Secrets of vanished Indian nation finally revealed

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The Independent US

Waldo Wilcox, a rancher in the remote high country of Utah, has revealed a secret that he and his family have kept for 50 years - the undisturbed, astonishingly preserved ruins of settlements of people who inhabited the American south-west centuries before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World.

Waldo Wilcox, a rancher in the remote high country of Utah, has revealed a secret that he and his family have kept for 50 years - the undisturbed, astonishingly preserved ruins of settlements of people who inhabited the American south-west centuries before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World.

This week, after a state newspaper finally broke the story, Mr Wilcox, 74, invited journalists to see the ruins, clinging to the steep slopes and mountain ledges of a part of the canyon called Range Creek.

They provide a remarkable and unmatched window into the life of the Fremont Indians who lived there between 750 and 1,000 years ago - ancient grain containers with their covers fixed tight, the corn and rye still inside; stone arrow heads and entire arrows lying on the ground and many other primitive artefacts.

There are rock faces decorated with pictographs of animals and other intricate patterns; pit houses; and graves with mummified human remains preserved in strips of beaver skin.

These archaeological vestiges were discovered by Mr Wilcox soon after he bought the 4,200-acre ranch in 1951. He kept the knowledge to himself for as long as he could, but the advancing years eventually made it impossible for him to maintain the secret.

In 2001 he sold the ranch to the US Trust for Public Land, which in turn passed it on to another federal agency before the state of Utah acquired the land earlier this year. The existence of the settlements was kept quiet to allow a proper management plan to be put in place - until last week when the secret of Range Creek went public.

Like their cousins, the Anasazi Indians, who lived to the south and west, mystery shrouds the Fremont Indians: above all, the question of why their civilisation, like that of the Anasazi, suddenly vanished about 700 years ago is yet to be answered.

Scientists, historians and archaeologists have advanced various theories, ranging from a drought that forced once-settled people to become nomads, to conquest or assimilation by other Indian tribes.

Nor is anyone sure why so many of the sites are in positions so defensible that they must have been almost unreachable, even to the people that lived in them. One intact settlement, for instance, only came to light about 15 years ago when Mr Wilcox chased off a mountain lion that had been menacing his cattle and stumbled upon the site on the top of a cliff.

Range Creek may help the experts answer history's riddles. "In terms of research potential," Kevin Jones, a Utah state archaeologist said, "this is unbelievable."

These long-abandoned settlements in Utah are less elaborate and less spectacular than much-visited Anasazi ruins such as Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, or Mesa Verde in Colorado. But in many respects they are more valuable, having escaped almost all human interference for more than half a millennium.

The question now is whether the sites can stay that way. Mr Wilcox has misgivings about handing over his land to the state.

"I wanted to keep it the way it is," he said. "If I could have turned the clock back to when I was 20, I wouldn't have sold it."

He and the teams of archaeologists busy at work at Range Creek fear the settlements will be wrecked by tourists, souvenir hunters and looters. Although the sites are only reachable by a 25-mile dirt track, hikers and backpackers have recently been seen in the area.

"The public should see this stuff," Mr Wilcox says. "I just don't want them digging it up and knocking things down. Otherwise, you'll be awfully lucky if there's anything left for your kids to see."

Various schemes are being proposed to prevent that happening. Casual visits are almost certain to be banned. The sites may be open only for a few weeks each year and only for tours booked well in advance, all of them accompanied by guides.

In the meantime, archaeologists and the state of Utah continue their race against time. Two hundred individual sites have been discovered already, and it is almost certain that many more have yet to be found.

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