ICE Case Studies
Number xx, August, 2003

The Ancient Pueblo (the Anasazi)
Matthew Markowitz

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information

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Background

The ancient Pueblo (popularly-called "Anasazi" even though it might be a racist term - see footnote[1]) lived in the four corners region of the American Southwest until about 1300 CE. They were an people who are the predecessors to the modern-day Pueblo Native Americans of the American Southwest.  After spending centuries building beautiful buildings and homes, the ancient Pueblos rose and thrived as a full civilization.  Yet, at the peak of their existence, they suddenly set fire to their creations and left.  Nobody is completely sure how their society fell, and no one reason will answer it completely, but it is a mixture of environmental and societal pressures. This case study attempts to understand the overlap of the environmental and conflictual aspects. Another paper will have to work to understand these other factors.

Anasazi Society

The Anasazi society had its roots well over 10,000 years ago as nomadic hunter-gatherers upon the planes of North America.  About 2000 years ago, there seemed to be a small shift as corn was introduced into the diet of the ancient Pueblos, and they started to become a more sedimentary people and began to focus their lives in the area around Colorado.  Archaeologists call this stage of their society, from about 1 CE until 550 CE, “the Basketmakers,” primarily because of their extensive ability to weave and create baskets.  These baskets enabled the people of the region to gather more effectively:

Food was a constant, primary concern for the Basketmakers. Like the earlier hunting cultures of the Colorado Plateau, these people were masters at collecting seed, nuts, and other fruits and berries. With corn available to cultivate, the people began to stay longer in the area. They found that some species of gourds grew well in gardens, thus providing another food. We know they were competent hunters by the tools they fashioned from the bones of animals.[2]

They gave up their seminomadic way of life completely by the “Modified Basketmaker” stage from 550-750 CE.  The primary change was the settling of the land in the Four Corners region of present-day United States in Colorado Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, the so-called Four Corners region, home of the present-day Mesa Verde national park.[3]


Picture curtousey of Desert USA

They found a water supply of seeps and springs and good soil for growing crops. Above all, there was an abundant supply of wood for fires, house construction, and tools.[3]

Opting for a more stable life as a farming community, they began to grow crops and grew into the so-called Classic period.  As many indigenous Americans, their chief crop was maize.  Yet, living in the west, it was hard to ensure that rain would come.  In order to more effectively farm their crops, the Anasazi peoples were able to construct an amazing system of dams, canals and other water control features.[4]

Historical records from 900 to 1300 A.D. in Europe indicate that this was a time of changes in atmospheric circulation known as the Medieval Warm Period. In high-latitude regions this was largely beneficial: grapes were grown in England and the Norse founded colonies first in Iceland and then in southern Greenland. But in arid regions a warmer climate, especially when accompanied by drought, can cause significant difficulties for farmers. A fifty-year drought occurred between 1130 and 1180 A.D. It was during this period that soil and water conservation features such as grid borders, terraces and check dams began to be built in the Four Corners area.[5]

Yet the Anasazi were capable of continuing in their lands in that situation.  They had built a number of reservoirs.[2]  Their dams were built not necessarily to retain water, but to retain silt.  “Intermittent water running down the small drainage courses deposited silt behind the dams. The silt, which was often several feet deep, would retain moisture for a considerable period of time. The Pueblo farmers used those areas as small farming plots.” (ibid.)  They built an irrigation ditch more than four miles long.[6]  [T]he Anasazi were able to successfully grow enough corn, squash, beans, and cotton to satisfy subsistence needs and create a surplus.  (See [4], quoting R. Douglas Hurt, Indian Agriculture in America 21-26 (1987)).

Many modern-day scholars, both of Pueblo heritage and not, have been attempting to reconstruct the Anasazi jurisprudence in order to understand how the ancient court system worked.  Some of the indigenous scholars are doing so in order to incorporate the ancient into the modern Pueblo system.[4]

Their architecture skills were also quite something interesting.  Hundreds of thousands[3] of people visit the Mesa Verde National Park and stay in camps and lodges around the area.  For the best pictures, see the book, The Story of Mesa Verde, available online http://www.mesaverde.org/smvf/p1.htm and in print.

We should also notes this gradual process of modernization led to steps forward but also steps back.  ”With their more settled lifestyle came the need for more permanent housing for the slowly increasing population.  Although the change was not immediately evident, these cultural adaptations gradually changed the relationship between the Anasazi and their land.  The ultimate impact of disturbing the delicate balance between the use and abuse of the land took several hundred years to manifest itself fully.[21] Michael Allen and Robert Stevens compare the fate of the Anasazi with modern problem that result from upsetting the “delicate balance between human needs and available environmental resources.”


