A few weeks ago I visited Canyon de Chelly, which is home to some amazing cliff dwellings. I took a bunch of photos, like this picture of the so-called ‘First Ruin’. You can see them and read about my adventures starting here:
• John Baez, Diary, 21 December 2012.
Here I’d like to talk about what happened to the civilization that built these cliff dwellings! It’s a fascinating tale full of mystery… and it’s full of lessons for the problems we face today, involving climate change, agriculture, energy production, and advances in technology.
First let me set the stage! Canyon de Chelly is in the Navajo Nation, a huge region with its own laws and government, not exactly part of the United States, located at the corners of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah:
The hole in the middle is the Hopi Reservation. The Hopi are descended from,the people who built the cliff dwellings in Canyon de Chelly. Those people are often called the Anasazi, but these days the favored term is ancient Pueblo peoples.
The Hopi speak a Uto-Aztecan language, and so presumably did the Anasazi. Uto-Aztecan speakers were spread out like this shortly before the Europeans invaded:
So, the Navajo aren’t a big part of the story in this fascinating book:
• David E. Stuart, Anasazi America, U. of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2000.
Let me summarize this story here!
After the ice
The last Ice Age, called the Wisconsin glaciation, began around 70,000 BC. The glaciers reached their maximum extent about 18,000 BC, with ice sheets down to what are now the Great Lakes. In places the ice was over 1.6 kilometers thick!
Then it started warming up. By 16,000 BC people started cultivating plants and herding animals. Around 12,000 BC, before the land bridge connecting Siberia and Canada melted, people from the so-called Clovis culture came to the Americas.
It seems likely that other people got to America earlier, moving down the Pacific coast before the inland glaciers melted. But even if the Clovis culture didn’t get there first, their arrival was a big deal. They be traced by their distinctive and elegant spear tips, called Clovis points:
After they arrived, the Clovis people broke into several local cultures, roughly around the time of the Younger Dryas cold spell beginning around 10,800 BC. By 10,000 BC, small bands of hunters roamed the Southwest, first hunting mammoths, huge bison, camels, horses and elk, and later—perhaps because they killed off the really big animals—the more familiar bison, deer, elk and antelopes we see today.
For about 5000 years the population of current-day New Mexico probably fluctuated between 2 and 6 thousand people—a density of just one person per 50 to 150 square kilometers! Changes in culture and climate were slow.
Around 5,000 BC, the climate near Canyon de Chelly began to warm up, dry out, and become more strongly seasonal. This epoch is called the ‘Altithermal’. The lush grasslands that once supported huge herds of bison began to disappear in New Mexico, and those bison moved north. By 4,000 BC, the area near Canyon de Chelly became very hot, with summers often reaching 45°C, and sometimes 57° at the ground’s surface.
The people in this area responded in an interesting way: by focusing much more on gathering, and less on hunting. We know this from their improved tools for processing plants, especially yucca roots. The yucca is now the state flower of New Mexico. Here’s a picture taken by Stan Shebs:
David Stuart writes:
At first this might seem an unlikely response to unremitting heat and aridity. One could argue that the deteriorating climate might first have forced people to reduce their numbers by restricting sex, marriage, and child-bearing so that survivors would have enough game. That might well have been the short-term solution [....] When once-plentiful game becomes scarce, hunter-gatherers typically become extremely conservative about sex and reproduction. [...] But by early Archaic times, the change in focus to plant resources—undoubtedly by necessity—had actually produced a marginally growing population in the San Juan Basin and its margins in spite of climatic adversity.
Ecologically, these Archaic hunters and gatherers had moved one entire link down the food chain, thereby eliminating the approximately 90-percent loss in food value that occurs when one feeds on an animal that is a plant-eater.
This is sound ecological behavior—they could not have found a better basic strategy even if they had the advantage of a contemporary university education. Do I attribute this to their genius? No. It is simply that those who stubbornly clung to the traditional big game hunting of their Paleo-Indian ancestors could not prosper, so they left fewer descendents. Those more willing to experiment, or more desperate, fared better, so their behavior eventually became traditional among their more numerous descendents.
