Ruins of Pueblo Bonito

Pueblo Bonito, the largest and best known Great House in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, northern New Mexico, was built by ancestral Pueblo people called the Anasazi and occupied between AD 828 and 1126. But the civilization that built these houses was not nearly so durable. By 1200 Chaco Canyon’s houses were empty; by 1300 Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings were, too.Why did the Anasazi abandon their great cities, in many cases only a hundred or so years after they built them? And where did they go? This is a mystery that has intrigued historians—not to mention archaeologists, anthropologists, demographers, biologists, and visitors to the American Southwest—ever since James Simpson and his men first stumbled upon Chaco Canyon. U.S. army Lt. James H. Simpson and Carravahal, Simpson's guide from San Juan Pueblo, first came upon Chaco Canyon during a 1849 military expedition. They briefly examined eight larger ruins in Chaco Canyon including Pueblo Bonito, named pretty village in Spanish by Carravahal. At the conclusion of his expedition, Simpson published the first description of Chaco Canyon in his military report, with drawings by expedition artist R. H. Kern.

Archaeologists dated the Chaco Canyon buildings to the end of the tenth century, well before the rise of the Aztecs. From numerous other sites in the area, archaeologists were able to chronicle the rise of the civilization that culminated in these buildings. This was, they determined, a homegrown civilization, one that had been built by a people called the Anasazi by the Indians Simpson encountered. Ancient Pueblo People or Ancestral Puebloans were an ancient Native American culture centered on the present-day Four Corners area of the United States, comprising southern Utah, northern Arizona, northwest New Mexico, and a lesser section of Colorado. The cultural group has often been referred to in archaeology as the Anasazi, although the term is not preferred by the modern Puebloan peoples. The word Anasazi is Navajo for "Ancient Ones" or "Ancient Enemy".

The Anasazi were remarkably wealthy: along with exotic gems, archaeologists have found huge quantities of discarded pots—at one Chaco building, a single trash heap contained 150,000 broken pots. This must also have been a remarkably egalitarian society, for there were no palaces or special buildings mixed in among the huge apartment buildings. Supporting all this was a sophisticated irrigation system that used dams and dikes, contoured terraces, and reservoirs to make the most of the sandy soil and limited rainfall.

About one hundred years after they built the Great Houses of Chaco Canyon, the Anasazi moved north into southwest Colorado, creating an architecture that was, if possible, even more stunning. Here they built their homes right inside the caves that sculpt the steep cliffs of the area’s canyons. Protected by the caves, many of these cliff dwellings (including the huge Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde) are still largely intact.

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde

To the historian and archaeologist Harold Gladwin, writing in 1957, the solution was obvious: the Anasazi were under attack. This would explain why people who had been widely scattered came together in the huge apartment buildings of Chaco Canyon. The large pueblos offered more protection than smaller, scattered villages—hence the building spree in Chaco Canyon at the end of the tenth century. It would also explain why they had abandoned the Chaco Canyon buildings so soon after they’d built them. When the Chaco Canyon towns failed to hold off their attackers, the Anasazi retreated to the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, built during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The cliff dwellings were, to put it mildly, inconvenient—but at least that made them inaccessible to enemies as well.

Who were the people who drove away the Anasazi? Gladwin believed they were the people who later became known as the Navajo and Apache. Sweeping down from western Canada, they were the last people to reach the Southwest before the Spanish invasion. Navajo tradition seems to confirm this theory: the word “Anasazi” comes from the Navajo word for “ancient enemies.”

Other historians have proposed it was the Southern Paiute or Ute, not the Navajo or Apache. (Ute legends, too, tell how they conquered people as they moved south.) Whoever their enemies were, the Anasazi outnumbered them, but the raiders’ hit-and-run attacks against their settlements and fields eventually took their toll.

There was one major problem with these “military” solutions to the mystery: there is no archaeological evidence that the Apache or Navajo or Ute or Paiute entered the area until long after the pueblos and cliff dwellings had been abandoned. Granted, the Apache and Navajo were traditional enemies of the Pueblo people of the Southwest, but some historians argued that this tradition originated in the seventeenth century after the Indians acquired horses from Europeans (giving them a tremendous tactical advantage). Finally, if the Anasazi went down in battle, why didn’t archaeologists find any mass graves or other signs of war? Anyone looking at the ruins of Pueblo Bonito or Cliff Palace today can see they were deserted—not burned or sacked.

An alternative solution to the mystery: the great drought. This theory depends on advances in the science of dendrochronology, which uses the growth rings of trees to supply precise information about past climates. Each year a tree produces a growth ring; the wider the ring, the more rain there was that year.

It was A. E. Douglass, on a National Geographic expedition to the Southwest in 1929, who developed new techniques of tree-ring dating, then charted the tree rings in living trees and overlapped and matched them with those found in wooden beams from increasingly older archaeological sites. Douglass found there was a severe drought in the area between 1276 and 1299—exactly the time the Anasazi cities were finally and fully abandoned. But Gladwin’s followers struck back: there had been previous droughts in the area, they pointed out, and the cities hadn’t been abandoned. And there were nearby areas with more rainfall—but there was no evidence that the Anasazi had moved there. So the environmental explanations became more complex, taking into account not just rainfall amounts but the times of the year the rain fell, water table levels, landclearing practices, the changing mix of subsistence strategies. Other explanations emerged as well. Could there have been a massive epidemic? Unlikely: there was no sign of large burial areas.

Could the Anasazi have turned on each other? Anthropologist Christy Turner’s study of skeletons found evidence of cannibalism, such as sucked-out bone marrow. But others had alternative explanations, and there were still no signs of massive burials or sacked cities. And why wouldn’t the victors have stayed on? Could there have been some sort of religious upheaval? Some archaeologists have argued that the Anasazi may have been drawn south by the emerging Kachina religion. But others question whether the archaeological record of Kachina icons and artifacts puts the religion in the area early enough to have attracted the Anasazi. Besides, why would the religion have required the Anasazi to leave their cities? And so the debate goes on.

Most of the archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians working on the mystery today agree that there will never be a single solution, whether military, environmental, or social. Rather, they believe a variety of factors came into play. Perhaps, for example, drought or crop failures set off internal fighting, or undermined people’s religious faith. Perhaps a combination of many factors chipped away at a complex system until it could barely maintain itself, and then some final force—a massive drought, an outside attack—was just the last straw.

Sources :
Mysteries In History by Paul D. Aron;;

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