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The Land Before Time—PART 26: Before the Smithsonian, Something Legendary This Way Came

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It was a beautiful October afternoon. The midday sun was just warm enough to keep a chill at bay, while still brisk enough to make the arduous hike bearable. We descended slowly, carefully, between the cliff rock using several ladders that alternated with precariously narrow and steep stone paths. After quite some time on this laborious trail, the incline leveled out some, and we rounded the final corner of the trail.

Simultaneously, the silence was broken by the awestruck sounds, murmurings, and even gasps of the crew members who had until now only imagined what this moment would be like.

The cliff dwelling before us, etched into the side of a stone mountain, hovered there, suspended between the world above and that below, almost boasting itself the harbinger of secrets of ancient ones whose stories have become the very mysteries that whisper within the walls of its prehistoric structure. Its meticulous stone construction, massive size of more than 150 rooms and more than twenty kivas, and distance from either place of contact—whether overhead or beneath—with the outside world, stood as a testament to the mysterious ancestral ones who called this place home.

Camera men began to set up their equipment, while Steve Quayle and I (Tom Horn) began talking about where we would prefer to stand during the interview and what topics would be discussed at this particular location. Eventually, we were ready to begin filming, and we started talking about the ancient architects of the edifice. Very soon, all in the group were listening to the discussion about ancient violence in the Anasazi era.

All seemed well, until I looked over at one of our guides, who was growing more and more agitated with each word of the conversation he heard. The discussion was that of the cliff dwellings being defensive locations, built by people trying to avoid violence or conflict from their surroundings. Later, Allie, a SkyWatch TV research assistant and private detective, said she saw him flinch and say, “They can’t talk about these things! These were peaceable people. This isn’t Sand Canyon! Those things didn’t happen here!” Allie responded very carefully so as not to sound argumentative, “Well, there is a lot of evidence of this type of activity all around the Four Corners. If there weren’t a lot of violence in that day, why would they build into the side of a cliff? Why not build on the ground?”

“That’s easy,” the guide quipped. “It’s convenient. They have easy access to water. They collect the water from a spring inside the cliff” (he said, contradicting a statement our other guide had made on the way down the trail, wherein he had told us that the nearest water was a three-mile hike away, down the side of the cliff and to a spring below).

Later, Allie wrote in her journal about the trip:

I was confused by his statement. “So you’re not denying the violence at Sand Canyon and other similar places in the four corners area? Because in many reports I have read about archaeological digs in this region, those who excavate clearly state a “sudden, violent” event took place, causing people to abandon their homes quickly. And if they did migrate instead of flee, why not take their food items and other necessities with them?”

He answered me, “It’s true that there was violence at many other places, but not here. These people were peaceful people. I have come to love these people working here at the park. They didn’t take all of their items because they had no load-bearing animals.”

“Then why did they leave?”

He smiled at me. It was a strange smile. “I’m going to give you my ‘Valley Girl’ explanation,” he said, pressing his index and middle finger into my shoulder firmly, and holding them there.

“You live an agrarian lifestyle,” he said, and his fingers pressed into my flesh farther.

“There has been a drought.” His fingers pressed harder.

“Wildlife is becoming scarcer.” Harder.

“Now other tribes migrate into the area and the resources are shared between more people.” Harder still. It was beginning to hurt a little.

“Due to this new competition with other incoming peoples, other resources of the area are also becoming threatened.” His fingers pressed even farther into me, causing me to take a step back. He smiled triumphantly.

“See, you moved! And so did they!”

I smiled and allowed the conversation to drop. By now, the film crew had the footage that they needed, and we had other places to be. We thanked our guides and after a lengthy climb back to the top, gear was loaded into vehicles and we departed.

But I left that conversation with renewed questions.

Why did they leave? Where did they go? What was the real reason they left so many essential items behind when they departed? Why did this man feel it was perfectly ok to acknowledge violence at other locations but not here?

And…did he just call me a Valley Girl?


