Tracking a Vanished Civilization in the Southwest

Craig Childs sits on an ancient stairway. i i

Author Craig Childs sits on an ancient stairway that was chiseled by hand. This stairway is part of a prehistoric road, a 30-foot-wide corridor the Anasazi cut across the desert. Dawn Reeder hide caption

itoggle caption Dawn Reeder
Craig Childs sits on an ancient stairway.

Author Craig Childs sits on an ancient stairway that was chiseled by hand. This stairway is part of a prehistoric road, a 30-foot-wide corridor the Anasazi cut across the desert.

Dawn Reeder

'House of Rain'

Commentator Craig Childs is author of a new book that tries to solve the mystery of the disappearance of the Anasazi Indians, who once lived in what is now the Southwestern United States.

Petroglyph i i

The canyon opening is the size of a ballroom. Its walls are decorated with rock art: petroglyphs of animals and people and pre-Columbian symbols. Craig Childs hide caption

itoggle caption Craig Childs
Petroglyph

The canyon opening is the size of a ballroom. Its walls are decorated with rock art: petroglyphs of animals and people and pre-Columbian symbols.

Craig Childs
Rock formation i i

Perched on ledges and tucked into cracks of this canyon are the ruins of cliff dwellings. These are the last breath of the Anasazi in this part of the world. Dawn Reeder hide caption

itoggle caption Dawn Reeder
Rock formation

Perched on ledges and tucked into cracks of this canyon are the ruins of cliff dwellings. These are the last breath of the Anasazi in this part of the world.

Dawn Reeder
Craig Childs crouches in the doorway of a cliff dwelling. i i

Craig Childs crouches in the doorway of a cliff dwelling (center). Dawn Reeder hide caption

itoggle caption Dawn Reeder
Craig Childs crouches in the doorway of a cliff dwelling.

Craig Childs crouches in the doorway of a cliff dwelling (center).

Dawn Reeder
Anasazi pottery i i

As they headed south in search of rain, the Anasazi left behind trails of pottery and architecture. Dawn Reeder hide caption

itoggle caption Dawn Reeder
Anasazi pottery

As they headed south in search of rain, the Anasazi left behind trails of pottery and architecture.

Dawn Reeder

For 1,000 years, long before Columbus, the Anasazi Indians were lords of what's now the American Southwest. Their civilization was as complex and sophisticated as that of the Mayans. Then, apparently without warning, the Anasazi all but disappeared. Commentator Craig Childs is author of House of Rain, a new book that tries to solve that ancient mystery. A visit to an Anasazi site in southeastern Utah offers clues.

I'm walking across bare rock where the desert unfolds. Waves of sandstone reveal a deeply carved canyon below.

This is where the Anasazi lived. Their ruins are everywhere out here, the remains of a great Neolithic civilization. Single buildings the size of the base of the Sears Tower. Huge, round ceremonial chambers with 90-ton ceilings. This was a landscape of monuments.

Coming down into this canyon I reach an ancient stairway. I can see where it was chiseled by hand, the hammer strokes of stone tools.

It's the largest stairway out here I know of. It's been carved right into the bedrock. You walk down these first one, two, three, four, five steps, and then the steps start getting deeper. They're two feet wide and three feet wide, cut deep into the rock, so that it's very clear that this is the way. You're on the route.

A friend of mine, an archaeologist, recently discovered that this stairway is part of a prehistoric road, a 30-foot-wide corridor the Anasazi cut across the desert. Four hundred miles of these roads have been documented. They were probably used by Anasazi caravans.

Traders and migrants would have followed them, carrying exotic birds and carved sea shells; elaborately painted pottery and colorful, loom-woven textiles. All of this material has been found in excavations, evidence of extensive trade routes.

The canyon opening is the size of a ballroom. Its walls are decorated with rock art: petroglyphs of animals and people and pre-Columbian symbols.

There are figures carved into everything. You can see a person's body there, formed on the rock with arms sticking up in the air and legs pointing straight down and a torso.

The Anasazi lived here for more than 1,000 years. Then, within a single generation, they were gone. Between 1275 and 1300 A.D., they stopped building entirely, and the land was left empty.

It's a mystery. The answer lies deep within the canyon.

Below the stairway, water seeps from bare rock—an amphitheater filled with the drips and spatters of abundant springs. I have ample water in my pack, but I feel compelled to crouch beside one of these seeps and drink. It tastes clean, filtered through 10 million tons of sandstone.

