What Happened To The Anasazi?

April 8th, 2008at 07:31am Posted by Eli

NYT surveys the current state of Anasazi research:

Some 700 years ago, as part of a vast migration, a people called the Anasazi, driven by God knows what, wandered from the north to form settlements like these, stamping the land with their own unique style.


These Anasazi newcomers — archaeologists have traced them to the mesas and canyons around Kayenta, Ariz., not far from the Hopi reservation — were distinctive in other ways. They liked to build with stone (the Hohokam used sticks and mud), and their kivas, like those they left in their homeland, are unmistakable: rectangular instead of round, with a stone bench along the inside perimeter, a central hearth and a sipapu, or spirit hole, symbolizing the passage through which the first people emerged from mother earth.

“You could move this up to Hopi and not tell the difference,” said John A. Ware, the archaeologist leading the field trip, as he examined a Davis Ranch kiva. Finding it down here is a little like stumbling across a pagoda on the African veldt.

For five days in late February, Dr. Ware, the director of the Amerind Foundation, an archaeological research center in Dragoon, Ariz., was host to 15 colleagues as they confronted the most vexing and persistent question in Southwestern archaeology: Why, in the late 13th century, did thousands of Anasazi abandon Kayenta, Mesa Verde and the other magnificent settlements of the Colorado Plateau and move south into Arizona and New Mexico?


“Climate probably explains a lot,” Dr. Allison said. “But there are places where people could have stayed and farmed and chose not to.”

Some inhabitants left the relatively lush climes of what is now southern Colorado for the bone dry Hopi mesas. “Climate makes the most sense for this big pattern change,” Dr. Lipe said. “But then you think, So they went to Hopi to escape this?”


Soon after the abandonment, the drought lifted. “The tree-ring reconstructions show that at 1300 to 1340 it was exceedingly wet,” said Larry Benson, a paleoclimatologist with the Arid Regions Climate Project of the United States Geological Survey. “If they’d just hung in there . . .”

Though the rains returned, the people never did.

“Why didn’t they come back?” said Catherine M. Cameron, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado. “Why didn’t anyone come back to the northern San Juan? It was a fine place, and apparently by 1300 it was very fine.”


Ultimately the motivation for the abandonments may lie beyond fossils and artifacts, in the realm of ideology. Imagine trying to explain the 19th-century Mormon migration to Utah with only tree rings and pollen counts.

By studying changes in ceremonial architecture and pottery styles, Donna Glowacki, an archaeologist at the University of Notre Dame, is charting the rise of what may have been a new puebloan religion. For more than a century, the established faith was distinguished by multistory “great houses,” with small interior kivas, and by much larger “great kivas” — round, mostly subterranean and covered with a sturdy roof. Originating at Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico, the formidable temples seem designed to limit access to all but a priestly few.

Though Chaco declined as a regional religious center during the early 1100s, the same architecture spread to the Mesa Verde area. But by the mid 1200s, a different style was also taking hold, with plazas and kivas that were uncovered like amphitheaters — hints, perhaps, of a new openness. At some sites, serving bowls became larger and were frequently decorated with designs, as though intended for a ritual communion. If the pueblo people had left a written history perhaps we would read of the Anasazi equivalent of the Protestant reformation.

But the analogy can’t be pushed too far. The new architecture also included multiwalled edifices — some round, some D-shaped — that might have been chambers for secret rituals.

Though the dogma may be irrecoverable, Dr. Glowacki argues that it rapidly attracted adherents. A center of the movement, she said, was the McElmo Canyon area, west of Mesa Verde. Excavations indicate that the population burgeoned along with the new architecture. An influx of different pottery designs suggests immigrants from the west were moving in. Then around 1260, long before the drought, the residents began leaving the pueblo, perhaps spreading the new ideology.

Other archaeologists see evidence of an evangelical-like religion — the forerunner, perhaps, of the masked Kachina rituals, which still survive on the Hopi and Zuni reservations — appearing in the south and attracting the rebellious northerners. Salado polychrome pottery may have been emblematic of another, possibly overlapping cult.

In an effort to draw together the skein of causes and effects, Dr. Kohler and members of the Village Ecodynamics Project are collaborating with archaeologists at Crow Canyon on a computer simulation of population changes in southwest Colorado from 600 to around 1300. Juxtaposing data on rainfall, temperature, soil productivity, human metabolic needs and diet, gleaned from an analysis of trash heaps and human waste, the model suggests a sobering conclusion: As Anasazi society became more complex, it also became more fragile.

Corn was domesticated and then wild turkeys, an important protein source. With more to eat, the populations grew and aggregated into villages. Religious and political institutions sprung up.

When crops began dying and violence increased, the inhabitants clustered even closer. By the time the drought of 1275 hit, the Anasazi had become far more dependent on agriculture than during earlier droughts. And they had become more dependent on each other.

Fascinating.  Although it still doesn’t explain why they didn’t move back when the drought ended.

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science,Weirdness

No Comments yet

  • 1. kayenta arizona&hellip  |  May 27th, 2008 at 6:16 am

    […] […]

  • 2. MichaelBeanMFT  |  December 23rd, 2008 at 9:57 am

    And what happened to them after the move? If they never came back, what happened to them. They moved to Hopi? Then what, the remnant were just subsumed by the Hopi? Or did they become the Hopi? Were the hopi really Anasazi all along? If you could “move this up to Hopi and not tell the difference,” as John Ware points out, then how do we, in fact, know there IS a difference? How do we know the Anasazi wouldn’t better be called early Hopi or pre-Hopi?

  • 3. ...  |  January 22nd, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    so wat happend to them?????

  • 4. eric  |  May 24th, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Great round of questions; my answer:
    they migrated south and east to form today’s Hopi and Puebloans. The Spanish conquered the Pueblos, attempted to destroy traditional knowledge, and exacted terrible revenge for the pueblo revolt of 1680. For details, check my website or newest book on the subject, The Ancestral Puebloan Primer available on Lulu.com and Amazon.com

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