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Comb Ridge, Utah - Utah's Cliff Dwellers

San Juan Hill
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted October 1, 2009

The Cliff Dwellers Of Comb Ridge

The cliff dwelling at San Juan Hill is well protected from weather by the massive overhang above. Maybe that's why it has weathered so well.

Comb Ridge is one of the many undeveloped areas in Utah where little has changed in the past 1,000 years. It is a place where this generation can venture to ponder the mysteries of the Cliff Dwellers who once inhabited the area. It is a place where gentle breezes blow, where temperatures soar into triple digits, and where the only sounds are those of nature. Getting there requires a combination of using a four-wheel drive vehicle and taking long hikes.

The dwellings built by these ancient people between the years of 1000 and 1400 are among the greatest mysteries of the Southwest. Some of them are many stories high and built in such a way as to seem like a part of the rock formation around them. The irrigation systems are engineering wonders that should not have been possible in such a low-tech society. The painted pottery and tools they made from soil, rocks, and vegetation, still exist after many centuries.

Experts look for answers in graves. In a few locations bodies have been preserved in a mummified state. In some cases, digging below one layer of graves has produced another much older layer. Recent discoveries of hair colors normally associated with fair skinned humans have thrown more questions at those who believe the cliff dwellers are ancestors of the Pueblo Indians. In addition to hair color, skulls found in older grave layers had a different shape. The more recent skulls had a flattened shape in the back and the older ones were more rounded. Some experts believe they may have been a lost colony from an Egyptian heritage.

During the late 1990s, discoveries of bones that showed signs of mutilation led to a theory that cannibalism was practiced within the tribes. The bones had been shattered, scored, and were blackened as if cooked. The Society for American Archaeology took the subject on at an annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. Some argued the finding only suggested bodies may have been mutilated during war or during religious ceremonies. Others were not convinced and left the meeting believing cannibalism was the only explanation.

According to folklore found in some Pueblo tribes, the only humans to eat other humans were witches. Eating human flesh was a part of the initiation. Once a witch was identified by the tribe, she was cut into pieces in search of her evil heart. Apparently, the evil heart is not the same as a human heart because it might be found in any part of the body. Finding that evil heart prevented the witch from returning to inflict revenge on the tribe.

The subject of cannibalism continues to fire heated debates among interested parties. One writer felt the evidence was just too rare and not conclusive. He said it would be the same as labeling all North American pioneers as cannibals because of the Donner Party.


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