The Greatest "Unsolved Mystery" of the American Southwest is the fate of the Anasazi, the native peoples who in the eleventh century converged on Chaco Canyon (in today's northwestern New Mexico) and built what has been called the Las Vegas of its day, a flourishing cultural center that attracted pilgrims from far and wide, a vital crossroads of the prehistoric world. The Anasazis' accomplishments-in agriculture, in art, in commerce, in architecture, and in engineering-were astounding, as remarkable in their way as those of Mayans in distant Central America. By the thirteenth century, however, the Anasazi were gone from the region surrounding Chaco. Vanished. What was it that brought about the rapid collapse of their civilization? Was it drought? pestilence? war? forced migration? mass murder or suicide? For many years conflicting theories have abounded.
Craig Childs draws on the latest scholarly research, as well as on a lifetime of adventure and exploration in the most forbidding landscapes of the American Southwest , to shed new light on this compelling mystery. He takes us to the places where the Anasazi lived.
Childs (The Secret Knowledge of Water) guides readers on an enthralling journey across ancient trailways to the ruins of the Anasazi peoples, whose civilization spanned the Southwestern American desert from the 11th through the 13th centuries. Beginning at the monumental cultural center of Chaco Canyon, where the Anasazi flourished, Childs's quest to understand their apparent disappearance leads him to the numerous great houses of New Mexico, such as Pueblo Bonito, to the Four Corners area of northeastern Arizona, southern Colorado and Utah, and beyond to northern Mexico. In these places, he identifies features that had not appeared prior to the apparent abandonment of Chaco (thus implying that the Anasazi migrated to these areas). Childs vividly weaves his personal narrative, imbued with a deep respect for the geography and cultural landscape, with scientific research and numerous interactions with foremost scholars. Black-and-white photos and an extensive bibliography increase the book's value. Recommended for all collections in Southwestern and Native American studies.-Michelle Mittrach Garcia, San Diego State Univ. Lib. & Information Access, CA Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
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Little, Brown and Company
February 21, 2007
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Excerpt from House of Rain by Craig Childs
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.