Riddles of the Anasazi

Toward the end of the 13th century, something went terribly wrong among the Anasazi. What awful event forced the people to flee their homeland, never to return?

In 1874, an earlier traveler, photographer William Henry Jackson, captured an image of an Anasazi cliff dwelling. (Corbis)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

The four of us walked slowly down the deep, narrow canyon in southern Utah. It was midwinter, and the stream that ran alongside us was frozen over, forming graceful terraces of milky ice. Still, the place had a cozy appeal: had we wanted to pitch camp, we could have selected a grassy bank beside the creek, with clear water running under the skin of ice, dead cottonwood branches for a fire, and—beneath the 800-foot-high rock walls—shelter from the wind.

From This Story

More than seven centuries ago, however, the last inhabitants of the canyon had made quite a different decision about where to live. As we rounded a bend along the trail, Greg Child, an expert climber from Castle Valley, Utah, stopped and looked upward. “There,” he said, pointing toward a nearly invisible wrinkle of ledge just below the canyon rim. “See the dwellings?” With binoculars, we could just make out the facades of a row of mud-and-stone structures. Up we scrambled toward them, gasping and sweating, careful not to dislodge boulders the size of small cars that teetered on insecure perches. At last, 600 feet above the canyon floor, we arrived at the ledge.

The airy settlement that we explored had been built by the Anasazi, a civilization that arose as early as 1500 B.C. Their descendants are today’s Pueblo Indians, such as the Hopi and the Zuni, who live in 20 communities along the Rio Grande, in New Mexico, and in northern Arizona. During the 10th and 11th centuries, ChacoCanyon, in western New Mexico, was the cultural center of the Anasazi homeland, an area roughly corresponding to the Four Corners region where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet. This 30,000-square-mile landscape of sandstone canyons, buttes and mesas was populated by as many as 30,000 people. The Anasazi built magnificent villages such as ChacoCanyon’s Pueblo Bonito, a tenth-century complex that was as many as five stories tall and contained about 800 rooms. The people laid a 400-mile network of roads, some of them 30 feet wide, across deserts and canyons. And into their architecture they built sophisticated astronomical observatories.

For most of the long span of time the Anasazi occupied the region now known as the Four Corners, they lived in the open or in easily accessible sites within canyons. But about 1250, many of the people began constructing settlements high in the cliffs—settlements that offered defense and protection. These villages, well preserved by the dry climate and by stone overhangs, led the Anglo explorers who found them in the 1880s to name the absent builders the Cliff Dwellers.

Toward the end of the 13th century, some cataclysmic event forced the Anasazi to flee those cliff houses and their homeland and to move south and east toward the Rio Grande and the Little Colorado River. Just what happened has been the greatest puzzle facing archaeologists who study the ancient culture. Today’s Pueblo Indians have oral histories about their peoples’ migration, but the details of these stories remain closely guarded secrets. Within the past decade, however, archaeologists have wrung from the pristine ruins new understandings about why the Anasazi left, and the picture that emerges is dark. It includes violence and warfare—even cannibalism—among the Anasazi themselves. “After about A.D. 1200, something very unpleasant happens,” says University of Colorado archaeologist Stephen Lekson. “The wheels come off.”

This past January and February, Greg Child, Renée Globis, Vaughn Hadenfeldt and I explored a series of canyons in southeast Utah and northern Arizona, seeking the most inaccessible Anasazi ruins we could find. I have roamed the Southwest for the past 15 years and have written a book about the Anasazi. Like Greg, who has climbed Everest and K2, Renée is an expert climber; she lives in Moab, Utah, and has ascended many desert spires and cliffs. Vaughn, a tour guide from Bluff, Utah, has worked on a number of contract excavations and rock art surveys in southeastern Utah.

We were intrigued by the question of why the villages were built high in the cliffs, but we were equally fascinated by the “how”—how the Anasazi had scaled the cliffs, let alone lived there. During our outings, we encountered ruins that we weren’t sure we could reach even with ropes and modern climbing gear, the use of which is prohibited at such sites. Researchers believe the Anasazi clambered up felled tree trunks that were notched by stone axes to form minuscule footholds. These log ladders were often propped on ledges hundreds of feet off the ground. (Some of the ladders are still in place.) But they would not have been adequate to reach several of the dwellings we explored. I believe that archaeologists—who are usually not rock climbers—have underestimated the skill and courage it took to live among the cliffs.

The buildings that Greg had spotted were easier to get to than most of the sites we explored. But it wasn’t so easy to navigate the settlement itself. As we walked the ledge of the ruin, the first structure we came to was a five-foot-tall stone wall. Four small loopholes—three-inch-wide openings in the wall—would have allowed sentries to observe anyone who approached. Behind this entry wall stood a sturdy building, its roof still intact, that adjoined a granary littered with 700-yearold, perfectly preserved corncobs. Farther along the narrow ledge, we turned a sharp corner only to be blocked by a second ruined wall. We climbed over it and continued. Twice we were forced to scuttle on our hands and knees as the cliff above swelled toward us, pinching down on the ledge like the jaws of a nutcracker. Our feet gripped the edge of the passage: one careless lurch meant certain death. Finally the path widened, and we came upon four splendidly masoned dwellings and another copious granary. Beneath us, the cliff swooped 150 feet down, dead vertical to a slope that dropped another 450 feet to the canyon floor. The settlement, once home to perhaps two families, seemed to exude paranoia, as if its builders lived in constant fear of attack. It was hard to imagine elders and small children going back and forth along such a dangerous passage. Yet the ancients must have done just that: for the Anasazi who lived above that void, each foray for food and water must have been a perilous mission.

Despite the fear that apparently overshadowed their existence, these last canyon inhabitants had taken the time to make their home beautiful. The outer walls of the dwellings were plastered with a smooth coat of mud, and the upper facades painted creamy white. Faint lines and hatching patterns were incised into the plaster, creating two-tone designs. The stone overhang had sheltered these structures so well that they looked as though they had been abandoned only within the past decade—not 700 years ago.

Vertiginous cliff dwellings were not the Anasazi’s only response to whatever threatened them during the 1200s; in fact, they were probably not all that common in the culture. This became apparent a few days later when Vaughn and I, leaving our two companions, visited Sand Canyon Pueblo in southwest Colorado, more than 50 miles east of our Utah prowlings. Partially excavated between 1984 and 1993 by the not-for-profit Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, the pueblo comprised 420 rooms, 90 to 100 kivas (underground chambers), 14 towers and several other buildings, all enclosed by a stone wall. Curiously, this sprawling settlement, whose well-thought-out architecture suggests the builders worked from a master plan, was created and abandoned in a lifetime, between 1240 and about 1285. Sand Canyon Pueblo looks nothing like Utah’s wildly inaccessible cliff dwellings. But there was a defense strategy built into the architecture nevertheless. “In the late 13th century,” says archaeologist William Lipe of Washington State University, “there were 50 to 75 large villages like SandCanyon in the Mesa Verde, Colorado, region—canyon-rim sites enclosing a spring and fortified with high walls. Overall, the best defense plan against enemies was to aggregate in bigger groups. In southern Utah, where the soil was shallow and food hard to come by, the population density was low, so joining a big group wasn’t an option. They built cliff dwellings instead.”

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus