Evidence of human activity in the Bandelier area dates back to more than 10,000 years ago. The first inhabitants lived a migratory life style. Later as agriculture became a more important part of their lives they settled in to communities. The Frijoles Canyon was a great place for cave dwellings. In the early 1900s there were approximately 500 people residing in this canyon.
First the creek is a permanent stream, one of the few in the area that have flowing water year around. Secondly because the cliffs are made of volcanic tuff – two large volcanic eruptions occurred over a million years ago that covered a 400 square mile area with up to 1,000 feet of volcanic ash. Over time the ash was compacted into a soft crumbly rock. This was a perfect place to settle.
There is evidence of community dwellings both on the canyon bottom and against the cliff using the caves. It seems that the choice was based on family clan customs or just preference. Dwellings on the canyon bottom were arranged in a circle with a central community “square” or circle as is the case. The houses were multiple stories and constructed of stone covered with a plaster. The circular holes in the center of the circle are Kivas, used for religious and ceremonial purposes. Access to both the Kivas and houses were from the roof so ladders were prevalent to assist with access.
The cliff dwellings had rooms built against the southern facing cliff the southern wall stays warmer in the winter months. The rooms were also multiple levels and were attached to the cliff by logs that also helped to support the roof.
You can see the rows of holes in the cliff where the roofs were attached. You can see how many levels the houses could be. They probably used the lower level for storage and lived in the upper levels.
Behind the attached rooms they excavated caves as additional rooms for the house. The tuff is relatively soft and crumbly, but would still be difficult to excavate with only hand held stone tools. The tuff cliffs erode easier than most other rocks, you can see above these dwellings that the rock is already pocked with holes kind of like swiss cheese. These pocks were used as a beginning of the caves.
In these communities extended families lived together. Each group would have their own storage rooms, sleeping quarters and kiva. Not really sure why, but one of these groups decided they needed a penthouse for their community and kiva. We climbed 160 feet up ladders to view the “alcove house.” It has a great view, but getting home at night would prove to be difficult. Notice the round kiva in the center and rows of holes from roof supports.