Up until the construction of steel girder skyscrapers in Chicago during the 1880s, the largest and tallest buildings erected in North America were constructed in stone in America’s southwest by the Ancient Pueblos (formally known as the Anasazi). The ruins of these buildings can be seen at Chaco Cultural National Historical Park. While parked in Northern New Mexico for a couple weeks, we had time to explore Chaco Canyon ruins as well as those of Mesa Verde National Park, Aztec National Monument and Bandelier National Monument.
Within the four corners region of the country, these Ancient Pueblo ruins offer a glimpse into a collapsed civilization steeped in mystery. They do not, however indicate a single culture and one single collapse, but instead a whole series of them, all before Columbus set foot on the New World in 1492. Still, the Ancient Puebloans did not completely vanish – remaining are modern descendants – Zuni and Hopi for example. But wrapped in theories and conjectures intertwined with archeological evidence is the question that is foremost on people’s minds when visiting Chaco or Mesa Verde and that is “Why would anyone build such an advanced city in that wasteland or on the side of a cliff, and why having gone through so much trouble to build it, abandon it?”
This got me thinking about Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs and Steel” which I read way too long ago to remember much of anything substantial. But what I do remember is that embedded deeply in Diamond’s book are very convincing answers to the $1,000,000 question, “Why did some civilizations collapse while others did not?” To that end, how would Diamond address the mysteries behind the Ancient Pueblo ruins of the Southwest?
No longer having the book I read years ago, I searched online and was able to access Chapter 4 of Diamond’s book, which is devoted to the Ancient Pueblos. So, to answer the question as to why these Pueblo cities were abandoned, here is my condensed answer from Diamond’s lengthy explanation – lack of resources and all the nasty things that come with that. Consider, for example the Puebloans in Chaco Canyon. Remember, they are the ones that built the largest city in North America before Chicago’s skyscrapers.
Around 500 AD, people began building underground pithouses in the canyon. Over time, construction increased into multi-story and multi-room buildings, and large cirular kivas. This meant that Chaco was experiencing a population growth (thought to be in the thousands at any given time), which meant they had sustainable water and food. Evidence also indicates there was trading going on with maintained roads connecting various Pueblos to the larger Chaco Pueblo. Chaco Pueblo may very well have been a city surrounded by smaller communities, much like a modern-day civilization.
(Enjoy this slideshow of Chaco Cultural National Historical Park)
This went on for hundreds of years, but over time, Chaco Pueblo became more dependent upon imports because they simply no longer had adequate resources. As we all know too well, population growth increases demand, which puts stress on the environment. Eventually, the environmental impact from water management parallel with reoccurring droughts as well as deforestation (pinyon and juniper) created significant environmental problems. With that comes a host of problems, starvation, social unrest, and violence. However long it took to get so bad, it appears that the evacuation of Chaco was planned and happened very quickly as few items were left behind.
(Enjoy this slideshow of views from the road to Mesa Verde National Park).
But here is the other thing that came to my mind during our visit to the ancient ruins. While the Ancient Pueblos were cutting stones to perfection using rudimentary tools (not metal) and appeared to have no written language, Eurasia was experiencing the High and Late Middle Ages that led up to the Renaissance period, including the invention of the printing press. Why such a difference? Again, I turn to Jared Diamond’s book. He explains it this way -significant food surpluses appeared earlier in Eurasia than in America. Eventually, farming became so successful in Eurasia that communities grew more crops than they needed. Since it was not necessary for everyone to farm – specialized trades popped up everywhere. People could indulge in intellectual, scientific, or artistic pursuits. Communities grew bigger and cities arose – the source of civilization. As people became more specialized, communities reaped the rewards of intellectual and technical advances.
(Enjoy this slideshow from Mesa Verde National Park)
And trade was big across Eurasia and eventually expanded across the seas. Diamond indicates that Eurasia’s east-west orientation gave it a less varied climate across its land mass, thus allowing domesticated crops and animals to migrate more easily. East-west Trade routes including the Silk Road were great in number. That’s not to say Eurasia didn’t have its own set of issues, i.e., warring tribes, feudalism, violence, slavery, religious persecution, and not the least of which was the Justinianic and bubonic plagues. Nevertheless, the region of the world thrived.
(Enjoy this slideshow from Bandelier National Monument & please note the pictographs, not petroglyphs in some of the images. In one image, you will see a preserved pictograph, maintained behind plexiglass. Pictographs are painted on the walls, whereas petroglyphs are carved.)
While so many advances were happening across Eurasia from 500 to 1500 AD, the Ancient Puebloans were essentially stuck in a vacuum of sorts. Given the harsh and unforgiving environment they were in, there were far fewer people, and that alone might explain the disparities across the globe. Trade, exchange of ideas, innovation, and specialization outside of self-sustained farming come with increased populations over the land. While some of the Ancient Puebloans enjoyed a robust population for hundreds of years, it was all they had. Simply put, how many people are going to venture over badlands, mesas and canyons and provide a physical connection between communities?
That’s it, that’s my two cents worth. I hope my armchair analyses of ancient southwestern pueblo history did not ruin your day!
One last thing. While admiring the ancient architecture of the Ancient Pueblo, we also took the time to admire the impressive Rio Grande Gorge Bridge while parked near Taos. Spanning 1280 feet, it’s construction began in 1963 and ended in 1965. Depending on the source, it’s height is 650′, one of the highest in the U.S. Enjoy the slideshow of the bridge and the view from it. And think about those Ancient Pueblos that were unable to cross it.