Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/August 1879/The Age of Cave-Dwellers in America



THE various writers and thinkers on the subject of pre-historic man generally concede that the races of to-day have radiated over the globe from some point in Asia. Indeed, the traditions of different nations lead to the conclusion that this point of dispersion was located in the high central regions of that country. There, apparently, the dog, horse, and ox were first domesticated, and can at the present time be found in their natural, wild state. Hudson Tuttle says, in his "Arcana of Nature," that "man originated near the equator, where the climate was better adapted to his defenseless condition and food abundant."

This conclusion seems to be based upon the impression that the different zones of the earth occupy the same relative positions now that they have always done, and can hardly hold good in view of recent developments. Colorado, an almost unexplored country, comparatively speaking, to the scientific world will be apt to change the logical reasonings that have so far been advanced upon this interesting subject.

Señor Altamirano, of Mexico, the best Aztec scholar living, claims the proof is conclusive that the Aztecs did not come to Mexico from Asia, as has been long universally believed, but that they were a race originated in the unsubmerged parts of America, as old as the Asiatics themselves, and that that country may even have been peopled from this. From the ruins recently found, the most northern of any yet discovered, the indications of improved architecture, the work of different ages, can be traced in a continual chain to Mexico, where they culminate in massive and imposing structures, thus giving some proof by circumstantial evidence to Altamirano's reasoning. But now, as to the antiquity of American man as shown by the yet recent discoveries in Colorado.

First it will be necessary to glance at the glacial period for an instant, or rather at the geological spring following it, when the warm rays of the sun turned the ice-covered crust of earth into a vast sheet of water, with only the extremely high ground left exposed above its surface.

From the evidences of the rocks and the deposits of the mountain valleys it is fair to deduce the conclusion that, as in time the waters gradually receded, the first part of America to assume any dimensions was the backbone of the continent, or that elevated portion known as the Rocky Mountains, which had probably never at this period been entirely covered with water, thus affording a long, continuous stretch of dry ground on which man and beast could live and wander as they listed.

At this period, it has been stated by many and believed by most, that the present line of the equator was where man originated and flourished, because of the warmth of the climate and abundance of easily procurable food. Yet the evidences in Colorado are opposed to this belief, for here were the tropics also.

The existing specimens of perfectly-preserved petrified palm-trees show this, so also do the petrified remains of gigantic turtles peculiar to tropical waters alone. The Asia theorists also offer the nativity of the horse as a strong argument in their behalf, claiming that man and horse developed at about the same time. If this claim has any weight, it more than settles the point in favor of America, for the fossil remains of horses with three toes to each foot have been found in Colorado, and the examination of any hoof of a horse in embryo will show this to have been one of the earliest stages in the existence of that animal. This evidence goes beyond the researches of the supporters of the Asia theory, for their conclusions are based upon the fact of the existence of the wild horse of the present time.

These evidences of tropical life in Colorado, it must be remembered, are found at an altitude of ten thousand feet, or near the present snow line. As the waters gradually receded, they left the valleys and parks throughout the mountains immense lakes, until a trickling and overflowing outlet wore its way into a deep cañon through solid granite, and liberated the pent-up waters of each.

The San Luis Valley, in which Del Norte is situated, is in the southwestern part of Colorado, and is from sixty to seventy miles broad by about three hundred miles long, and the outlet for drainage is now the beautiful snow-born Rio Grande.

Hearing one day in December, 1877, that a gentleman acquaintance, in wandering over the foot-hills, about three and a half miles from Del Norte, had found a small arrow-head of chalcedony, it aroused my curiosity, and I at once called upon him that I might see it. He showed me a beautiful specimen of elegant workmanship, made with great care and accuracy as to dimensions, but evidently intended for an ornament, being too small and delicate for any other actual use.

