fire tower at Chimney Rock National Monument, built in 1940
by the Civilian Conservation Corps, was torn down in 2010
because it interfered with viewing astronomical events connected
to the site, such as the major lunar standstill. Under the
tower's foundation, archaeologists found a 1,000-year-old
fire pit that may have been a piece of a vast communication
system that linked ancestral Puebloan sites in the Southwest.
(photo courtesy of US Forest Service)
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set about bringing
the United States out of the Great Depression with his New Deal.
These efforts included a number of things that became a part
of everyday life, such as the ending of Prohibition, the establishment
of Social Security and the creation of the Civilian Conservation
Corps, which put unemployed men to work in a time when jobs were
hard to find.
In the Southwest, there are multiple example of projects taken
on by the CCC, including the Lions Den shelter near Fort Lewis College,
many of the trails and roads at Mesa Verde National Park and, until
it was removed in 2010, the fire lookout tower at Chimney Rock National
The lookout tower has quite the history: It was built in 1940,
abandoned in the '50s after it caught fire, reconstructed in 1987
for viewing the ancestral Puebloan site and ultimately removed because
it interfered with the observation of astronomical events.
What's even more interesting, however, is the history of the
ground on which the tower was built. Beneath its foundation is a
1,000-year-old fire pit that may have been a piece of a vast communication
system that linked ancestral Puebloan sites in the Southwest.
2007, a group of researchers duplicated an experiment performed
in 1990 by Kathy Freeman, a high school student from Farmington.
Using large mirrors, researchers were able to signal to distant
sites in the Southwest. They believe Native American tribes
could have used large fires to achieve similar results. (Photo
courtesy of US Forest Service)
Linking distant sites
Julie Coleman, archaeologist and tribal liaison for San Juan National
Forest, says archaeologists' accounts from earlier excavations of
Chimney Rock documented evidence of large fires.
But there wasn't a connection to long-range communication until
1990 when Kathy Freeman, a high school student from Farmington,
conducted an experiment using large mirrors as part of a science
Using mirrors, Freeman was able to reflect light from Chimney
Rock to Huerfano Mountain, which is on protected Navajo Nation land
in northern New Mexico. That land also has evidence of large bonfires.
From Huerfano, light was relayed to Pueblo Alto in Chaco Culture
National Historic Park.
"It totally worked. You could see the flashes of the mirrors,
and in 2007, we recreated that experience," Coleman said.
That experiment was more than a duplication of Freeman's. Researchers
placed crews at a number of sites around the Southwest, including
Aztec Ruins National Monument, the Far View site at Mesa Verde National
Park and Salmon Ruins in Bloomfield.
Using a similar methodology, scientists were able to connect
many ancestral Puebloan sites in the area, but hazy conditions meant
the connection between Huerfano and Chimney Rock was not achieved.
While researchers used mirrors, it is believed that Native American
tribes could have used large fires to achieve similar results.
But what would such long-range communication have been used
Commerce and more
Coleman said archaeologists can only speculate, but a prominent
belief is that fires were used to relay the timing of major celestial
events, such as the summer and winter solstices and the northern
major lunar standstill where the moon appears to rise between the
two spires at Chimney Rock.
While this is one possible reason identified by Western scholars
for using fire to communicate across long distances, it isn't the
The oral histories of tribes with a lineage to the ancestral
Puebloans paint different pictures of the pueblos, how they interacted
Carey Vacenti, assistant professor of sociology at Fort Lewis
College, is a member the Jicarilla Apache tribe and also has Pueblo
and Southern Ute ancestry.
Vacenti, assistant professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College
and a member of the Jicarilla Apache tribe, says that according
to Native American oral histories, fires were used to notify
outlying settlement of Chaco Canyon that people from the south
had arrived with goods to trade. Chaco flourished as a cultural
center from the 800s to the 1100s. (photo Journal file)
Vacenti said the oral histories taught to him from his Pueblo
lineage describe sites in the Southwest, particularly Chaco Canyon,
in ways that non-Native Americans are not willing to accept because
of the sentiment around oral accounts.
"Much of the oral history is ignored by anthropologists and
archaeologists because they consider it to be unreliable, and yet
you learn the Pledge of Allegiance not probably by reading it but
by reciting it, and nobody gets those words wrong," he said.
Tim Hovezak, archaeologist at Mesa Verde, described properly
using oral histories as "one of the biggest challenges in archaeology."
This is because scholars have to be able to corroborate these
accounts with material evidence and interpret from there, Hovezak
said, which can be difficult because of the number of Native American
tribes affiliated with sites like Mesa Verde.
"They all have their own take and their own history of this
place," he said.
The histories passed down to Vacenti describe Chaco Canyon as
a religious mercantile hub. The area flourished for more than 300
years beginning in the mid-800s A.D. "It was kind of the equivalent
of a, what would you call it, like a religious bookstore. It's kind
of like you go to a religious bookstore and get all kinds of religious
paraphernalia. You can get different types of bibles, you can get
you can get things like that," Vacenti said.
This trade would include a number of items brought north from
Central America, such as shells, copper bells, macaw feathers and
Vacenti said the long-range signaling system was connected with
this trade, and fires were used to notify outlying settlements that
people from the south had arrived, according to his oral histories.
Ancestral Puebloans may have used fire for much more than long-range
communication. Evidence suggests it was used as a tool for manipulating
Some sites in the region appear to have been ritualistically
burned during their abandonment, Hovezak said in an e-mail. But
corroborating evidence is needed when attributing burning to the
ancestral Puebloans because of the lack of a written record, he
said. Without it, most fires at Mesa Verde are attributed to natural
George San Miguel, natural resources manager for Mesa Verde,
said there is evidence that points to a broader use of fire at the
According to a study published by San Miguel in 2013, there
is a significant rise in charcoal accumulation at the park during
the peak of habitation by ancestral Puebloans with a decrease after
emigration from the area.
The study says the increased charcoal accumulation "lends strong
evidence to the importance of Native American use of fire to manipulate
The study goes on to say this would be the first instance of
extensive fire use by ancestral Puebloans in the Southwest, but
this isn't particularly a surprise based on Native American's history
of environmental manipulation through fire.
"This is not shocking or anything like that," San Miguel said.
Perhaps the most prominent example of Native American use of
fire is in the Southeast where slash-and-burn practices were used
to clear land for farming before colonization.
There are a number of other accounts of fire use by Native Americans,
including hunting and herding of buffalo in the Great Plains, as
well as a list of logical reasons for its use.
San Miguel said fire could be selectively used to keep vegetation
in particular growth stages when it is more nutritious and allow
for the support of more game animals in an area for the purpose
Fire could also be used to manufacture an expanded "edge effect,"
the area where two ecosystems meet, such as the joining of plains
and a forest, where there is increased biodiversity.
It could also be used to essentially groom an area, removing
underbrush and easing travel and hunting within it.
Without a written record, it is hard to say exactly why fire
use was expanded during the settlement of Mesa Verde.
"This is speculation. We don't know this for fact, but these
are logical reasons to do this kind of thing," San Miguel said.