Water is what made everything possible here. When rainfall was reliable and water tables were up, the Anasazi built their roads and monuments. Then, when the population reached its highest level, a severe drought hit. Malnutrition coursed through villages. Warfare broke out. Settlements that once stood proudly atop mesas fell to ruins.

I've been in this desert when the springs were dry. I know what it's like to not have enough water. I've sucked on balls of damp clay scrounged from a dried mud pit. I've filtered water through my teeth, drinking out of sun-warmed pools that taste like dirty aquariums.

Perched on ledges and tucked into cracks of this canyon are the ruins of cliff dwellings. These are the last breath of the Anasazi in this part of the world.

I climb up to one of these cliff dwellings, scaling hand over hand, to a wall of square stones and mortar, covering a 10-foot-wide crack in the rock face, with a tiny door.

It's a lot cooler inside. Outside the sun is just roasting on the front of the cliff dwelling. But in here, there's a crack going way up high, kind of a little air conditioner.

But you don't live in these cliffs unless you have to. For all of its artful construction, the dwelling is a sign that they were moving to the last water sources.

After this, they were gone. Looking for rain, the Anasazi headed south, leaving trails of pottery and architecture showing the way. Their descendants are the modern tribes of Tewa, Acoma, Zuni, Hopi. Others kept going into Mexico and haven't been heard from since.

As I follow in their footsteps, I find they left the Southwest with their belongings in place, ladles left in ceramic bowls, granaries sealed full of supplies. It is as if they intended to return. But they never had a chance to come back.

Excerpt: 'House of Rain'

'House of Rain'

THE FLOOD

CHACO CANYON

It happened quickly, as if a diviner's staff had struck the ground. Water flashed onto the dry earth. Its dark and wringing hands plunged over cactus and sage, welling around the trunks of sparse cottonwood trees. The desert groaned as its thousand parched mouths opened to an empty summer sky.

Two of us looked down at this flash flood from atop a safe, high bank. Below us water funneled into Chaco Canyon, passing through a set of mustard-colored cliffs in the barrens of northwest New Mexico. The water smelled as ripe as garbage. It was incense to me, a lurid scent that I have encountered only select times in my life, brief hours of the desert erupting into sudden and monstrous floods, where everything living and dead is channeled into a single slot. It smelled like creation itself.

The flood thundered past buff-colored boulders that had fallen from the cliffs into beds of withered greasewood and cracked clay soil. My companion, a man named Adam, had never been to this part of the desert. Standing above the flood, he glanced at me, astonished. It seemed there should not be water out here, ever. I told Adam that we were very lucky. You can wait years and not see something like this. Or you can walk out on rattleboard roads that no one has driven in years, and where you expect yet another dry wash, you find a bestial river heaving with broken trees.

Adam stood with his arms draped at his sides. His face was red from the heat. A tall man, Adam has a graceful manner, his hair long and dark. He studied the water, which was actually more mud than water, and then looked up at the sky. There was not a single cloud, no possible source for this flood as far as he could see. The blue overhead was bereft of any moisture.

One small cloud had passed while we were out walking earlier in the day. It had dragged a quarter acre of shade across the desert, and we had set off chasing it, sprinting to catch up so we could get under its shade. Before we got there, the cloud lifted its skirt and sailed off, evaporating into nothing. We were left empty-handed, my oiled hat brim wilted in the sun.

Most people think this must have been better country to live in some thousand years ago, back when an indigenous civilization of hunters and corn growers assembled in a geographic province known as the Colorado Plateau. The climate is no different now than it was then, however, just as dry at times and wet at others, and prone to the same scales of flooding. Rainfall has always been unpredictable in this desert. Farming seasons expand and contract like an accordion, leaving only slim margins for planting and growing.

The Colorado Plateau is the very edge of where one can even partly subsist on agriculture. It is a 150,000-square-mile blister of land that rises across the dry confluence of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Its surface is incised with countless canyons and wrinkled into isolated mesas and mountain ranges that stand suddenly from the desert floor up to 13,000 feet in elevation. The combination of irregular topography and infrequent rainfall gave rise to the Anasazi, an indigenous people who knew how to move. Small family groups and clans readily skirted around climate changes, transferring their settlements to high, wetter mesas or down to the sunbaked lowlands whenever the need arose.

