Seeking ancient lives in harsh lands

A review of “The Lost World of the Old Ones,” a voyage through Southwestern archaeology.


In The Lost World of the Old Ones, his 26th book, David Roberts merges his considerable experience of hiking in the desert Southwest with three decades of interest in the prehistoric peoples who lived there. His goal is to offer a general audience “the best and most provocative research conducted in the last 20 years by Southwestern archaeologists,” and this engaging narrative weaves together his understanding of the science with his many backcountry expeditions. This new book picks up where his 1996 classic, In Search of the Old Ones, left off, further examining how the ancient ones created a civilization in this harsh landscape.

Robert focuses on the Four Corners region, particularly southeastern Utah’s Cedar Mesa, Kaiparowits Plateau and Desolation Canyon, and New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and Jemez Pueblo. Several highlights stand out: On one hike, Roberts and anthropologist Matt Liebmann spot a red racer snake, and then, seconds later, discover an ancient, distinctively designed snake carved into basalt. On a marvelous backpacking adventure, he and a friend explore Kettle Country, the slickrock Diné landscape that Roberts describes as a “trackless labyrinth.”

Fallen Roof Ruin, an Anasazi pueblo on Cedar Mesa in Utah.

Memorable characters draw us into each part of the narrative. A cheerful 8-year-old girl keeps pace with 10 adult hikers on a tough backpacking journey without complaint. Rancher Waldo Wilcox donates his privately held lands near Green River, Utah, to the public trust after years of stewarding the abundant prehistoric artifacts found there, resisting the temptation to turn them into cash. Instead, during lean times Wilcox survives by capturing mountain lions on his ranch to sell to zoos. “It’s the way I was brought up,” Waldo tells Roberts. “Mom and Dad always told me that just ’cause we owned the land didn’t mean the Indian stuff belonged to us.”

Roberts similarly hews to strong ethics in his travels. His code is clear: Respect sensitive locations and take nothing but photographs. Doing so not only honors the vital presence of ancient peoples, but also allows future adventurers to enjoy the jubilation of their own discoveries. “What I’m in search of, season after season, is another clue to a great cultural mystery,” he writes. “What I gain as a reward for my search is that elusive but inexhaustible blessing: wonderment.”

The Lost World of the Old Ones
David Roberts
337 pages, hardcover: $27.95.
W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

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