The more I reflected on this conversation, I had a growing curiosity about his protectiveness toward the Anasazi of this particular cave dwelling. I was inclined to draw the conclusion that there is more known by some people than they are willing to admit about this matter. After all, a person who acts warily or seeks protection is not automatically presumed a violent person. Meaning, to live in a cliff dwelling or other defensive structure is not a sign that a person is not, as the guide had said, “a peaceful people.” In my mind, it was the contrary. People living up and away from the surface of the earth, trying to avoid conflict or keep to themselves, would seem as though they were following a passive trend, trying to avoid trouble. So why did he get so protective when it was suggested that these were defensive locations? How was that related, at all, to the inhabitants’ inclination toward peace? He had become so assertive, it was as if he were shielding these people’s very integrity. Why?

That is, unless he was

A thought struck me. What were they into at some of these other locations that were proven to have been abandoned during a violent event? What were they doing at any of these other locations where people were brutally murdered, their dead left unburied, bones scattered for hundreds of feet while those living merely disappeared, leaving food items and other necessities behind when they fled? It stood to reason that if we could somehow believe that these people had done something to set these events into motion, then we could believe that other groups, who would never have “stooped so low” as to commit similar acts, would have migrated on, into the sunset, to enjoy a happily ever after, violence free.

It’s human nature to want to view a heinous act that has been committed toward someone else as a result of a triggering action, event, or association. This way, by process of elimination we can believe that we are safe. For example, a burglary that is committed at random leaves everyone within the neighborhood feeling vulnerable, until evidence shows that the crime was committed by an angry relative, former friend, or ex business partner who harbored bad feelings toward the victim of the crime. Usually at that point, everyone breathes a little easier, knowing that because they are not part of that association, their home is safe.

I thought about applying the same psychology to the romanticized, protective way that many of the people we encountered at the Four Corners viewed the ancient inhabitants of their own location. All told a similar story: The Anasazi were a peaceful, happy, hunter-gatherer, basket-weaving, agrarian people who minded their own business and lived out their lives in the cliff dwellings near the four corners, until drought, lack of resources, incoming competing tribes, and possible disease caused them to migrate peacefully out of the area. Many said they went to Chaco Canyon, and from there just “disappeared.”

And it seemed that to many of the guides we spoke with, it was perfectly permissible to claim there was violence at another location, but not the one at which they were stationed. Each seemed to have, understandably, bonded with the previous inhabitants of their own site. It was even more exaggerated when the person spoken to was a claimed descendant of the Anasazi; which, consequently, turned out to be a coveted position which was rivaled by multiple Native American tribes. It was similar to a protective parent who was willing to admit that all other children were capable of naughty behavior, but not their own.

Not my child, they would never do that.

Not my ancestors, they would never do that.

But do what? What incited such violence, fear, and survival instinct that would cause a seemingly peaceable people to carve homes out of a cliff in midair, just to leave them—and other necessary possessions—behind, and vanish?





Sometimes the first, best clue to learning what really happened is to follow the legend backward. Since the version of the Anasazi story we had heard most frequently was that they started out in the cliff dwellings, went to Chaco Canyon from there, and then migrated on to other unknown locations, I decided to start at Chaco. It’s is a fascinating place, and certainly one of many mysteries.

I soon found plenty of evidence supporting the idea that the legend certainly was backward. It would appear that it actually all started at Chaco Canyon and fled to places like Mesa Verde from there. At least for the American Southwest, that is. In Mexico and Mesoamerica, the plot runs much, much deeper, a concept that we will touch on a bit in the next entry. Although evidence of human habitation in what is now the Four Corners area dates back as far as 2900 B.C., the stone structures that have become the iconic symbol for Chaco’s Anasazi era were not erected until approximately A.D. 850.[i]

But before venturing much farther into Chaco history, let’s take a moment to view a couple of other pertinent legends. The first I would like to consider is that of the Wendigo (sometimes spelled Windigo), or “the evil spirit that devours mankind.”[ii] This name is also associated with the word “cannibal.” While some of this lore originates closer to Canada, there are legends that drift as far south as the Navajo region and even toward the American Midwest. According to legend, these are evils creatures, sometimes even giants of as much as fifteen feet in height, who at one time were human beings. But once a person would turn to cannibalism, even under emergency or starvation circumstances, they “changed” forever. They would be overcome with evil spirits who would possess them and permanently transform them into an evil being. In some instances, the Windigo and Wendigo are different; one is a flesh-and-blood human who is transformed, and in some cases, the other is said to be the evil spirit awaiting a human he can possess and influence to commit cannibalism, sending him on an insatiable, flesh-eating spree. There are different measures of how transformed, or how evil, a person would become, depending on the region or people carrying the story, but the idea of the Wendigo, or Windigo, remains nearly the same throughout: Once a person has tasted human flesh, he or she is overwrought by evil, and passes a point of no return.