In the late centuries B.C. and the early centuries A.D., the Anasazi lived in small villages of semi-subterranean pit-houses made of earth and wood, clusters of tiny domes the color of local soils. They occupied any one settlement for no more than ten to twenty years before moving on. Rarely would a person have been born, grown old, and died in the same place. For more than ten thousand years, the Anasazi and their ancestors walked the climatic tightropes of the Colorado Plateau, chasing the rain, leaving their camps and settlements behind. Sporadic farming began some four thousand years ago as corn and other subsidiary crops slowly made their way up from southern Mexico. But even with the onset of agriculture, the Anasazi remained a wayfaring people. Farming came to a head about a thousand years ago, and the Anasazi rose with it, reaching the civilized heights of imposing public architecture and industrial farming. Though still in motion, they began to settle in places for longer periods of time, making their homes sturdier, more permanent. Populations rapidly increased. Architecture flourished. Then suddenly they were gone.

I glanced upstream, where the scalp of a thunderstorm barely peeked over the eastern horizon. The flood had come from there, maybe thirty miles away, and had picked up everything it could carry along its way. It hissed with sand and mud, hauling across its back bobbing clods of horseshit. A car tire rose to the surface and then sank like a drowning ogre. Countless tiny moons of juniper berries nodded up and down alongside aluminum cans with their identities sanded off. We had to cross to get where we were going.

Could you swim it? I wondered. I knew better. I had once made an academic study out of flash floods in the desert, adding my own arcane contributions to the fields of hydrology and geomorphology. I knew very well how nasty floods can be, full of chaotic undertows and unexpected obstacles that may or may not break the surface at any moment. But I felt pulled toward the water.

We were heading for an archaeological site on the opposite side of this shadeless canyon about five miles downstream. The flood was going in our direction.

I carefully studied the water, my eyes tracking its fleeing surface puckered with whirlpools. There was a specific grit to the sediment and softness to the bedrock that spoke of how water travels in this region. The way shoreline plants were arranged in tiers and the scales of the terraced banks told what it might be like to hitch a ride downstream. I concluded that we had a good chance of surviving as long as we encountered no boulders along the way, no unanticipated waterfalls. Sometimes floods sing with catastrophe, but this one seemed safe.

Without looking at Adam, I said, "Let's swim it."

Adam did not look at me either. He nodded slowly, watching as chunks of shoreline crashed in, sucked immediately beneath the muddy froth.

He smiled wryly, unable to take his eyes off the water, and asked, "So this is what you do in the desert?"

"Only when you get lucky," I said.

Much of northwest New Mexico is a landscape of oblivion, an arid sink bowing into the Colorado Plateau. Ochre- and straw-colored washes loop in and out for hundreds of miles, many seeing running water for no more than a day or two each year. In some places dusty sagebrush steppes extend as far as the eye can see, and in others scabs of badlands lie naked under the sun, completely devoid of vegetation. Occasional black monoliths are visible in the distance, wind-struck jags of rock standing several hundred feet tall like lost chess pieces. Chaco Canyon lies here, in a basin a hundred miles across.

Of the deserts I know, this barren quarter of the Colorado Plateau is the most unfortunate. During freeze-dried winters, the snow blusters about like dust, and temperatures can drop to twenty below zero. Summers leave every stone hot to the touch. Looking for remains of ancient cultures, one might expect only sparse ruins, if any, ramadas of scavenged wood and impoverished households where residents tied reed mats across doorways to keep out the incessant wind. But the Anasazi left much more in their wake. Reaching a feverish peak in the eleventh century A.D., they built scores of masonry buildings, their floor plans as sizable and geometrically abstruse as crop circles. Thousands of chambers, with ceilings weighing up to ninety tons each, were constructed in Chaco Canyon. To support these structures, 250,000 trees were felled in mountains fifty miles away and hauled across the desert. The timbers were not dragged. They were hoisted and carried in procession to this canyon.

At the time, much larger population centers arose elsewhere in the Americas. The Mound Builder culture erected earthen pyramids with ramps and flattened tops along the Mississippi River. In what is now Illinois, the ancient city of Cahokia reached a population of 15,000, while in southern Mexico the stone temples of Chichén Itzá broke the jungle skyline with monolithic stone facades. The gridded avenues and pyramids of Teotihuacán near modern-day Mexico City hosted about 150,000 people, while 350,000 lived in an urban center at the south end of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia.*

Chaco, on the other hand, had a relatively small year-round population. Estimates range between a couple of thousand residents and only a few hundred. In the larger cultural picture of North, South, and Central America, Chaco was a relatively minor place. In the sparsely populated Southwest, however, it was the preeminent center, a shining anomaly of broad, clean streets, or processionals, and ceremonial buildings that once stood like cathedrals in the desert.

