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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the day after exploring the KayentaValley, Vaughn and I hiked at dawn into the labyrinth of the TsegiCanyon system, north of the line-of-sight mesas. Two hours in, we scrambled up to a sizable ruin containing the remains of some 35 rooms. The wall behind the structures was covered with pictographs and petroglyphs of ruddy brown bighorn sheep, white lizard-men, outlines of hands (created by blowing pasty paint from the mouth against a hand held flat on the wall) and an extraordinary, artfully chiseled 40-foot-long snake.

One structure in the ruin was the most astonishing Anasazi creation I have ever seen. An exquisitely crafted wooden platform built into a huge flaring fissure hung in place more than 30 feet above us, impeccably preserved through the centuries. It was narrow in the rear and wide in the front, perfectly fitting the contours of the fissure. To construct it, the builders had pounded cup holes in the side walls and wedged the ax-hewn ends of massive cross-beams into them for support. These were overlaid with more beams, topped by a latticework of sticks and finally covered completely with mud. What was the platform used for? No one who has seen it has offered me a convincing explanation. As I stared up at this woodwork masterpiece, I toyed with the fancy that the Anasazi had built it “just because”: art for art’s sake.

The Tsegi Canyon seems to have been the last place where the Anasazi hung on as the 13th century drew to a close. The site with the wooden platform has been dated by Jeffrey Dean of the Arizona Tree-Ring Laboratory to 1273 to 1285. Dean dated nearby Betatakin and Keet Seel, two of the largest cliff dwellings ever built, to 1286—the oldest sites discovered so far within the abandoned region. It would seem that all the strategies for survival failed after 1250. Just before 1300, the last of the Anasazi migrated south and east, joining their distant kin.

“War is a dismal study,” Lekson concludes in a landmark 2002 paper, “War in the Southwest, War in the World.” Contemplating the carnage that had destroyed Castle Rock, the fear that seemed built into the cliff dwellings in Utah, and the elaborate alliances developed in the KayentaValley, I would have to agree.

Yet my wanderings this past winter in search of 13th-century ruins had amounted to a sustained idyll. However pragmatic the ancients’ motives, terror had somehow given birth to beauty. The Anasazi produced great works of art—villages such as Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace, hallucinatory petroglyph panels, some of the most beautiful pottery in the world—at the same time that its people were capable of cruelty and violence. Warfare and cannibalism may have been responses to the stresses that peaked in the 13th century, but the Anasazi survived. They survived not only whatever crisis struck soon after 1250, but also the assaults of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century and the Anglo-American invasion that began in the 19th. From Taos Pueblo in New Mexico to the Hopi villages in Arizona, the Pueblo people today still dance their traditional dances and still pray to their own gods. Their children speak the languages of their ancestors. The ancient culture thrives.

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