game in the weeks before and after the winter solstice, provided that the observer is allowed to move each day. Now ordinarily, given those horizon calendars like the Palisades of the Desert, we think of the observer returning to the same viewpoint morning after morning, seeing the sun rise in different positions, marching south, pausing, and then heading back north. There is a standard observer but the view is of a moving sunrise.

     But the observer can also move each morning, just enough to position the sunrise behind the same feature on the horizon — the idea would be to recreate the view each morning by moving sideways a little from the previous morning’s position. Moving observer, standard view.

Corn grinding site. The ears of corn (maize) are about as long as an adult finger, miniature by today’s standards.

     According to my topographic map, the downstep is 161 meters away. That’s a nice distance for the pivot point of the observer’s seesaw. It means that a month before the solstice, the viewer has to stand outside the alcove to get the sun positioned behind that rounded downstep. Each day, the viewing position moves closer to the kiva. Then for about the last week, the viewer’s position doesn’t change more than about one meter — and if my compass is right, that standstill viewpoint is the kiva. Finally, the viewpoint starts moving back toward the right side of the alcove.

     In some sense, it doesn’t matter what definition of sunrise is used, just so that you use the same one each morning — but the place of standstill and turnaround will be different for each definition. Surely they would use the "thin rim" definition here at Perfect Kiva, and I’ll bet that’s the definition that puts the turnaround at the kiva ladder.

     I began to think of the Perfect Kiva alcove as a giant measuring instrument, and of the kiva as the end of the scale, the magic place where the Sun Priest stands still for a week before turning around.

Forgotten Kiva is unusually large (note people at right) and located under an enormous overhang, which has protected its roof and entry ladder from the weather over the millennium since its construction. Great kivas may be three times as wide.
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