A traveler in the eleventh century would have approached Chaco Canyon along one of many scrupulously engineered roads. Where roads entered the canyon, stairways had been carved straight into the bedrock walls to get from the surrounding desert down to the canyon floor. There one would have found an oasis of curve-walled temples and blocky residential compounds. Housing was built on the south side of the canyon. On the north side stood public buildings two or three times the square footage of the White House in Washington D.C. Nothing like these buildings existed anywhere else in the Southwest.

These stately structures, now called great houses, were not residences per se. More likely they were monuments, temples, or palaces. Many of them had as few as ten residents for every fifty rooms, and most of the rooms, by the nature of the artifacts found in them, seem to have been used for religious or ceremonial purposes. Deep inside catacomb-like chambers within one great house, excavators have found the most highly decorated burials in the Southwest. Two richly dressed skeletons were discovered lying on a bed of fifty-six thousand pieces of turquoise, surrounded by fine ceramic vessels, and covered by a sheet of ivory-colored shells imported from the ocean six hundred miles away.

Great-house stonework was painstakingly created, as evidenced by straight corners and geometrically perfect circles, which were then washed with a glaze of plaster, resulting in an arresting, lofty appearance. These buildings would have looked like multistory thrones set along the promenade of Chaco Canyon.

During certain times of the year—perhaps on the winter and summer solstices, or at the beginning of lunar cycles—people traveled great distances to reach Chaco. Based on skeletal remains, these people were physically distinct from one another, and based on languages descended from that time, they probably spoke a variety of disparate tongues. People from different regions would have been recognizable by their manner, their facial features, and the weaving patterns of their robes, sandals, and skirts. Perhaps these visitors came to Chaco for religious reasons, attending festivals, partaking in celebratory feasts during years of plentiful crops, or offering their labor to help construct great houses.

In the middle of the eleventh century, the stonework alone at each great house required hundreds of thousands of man-hours. Masons broke rocks into thin, workable tablets, laborers hauled baskets of wet mortar, and woodworkers stripped timbers and evened off their ends with stone axes before setting them into place. Parts of older great houses were demolished to make way for expansions, and thousands of tons of rubble went into the new foundations. At the same time, adjacent land was cleared for future construction.

Most of this activity took place in an area of about three square miles, known today as Downtown Chaco, a term coined by archaeologist Steve Lekson. It contains a couple of dozen residential compounds facing half as many great houses, as well as tidy processionals leading toward the center. Ten miles in all directions lies a looser halo of ten more great houses and numerous contiguous living quarters. Chaco, or at least parts of Chaco, keeps going from there. Ancient roads radiate from the canyon outward to meet satellite great houses scattered across the desert. The place was built like a web, drawing people and their artifacts to the center, Chaco Canyon.

Whether people living elsewhere on the Colorado Plateau were directly involved with eleventh-century Chaco or not, they could not help being deeply affected by it. Year after year more travelers came from the hinterlands. They left tracks of broken pottery along the way—countless ceramic water pitchers and painted ollas dropped and shattered across the desert. The roads they stamped into the ground can be seen to this day from space. Chaco became the cultural center of the Colorado Plateau, and thus it is the appropriate place to begin the story of the Anasazi.

On the clear summer day when Adam and I visited, a mass of mud and water shouldered through Chaco Canyon, taking no notice of the toppled great houses standing on the dry banks above. The flood had its own business more pressing and ancient than human civilization, proud heaves of water undercutting the banks and dragging away dead and dying cottonwood trees. The floodwater ran down a wash in the middle of the canyon where we walked with accelerated hearts. We felt the anxious intoxication I imagine skydivers feel the moment before they jump. Quickly now, who knew how long the high water might last? It could drain out from under us in half an hour.

The canyon floor was about half a mile wide, leaving plenty of room for us to get away from the flood, which ran less than a hundred feet across. We headed right for it, walking through greasewood and saltbush until we found a place where we could get into the water. We had gone back to my truck and picked up a watertight ammunition box that Adam now carried. It was army surplus, about the size of a lunch pail. Adam knelt and popped it open. We stripped off our clothes and stuffed them inside, along with a pen, a journal, and a bottle of drinking water. We left on only our boots to protect our feet from whatever lay on the floor of this flood.

The sun burned our bare shoulders as we slogged through soaked clay to the flood's slipstream edge. I nervously rubbed my hands on my thighs, glancing along the corridor of the canyon. Certainly, the Anasazi had done the same, I thought. A thousand years ago someone taking a message from one compound to another must have hopped into a flood to speed the journey—or just taken an afternoon dip in the cold water, joyous over its startling appearance in this landscape where water is the rarest commodity. Maybe people used to flock to these infrequent floods, running with baskets and pots to gather mud, which they could use to make mortar or farming soil. Indeed, earthen and stone-lined canals, where water would have been diverted from the main wash toward nearby storage areas, have been detected all around Chaco. Buildings went up in fits and starts, perhaps matching sporadic flood cycles as millions of gallons of mud were suddenly available for construction. These floods also brought down precious water to be distilled for drinking. An event like this would have been a wonder and the cause for celebration.

Adam and I continued along sloppy mud banks and through cold lagoons where the flood swelled into the surrounding desert. The water had the chill of freshly melted hail. Parts of trees spun downstream in the froth. We waded in up to our thighs, and the current began to pull on us. Just before it swept us off our feet, we dove forward. Like busted rams of cottonwood trees, we were carried off.

Several million tons of sediment depart from the Southwest every day, carried in warm, muddy rivers toward the nearest sea. The entire landscape is falling apart, too dry to hold on to its soil, too weathered to remain solid. In 1941 a 300,000-ton slab of canyon wall toppled into the back of the largest of Chaco's ruins, crushing numerous rooms and throwing boulders into ceremonial chambers, where they remain today like rough-edged meteorites. What you see in the Southwest is temporary, everything caught in motion.

When archaeological crews began digging in the ruins of Chaco Canyon in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they dumped unsalvageable rubble into the wash for flash floods to carry off. From one excavation alone, led by the National Geographic Society in the 1920s, more than 100,000 tons of archaeological debris—splintered ceiling timbers and unseated wall stones—were hauled out in ore carts and fed to the wash, as if the workers themselves were agents of erosion. Everything else was packed into crates and shipped in boxcars to distant museums and private collections. A startling wealth of artifacts left Chaco Canyon during those excavations: colorful flutes and planks of richly painted wood that once hung in rooms like banners; beautifully decorated bowls and jars found stacked nearly to the ceilings of these rooms; masses of bear paws and mountain lion claws and bird wings uncovered in ceremonial contexts.

When researchers looked closely at the hundreds of thousands of relics excavated from Chaco, they realized that very few had originated in the canyon itself. Surprisingly, nearly everything turned out to be imported. Forged copper bells had come from Mexico, amber-colored ceramics from northern Arizona and southern Utah. Even the corn found here had been brought in, its kernels revealing isotope signatures of soil from farming plots at least forty miles away. At its eleventh—century peak, this canyon was a destination for pilgrims and traders from across the Southwest and beyond. They arrived with baskets full of rare stones, jewelry, crystal-tempered pottery, and exotic tropical birds, all of which they deposited in Chaco's great houses.

Wolcott Toll, an archaeologist working extensively with pottery here, explained that knowing that so much material came into Chaco when nothing appears to have gone out in exchange drives people crazy. "They believe that in order to give something tangible, you've got to get something tangible in return and take it home with you," Toll said to me. "Maybe nothing was going out. Maybe people were bringing stuff here and leaving it for no other reason than to establish their link to a very important place."

Toll believes that people were gathering from dispersed regions for special events, something required by this landscape for cultural survival. He explained that in the face of vast distances and hit-or-miss precipitation, people had to be flexible in their location, leadership, and group constitution. They picked a central meeting place—Chaco Canyon—and flocked to it to claim their place in the world. Toll found evidence of eighty thousand ceramic vessels intentionally smashed at one site. He saw this as a ritual act. It was like casting champagne glasses into a fireplace, an exploit of stunning abundance and celebration in this crumbling, bare-bones land.

Swimming a flash flood through Chaco Canyon, I began to understand in a visceral way the passage of material in and out of this place. All taste and touch and sight, my reactions unplanned, I pushed off against a tangle of tree roots and swam hard to avoid a broad trunk spinning wildly in front of me. Boils of debris rushed to the surface and disappeared just as quickly. The water felt like fists pummeling my body. As best I could, I floated with my boot tips sticking up, heading downstream, and my arms waving to keep myself straight. I glanced over at Adam, who was half grinning in astonishment as the land sped past.

I tried to laugh aloud, but the cold water wrapped around my throat, and I could not let out anything but a gasp. I shot a broad, exhilarated smile—all teeth and muddy beard—back to him. It was a secret smile, one thief to another. We had stolen our way into a place where people should not go. We were now subordinate to the whims of the elements, and it felt beautifully insane, like riding a hurricane.

I swam hard to keep near the center of the stream, out of range of snagged cottonwood trees that grew along the banks. Adam had one arm draped over a floating tree trunk and clutched the floating ammo box with his other hand. Supported by the two, he made a raft of himself, a stable vessel that bucked through eddies and waves.

I needed something, too. Up ahead was a spinning backwater of debris, and I swam into it, splashing juniper berries out of my path. The water here was slow, and I could feel deep turnings below me, my feet touching drowned cottonwood branches. I found a half-sunken, rusty Coleman ice chest and grabbed its handle. Its lid was torn off, and bullet holes were punched through one side. I swam out of the eddy, using the chest as a buoyant shield, swinging it out into the current, where it picked up speed and dragged me along.

As long as we kept our wits about us, feet dancing off submerged debris, we would make it just fine. Nothing but heads and boot tips floating with the rest of the wreckage, we were small in the water's hands. Pieces of trees heaved around us, broken branches and roots. We glided past them, following the laws of debris, spinning into knotted eddies and being spit back out. The ice chest helped keep me comfortably afloat.

When we caught glimpses of each other, we flashed signals with our faces, checking in.

We still good?

Still good.

I could feel minor shifts in the flood's composition. Snakes of sediment were coiling around my body, tongues sharp and cold darting against my skin. It was too cold. Adam and I shouted across to each other. We needed to get out, just long enough to warm up. We swam to a shallow overflow, where we paddled over cacti and woody spikes of saltbush that bit at our chilled, pink skin. I dragged the ice chest behind me to a bank of dry sand.

We sat in the hot sand, scooping it up and pouring it over our scratched bodies, washing it down our chests, burying our thighs and the tops of our feet. It must have been 130 degrees, baked by the sun. When our bones no longer stung from the cold, we dove back in, slipping around trees like lustrous eels. We repeated this process every five or ten minutes, crawling out to bathe in the sand, then pushing back into the flood.

As we rounded a corner, an ample ruin appeared above us, its walls slowly eroding at the base of a hot cliff. The building maintained the best of its stature, three stories of cleanly cut stones, the fastidious trademark masonry of Chaco. Cacti grew up through rows of opened rooms. The ruin was almost blinding in the sun, like the whitewashed plaster of a Middle Eastern village.

During the past century, archaeologists excavated painted jars as big as watermelons from the site. I had seen them in storage at a federal artifact repository, the vessels set shoulder to shoulder on metal shelves, their glossy white exteriors painted with black geometric designs. In the repository I also saw drawers packed with cut turquoise and argillite, along with finely made trinkets of wood, stone, shell, and bone. As I passed beneath this ruin, I had only a few seconds to recall its many excavated objects, necklaces and small, carved bird effigies, a wealth of civilized artifacts once ushered into this canyon.

A gateway of high sandstone bluffs appeared ahead, and at the top of one was a crown of ruins. This was our destination. The place looked large even from a couple of miles away. It was one of the first great houses constructed at Chaco, placed high enough that it would have been visible from all around. Looking up from the flood, I thought that this may have been one reason so many travelers had come here. People approaching Chaco Canyon in the eleventh century would have spotted this great citadel from afar, a masonry behemoth unlike anything they had ever seen before.

My throat strangled by the cold water, I kept my eyes firmly on the ruins ahead. Eventually, we were close enough to them that we had to start looking for a way out. Paddling and kicking fiercely toward shore, I let go of the ice chest, giving it back to the flood. We clawed through blade-sharp willows that snapped at our cold skin until we reached exposed ground and sank our fingers into the slick clay. We crawled out of the flood on hands and knees, then stood. Mud draped off our shoulders and wormed down our legs. I turned and watched the ice chest vanish into dark waves.

Like creatures from a bog, we walked dripping and draining into the desert, moving up along tiers of sandstone, where the dead heat of summer radiated up from the ground and overtook us. The mud turned to dust as we climbed toward the top of the bluff, our boots sloshing. The sun began burning the scrapes in our skin. Adam stopped and opened the ammunition box. The sun was too strong; we needed clothes. As we slipped on shirts and pulled down sleeves to protect our forearms, we glanced at the flood behind us. It was nearly out of sight in the canyon below, a distant rumble like continuous thunder.

Not far ahead stood the ruins we sought, a tabernacle of fallen walls at the highest point of land, doors and hallways split wide open by erosion. The site is an oval with two hundred ground-floor rooms buried in the debris of the second, third, and fourth stories, which once surrounded a central mass of circular communal chambers known as kivas. No room stood wholly intact. The place looked as though it had been bombed. Tight whirlwinds scoured the ground, sweeping through gaping walls with quick, hot twists of dust.

Even though Chaco Canyon is one of the most heavily scrutinized archaeological centers in North America, many of its sites have never been excavated, their buried chambers still loaded with artifacts. This bluff-top great house had undergone only cursory explorations over the past century. I had heard that a tremendous amount of imported turquoise had been found just near the surface. But there had been no concerted excavation here. If archaeologists had the funding and political backing to break into this place, no doubt they would make discoveries that would revamp our thinking about Chaco, but up to now it has been left mostly alone.

Even with the astonishing amount of cultural material already excavated, Chaco remains one of the most enigmatic sites in American archaeology. There is so much data, so much evidence of religious and political complexity, so many far-flung associations and ethnicities, that just about any story makes sense in this desert canyon.

First is the argument over "foreign" influence versus spontaneous "local" development. Some say that Chaco was obviously an extension of empires existing at the time in Mesoamerica. Perhaps it was a miniature Tenochtitlán, with its own dusty temples lined up along the broad avenue of Chaco Wash. An expedition of Mesoamerican voyagers may have walked a thousand miles or more and planted themselves here, calling on awestruck natives to pay homage and build great houses. Others argue that Chaco was a purely indigenous creation, the quintessential work of people living in isolation on the Colorado Plateau. Those who rebuff any Mesoamerican influence insist that there were no Maya or Aztecs here and that Chaco was its own homegrown community.

Next comes the argument over function. The evidence gathered from a century of digging and mapping can support nearly any speculation thrown at Chaco Canyon: religious center, military center, government center, economic center, ceremonial center—the list is extensive. The place is thought by some to have been a colony of churches, its numerous great houses exhibiting certain recurring features thought to be religious. The repetition of specific architectural designs could also be interpreted as a form imposed by a ruling elite, the abundant goods as tithing. The outrageously copious artifacts found inside these great houses look like ritual paraphernalia: feathers and bones representing nearly every bird species found within a thousand-mile radius; a large number of wooden staffs like shepherds' crooks, their handles inlaid with fine stones; and many rooms filled with precious, expertly crafted mementos, many of which were found positioned as if on altars.

Other people take this abundance to mean that Chaco was a commercial center, a pre-Columbian shopping mall built to redistribute goods in the Southwest's notoriously unstable environment. In that sense the buildings are seen as storehouses, with some rooms stacked nearly to the ceiling with intricately painted vessels that were hardly ever used. Alternatively, the way these stacked vessels are frequently gathered around burial rooms has led some people to believe that they were offerings to the dead and that great houses were monumental tombs.

Whether this was a place of economic tribute, religious oblations, or offerings to ancestors, Chaco reached its peak in the eleventh century A.D. as the hub of an immense, pan-Southwest pilgrimage. Episodic layers of trash were left by thousands of people who seem to have arrived in waves and stayed for only a short time. When archaeologists pick apart their garbage, they find the remains of feasts and construction events that would have filled the canyon with noise.

In this vein I have heard Chaco called an ancient Las Vegas, an isolated strip of grandiose architecture in an ill-watered desert where people came from all directions to participate in flashy ceremonies and where they left all their wealth before heading home.

Finally, there is the argument over culture, over who or what these people called Anasazi might have been. In one school of thought, they were dispersed bands of primitive farmers and hunters, cliff and rock dwellers living without benefit of the wheel or any appreciable amount of forged metal. The stones used for constructing great houses were cut by using other stones, harder rock against softer.

At the same time, many envision a much more complex culture on the prehistoric Colorado Plateau, one comparable to Neolithic peoples such as the builders of Stonehenge in England or those who erected pueblo-like townships in Turkey in the sixth century B.C. They see astronomers here, priests, master masons, and warriors dressed in finely woven textiles and brilliantly feathered robes. They imagine a powerful and rigidly structured civilization.

Despite all the theories to have passed through Chaco Canyon, one thing is certain: something colossal happened here, an astounding feat of organization for a seminomadic people who had never before built anything near this scale.