The San Jose Period
By 3,000 BC the Altithermal was ending, big game was returning to the Southwest, yet the people retained their new-found agricultural skills. They also developed a new kind of dart for hunting, the ‘San Jose point’. So, this epoch is called the ‘San Jose period’. Populations rose to maybe about 15 to 30 thousand people in New Mexico, a vast increase over the earlier level of 2-6 thousand. But still, that’s just one person per 10 or 20 square kilometers!
The population increased until around 2,000 BC. At this point population pressures became acute… but two lucky things happened. First, the weather got wetter. Second, corn was introduced from Mexico. The first varieties had very small cobs, but gradually they were improved.
The wet weather lasted until around 500 BC. And at just about this time, beans were introduced, also from Mexico.
Their addition was critical. Corn alone is a costly food to metabolize. Its proteins are incomplete and hard to synthesize. Beans contain large amounts of lysine, the amino acid missing from corn and squash. In reasonable balance, corn, beans and squash together provide complimentary amino acids and form the basis of a nearly complete diet. This diet lacks only the salt, fat and mineral nutrients found in most meats to be healthy and complete.
By 500 BC, nearly all the elements for accelerating cultural and economic changes were finally in place—a fairly complete diet that could, if rainfall cooperated, largely replace the traditional foraging one; several additional, modestly larger-cobbed varieties of corn that not only prospered under varying growing conditions but also provided a bigger harvest; a population large enough to invest the labor necessary to plant and harvest; nearly 10 centuries of increasing familiarity with cultigens; and enhanced food-processing and storage techniques. Lacking were compelling reasons to transform an Archaic society accustomed to earning a living with approximately 500 hours of labor a year into one willing to invest the 1,000 to 2,000 yours coming to contemporary hand-tool horticulturalists.
Nature then stepped in with one persuasive, though not compelling, reason for people to make the shift.
Namely, droughts! Precipitation became very erratic for about 500 years. People responded in various ways. Some went back to the old foraging techniques. Others improved their agricultural skills, developing better breeds of corn, and tricks for storing water. The latter are the ones whose populations grew.
This led to the Basketmaker culture, where people started living in dugout ‘pit houses’ in small villages. More precisely, the Late Basketmaker II Era lasted from about 50 AD to 500 AD. New technologies included the baskets that gave this culture its name:
Pottery entered the scene around 300 AD. Have you ever thought about how important this is? Before pots, people had to cook corn and beans by putting rocks in fires and then transferring them to holes containing water!
Now, porridge and stews could be put to boil in a pot set directly into a central fire pit. The amount of heat lost and fuel used in the old cooking process—an endless cycle of collecting, heating, transferring, removing and replacing hot stones just to boil a few quarts of water—had always been enormous. By comparison, cooking with pots became quick, easy, and far more efficient. In a world more densely populated, firewood had to be gathered from greater distances. Now, less of it was needed. And there was newer fuel to supplement it—dried corncobs.
Not all the changes were good. Most adult skeletons from this period show damage from long periods spend stooping—either using a stone hoe to tend garden plots, or grinding corn while kneeling. And as they ate more corn and beans and fewer other vegetables, mineral deficiencies became common. Extreme osteoporosis afflicted many of these people: we find skulls that are porous, and broken bones. It reminds me a little of the plague of obesity, with its many side-affects, afflicting modern Americans as we move to a culture where most people work sitting down.
On the other hand, there was a massive growth in population. The number of pit-house villages grew nine-fold from 200 AD to 700 AD!
It must have been an exciting time. In only some 25 generations, these folks had transformed themselves from forager and hunters with a small economic sideline in corn, beans and squash into semisedentary villagers who farmed and kept up their foraging to fill in the economic gaps.
But this was just the beginning. By 1020, the ancient Pueblo people would begin to build housing complexes that would remain the biggest in North America until the 1880s! This happened in Chaco Canyon, 125 kilometers east of Canyon de Chelly.
Next time I’ll tell you the story of how that happened, and how later, around 1200, these people left Chaco Canyon and started to build cliff dwellings.
For now, I’ll leave you with some pictures I took of the most famous cliff dwelling in Canyon de Chelly: the ‘White House Ruins’. Click to enlarge: