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Unraveling a Mystery
Did the Anasazi use ropes to reach cliffside homes?

Some of the cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi people some 800 years ago are so inaccessible that today only rock climbers using ropes can reach them. That's what got a group of climbing Anasazi buffs wondering: Did the ancients use ropes too? And, if so, how did they make them?
"I'm always amazed by the questions we archaeologists don't think to ask," says University of Colorado Anasazi expert Richard Wilshusen. "As far as I know, nobody has ever studied this problem."
Until now. Remains of the Anasazi's aeries dot the Four Corners, where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. Archaeologists have long known that the Anasazi used log ladders (tree trunks with notched footholds) as well as hand-and-toe trails (staircases carved into cliff faces with quartzite stones) to gain access to the homes they built in natural alcoves, many of them hundreds of feet up sandstone cliffs.
Yet to climbers like Vaughn Hadenfeldt who've spent years climbing in Anasazi country, many dwellings seem unreachable by those means.
Excavations have yielded samples of cord the Anasazi produced for countless useful items, from sandals to rabbit snares, using fibers from wild plants like yucca and dogbane, and even human hair. Over the past 16 years, Museum of New Mexico archaeologist Eric Blinman has taught himself to make yucca cordage that mirrors surviving Anasazi examples, some of which are stout enough to qualify as rope.
But could such cord have been used for climbing? Last winter Blinman spun two 30-foot (10-meter) lengths of yucca rope, one a quarter-inch (half a centimeter) in diameter, the other three-eighths of an inch (one centimeter). To test the thicker rope's strength, Hadenfeldt, a wilderness guide based in Bluff, Utah, used it to climb a precipice studded with dwellings in southeastern Utah. "It handles a lot stiffer and more abrasive than nylon," Hadenfeldt reported. "I hung from it, even bounced up and down. I was surprised how strong it felt."
Hadenfeldt concluded that the natural-fiber rope probably wouldn't be strong enough to hold a climber's fall. "But I'd feel plenty safe hanging on it."
The Anasazi-style ropes then went to the product-testing lab of outdoor-gear retailer REI in Kent, Washington, where engineer Steve Nagode strained pieces of each of Blinman's cords to its breaking point. On average, the thicker rope segments broke at 456 pounds (206 kilograms) of strain, the thinner at 233 pounds (105 kilograms).

That's only about a fifth as strong as the high-tech synthetic ropes used today. But these yucca ropes are comparable in strength to the hemp and manila cordage mountaineers used before the advent of nylon ropes in the 1940s.
If the Anasazi counted on ropes to help them stay safe, as climbers do today, they took big risks: A 20-foot (6-meter) fall would likely break the three-eighths-inch (one-centimeter) rope Blinman crafted. But the ancients may have used such cords to haul building materials and other supplies or to assist less sure-footed residents into their cliffside homes. Even that would have been scary, but, as Blinman wryly notes, the Anasazi didn't have safety inspectors.
—David Roberts

Web Links

Anasazi Heritage Center
This museum serves as the starting point for visits to the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Here you can explore Anasazi history, artifacts, and research.

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Roberts, David. In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest. Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Stuart, David. E. Anasazi America. University of New Mexico Press, 2000.


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