Before entering the ruined great house, Adam and I stopped to gather our thoughts. My mind was still occupied by the flood, my body poised for sudden movements, whether it be fending off tree trunks or swimming with a quick burst out of a whirlpool. Time took on a different quality atop this bluff, which had seen centuries of slow decay. I bent down and unlaced my boots, pulled them off, and slipped off my wet socks. I let my bare feet feel the ground, aware of every pebble and stick. It felt better to walk this way—more slowly, more attentively than boots allowed. I tied the laces together and slung the boots over my shoulder as I walked into the ruins.

Walls and parts of walls stood here and there. Thousands of sandstone tiles lay scattered across the ground. Ceiling timbers as big as ship masts stuck out of the ground where rooms had buckled and caved in. I traced the shapes of these rooms with my bare feet, stepping lightly around fallen walls still intact as they lay facedown where they had fallen over. Some of the rooms were big enough to have held twenty or thirty people; others were as small as closets.

No one is sure what these great houses were used for, but to say that they were only one thing or another is to misunderstand the Anasazi. This compound may have been a church in one generation and a gambling domain in another. Fine layers of archaeological research have revealed elusive cycles of rise and fall among these people and their architecture. Centuries and decades of expansions and contractions give an impression of great houses in a constant state of cultural movement, during which nearly all the kivas were torn down at one time or another and then rebuilt, an impressive feat considering that some were as big as ballrooms. It is as if the people who lived here mirrored the landscape and the environment surrounding them: swift to change, as suddenly grandiose as they were ordinary, gathering around great houses at one moment and nowhere to be seen at another.

Archaeologist David Wilcox once explained to me, "We see these places, and we think of them as static, as doorways and walls that are solid. But they weren't. They were spaces meant to serve purposes, and those purposes were fluid, changing by generations, or yearly, or even daily."

Adam and I each found our own pace, separating as we passed through the ruins. Near the peak of the ruins, I came to a single wall still standing. In it was an open doorway, a shimmering blue portal looking out at nothing but sky.

Flood silt, now dried, fell off me in a wind that came through the open door. My skin was scratched raw in places. In my flesh I felt the weight of water, the flood absorbed into calluses and fingertips. My beard still had some dampness, almost cool in the wind as I scanned the horizon. In one direction I could see blanched contours of other great houses down in the wide chute of Chaco Canyon. In the opposite direction apricot-colored washes coiled in and out of one another. To the north were a few flecks of clouds, puffs of moisture blooming where heat radiated off the ground and pierced cooler layers of atmosphere. I kept an eye on these clouds, thinking maybe one would take hold and swell into a thunderhead, give someone a bit of shade somewhere, maybe a taste of rain. Each one expelled its energy quickly, evaporating as fast as it had appeared.

I stood before the empty doorway thinking this site must have been a crucial location a thousand years ago, a great beacon standing over the desert. I turned away and walked down into a field of kivas one level below, their roofs caved in and covered with bedded dust. More kivas have been found in this great house than at any other Chaco site. Their numerous round mouths opened around me, gaping at the sky, their edges rimmed in dry, feathery ricegrass.

In the sixth century A.D., a single, ceremonial kiva was built on this bluff, the earliest construction of its order overlooking Chaco Canyon. In its day that kiva was one of the larger buildings in the Southwest, a monument standing high above early Anasazi villages that had already been erected along the wash below. Within a hundred years the climate shifted slightly, and these kiva builders easily moved on, appearing to have migrated mostly to what is now Colorado, where masonry architecture and floor plans of early great houses began to appear in the eighth century. In the meantime, the high kiva fell into disrepair. A century or so later, arriving with the rains, people built an even larger kiva. They, too, left. After them came others, and then others, until by the eleventh century this bluff was topped with a proud great house, its interior crowded with kivas.

I could detect a faint rhythm among these generations of ruined kivas. It had a gentle, carrying sound—populations washing in and out of Chaco Canyon like tides, like weather. Century by century, Chaco grew until it reached an exponential climax, the canyon crowded with great houses. In this dusty corner of North America, civilization had begun.

I crossed to the edge of the great house and from here I could see the flood far below. My toes dug into dust and broken rocks as I watched the flood rush across the desert. Adam came walking languidly through the ruins. He stopped beside me and looked out at the flood, bright mirrors of water disappearing into the distance.

"This is the place I would have been," he said, appreciating the vista. "Right here."

I silently agreed. This was why we had come. It had always been the place to be.

Copyright © 2006 by Craig Childs

Books Featured In This Story

House of Rain

Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across The 2006 American Southwest

by Craig Childs

Hardcover, 496 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
House of Rain
Subtitle
Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across The 2006 American Southwest
Author
Craig Childs

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.