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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This isn't the first time humans have faced the challenge of climate change, and civilizations have not always met that challenge successfully. Long before Columbus, the Anasazi Indians were lords of what's now the American Southwest. Then, apparently without warning, they all disappeared.

Commentator Craig Childs has written a new book that tries to solve that ancient mystery. He takes us to an Anasazi site in southeastern Utah.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Mr. CRAIG CHILDS (Author, "House of Rain"): 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.

(Soundbite of crow)

Mr. CHILDS: 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 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 seashells, elaborately painted pottery and colorful, loom-woven textiles.

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, and 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…

The Anasazi lived here for over a thousand 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 this canyon.

(Soundbite of falling drops of water)

Mr. CHILDS: 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.

It's good water.

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.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Mr. CHILDS: 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 with a tiny door.

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 back in here.

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

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Mr. CHILDS: 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.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Craig Childs' commentary was produced by Adam Burke. You can read an excerpt of Craig's "House of Rain: Tracking Vanishing Civilizations Across the American Southwest" at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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