Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988

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Sandia Cave

Sign indicating trailhead parking area

Spiral staircase leading to the opening of the cave.

In search of Sandia Man

—Margaret Nava
As you hike up the snow-covered trail leading to Sandia Cave, you begin to feel as if you’ve wandered into some sort of lost world. For the most part, the trail itself is unmarked; you haven’t seen another human for quite a while; and the only sounds you hear are birds flitting through trees and dry leaves rustling as secretive ground dwellers monitor your progress. When you finally climb the spiral staircase and peer into the dark hole in the side of a steep limestone cliff in Las Huertas Canyon, you know your feelings were correct.

Located approximately three miles beyond where the pavement ends on New Mexico (NM) 165 east of historic Placitas, there are several signs warning that the road ahead is unimproved and dangerous, if not entirely closed, during winter. Nevertheless, Sandia Cave, once hailed as the earliest archaeological site in America and designated as a National Historic Landmark, is a place everyone should see.

Back in 1935, a UNM anthropology grad student unearthed some skeletal remains in an obscure cave high above Las Huertas Creek. Believing the cave was worth a second look, two other grad students, Wesley Bliss and Frank Hibben, returned to the site where the artifacts were discovered and started digging. Over the next couple of years, several distinct layers of the cave soil were examined, and animal bone fragments, stone tools (including some projectile points), and two hearths were excavated. Although Bliss eventually withdrew from the project, Hibben continued his work, published his findings, and went on to become a professor at UNM. Articles published by the Saturday Evening Post, Time Magazine and the Smithsonian Institute claimed that the radioactive dates of the artifacts indicated that “Sandia Man,” and maybe his descendants, lived in this forgotten cave between 17,000 to 20,000 years ago, making them almost certainly the first Americans, older even than “Folsom Man.”

Hibben was heralded as a highly respected archaeologist, and Sandia Cave took its rightful place on the pages of history books.

Several years later, however, other scientists began doubting Hibben’s work and the authenticity of the cave. Hibben’s stratigraphy was questioned, the radiocarbon dates were rejected as problematic, and some researchers even suggested that the projectile points were forgeries.

In 1975, Eastern New Mexico University archaeologists Dominique Stevens and Dr. George Agogino published “Sandia Cave: A Study in Controversy” that stated, “all conclusive statements concerning the putative Sandia Culture are based on insufficient and/or uncertain data.” And in an abstract published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1986 after two decades of study, University of Tucson geoarchaeologist C. Vance Haynes, Jr. and George Agogino further stated, “We conclude that the Sandia points are definitely less than 14,000 years old and suggest they may be specialized Clovis or Folsom artifacts used for mining ocher.” In the forward to that same publication, Dennis Stanford, curator of North American archaeology at Smithsonian Institution said, “Cultural questions remain very much enigmatic.” Maybe there was no such being as Sandia Man.

Flashing forward to April of 2008, Jessica Thompson of Arizona State University, Nawa Sugiyama of Harvard University, and Gary Morgan of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History reexamined Hibben’s artifacts in order to answer three questions: What kind of taxonomic and taphonomic data could be derived from the animal bones found in the cave?; did humans use the cave as a base camp, or was it simply a carnivore den?; was there any evidence that could resolve the 70-year-old debate surrounding the site? Their results were inconclusive. Other than concluding that humans had little to do with bringing animal bones to the cave, they could neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Sandia points.

Did Sandia Man ever exist? Did he frequent the cave in Las Huertas Canyon? Were the projectile points found in the cave his or a later occupant’s? Unless newer research methods are developed, we may never know.

Until then, you’ll have to take the hike up to the cave, stare into its dim interior, and draw your own conclusion. If you’re daring enough to crawl into the total darkness, be forewarned that the opening narrows rapidly, and the walls quickly close in around you. Even if you remembered to bring a flashlight, you probably won’t find much more than bat guano and spider webs in this cave, and you certainly won’t find any of Sandia Man’s bones or the bones of animals he may have eaten—they’re long gone. Regardless, Sandia Cave is very, very old and well worth every effort it takes to see it.

To get there, travel eight miles east of I-25 on NM 165, through the village of Placitas to just past the National Forest boundary where the pavement ends. Then go another 3 miles on the unpaved road (watch out for large rocks and ice) over five low concrete bridges, and turn left into the trailhead parking lot. The trail itself, a little more than half-a-mile long, begins on the left end of the parking area. A word of caution: Cell phones may not work up here, the trail leading to the cave is neither wheelchair accessible, nor acrophobia-friendly, and this is bear and cougar country (especially in the winter), so pay attention to your surroundings, be careful where you step, and take along a buddy—maybe even Sandia Man himself.

Placitas County rises again

—Ty  Belknap

Charles Mellon says that people tell him he was “ahead of his time” in 2003 when he advocated separating the Placitas area from Sandoval County and forming Placitas County. Back then, a lively dialogue appeared in the Signpost from November 2003 through January 2004 when Mellon presented the idea to the Sandoval County Commission. (Visit and click on Back Issues.) His request for a public referendum that would allow residents to vote on the issue in the November 2004 general election was denied when the commission unanimously refused to even make a motion for such a resolution.

