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)
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What drove the Anasazi to retreat to the cliffs and fortified villages? And, later, what precipitated the exodus? For a long time, experts focused on environmental explanations. Using data from tree rings, researchers know that a terrible drought seized the Southwest from 1276 to 1299; it is possible that in certain areas there was virtually no rain at all during those 23 years. In addition, the Anasazi people may have nearly deforested the region, chopping down trees for roof beams and firewood. But environmental problems don’t explain everything. Throughout the centuries, the Anasazi weathered comparable crises—a longer and more severe drought, for example, from 1130 to 1180—without heading for the cliffs or abandoning their lands.

Another theory, put forward by early explorers, speculated that nomadic raiders may have driven the Anasazi out of their homeland. But, says Lipe, “There’s simply no evidence [of nomadic tribes in this area] in the 13th century. This is one of the most thoroughly investigated regions in the world. If there were enough nomads to drive out tens of thousands of people, surely the invaders would have left plenty of archaeological evidence.”

So researchers have begun to look for the answer within the Anasazi themselves. According to Lekson, two critical factors that arose after 1150—the documented unpredictability of the climate and what he calls “socialization for fear”—combined to produce long-lasting violence that tore apart the Anasazi culture. In the 11th and early 12th centuries there is little archaeological evidence of true warfare, Lekson says, but there were executions. As he puts it, “There seem to have been goon squads. Things were not going well for the leaders, and the governing structure wanted to perpetuate itself by making an example of social outcasts; the leaders executed and even cannibalized them.” This practice, perpetrated by ChacoCanyon rulers, created a society-wide paranoia, according to Lekson’s theory, thus “socializing” the Anasazi people to live in constant fear. Lekson goes on to describe a grim scenario that he believes emerged during the next few hundred years. “Entire villages go after one another,” he says, “alliance against alliance. And it persists well into the Spanish period.” As late as 1700, for instance, several Hopi villages attacked the Hopi pueblo of Awatovi, setting fire to the community, killing all the adult males, capturing and possibly slaying women and children, and cannibalizing the victims. Vivid and grisly accounts of this massacre were recently gathered from elders by NorthernArizonaUniversity professor and Hopi expert Ekkehart Malotki.

Until recently, because of a popular and ingrained perception that sedentary ancient cultures were peaceful, archaeologists have been reluctant to acknowledge that the Anasazi could have been violent. As University of Illinois anthropologist Lawrence Keeley argues in his 1996 book, War Before Civilization, experts have ignored evidence of warfare in preliterate or precontact societies.

During the last half of the 13th century, when war apparently came to the Southwest, even the defensive strategy of aggregation that was used at SandCanyon seems to have failed. After excavating only 12 percent of the site, the CrowCanyonCenter teams found the remains of eight individuals who met violent deaths—six with their skulls bashed in—and others who might have been battle victims, their skeletons left sprawling. There was no evidence of the formal burial that was the Anasazi norm—bodies arranged in a fetal position and placed in the ground with pottery, fetishes and other grave goods.

An even more grisly picture emerges at Castle Rock, a butte of sandstone that erupts 70 feet out of the bedrock in McElmoCanyon, some five miles southwest of SandCanyon. I went there with Vaughn to meet Kristin Kuckelman, an archaeologist with the CrowCanyonCenter who co-led a dig at the base of the butte.Here, the Anasazi crafted blocks of rooms and even built structures on the butte’s summit. Crow Canyon Center archaeologists excavated the settlement between 1990 and 1994. They detected 37 rooms, 16 kivas and nine towers, a complex that housed perhaps 75 to 150 people. Tree-ring data from roof beams indicate that the pueblo was built and occupied from 1256 to 1274—an even shorter period than Sand Canyon Pueblo existed. “When we first started digging here,” Kuckelman told me, “we didn’t expect to find evidence of violence. We did find human remains that were not formally buried, and the bones from individuals were mixed together. But it wasn’t until two or three years into our excavations that we realized something really bad happened here.”

Kuckelman and her colleagues also learned of an ancient legend about Castle Rock. In 1874, John Moss, a guide who had spent time among the Hopi, led a party that included photographer William Henry Jackson through McElmoCanyon. Moss related a story told to him, he said, by a Hopi elder; a journalist who accompanied the party published the tale with Jackson’s photographs in the New York Tribune. About a thousand years ago, the elder reportedly said, the pueblo was visited by savage strangers from the north. The villagers treated the interlopers kindly, but soon the newcomers “began to forage upon them, and, at last, to massacre them and devastate their farms,” said the article. In desperation, the Anasazi “built houses high upon the cliffs, where they could store food and hide away ’til the raiders left.” Yet this strategy failed. A monthlong battle culminated in carnage, until “the hollows of the rocks were filled to the brim with the mingled blood of conquerors and conquered.” The survivors fled south, never to return.

By 1993, Kuckelman’s crew had concluded that they were excavating the site of a major massacre. Though they dug only 5 percent of the pueblo, they identified the remains of at least 41 individuals, all of whom probably died violently. “Evidently,” Kuckelman told me, “the massacre ended the occupation of Castle Rock.”

More recently, the excavators at Castle Rock recognized that some of the dead had been cannibalized. They also found evidence of scalping, decapitation and “face removing”—a practice that may have turned the victim’s head into a deboned portable trophy.

Suspicions of Anasazi cannibalism were first raised in the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that a handful of physical anthropologists, including Christy Turner of Arizona State University, really pushed the argument. Turner’s 1999 book, Man Corn, documents evidence of 76 different cases of prehistoric cannibalism in the Southwest that he uncovered during more than 30 years of research. Turner developed six criteria for detecting cannibalism from bones: the breaking of long bones to get at marrow, cut marks on bones made by stone knives, the burning of bones, “anvil abrasions” resulting from placing a bone on a rock and pounding it with another rock, the pulverizing of vertebrae, and “pot polishing”—a sheen left on bones when they are boiled for a long time in a clay vessel. To strengthen his argument, Turner refuses to attribute the damage on a given set of bones to cannibalism unless all six criteria are met.

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