Now that we understand how the Anasazi lived, it would be appropriate to understand how they collapsed.  There are a few major theories floating around, most of which are presented here.  The first thing to recognize, though, is that the ancient Pueblos did not completely disappear: the present-day Pueblos are direct descendants of those indigenous Americans that seemed to have disappeared in the year 1300.

The second thing to understand is that no one theory has been able to explain the entirety of the ancient Pueblo’s collapse.  Many theories, such as a large drought, a religious shifts yielding migration to the south, cannibalism, climate changes have been presented and provide many through-provoking ideas.  This case study, though, is aimed at showing how conflict and environment intersected and impacted the downfall of the ancient Pueblo.

The Great Drought

The most popular theory of the past number of years, it is possible that the ancient Pueblo simply took one too many hits from droughts. 

<http://www.navaching.com/naji/naji.gifs/Rio.gif>

As shown in this chart, it appears as though at various times in their past, the ancient Pueblo just stayed too long.  They were pigeon-holed into staying where they were after building tons of structures and buildings and methods of irrigation, and they refused to leave until, in the end, it killed them.

More evidence comes from the Annenberg/CPB.

Archaeologists found evidence that when Sand Canyon was finally abandoned in the thirteenth century, the kivas were burned. Kivas were sacred ceremonial places; they would not have been systematically burned without cause. Many archaeologists believe the kivas were ceremonially burned, possibly as a way to "close" the kivas when people left. The Anasazi very likely did this because they never intended to return. Another important clue is that, at Sand Canyon, people left almost all their possessions rather than taking them. The Anasazi likely had a long and difficult journey ahead of them.
...
When this cycle of drought began, Anasazi civilization was at its height. Communities were densely populated. Even with good rains, the Anasazi were using their land to its limits. Without rain, it was impossible to grow enough food to support the population. Widespread famine occurred. People left the area in large numbers to join other pueblo peoples to the south and east, abandoning the Chaco Canyon pueblos and, later, the smaller communities that surrounded them. Anasazi civilization began a long period of migration and decline after these years of drought and famine. By the 1300s, it had all but died out in Chaco Canyon.[5]

The theory, though, has been challenged.  Looking at that graph, it appears as though they weathered through much more rough times than the one in 1300, some for even longer periods of time.  After studying tree ring research, then Washington State University PhD student Carla Van West (now senior principle investigator at Stastical Research, Inc.) presented evidence that there might have been the enough moisture to have continued growing enough corn to survive the drought, like they had done before.

The factors cited by the proponents of the drought theory add to the conclusions one can draw from these sources.  There is little doubt that the impact of little water had something to do with the ancient Pueblo leaving their homes.  But other possibilities must be understood.


The word Anasazi is actually a misnomer.  Many translate it as “ancient ones.”  But etymologists ( have traced its roots to a Navajo word meaning “ancient enemies”:

"Anasazi, said Richard (Wetherill), was a Navajo word.  The Navajo used it to describe the ancient people, now vanished, whose ruined dwellings the Navajo found when they migrated into the Four Corners region from the northward.  In a loose, vague sense Anasazi meant ancient enemies. Richard did not know if this implied that the first of the Navajos had found some of these early ones still in their pueblos and cliff dwellings, and made war upon them."[8]

So there is some ancient idea that the ancient Pueblo and Navajo were enemies.  This idea can be reflected by the evidence above of the excellent defenses created on Mesa Verde (see further). But to introduce it...

Dr. Michael Adler, an archeologist at Southern Methodist University, argues that the Anasazi were not able to move around freely because their once open range was becoming balkanized into hostile fiefdoms. Archeological evidence shows that in this period, perhaps as a reaction to drier weather, people in the Mesa Verde area began building dams and canals to trap and divert water to terraced fields. They were 'investing in landscapes,' Dr. Adler said, and presumably began to feel more territorial about where they had settled. 'The land was filling up with claims and rights,' he said. 'People had to ask before they used.'[9]

So, he argues, “The Anasazi developed elaborate water catchments.  And diverting water may have led to conflict and war.”[10]

Their architecture, though, tells part of another story: their defense systems seem to have been set up very well.

