Etches in Stone
The Fremont Culture – Lost Tribe of Utah
In Mid-May, I found myself in beautiful Moab, Utah. The state has a pull for me – the red rock canyons, the wide open fields, the deep blue skies and the snow-capped mountains. Everywhere you look, it’s beautiful.
This time, while hiking through the Arches National Park, I got to learn about another gem of Utah. This one is harder to see among the sprawling scenery, swarms of tourists, and tangles of hiking trails. It is faded with age and blended into the canyons, but for those willing to stop for a closer look, it’s a glimpse hundreds of years back in time.
What I’m talking about is Petroglyphs – ancient drawings left behind by the earliest Native Americans. You can see them in many places in Utah. Moab, Goblin Valley, Arches National Park, and Capitol Reef National Park (to name a few) all have panels of Petroglyphs viewable to the public. They have many images in common too – human figures, various animals, and circular patterns. Some are small, almost impossible to see without signage from the National Parks. Others are enormous, flanking large chunks of the canyon sides. When it comes to age, they are difficult to date. Scholars give them origins ranging anywhere from 1AD to the Late Middle Ages.
The meaning of the symbols hasn’t been determined either, but something strong radiates from them anyway – remnants of the ancient peoples who put them there. As a writer, the thought had an impact on me.
I write because I have a need to present an important message. It’s an all-consuming energy that won’t stop torturing me until it’s out on paper. As I stood and gazed at these drawings from centuries ago, I felt a similar pull on my insides. These ancient peoples spoke, through hundreds of years of time, to convey their own important message.
But what was it? I tried to picture the artists who put these pictures on the rocks. Did they have a spouse? A family? What must it have been like to be in isolated Utah, before the white man and modern civilization came? The vast open spaces, the far-reaching canyons, the limitless horizons, it must have been grand. Was that the message? Were they trying to show me what I had missed out on?
They’re questions I can’t answer, because scant information exists about the people who put a piece of their souls into these petroglyphs. Most Utah Petroglyphs are attributed to a Native American culture known ias “The Fremont Culture.” The term got coined by Noel Morss, one of the earliest researchers of this culture. He chose the name because of settlements found near the Fremont River, named for American explorer John Charles Fremont. However, Native Americans in the area refer to this long-ago culture as the Hisatsinom, which means “the Ancient ones.”
It’s a perfect translation because it’s the basics of all that we know. After flourishing in the Southwest for many centuries, the Hisatsinom disappeared, wiped clean off the pages of history. Despite research and excavations, scientists and historians have not discovered what became of them.
All we really know is that Hisatsinom were ancient ancestors of the Pueblo (Anasazi), and they flourished around 600AD to 1300AD (although debate still swirls about that time frame). They lived all over Utah and surrounding areas like Nevada, Colorado, and even Idaho. The “Fremont Culture” does not refer to just one tribe, but to all ancient Native Americans of that time and place who shared their living habits. They dwelled in either pit homes dug into the earth, or in the many caves throughout the Southwest. Instead of one big unit, they existed as small bands of multiple families, making it easier for them to stay close to nature and get on the move when they had to. Their primary diet was hunter-gatherer, but they also cultivated corn, squash, and beans along the river. Settlement excavation has yielded pottery, evidence of basket making, and unique clay figurines.
It all points to a peaceful and thriving culture, but archaeological evidence drops off around 1150 A.D., and disappears altogether by 1300 A.D. For unknown reasons, an entire civilization vanished. A multitude of theories exist about this, including changes in environment, interference by outside tribes, and a low population density to begin with. However, to date, the Fremont Culture disappearance is an unsolved mystery (cue Robert Stack).
All that remains of them are a few pottery fragments, some clay figurines, and those beautiful Petroglyphs all over Utah. And to me, the Petroglyphs are a powerful piece to have. Their culture died out, but their art, and therefore pieces of their hearts and minds, lived on. I wonder if the people who made them knew the drawings would outlive their society. Not just by a few years, but by centuries of time.
Perhaps the Petroglyph message is this; when it comes to words and art, time is not a closed door. It is just a fence or a boundary. We can’t go through, but we can see clearly what is on the other side. That’s the power that art and literature has. The power to travel through time, and preserve a society, even when the last member of it disappears from the face of the earth.