Homo sapiens


Shannon Cowell



We bump over cobbles and boulders along the two-track road. Five of us pour out of the Ford F-150, and we begin our morning rituals around the tailgate. I take my last swig of coffee. She clips a 50-meter tape onto her backpack. He shuffles forms into his clip board. We have come to survey the foothills for alcoves, rockshelters, and ridgelines where people lived their lives. We scour the slopes for any and all evidence they left behind. These objects, marks, and scars tell us stories we would not learn otherwise, stories left out of written history. We were, are, and will always be everyday people in the borderlands, living in between the capital-P Places that capital-M Matter.

A few thousand years ago a woman dragged a pigment-dipped index finger down the rockshelter wall, telling a story, requesting help, summoning or storing power. She raised her hand a second time and gently marked two parallel trails of pigmented dots down the rock, like red rain. Women shared stories here, demonstrated ways of living, being, and doing. As an archaeologist I share in this tradition, training students to stretch metric tapes and gather lengths, widths, and heights, transmitting the paltry way our science attempts to understand space. A curved pencil line on my student's graph paper represents the back wall of the rockshelter. I gently point at the part of the wall where she painted, reminding him to plot and assign a number to the remnant of the woman’s prayer.


Once, the sound of tools on rock echoed here, amplified by the rockshelter’s arching form. The people from before chipped out deep bedrock mortars in a cluster just beneath the overhang. Today monsoon rain collects inside each neat conical hole in the volcanic rock. Tiny plants take hold, and we argue over whether the early people drank or used the murky green water. There are nine mortars in a cluster. I wonder if the women used all of them at once? Did they get in each other’s way, and when they did, did they bicker or laugh or wordlessly move? How did they use the shallow hip-high cupules ground into the boulders, especially the ones tipping over the edge? If I could see through time, who would sweat and hunch over the same spot where I sweat and hunch? What would their faces look like? I smear a thick glossy sheet of sunscreen on my face, thinking how my ancestors belonged in higher latitudes. Today we trespass on a sacred site.


The archaeologists of 1980s yore discovered a capital-F First here, laying a foundation for what academics know about early corn and how it spread throughout the Southwest. I could rattle off calibrated dates, places, races, but I'd rather wonder who brought the very first corn up from down south, imagine their face or faces, and why they did it. Had I been one of the early people, how would I have reacted to a fat-seeded new kind of grass, the fattest I'd ever seen, a new blessing and foodstuff? Would I have wondered who, in the south, had bred the plant? Who cultivated it, and what did the corn mean to them? How many times had the dusty cob in my palm changed hands? Would I have thought to plant seeds over there, in the drainage, near that swarthy green mesquite? Could I have guessed that corn would blast across a continent, changing everything, only to explode across the planet and change everything again? Today I chomp on the corn’s cousin, reconfigured into high-fructose syrup form, hiding in my granola bar.


Who else trespassed here before me? What does the evidence tell us? White climber’s chalk accumulates inside the rockshelters. Hikers walked inside, scuffing away protective vegetation on the shelter floors. Someone decided to drill inch-diameter holes into the back wall of the shelter, insert dynamite, and stand back and watch the volcanic rock fly. He chucked aside his steel-sided beer can or mid-century soda bottle in satisfaction. Were you exorcizing demons, blowing up rock for building a wall, or looking for loot? We know the latest stage of the Plastic People, dating AD 1907 through the present day, by their brightly decorated vessels, left in binge-drinking activity areas after sacred libations and secret ceremonies: Bud Lite, Coors, Michelob Ultra, Miller High Life, and Corona, our ubiquitous trademark artifacts. Two Plastic People, within weeks of our recording, scratched their names across the face of an old spirit painted on the rock, its pupils pin-sized, and its white eyebrows raised in eternal shock. Remember me, remember us, but please, don’t deface a face. These basins and ranges are not empty space: this is a home, a workshop, a church, a shelter, a hangout, a shrine.




Shannon Cowell is a preservation archaeologist at Archaeology Southwest with a decade of field experience throughout the western United States. Her essay “Something About A Pipeline” was a finalist in the 2015 Payton James Freeman Essay Prize contest and appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Slice.  She is currently working on a science fiction novel; more at shannoncowell.com.