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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • RANCH HAND & HOUSING OPPORTUNITY IN DURANGO, CO
    Remodeled home with the opportunity to work off part of rent. Renter(s) must be available to help with lifting, irrigation & outdoor chores, 15-40 hrs...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....