Public comment at the commission meeting was generally negative with one speaker calling the idea “asinine, absurd, and premature.” According to Commissioner Thomas, he was just looking out for Placitans who paid only $900,000 in taxes and received $2,700,000 in services. The issue gradually lost steam, but the Placitas County sign across from the Merc has remained, along with some faded bumper stickers.

Seven years later, Mellon, along with fellow activist Gary Miles, has renewed the call for Placitas County and has been presenting petitions under a canopy near the intersection NM 165 and I-25 every Saturday morning.

Mellon, who has run unsuccessfully for election to county offices, says that Placitas has never enjoyed the benefits of self government— that Sandoval County uses Placitas property tax as a “cash cow,” with six percent of county residents paying fifteen percent of the property tax. He insists that estimates of costs are inflated by some county and state officials, and that Placitas County can be funded without tax hikes—especially since Sandoval County initiated the doubling of property taxes in 2008 to fund hospitals in Rio Rancho and the controversial Eastern Sandoval County Flood Control Authority. He said that next time Placitas County advocates will bypass the County Commission and will seek legislative action directly.

The petition seeking the establishment of Placitas County is only one of five that Mellon has presented. He says that it is a long-term goal that will not happen overnight—that action on the other petitions will pave the road toward Placitas County. He says that self government can start next year with petitioning the New Mexico Soil and Water Conservation Commission to remove Placitas from the Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District and form a Placitas Soil and Water Conservation District. This, he says, would be the first political subdivision for the entire Placitas area which has been historically deprived of representation by its own residents at local, state and federal levels. If the commission approves, residents would vote on the issue in May, 2011. The PSWCD could eventually handle flood control issues locally and could take the place of ESCAFCA.

Another petition seeks to redistrict ESCAFCA to separate Placitas from Bernalillo and Algodones. Another seeks to remove Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres from the ESCAFCA Board of Directors due to an alleged conflict of interest.  Mellon is also seeking Placitas representation on the Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments.

Representatives from outside of Placitas make decisions following a pro-growth policy that affects open space, residential and commercial development, and transportation. Mellon says that until recently, the Placitas community has  shrugged off issues of self government because of satisfaction with Sandoval County or perhaps apathy. Since the questionable imposition of increased property taxes in 2008, the community has begun to show signs of banding together. Mellon points to the recent defeat of the CSWCD bond issue and the election of two Placitas ESCAFCA board members as evidence of political awakening.

For more information, visit The site includes petitions that can be printed and signed, related news stories, and a map of the proposed Placitas County. It features “The Top Ten Reasons Why Your Life Will Be Better In Placitas County.” Mellon encourages residents to stop by his canopy on Saturday mornings to discuss the issues.

Marian Frear

Marian Frear, the new Placitas Community Library Director.

Placitas Community Library welcomes Marian the librarian

—Anne Frost
The Placitas Community Library (PLC) board is delighted to welcome Marian Frear as our new library director. Marian is the first paid staff for PCL and will be at the library on a part-time, contract basis. She comes to us with a wide variety of library experiences and was chosen especially for her forward looking attitude, experience in collection development, and her warm, easy style.

Marian has a Masters in Library/ Information Science from the University of Washington (Seattle) and has worked as a medical librarian in Portland, Oregon, and at Lovelace in Albuquerque. She also has been a public librarian in the Albuquerque/Bernalillo library system and a school librarian at the Montessori of the Rio Grande Charter School. And she worked with the 2010 Census at a supervisory level, running a field crew that performed quality checks. As a librarian, Marian has experience in the areas of collection development, children’s services, reference, cataloging, and the help/circulation desk. She also has worked with computerized databases and has been responsible for managing and supporting a staff. She and her family live in Albuquerque.

Here are a few words from our new library director: “I’ve enjoyed working in a lot of different libraries,

that served very different institutions: a hospital, an elementary school, an alternative medicine college, and a branch of the Albuquerque system. But I really think the small town public library is the heart of library work. It provides everything from current information to comfort reading to get-togethers for both children and adults.

I’ve been intrigued by New Mexico since I moved here with my son in 1999. It’s a unique environment with an unusual cultural mix that seems to attract a lot of interesting people. I’m looking forward to getting to know Placitas and its community. This town has shown impressive dedication in designing a great library service and building a wonderful new facility, and I’m delighted to have the chance to join in on this project.”

Please take a moment to welcome Marian the next time you visit the library.

Upcoming Events

  • January 3: Book Group 1, 4-5 p.m.
  • January 11: Bilingual Story Hour, 3-4 p.m.
  • January 13: Pre-K Story Hour, 10-11 a.m.
  • January 18: Kid’s Book Club, 3-4 p.m.
  • January 19: PCL Board Meeting, 7-9 p.m.
  • January 22: Memoir Writing Workshop with Norma Libman, 1-3 p.m.
  • January 27: Pre-K Story Hour, 10-11 a.m.




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