Etches in Stone
The Fremont Culture – Lost Tribe of Utah
In Mid-May, I found myself back 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 amidst the sprawling scenery, swarms of tourists, and tangles of hiking trails. It is fading 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.
They are Petroglyphs – ancient drawings left behind by the earliest Native Americans. There are many places in Utah to see them. Moab, Goblin Valley, Arches National Park, and Capitol Reef National Park (to name a few) all have panels of Petroglyphs that are viewable to the public. They share similar images – human figures, various animals, and circular patterns. Some are small, and would be missed without signage from the National Parks. Others are enormous, flanking a large chunk of the side of a canyon. When it comes to age, they are difficult to date. Scholars have given them dates ranging anywhere from 1AD to the Late Middle Ages.
The meaning of the symbols has not been determined officially, but to me, there is something very strong radiating out of them. Perhaps it’s the remnants of the ancient peoples who put them there. As a writer, the thought had an impact on me. When I write, it’s because I have a need to present an important message. It’s an all-consuming energy that doesn’t rest until it’s out on paper. These ancient peoples were speaking to me, 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 there is scant information available about the people who put their souls into these petroglyphs. Most of the works have been attributed to a Native American culture known in our vernacular as “The Fremont Culture.” The term was coined by Noel Morss, the man who first defined the culture. He chose the name because settlements were found near the Fremont River, named for American explorer John Charles Fremont. However, Native Americans in the area refer to them 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 been able to prove what became of them.
The little details we do know are that they were the ancient ancestors of the Pueblo (Anasazi), and that they flourished around 600AD to 1300AD (although there is some debate 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 American cultures 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. Excavation of settlements has yielded pottery, evidence of basket making, and unique clay figurines.
It all points to a peaceful and thriving culture, but archaeological evidence of these ancient people drops off around 1150 A.D., and disappears altogether by 1300 A.D. For unknown reasons, an entire civilization was abandoned. A multitude of theories have been put forth including changes in environment, interference in their culture by outside tribes, and a low population density to begin with. However, to date, it is an unsolved mystery.
All we have left of them are a few pottery fragments, some clay figurines, and those beautiful Petroglyphs that can be seen all over Utah. It’s a powerful piece of them 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 that their drawings would outlive their society. Not just by a few years, but by centuries of time.
Perhaps their message was 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 what is on the other side. It is the power that art and literature has. The power to preserve a society, even when the last member of it disappears from the face of the earth.