The present Indians never work in chalcedony, and I felt sure some discoveries might be made by visiting the spot; so, calling together a couple of friends, we mounted our horses and had a delightful canter over the floor-like valley until we reached the base of the hill on top of which the specimen had been found. We dismounted, tied our horses, and began climbing up and up for several hundred feet above the valley, pausing now and then to breathe and enjoy the magnificent view extended at our feet—the valley stretching away like an ocean of molten gold, with its autumn-tinted grasses, a hundred miles to the north and seventy miles to the east, where it came to an abrupt ending against the solid bases of the majestic peaks comprising the Sangre-del-Christo range of mountains. No foot-hills intervened to obstruct the view; the clear-cut and sharply defined peaks stand in an unbroken file, an army of Nature's monarchs, clad in Nature's livery, a uniform of perpetual green, and crowned with helmets of eternal snow.

We finally reached the summit—our objective point—and began winding our way around huge obelisks of sandstone, and through a perfect net-work of passages and crypt-like fissures. We felt as though we had entered the Cretan labyrinth, but, not so fortunate as Theseus, had no thread to guide us, until we came upon the first ancient habitation.

Climbing through a narrow crevice with some exertion, we observed a cave-like opening in the rock fronting us, and of course were but an instant in gaining an entrance, where we were delighted to find, upon examination, the evident handiwork of man.

Here was an apartment about six by eight feet in size, where nature had formed two sides and the sloping roof. One side had been left open, and the other, from the yet remaining fragments, showed plain evidences of having been roughly walled up with loose stones. A fissure in one corner of the room, leading out through the roof, showed traces of discoloration by fire, and digging down with some sticks through the rubbish, we found that corner had been used as a fireplace, and at a depth of eighteen inches we still found the wall with strong evidences of the action of heat on the stones, finally unearthing some charcoal, and from a repository in the wall about a half peck of chips of chalcedony: judging from this latter find that we were in the workshop of the former inhabitants of the place.

We were not prepared for excavating through the dust of ages which Time had caused to settle on the floor, so started out eager to find other places of habitation. Our search was rewarded by finding during: the afternoon some twelve or fifteen more houses or caves, many of them, however, especially those along the face of the cliffs, having nearly disappeared from the effects of the disintegration of the rocks.

We found no more dwellings as large as the workshop, the majority of them being very small, the rough traces of walls nearly always visible, but the caves so circumscribed in extent it seemed impossible that human beings could have lived in them. Yet each one had its fireplace plainly to be seen, and each one had certainly been at some time a dwelling or shelter from the elements.

Continuing our search, we also found two furnaces—primitive, 'tis true, but none the less furnaces—showing the effects of great heat, and a deposit of dirt-covered ashes several feet in depth. These furnaces were hollowed out of immense bolwders by man or nature—we could not decide which, owing to the action of the fire—and the interior of each almost exactly resembled the interior of a Dutch oven, having in like manner a small orifice for draught.

They appeared to be mostly the work of nature adopted with but little change, if any, by man for his own uses. However, on this point the different members of the party failed to agree.

What this race cooked, baked, or burned in them yet remains to be seen. From the quantity of the deposit, and as no human remains have been found, nor any semblance of graves, it may be that their method of disposing of the dead was by cremation.

Now, who and what were these people? The modern Indians know nothing of them, never inhabit caves, and say that none of their traditions show that their ancestors ever lived in them.

They could not have been a race of giants, for the caves inhabited by them were too small for their accommodation. Yet here was a colony living at an altitude of eight thousand feet above the level of the present sea, the nearest water at this time being the river two and a half miles away, and to reach it an abrupt descent must be made of several hundred feet. Appearances and surroundings indicate that these caves were inhabited during the period when the San Luis Valley was an immense lake or sea; and when that valley was a lake where was the rest of America? The valley is seven thousand feet above the ocean, and a natural inference would prompt one to conclude that most of the continent was under water.

I will here state that though interested in the subject, I am not enough versed in it to venture my opinions before those who have made it a life-long study, but would ask, If the cave-dwellers were among the earliest developments of man, and these Colorado men were cave-dwellers at the period of general moisture, with a tropical climate preceding them, is it reasonable to suppose that they could reach this point from Asia?

It is easy to follow these people from their traces as they improved in knowledge with time. They passed southward, apparently following the warm climate, stopping for ages at a time in some now sterile valley, which when occupied by them must have been rich and fertile; their gradually improving architecture extending down the La Plata, Mancos, San Juan, and Colorado Rivers, through Arizona, and, as I before said, culminating in the comparatively modern buildings of the highly intelligent Aztecs.