The houses had thick walls, and some were multistoried. It appears that there were many modifications of walls and houses. Outsidefacing doorways on the ground level were few. Some rooms had ladder openings in the ceilings to upper levels, again suggesting a need for defense.[2] (p47)

The houses were built in large alcoves with overhanging ledges; it would be difficult to drop anything on them. Only a direct assault could be attempted. The steep slope would make it difficult for an enemy to attack. Defenders in the houses could carefully aim their arrows at attackers trying to run uphill with poor footwear over rough terrain. If an attack lasted more than a day, the enemy would have to withdraw to obtain water and food. Water and food stored in the cliff houses would serve the defenders at any time. [2] (p50)

So it appears as though they had something or someone to fear.  And they did a decent job.  Yet, notes the article, “There is also no evidence in burials that shows violence” (ibid.).  They feel it was unlikely that war was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

On the other hand, there do appear to be some clues that there –was- violence.  For example, scientists have found evidence of cannibalism.  Some think it was from religious mobs from Mexico, where cannibalism was regularly practiced, and “thugs” of Toltecs came in from Mexico and used it as a gimmick and weapon.[11]  Evidence is shown by both bones’ teeth marks (see Turner & Turner, ibid.) and human feces.[12]

Also, this theory is challenged since many researchers note the absence of human cannibalism in present-day Pueblo culture, in addition to possible evidence of ritual execution of “witches.”  The cannibalism as explained by these theorists is that it was the witches who ate human flesh, as it might have been an initiation into the witch order.  The entire debate is played out in a few places, but one is in a June, 2001 Dallas Morning News article.[13]

Conclusion

The two factors probably played into each other.  At the same time as the lack of rain, it is possible that the civilization’s conflicts amongst themselves and in relationship to other indigenous groups came into conflict with each other.  A complicated connection or disillusion with their religion might have had some impact on their decision to leave and, therefore, burn part of their ruins.

The debate is not resolved and controversy will most likely continue.  But each of these ideas, taken by themselves, cannot fully explain the complete reason for the collapse of Anasazi civilization.  Drought, violence, culture, religion and overextending all had some level of impact on the Anasazi.  To what level, though, is still a debate.  The future is wide open.


[1] The word popularly has come to mean “ancient ones” but is really a mistake.  Archaeologist Linda Cordell discusses its etymology and use in her book, Prehistory of the Southwest:

The name "Anasazi" has come to mean "ancient people," although the word itself is Navajo, meaning "enemy ancestors." It is unfortunate that a non-Pueblo word has come to stand for a tradition that is certainly ancestral Pueblo. The term was first applied to ruins of the Mesa Verde by Richard Wetherill, a rancher and trader who, in 1888-1889, was the first Anglo-American to explore the sites in that area. Wetherill knew and worked with Navajos and understood what the word meant. The name was further sanctioned in archaeology when it was adopted by Alfred V. Kidder, the acknowledged dean of Southwestern Archaeology. Kidder felt that is was less cumbersome than a more technical term he might have used. Subsequently some archaeologists who would try to change the term have worried that because the Pueblos speak different languages, there are different words for "ancestor," and using one might be offensive to people speaking other languages. My own preference is to use Ancient Pueblo or Ancestral Pueblo, where possible, but this too is problematical. Such usage obscures the observation that the Mogollon tradition is also considered by many to be ancestral to Pueblo peoples. Further, archaeologists are themselves tradition bound and would not be dissuaded from continuing to use the term Anasazi, which features so prominently in their professional literature."

[2] Wenger, Gilbert R. 1980. Story of Mesa Verde National Park. Available online at <http://www.mesaverde.org/smvf/p1.htm> and in print. p28

[3] National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/meve/, 2003

[4] John Ragsdale. 1998. “Anasazi Jurisprudence.” American Indian Law Review.

[5] Annenberg/CPB. 2001. "Collapse: Why Do Civilizations Fall? ChacoCanyon." Available <http://www.learner.org/exhibits/collapse/chacocanyon.html> accessed 07/31/2003

[6] Romero, Tom I. Spring 2002. Colorado Law Review. "Uncertain Waters And Contested Lands: Excavating The Layers Of Colorado's Legal Past." Supranote 53

[7] Allen, Michael G.; Steven, Robert L., "People and their environment: Searching the historical record", Social Studies, Jul/Aug96, Vol. 87 Issue 4, p. 156.

[8] McNitt, Frank. Anasazi. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

[9] George Johnson. August 20, 1996. New York Times. Social Strife May Have Exiled Ancient Indians.

[10] Emerson, Harriet. Summer 2002. On Tap. <http://www.nesc.wvu.edu/ndwc/articles/OT/SU02/Drought_Mys.html>

[11] See Christy G. & Jacqueline Turner - Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest; cited in Gehrke, Robert. December 30, 1998. Desertnews.com. Accessed 07/31/2003. Available <http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,30003919,00.html?>

[12] Lawson, Willow. September 7, 2000. ABCNews. “American Cannibalism: Dried Human Excrement Was Human Flesh, Say Scientists.” Accessed 07/31/2003. Available online <http://abcnews.go.com/sections/science/DailyNews/cannibalism000906.html>

[13] Witze, Alexander. June 1, 2001. Dallas Morning News. “Researchers Divided Over Whether Anasazi Were Cannibals.” Accessed 07/31/2003. Available online <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/06/0601_wireanasazi.html>