Last time I told you a story of the American Southwest, starting with the arrival of small bands of hunters around 10,000 BC. I focused on the Anasazi, or ‘ancient Pueblo people’, and I led up to the Late Basketmaker III Era, from 500 to 750 AD.
The big invention during this time was the bow and arrow. Before then, large animals were killed by darts thrown from slings, which required a lot more skill and luck. But even more important was the continuing growth of agriculture: the cultivation of corn, beans and squash. This was fueled a period of dramatic population growth.
But this was just the start!
The Pueblo I and II Eras
The Pueblo I Era began around 750 AD. At this time people started living in ‘pueblos': houses with flat roofs held up by wooden poles. Towns became bigger, holding up to 600 people. But these towns typically lasted only 30 years or so. It seems people needed to move when conditions changed.
Starting around 800 AD, the ancient Pueblo people started building ‘great houses': multi-storied buildings with high ceilings, rooms much larger than those in domestic dwellings, and elaborate subterranean rooms called ‘kivas’. And around 900 AD, people started building houses with stone roofs. We call this the start of the Pueblo II Era.
The center of these developments was the Chaco Canyon area in New Mexico:
Chaco Canyon is 125 kilometers east of Canyon de Chelly.
Unfortunately, I didn’t see it on my trip—I wanted to, but we didn’t have time.
By 950 AD, there were pueblos on every ridge and hilltop of the Chaco Canyon area. Due to the high population density and unpredictable rainfall, this area could no longer provide enough meat to sustain the needs of the local population. Apparently they couldn’t get enough fat, salt and minerals from a purely vegan diet—a shortcoming we have now overcome!
Yet the population continued to grow until 1000 AD. In his book Anasazi America, David Stuart wrote:
Millions of us buy mutual funds, believing the risk is spread among millions of investors and a large “basket” of fund stocks. Millions divert a portion of each hard-earned paycheck to purchase such funds for retirement. “Get in! Get in!” hawk the TV ads. “The market is going up. Historically, it always goes up in the long haul. The average rate of return this century is 9 percent per year!” Every one of us who does that is a Californian at heart, believing in growth, risk, power. It works—until an episode of too-rapid expansion in the market, combined with brutal business competition, threatens to undo it.
That is about what it was like, economically, at Chaco Canyon in the year 1000—rapid agricultural expansion, no more land to be gotten, and deepening competition. Don’t think of it as “romantic” or “primitive”. Think of it as just like 1999 in the United States, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 11,000 and 30 million investors held their breath to see what would happen next.
The Chaco phenomenon
In 1020 the rainfall became more predictable. There wasn’t more rain, it was simply less erratic. This was good for the ancient Pueblo people. At this point the ‘Chaco phenomenon’ began: an amazing flowering of civilization.
We see this in places like Pueblo Bonito, the largest great house in Chaco Canyon:
Pueblo Bonito was founded in the 800s. But starting in 1020 it grew immensely, and it kept growing until 1120. By this time it had 700 rooms, nearly half devoted to grain storage. It also had 33 kivas, which are the round structures you see here.
But Pueblo Bonito is just one of a dozen great houses built in Chaco Canyon by 1120. About 215 thousand ponderosa pine trees were cut down in this building spree! Stuart estimates that building these houses took over 2 million man-hours of work. They also built about 650 kilometers of roads! Most of these connect one great house to another… but some mysteriously seem to go to ‘nowhere’.
By 1080, however, the summer rainfall had started to decline. And by 1090 there were serious summer drought lasting for five years. We know this sort of thing from tree rings: there are enough ponderosa logs and the like that archaeologists have built up a detailed year-by-year record.
Thanks to overpopulation and these droughts, Chaco Canyon civilization was in serious trouble at this point, but it charged ahead:
Part of Chacoan society were already in deep trouble after AD 1050 as health and living conditions progressively eroded in the southern districts’ open farming communities. The small farmers in the south had first created reliable surpluses to be stored in the great houses. Ultimately, it was the increasingly terrible conditions of those farmers, the people who grew the corn, that had made Chacoan society so fatally vulnerable. They simply got back too little from their efforts to carry on.
Still, the great-house dwellers didn’t merely sit on their hands. As some farms failed, they used farm labor to expand roads, rituals, and great houses. This prehistoric version of a Keynesian growth model apparently alleviated enough of the stresses and strains to sustain growth through the 1070s. Then came the waning rainfall of the 1080s, followed by drought in the 1090s.
Circumstances in farming communities worsened quickly and dramatically with this drought; the very survival of many was at stake. The great-house elites at Chaco Canyon apparently responded with even more roads, rituals, and great houses. This was actually a period of great-house and road infrastructure “in-fill”, both in and near established open communities. In a few years, the rains returned. This could not help but powerfully reinforce the elites’ now well-established, formulaic response to problems.
But roads, rituals, and great houses simply did not do enough for the hungry farmers who produced corn and pottery. As the eleventh century drew to a close, even though the rains had come again, they walked away, further eroding the surpluses that had fueled the system. Imagine it: the elites must have believe the situation was saved, even as more farmers gave up in despair. Inexplicably, they never “exported” the modest irrigation system that had caught and diverted midsummer runoff from the mesa tops at Chaco Canyon and made local fields more productive. Instead, once again the elites responded with the sacred formula—more roads, more rituals, more great houses.
So, Stuart argues that the last of the Chaco Canyon building projects were “the desperate economic reactions of a fragile and frightened society”.
