Photo by Ellen Steele
In the mid-1970s I was stationed at an Air Force radar site in Holbrook, Arizona. With a family of three young girls, Ellen and I explored the National Parks, Monuments and Reservations in the region. One of the issues that always pricked my intellectual curiosity was why did the Pueblo People leave their cliff houses and where did they go? We often heard of the Chaco Canyon People, but did not have time to visit the canyon before we left the area.
When we lived in Omaha, Nebraska in the late 1970s we visited the Mesa Verdi ruins, often camping in the National Park gave us lots of time to explore the cliff houses and visitor center, seeking answers to our questions. After I retired from the Air Force, on our way home to California, we stopped once more to camp at Mesa Verdi, this time with a fourth daughter, almost three years old. Climbing pole ladders to the higher reaches of the cliff houses with a three year old under one arm was a challenge.
Our oldest daughter, a sophomore in high school, was so impressed with the Pueblo Culture she decided to study Anthropology when she graduated from high school. Years later she graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Anthropology, after spending a year in England studying Archaeology.
We often discussed the plight of the Pueblo People of the Southwest and concluded that the climate may have played a role in the migration of the Anasazi from Chaco Canyon, and eventually from the cliff house communities through out southwest.
After I retired, Ellen and I put a visit to Chaco Culture National Historical Park on our bucket list. In the spring of 2013 we made the long trek to the Canyon, only to be disappointed by the lack of artifacts and information at the visitors center. We were told the artifacts were in the Maxwell Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We did, however, take the opportunity to explore the great houses and the ruins at the Park. Again, we came away with more questions then answers.
This fall we visited the Maxwell Museum Chaco Canyon exhibit, while at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. There is not much balloon activity during the mid-day and we took the opportunity to explore the Maxwell Anasazi display, which was quite small. We had heard there were over 8,000 artifacts take from Chaco Canyon. Again disappointment was perched on the back of our minds.
We asked the young lady at the gift shop for books on Chaco Canyon when we first arrived at the Maxwell. She said it would take some time to find them. After looking at the limited artifact displays we went by the gift shop to see what she had found, and there was a pile about 18 inches high on the counter for us to examine. Explaining my interest in climate change, the store manager recommended Anasazi America, Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place, by David E. Stuart, a scholar at the University of New Mexico.
I am glad we stopped at the gift shop and accepted the manager’s recommendations, as Stuart’s book has answered many of the questions I have puzzled over for years. After reading Anasazi America, I now have a much better understanding of the Chaco culture and the Anasazi migration in the Southwest and the huge role that climate change made in the lives of the people living in the region. And, it was climate change the led to their collapse.
There were a number of factors that influenced the climate, but one critical factor was the summer monsoons. For long periods the monsoons came on a regular basis, then for long periods the monsoons became highly variable, and then vanished year after year for a longer period. From 900 to 1021 the rains were fairly reliable, with a spring mixture to germinate the seeds and July rains critical during the tasseling of the corn plants. From 1021 to 1051 there was a summer drought. Then after about 70 years of reliable moisture again, the drought returned in 1130 to 1175 and again from 1200 to 1299, an exceptionally long period. The two droughts with only a short recovery period between 1175 and 1200 resulted in the collapse of the Chaco Canyon Community. Unable to farm in the canyon, families fled into the highlands seeking water for their corn, beans and squash.
In the second edition of his book (First edition was published in 1999) Stuart incorporated new research findings through some groundbreaking archaeology to explore the rise and fall of the Chaco Anasazi. Adding new research findings on caloric flows in prehistoric times as well as exploring the consequences of an increasingly detached central Chacoan decision-making structure.
Stuart argues that Chaco’s collapse was a failure to adapt to the consequences of rapid growth–including problems with the misuse of farmland, malnutrition, loss of community, and an inability to deal with climatic change.
One minor negative in this latest edition is an attempt by Stuart to show how Chacoan Culture parallels patterns throughout modern societies. He thinks that modern society could learn from the experience and fate of the Chaco Anasazi. If we do not learn from our Anasazi ancestors, he suggests we risk a similar cultural collapse? This comes across as unsupported progressive academic musings often found reverberating in the University Lounge after a few glasses of wine or tall beers. Avoid these cultural comments and you will be fine, as the archaeology is worth the time, just skip the sociology.
If you are interested in historic climate change and Anasazi life in the Southwest, I recommend Stuart’s book. You can find a shorter version of life in the Southwest, focused more on the climate issues, in The West Without Water by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roan.
It is clear that climate change has an impact on society as a whole, depending on how the society adapts to change. One issues is the slow place of climate change, the change often takes place over generations. Religious leaders in the Chaco Canyon forecast the rains would return, and when they did not the farmers just walked away seeking a better life for their families where there was water in the highlands. When the farmers left, there was a cultural collapse.
If long term drought comes to California, our dams are empty and the Central Valley aquifers drained, where are the people of the Central Valley of California going to go? There will be a cultural collapse, with great economic impact on the state and the nation. Our legislators are focused on global warming climate change, however the droughts came during both warm periods and cold periods.
We have a better understanding of the forces of climate change that did the Chaco Canyon elites, and have the tools for monitoring the ocean temperatures and the shifting jet stream. We can anticipate, a cold PDO and AMO, which will being more dry cold weather, with intermittent El Niño floods. We need the political will to capture the water during those floods and use it for sustaining life in the Central Valley, not some bait fish in the delta, when a long term drought returns to the state. Long term drought has occurred in our past and will again. If there is one lesson we need to take from the plight of the Anasazi in the Southwest is that droughts are cyclical, they come regardless of human activities. We need to prepare for the next cycle.