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V isitors to spectacularly beautiful sites such as Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House find them mesmerizing, unforgettable, and thought-provoking. These and other cliff structures were handmade with millions of sandstone blocks, thousands of wooden beams for roofing elements, and copious amounts of adobe mortar, branches, and grasses.

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W ithout wheeled carts, draft animals, or easy access to water, the builders had to invest an immense amount of labor—it seems positively overwhelming. These sites stand in mute testimony to the tenacity, ingenuity, and architectural and engineering sophistication of their inhabitants.

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To build and maintain structures in Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and elsewhere across the greater Four Corners region, Ancestral Puebloan construction workers needed thousands of wooden beams. To get those beams, loggers harvested trees from the surrounding forests using a stone ax attached to a wooden handle. Stone axes used by Ancestral Puebloans left distinctive jagged marks on wood, as seen on this beam end from a tree cut down around A.

A rchaeologists have recovered stone axes all over the U. Southwest, and experiments have shown they are a surprisingly effective tool at chopping down trees and shrubs, breaking ground, and accomplishing other tasks. Archaeologists have also documented hundreds of beams originally cut with stone axes preserved in Balcony House and other cliff dwellings in the dry rockshelters of Mesa Verde. B ut archaeologists have never documented, to my knowledge at least, any stone axes in the forests of Mesa Verde and the surrounding regions.

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Indeed, archaeologists have struggled to figure out exactly where the logs used in Mesa Verde cliff dwellings came from. A lot of sourcing research has recently been performed, however, on wooden beams recovered from sites in Chaco Culture National Historical Park in what is today northwestern New Mexico.

G iven that there are thousands of rooms in hundreds of archaeological sites within park boundaries, and given that each of those rooms required tens, and in some cases hundreds, of wooden beams for their construction, it follows that Ancestral Puebloan loggers must have cut down thousands of trees in the surrounding forests. The question is: Where are all the tree stumps? D espite more than a century of fieldwork, archaeologists have never found, documented, and verified an ancient, human-cut tree stump in the forests around the MVNP.

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My colleagues and I have recently been involved in the search at a wonderful place called Schulman Grove. G et our newsletter with new stories delivered to your inbox every Friday.

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S chulman Grove is a small stand of old-growth Douglas fir trees growing on a rocky, steep, north- and west-facing slope in Navajo Canyon, northwest of park headquarters. I nMVNP archaeologist James Allen Lancaster visited the grove and collected a core from a peculiar tree he thought was extraordinarily old. The next year, research by scientists from the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson confirmed his suspicion—the living tree was nearly years old.

The Schulman Old Tree, as it is now called, started growing about A. It was alive for more than a century while Ancestral Puebloans were building and living in the glorious Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. T he Schulman Old Tree, which remains the oldest documented living Douglas fir in the park, is a tenacious geezer.

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As my colleagues and I review in an upcoming paper in American Antiquitytree-ring specialists who have analyzed this tree suggest that a violent rock fall occurred sometime about A. A second injury occurred about years later, when another rock fall caused the tree to bend again. A s a result, today the limbs of the Schulman Old Tree curve out at surprising angles. The tree grows nearly horizontally along the cliff, then bends slightly up and around the rock, as if desperately trying to hold on to the cliff face. Ancestral Puebloan loggers must have cut down thousands of trees.

Where are all the tree stumps? If correct, it would have been the first time archaeologists published a date for a limb cut with an ancient stone ax anywhere in the U. Therefore, we cannot confirm their A. I f the oldest living tree in the MVNP fails to yield confirmable evidence of stumps left behind by stone-ax cutting, is it possible that dead trees in the area might yield such evidence? Schulman Grove again provides tantalizing evidence worth examining.

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I nNichols and Smith published dates of A. Ten years ago, my colleagues and I tried to replicate those dates as well. The author and his colleagues were unable to verify those archaeological claims. Photo courtesy of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. W e used the well-established method of tree-ring datingin which scientists try to match growth patterns in an individual specimen against an empirically derived summary chart of regional tree growth.

I t is undeniable that pre-Columbian loggers from the Mesa Verde region harvested thousands of trees from surrounding forests to build the homes visitors now find so impressive.

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Logically, those surrounding forests must have once contained thousands of stumps that showed stone-ax cuts. Still, despite years of searching, archaeologists have never conclusively confirmed the presence of such a stump linked to Ancestral Puebloans. I n the end, the mystery of the tree stumps is perhaps not so mysterious after all: The forces of natural decay are simply too strong for exposed wood stumps to last seven centuries or more out in the open.

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Stephen E. Identities Reflecting on the Rise of the Hoteps.

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Mesa Verde National Park is a scenic dreamscape of mystery and ancient wonders.


Mesa Verde National Park is a scenic dreamscape of mystery and ancient wonders.


The Four Corners region was once a bustling metropolis, the home of the Ancestral Puebloan people also called Anasazi.