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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Anthropologists believe that more human beings lived in southwest New Mexico a thousand years ago than do today. The region is covered with thousands of archaeological sites, littered with rock art and artifacts from long-gone ancient cultures. Reporter Doug Fine went on a trek through the back country with a local man who sleuths out hidden rock art sites.

DOUG FINE reporting:

Anthony Howell is so good at finding ancient rock art that the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have asked him to help add to their catalog of known sites. Howell is inviting me along to a little-visited site that he asks I identify only as situated along the Gila River, near the New Mexico-Arizona border. He fears that if it becomes known, it might not be preserved.

Mr. ANTHONY HOWELL: There is always that one individual that has to leave his name.

FINE: I don't see what Howell's worried about. Hours from anywhere, we have to drive in an almost-impassible arroyo, flooring his Land Rover to get through the desert sand. Then we begin a scorching hike through several miles of desert. Next comes a river crossing.

(Soundbite of people walking across river)

FINE: How do you find a place like this?

Mr. HOWELL: You just keep looking and looking and looking and looking, you know. We're on water, so we know there's probably something in here.

FINE: The 52-year-old Howell has found more than 100 rock art sites in the desert Southwest in the last 10 years. He just kisses his wife goodbye and heads off into the desert looking for canyon walls with good water access. For Howell, the allure of scrambling up desert rock faces is being outside all day and the prospect of finding art no one has seen for hundreds of years. Of course, we have to avoid snake attacks, dodge killer bees and endure 90-degree heat.

Wow. I can see it from here. Look at that. That is a mural.

When you're suddenly staring at a 12-foot-by-6-foot representation of a jaguar attacking an antelope, it's all worth it.

Mr. HOWELL: What really makes this panel so spectacular is that this big-horned antelope is in the act of turning and running away from the cat. For the Mogollon to imply action, this is the only instance I've ever known in the pottery or the rock art style.

FINE: The antelope is just one image in a series of panels that face us on this cliff wall. Howell says that we are looking at petroglyphs, or rock etchings, from at least two different Native American cultures: the archaic and the Mogollon. The Mogollon lived at the same time as the better-known Anasazi culture and in some of the same areas. The obvious question, when looking at acres of glyphs from a departed culture, is: I wonder what they were saying?

Mr. HOWELL: There's a lot of people that want to believe various things about the motifs, but it's a lost culture to us. We will never know.

FINE: So there will be no Rosetta Stone for Mogollon iconography. These folks stood right where I am standing, enjoying the same view, but most archaeologists say the Mogollon disappeared or consolidated with other cultures around 700 years ago and the archaic culture much earlier. Yet that's the fun of it, says Howell...

Mr. HOWELL: It's like a good Agatha Christie mystery without the last chapter.

FINE: The mystery of it all is why it's so easy to become an archaeology junkie in the American Southwest. You're in a vast outdoor museum, and you're the curator. For NPR News, I'm Doug Fine.

ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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