Sunday, February 26, 2006

Preston's Chaco Book of Judge's: Three

There were other signs of trouble. Around this time the Chacoans' diet changed-from larger mammals such as deer and antelope to smaller animals such as turkeys, rats, and squirrels.

It appears that this was caused by two factors: the trading system had been disrupted and the Chacoans had severely overhunted their area.

Overhunting wasn't the only environmental damage wrought by the Chacoans. The nearby stands of trees had long since been clear-cut, and even those stands thirty or forty miles away appear to have been devastated. Chaco Wash started cutting into its bed, making irrigation impossible. The water table dropped. This sudden erosion may have been natural. More likely it was caused by clear-cutting of trees and brush in the side canyons and along the wash, overfarming the floodplain, and trampling of the canyon bottom's vegetation by large numbers of people.

What was worse, the canyon soil, over-irrigated and overfarmed for years, was becoming exhausted of nutrients and salinized.

All this may come as a surprise to many people who consider the ancient Anasazi to be a people living in harmony with their environment. Quite the contrary. The archeological evidence strongly suggests that the ancient Anasazi, wherever they settled, soon caused "resource depletion"-the archeological term for environmental damage. Again and again, Anasazi settlements, towns, and cities were abandoned because the Anasazi exhausted and alkalinized the soil, cut down the trees, and depleted the game. Chaco merely carried this trend to an extreme.

The system might have collapsed, except for one thing: the rains began again in 1095. For another thirty-five years the rains continued without interruption. Building and ritual activity continued.

Nevertheless, the system had suffered a shock. A general cultural malaise showed itself. New construction showed a marked "architectural degeneration." The building was sloppy and the masonry ugly. The painting on the pottery became cruder. The firing of the pots was less carefully controlled. The population seems to have declined. The drought had, perhaps, shown that the priests were fallible. The system had cracks.
And yet, the excessive building in the canyon continued.

The system limped along of its own inertia, burdened by its very complexity, while thirty-five more years of steady, aboveaverage rainfall came.

Around 1129, another drought hit the canyon. This was not the vicious drought sometimes described in popular writings: it was certainly nothing Chaco Canyon had not experienced from time to time prior to A.D. 1050. This time, however, the drought had a deadly effect. The system, strained even when the rains fell, began to collapse. As crops failed in the canyon, the outlying communities probably balked at supporting a bloated priestly class at Chaco. After all, they were no longer able to generate the rain. The compact was broken, the illusion revealed.

The vast trading and distribution network centered at Chaco disintegrated. The degraded Chaco environment could not support even a small resident population, let alone a vast artisan and priesthood class. In three years following the inception of the drought, all building in the canyon came to a halt, and in twenty years Chaco was totally abandoned.
The collapse extended across the Anasazi world. Dozens of Chacoan "outlier" pueblos were abandoned. The roads themselves were ritually closed, lined with burning brush. Over time, most of the San Juan Basin was depopulated.

It was, however, an orderly and gradual departure. Household items such as pots and baskets were carefully stacked in corners, canteens hung on walls, the rooms left clean and orderly. Most ritual items appear to have been taken, and those that were left behind were carefully wrapped and stored. This was not a cataclysmic upheaval in fire and violence, but rather a civilization-wide acknowledgment of failure.

The Chaco Phenomenon was finished. It had lasted less than a century. Never again would the Southwest see the kind of centralized control or cooperation evident at Chaco, or the high degree of achievement in pottery, architecture, trade, engineering, and surveying. For a brief shining moment, the diverse Anasazi peoples had laid aside their differences and had come together in a great religious and political experiment centered on the ceremonial control of nature. That experiment failed.

from Talking to the Ground by Douglas Preston

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