Regardless of whether this is true, we know that starting around 1100 AD, many of the ancient Pueblo people left the Chaco Canyon area. Many moved upland, to places with more rain and snow. Instead of great houses, many returned to building the simpler pit houses of old.
Tribes descending from the ancient Pueblo people still have myths about the decline of the Chaco civilization. While such tales should be taken with a huge grain of salt, these are too fascinating not to repeat. Here are two quotes:
In our history we talk of things that occurred a long time ago, of people who had enormous amounts of power, spiritual power and power over people. I think that those kinds of people lived here in Chaco…. Here at Chaco there were very powerful people who had a lot of spiritual power, and these people probably used their power in ways that caused things to change, and that may have been one of the reasons why the migrations were set to start again, because these these people were causing changes that were never meant to occur.
My response to the canyon was that some sensibility other than my Pueblo ancestors had worked on the Chaco great houses. There were the familiar elements such as the nansipu (the symbolic opening into the underworld), kivas, plazas and earth materials, but they were overlain by a strictness and precision of design that was unfamiliar…. It was clear that the purpose of these great villages was not to restate their oneness with the earth but to show the power and specialness of humans… a desire to control human and natural resources… These were men who embraced a social-political-religious hierarchy and envisioned control and power over places, resources and people.
These quotes are from an excellent book on the changing techniques and theories of archaeologists of the American Southwest:
• Stephen H. Lekson, A History of the Ancient Southwest, School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2008.
What these quotes show, I think, is that the sensibility of current-day Pueblo people is very different from that of the people who built the great houses of Chaco Canyon. According to David Stuart, the Chaco civilization was a ‘powerful’ culture, while their descendants became an ‘efficient’ culture:
… a powerful society (or organism) captures more energy and expends (metabolizes) it more rapidly than an efficient one. Such societies tend to be structurally more complex, more wasteful of energy, more competitive, and faster paced than an efficient one. Think of modern urban America as powerful, and you will get the picture. In contrast, an efficient society “metabolizes” its energy more slowly, and so it is structurally less complex, less wasteful, less competitive, and slower. Think of Amish farmers in Pennsylvania or contemporary Pueblo farms in the American Southwest.
In competitive terms, the powerful society has an enormous short-term advantage over the efficient one if enough energy is naturally available to “feed” it, or if its technology and trade can bring in energy rapidly enough to sustain it. But when energy (food, fuel and resources) becomes scarce, or when trade and technology fail, an efficient society is advantageous because it simpler, less wasteful structure is more easily sustained in times of scarcity.
The Pueblo III Era, and collapse
By 1150 AD, some of the ancient Pueblo people began building cliff dwellings at higher elevations—like Mesa Verde in Colorado, shown above. This marks the start of the Pueblo III Era. But this era lasted a short time. By 1280, Mesa Verde was deserted!
Some of the ruins in Canyon de Chelly also date to the Pueblo III Era. For example, the White House Ruins were built around 1200. Here are some of my pictures of this marvelous place. Click to enlarge:
But again, they were deserted by the end of the Pueblo III Era.
Why did the ancient Pueblo people move to cliff dwellings? And why did they move out so soon?
Nobody is sure. Cliff dwellings are easy to defend against attack. Built into the south face of a cliff, they catch the sun in winter to stay warm—it gets cold here in winter!—but they stay cool when the sun is straight overhead in summer. These are good reasons to build cliff dwellings. But these reasons don’t explain why cliff dwellings were so popular from 1150 to 1280, and then were abandoned!
One important factor seems to be this: there was a series of severe droughts starting around 1275. There were also raids from other tribes: speakers of Na-Dené languages, who eventually became the current-day Navajo inhabitants of this area.
But drought alone may be unable to explain what happened. There have been some fascinating attempts to model the collapse of the Anasazi culture. One is called the Artificial Anasazi Project. It used ‘agent-based modeling’ to study what the ancient Pueblo people did in Long House Valley, Arizona, from 200 to 1300. The Villages Project, a collaboration of Washington State University and the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, focused on the region near Mesa Verde.
Quoting Stephen Lekson’s book:
Both projects mirrored actual settlement patterns from 800 to 1250 with admirable accuracy. Problems rose, however, with the abandonments of the regions, in both cases after 1250. There were unexplained exceptions, misfits between the models and reality.
Those misfits were not minor. Neither model predicted complete abandonment. Yet it happened. That’s perplexing. In the Scientific American summary of the Long House Valley model, Kohler, Gummerman, and Reynolds write, “We can only conclude that sociopolitical, ideological or environmental factors not included in our model must have contributed to the total depopulation of the valley.” Similar conundrums best the Villages Project: “None of our simulations terminated with a population decline as dramatic as what actually happened in the Mesa Verde region in the late 1200.”
These simulation projects look interesting! Of course they leave out many factors, but that’s okay: it suggests that one of those factors could be important in understanding the collapse.
For more info, click on the links. Also try this short review by the author of a famous book on why civilizations collapse:
• Jared Diamond, Life with the artificial Anasazi, Nature 419 (2002), 567–569.
From this article, here are the simulated versus ‘actual’ populations of the ancient Pueblo people in Long House Valley, Arizona, from 800 to 1350 AD:
The so-called ‘actual’ population is estimated using the number of house sites that were active at a given time, assuming five people per house.
This graph gives a shocking and dramatic ending to our tale! Lets hope our current-day tale doesn’t end so abruptly, because in abrupt transitions much gets lost. But of course the ancient Pueblo people didn’t disappear. They didn’t all die. They became an ‘efficient’ society: they learned to make do with diminished resources.