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Thinking in Thousands 

Veterans' Gifts

Resolved, that the current calendar year is the last year of the nineteenth century." This was the debate topic at Colorado College in January 1900. The debate's outcome wasn't recorded, but the general consensus in Colorado Springs was affirmative. By this logic, 2000 is the last year of the 20th century; the second millennium's final year.

But dates with so many zeros prompt reflections about milestones in time. The same thing happened in 1500: In the years leading up to it, doomsday prophets like Savanarola predicted the end of civilization as it was known to Renaissance Italy -- not unlike our own Y2K hysteria.

Our calendar has turned to 2000 without apparent cataclysmic change; millennium fever has abated. Yet all those zeros still bring a fresh awareness of time in thousand-year increments. What was this place like -- the Pikes Peak region, Colorado -- a hundred, a thousand, several thousand years ago? Is it possible to wrap our minds around the stretch of time that is a millennium?

Not long after the turn of the last century, light-skinned descendants of European immigrants posed for photos at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings with darker-skinned descendants of people who arrived in western America between 12 and 20 millennia ago. Pueblo Indians in the photo were brought -- like the dwellings -- to this area as a tourist attraction.

Utes, who traveled between mountains and plains via the pass that would receive their name, called this region home. Ridges now part of the Red Rock Canyon property still bear remains of their "circular places of defense built of loose stone, to a height of four or five feet" (Irving Howbert, The Indians of the Pikes Peak Region).

Plains tribes also met here at the foot of the "shining mountains": Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa, Sioux, sometimes Pawnee and Apache. Howbert describes Plains Indians coming to the mountains to get new tipi poles, which, "in being dragged over the country, rapidly wore out. ... The thousands of small stumps that were to be seen on the side of Cheyenne Mountain at the time of the first settlement of this region gave evidence that many Indians had secured new lodge poles in that locality."

At the turn of the last millennium, the year 1000, Leif Eriksen and his Vikings probably arrived in eastern North America. The same year, Pueblo Bonita at Chaco Canyon, N.M., had 20 rooms; a century later, Chaco was a city of 800 room and kivas, four stories high in some places. Roads led to Chaco from all directions: Its Anasazi occupants, skilled in astronomy as well as architecture, traded for shells from California, copper bells from Mexico, bright-feathered macaws from Central America. People of the Pikes Peak region undoubtedly knew of Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde and other great stone cities to the south.

The Anasazi combined agriculture -- corn and squash, later beans -- with gathering wild seeds and hunting. Before the Anasazi, Archaic people lived and hunted here between 2,000 and 8,000 years ago, using spears and atlatls (spear-throwers -- bow-and-arrow technology appeared here 1,500 years ago). At the present site of Dotsero, Colorado's most recent volcano was erupting 4,000 years ago, around the same time that, in the Middle East, Phoenicians were inventing the alphabet. Paleo-Indians lived here between 8,000 and 11,000 or more years ago. With various types of stone projectile points, they hunted giant bison, mammoths, camels, horses and other Pleistocene animals that eventually became extinct in North America.

Anasazi pictographs depict bountiful harvest in places since overgrazed by cattle and sheep -- creatures introduced by Europeans. Yet even before these newcomers arrived, the Anasazi abandoned their stone cities. Tree-ring dating indicates severe drought; many archeologists believe overpopulation coincided with this climate change. Similarly, paleoarchaeologists believe some prehistoric animal species became extinct through over-hunting as well as Pleistocene climate change and more humans than the land could support.

It's even harder to visualize millennial time spans yet to come. On its way to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant storage facility near Carlsbad, N.M., radioactive waste (industrial, medical, military) routinely travels through Colorado Springs on I-25. Radioactivity decays at different rates: stronium-90's half-life is only 28 days; that of radium-226 is a millennium and a half -- farther into the future than Chaco Canyon's civilization is in the past. The 24,000-year half-life of plutonium-239 is twice as long as the 12,000 years ago that ancient Coloradans were hunting mammoths.

Can thinking in millennial terms offer anything to how we live in our present world?

Thinking beyond our own life spans (aside from imagining those of our children) may be beyond human capacity. But all those zeros in our year inspire reflection on years measured in thousands. And millennia of cultures crossing reflect from this photograph: heritage and hopes, here, at the foot of Pikes Peak, a mere century ago.

  • Dates with so many zeros prompt reflections about milestones in time.

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