Published: 12:09 PM - 05-14-11
Carl Sagan Celebrates the Anasazi
An ancient cliff dwelling civilization arose as early as 1500 B.C.
Their descendants are today’s Pueblo Indians, such as the Hopi and the Zuni, who live in 20 communities along the Rio Grande, in New Mexico, and in northern Arizona.
During the 10th and 11th centuries, ChacoCanyon, in western New Mexico, was the cultural center of the Anasazi homeland, an area roughly corresponding to the Four Corners region where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet.
This 30,000-square-mile landscape of sandstone canyons, buttes and mesas was populated by as many as 30,000 people.
The Anasazi built magnificent villages such as ChacoCanyon’s Pueblo Bonito, a tenth-century complex that was as many as five stories tall and contained about 800 rooms.
The people laid a 400-mile network of roads, some of them 30 feet wide, across deserts and canyons. And into their architecture they built sophisticated astronomical observatories.
Little is known about the Anasazi way of life except for clues left in the form of cave art. A recently discovered site called Penasco Blanco shows a depiction on a cave wall of what must be a supernova explosion.
The relative orientations of the crescent moon and the star make it very likely that this is a recording of the supernova which created the Crab Nebula in 1054 A.D.
This supernova, which would have been about five times brighter than Venus for about three weeks, is also verifiable by Chinese astronomical records.
Another very interesting site is called the Anasazi sun dagger. It is a spiral design traced into a cave wall, and during midsummer, midwinter, and the equinoxes it is perfectly bisected or surrounded by daggers of sunlight which enter the specially placed windows.
The Anasazi also built a solar observatory called Hovenweep Castle at Four Corners. All of this evidence points to the fact that the Anasazi were quite experienced sky-watchers, as are their probable descendents, the Pueblo Indians.
The Anasazi engineered road building. The Chaco Road had astronomical implications, certainly, and played an important role in Chaco culture, as it is visible in the north-south axis alignment of many ceremonial structures.
The main buildings at Pueblo Bonito, for example, are arranged according to this direction and probably served as central places for ceremonial journeys across the landscape.
For most of the long span of time the Anasazi occupied the region now known as the Four Corners, they lived in the open or in easily accessible sites within canyons.
But about 1250, many of the people began constructing settlements high in the cliffs—settlements that offered defense and protection.
These villages, well preserved by the dry climate and by stone overhangs, led the Anglo explorers who found them in the 1880s to name the absent builders the Cliff Dwellers.
Among the considerations for ensuring safety by building in high cliffs, they took the time make their homes beautiful.
The outer walls of the dwellings were plastered with a smooth coat of mud, and the upper facades painted creamy white.
Faint lines and hatching patterns were incised into the plaster, creating two-tone designs.
Theories about Why They Vanished
Some theories contradict each other; however researchers have to consider all possibilities.
Toward the end of the 13th century, some cataclysmic event forced the Anasazi to flee those cliff houses and their homeland and to move south and east toward the Rio Grande and the Little Colorado River.
What happened to these unique people has been the greatest puzzle facing archaeologists who study the ancient culture.
Today’s Pueblo Indians have oral histories about their peoples’ migration, but the details of these stories remain closely guarded secrets.
Within the past decade, however, archaeologists have wrung from the pristine ruins new understandings about why the Anasazi left, and the picture that emerges is dark.
It includes violence and warfare—even cannibalism—among the Anasazi themselves. “After about A.D. 1200, something very unpleasant happens,” says University of Colorado archaeologist Stephen Lekson. “The wheels come off.”
This evidence of warfare, conflict, and cannibalism is debated among scholars and interest groups.
Suggested alternatives include: a community under the pressure of starvation or extreme social stress, dismemberment and cannibalism as religious ritual or in response to religious conflict, the influx of outsiders seeking to drive out a settled agricultural community via calculated atrocity, or an invasion of a settled region by nomadic raiders who practiced cannibalism.
What drove the Anasazi to retreat to the cliffs and fortified villages? And, later, what precipitated the exodus?
For a long time, experts focused on environmental explanations: prolonged periods of drought, cyclical periods of topsoil erosion, environmental degradation, de-forestation.
Using data from tree rings, researchers know that a terrible drought seized the Southwest from 1276 to 1299; it is possible that in certain areas there was virtually no rain at all during those 23 years.
In addition, the Anasazi people may have nearly deforested the region, chopping down trees for roof beams and firewood. But environmental problems don’t explain everything.
Throughout the centuries, the Anasazi weathered comparable crises—a longer and more severe drought, for example, from 1130 to 1180—without heading for the cliffs or abandoning their lands.
Comparison to Mayan Civilization
The Mayan Civilization might have suffered from similar natural consequences that contributed to their migrations.
Formally, the Mayans did not disappear; they evolved through migration and assimilated. This reasoning could also be applied to the Anasazi.
Some of the theories are that over population might have caused the Mayan people to move because there was not be enough food for everyone. The Maya were a farming people and the farmland would not be fertilized like today.
The farmland may have not produced as well and caused a famine and thus forced the Mayans to move to more fertile lands.
Some historians have also said that droughts may have caused the people to move-since they would have to find land with more water to drink and farm with.
Other people have suggested reasons such as climatic changes, earth quakes, and sickness or epidemics.
One other big reason may have been warfare from neighboring cities or invaders from other countries.
Similar to the Anasazi, no one will ever know for sure why the Mayans abandoned their cities, but we do know that the ruins are in the jungles with the buildings standing.
And the Mayans could have moved for any number of combinations of the reasons listed above.
What Can We Learn About Preserving Our Civilization From the Past?
Like us, the Anasazi and the Mayans were highly evolved in astronomy, engineering, Arts, science, natural medicine, agriculture, and social structure.
But they were not immune to the consequences and lack of insight of an evolving social and cultural structure that could not support their population, and they were forced to migrate and assimilate.
Exhausting the natural resources, competition for limited resources resulting in warfare, topsoil erosion, over population, climate changes resulting in extreme weather, droughts and limited water supply have grave consequences.
Unlike the Anasazi and Mayans, we don't have anywhere else to go.