In the late 1200s, the Ancestral Puebloan people of what is today the Four Corners Region of the U.S. Southwest suddenly vanished. For centuries, the culture—also known as the Anasazi —had grown maize and built elaborate villages and sandstone castles. Then, it was gone.
Included in the Chaco Region are the following major Anasazi sites: Aztec Ruins National Monument, near Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield, New Mexico. Chaco Culture National Historic Park (including Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl), south of Farmington, New Mexico. El Malpais National Monument, south of Grants, New Mexico.
In addition to the drought and marauding enemy theories, scientists suggest that things like poor sanitation, pests, and environmental degradation may have caused the Anasazi to move.
But Turner contends that a “band of thugs” – Toltecs, for whom cannibalism was part of religious practice – made their way to Chaco Canyon from central Mexico. These invaders used cannibalism to overwhelm the unsuspecting Anasazi and terrorize the populace into submission over a period of 200 years.
In contemporary times, the people and their archaeological culture were referred to as Anasazi for historical purposes. The Navajo, who were not their descendants, called them by this term, which meant “ancient enemies”.
Because they lived in the desert, they had very little rainfall. When it did rain, the Anasazi would store their water in ditches. They built gates at the end of the ditches that could be raised and lowered to let water out. They used this to water their crops in the field.
They still hunted animals like deer, rabbits and prairie dogs. And they gathered wild plants for sustenance. The nuts of the piñon pine were eaten roasted or ground. They ate the ripe fruit of the banana yucca and dried the red fruit from the prickly pear cactus for later consumption.
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.
For 1,000 years, from about A.D. 500 until their dispersal around 1500, the Anasazi, whose name is a Navajo word that means “the ancient ones,” lived in pueblos and cliff dwellings built in the canyons and high mesas of the Four Corners region (where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet).
Cliff dwellings — stone houses, villages and towns built in caves or on large shelves in sheer rock canyon walls — are generally considered most representative of Anasazi architecture. In fact, before much was known about the inhabitants of places like Mesa Verde, the ancient builders were called simply Cliff Dwellers.
The airy settlement that we explored had been built by the Anasazi, a civilization that 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.
This group then took control of the peaceful Anasazi farmers and forced them to pay tribute of food and labor for building the Great Houses and road system. According to this theory, the warrior-priests performed horrific rituals of human sacrifice and cannibalism to terrorize the Anasazi into accepting their rule.
People hunted out the big game and deforested the mesa. In 1276 a 23-year drought began. The Ancestral Puebloans abandoned the site by 1300. Cowboys found the cliff dwellings in the 1880s and subsequent explorers plundered them—until much of the mesa was turned into a national park in 1906.