Another is the legend of the chindi, or “ghosts.” According to Native American legend, chindi was a total accumulation of all the sins committed by a person over the span of his or her lifetime. A chindi would be released from the individual at the moment of death. It was determined whether a chindi was good or bad by the direction that it rotated once it became a dust devil. If a chindi, particularly an evil one, was released inside a building, often the structure would be abandoned and burned down to relieve the inhabitants of the evil done to them by the chindi. In some cases, a medicine man could even summon or attach a chindi to an individual or group of individuals as a form of curse or punishment.[iii] According to author Douglas Preston, many Anasazi ruins are avoided by natives, under the assumption that they are filled with chindi.[iv] Many of the ruins we will be discussing are avoided, many claiming that chindi occupy them.




Along the lines of legend are also localized theatricals. Harvard graduate, archaeologist, anthropologist and zoologist Jesse W. Fewkes spent several years studying the Native American culture, ruins, and artifacts. At one point, he even actually moved his headquarters to the Hopi region in Arizona and spent time with them, observing and noting each of their rituals and festivals over the course of all their seasons, including those that alternated every other year. Throughout this period of time, Fewkes witnessed myriad interesting, theatrical ceremonies, dances, and performances placing serpents and snakes at a great place of honor. Particularly interesting is the excerpt below:

The effigies represent the Great Serpent, a supernatural personage of importance in all their legends. This being is associated with the Hopi version of the flood, for it is said that in ancient times, while the ancestors of certain clans lived in the far south, at a place called Palatkwabi, this monster on one occasion rose through the middle of the pueblo plaza to the zenith, drawing after him a great flood, which submerged the land and obliged the Hopi to migrate, and to seek refuge in the north, their present home. At this time, which was long ago in their annals, the Serpent rose to the zenith and, calling out from the clouds, demanded the sacrifice of a boy and girl. To this demand the Hopi acceded with children of their chiefs, whom the monster took and sank back into the earth, leaving a black rock to mark the place of sacrifice.

When the two serpents’ effigies automatically rise from the two vases throwing back the semicircular flaps with rain-cloud symbols, it represents the event recorded in legends—the Hopi version of a flood.

The snake effigies knocking over the miniature field of corn symbolize floods, possibly wind, which the Great Serpent brings.

The effigies of the monsters emerge through orifices closed by disks, upon which sun symbols are depicted to show how floods which destroy the fields come from the sky, the realm of the sun.

The masked men, called “mudheads,” are ancients which have come to have superhuman powers in causing corn to grow and mature. They struggle with the monsters who would destroy the farms of man. The acts in which they appear represent in a symbolic way the contest of early man with supernatural powers which set at naught the labors of the agriculturist.”[v]

UP NEXT: The Beginning of the End

[i] “About Chaco Canyon,” Exploratorium, last accessed December 12, 2016,

[ii] “Be Wary of the Wendigo: A Terrifying Beast of Native American Legend with an Insatiable Hunger to Devour Mankind,” January 31, 2016, Ancient Origins, last accessed December 12, 2016,

[iii] Mike Sirota, “Myths and Legends: The Chindi,” December 28, 2015, Mike Sirota Online, last accessed December 12, 2016,

[iv] Douglas Preston, “Cannibals of the Canyon,” November 30, 1998, The New Yorker; as quoted by Preston & Child Online, last accessed December 12, 2016,;art46,62.

[v] Jesse Walter Fewkes, A Theatrical Performance at Walpi (Washington, DC: Washington Academy of Sciences Vol II, 1900), 605–629.

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