Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Ancient Hiking Shoes and Yucca Plants

One of the important plants one sees along the trails at Mesa Verde and elsewhere in the Four Corners is the Yucca Plant. Among the ancient products made from the Yucca are sandals. A few examples of this ancient footwear are exhibited in the regional museums.

The Trail Guide for the Nordenskiold Ruin No. 16 Trail on Wetherill Mesa at Mesa Verde has the most extensive description of the biology and uses of the Yucca plant, but that trail was burned so severely by recent forest fire that hardly anything is growing there.

The Knife Edge Botany Trail that starts at the Morefield campground area and tours the north Mesa Verde escarpment doesn’t mention the Yucca plant. The Petroglyph Trail Guide discusses the Yucca at stop No. 30 on the return leg along the mesa top. It is also identified with markers in the area near the Chapin Mesa Museum overlooking Spruce Tree House.

The Yucca plant was used to make cord, ropes, belts, snares, blankets, and sandals. The fleshy leaves were harvested with a stone knife. Then the leaves were roasted and peeled to remove the outer plant tissues. Next, the fibers were separated by pounding the heated leaves, and these were twisted into strands.

The Aztec Ruins Museum has a display showing how a bone tool was used to remove the fleshy pulp and expose the fibers inside. The display says individual strands were twisted clockwise and groups of strands twisted counter clockwise, probably one of your little known facts.

Shampoo was made by pounding the roots into soap. Foods and syrups were made from the Yuccas blossoms and large pod fruit. Blooms appear in May and June and are a favorite food of mule deer. The Yucca fruit is about two inches long and 0.5 inch in diameter with a cylindrical shape. It starts out green and ages to brown and then gray. The fruit is described as tasting like summer squash and the blossoms taste like lettuce.

There are many species of Yucca and they hybridize making identification difficult. The Yucca has a relationship with a small white moth that both depend on for reproduction. I’ve noticed that in the burned area leading to the Cliff Palace Loop that the Yucca plants either survived or have grown back quickly. During the winter season, the only green in the area is the Yucca plant.
The Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores, Colorado has a pair of Yucca sandals side by side. The example to the left appears thicker than the lightweight model to the right. I’ve been wondering how the Pueblo people coped with the heavy snow that is possible in the region, but apparently there was a variety of foot wear available.

The Aztec Ruins museum has some examples of sandals also. The Heritage Center also has a dissecting microscope display featuring a comparison of the Yucca fiber side by side with cotton fiber.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Lowry Ruins in Winter

Lowry Ruins is one of the few easy to visit sites of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado. In the winter, the site can still be visited but bring your snowshoes.

County Road CC is cleared west of Pleasant View, Colorado but the driveway into the parking area and the trail to the ruins is not cleared of winter snows. It is about 0.25 miles of snow shoeing to get to the ruins area.

Lowry Ruins sits on a slight hill top with views of the sage plain area surrounding and all of the regional mountain ranges are in clear view. During my visit, it looked like a snow mobile had made a visit but there were no foot prints around the ruins site since the heavy snows of about 10 days before. The snow at the site appeared to average about two feet of depth. On a 30 F degree sunny day the snow surface was crusty and I didn’t sink in except for a few spots.

The interpretive information at Ancestral Pueblo sites doesn’t say anything about how the residents here would deal with heavy snows. It looks like snow drifts could build up high enough to block the low level doorways. Many of these structures had openings in the roofs with ladders, but how would that work if there was three feet of snow around the opening.

The farming areas are thought to have been worked with digging sticks, but I haven’t seen any mention of snow removal sticks. We mostly visit these sites in the warm months of the year and don’t consider the problems of winter survival. How many of these rooms were for storage of firewood and food for the times when conditions might be difficult for weeks.

The interpretive information at the site says that the Great Kiva at Lowry is considered to be a feature that drew residents to this site over several generations. It was a relatively early structure here, but there isn’t any comment as to why it was so attractive. The Lowry site is at a higher elevation than the pueblo sites in the Hovenweep area 20 miles to the south. The winter snows are deeper at Lowry and take longer to melt in the spring.

A large kiva like this seems to be a valuable feature for a community. It is big enough to accommodate a large group and has the earth contact and insulation features that might make a long winter more comfortable.

I spent about 1:30 hours on this visit on a comfortable winter day. I read at the Anasazi Heritage Center that some of the building stones at Lowry have petroglyphs inscribed similar to several that were found at the Escalante Pueblo. I circled around the site three times looking for them but didn’t spot any this time.

Lowry ruin in southwestern Colorado (Fieldiana : anthropology - Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago)