The early inhabitants of the American Southwest built an amazing civilization that then vanished. These ancient people of the Four Corners region were not a single group with a single governing entity, but were more like small versions of City States each composed of a clan or a cooperative group of clans. No firm date can be assigned to when they first arrived but it could have been as long ago as 1000BC.
The early people were mostly hunter-gatherer groups eating a varied diet. But by 500AD they had begun to settle down in small villages and developed farming. The most common crop was corn (maize) eventually coming to comprise the bulk of their diet. The climate at that time in that region was wetter and milder allowing crops to flourish. With an abundant source of food, the population began to substantially increase reaching what could be considered a population explosion. Crops spread to more and more tillable land. Times were good.
But then things began to fall apart. Evidence of the construction of irrigation systems and large man-made catch basins indicated a shortage of rainfall. The villages from higher elevations were abandoned likely because the climate cooled and increased the risk of crop-killing frosts. Villages moved from out in the open settlements to areas protected by high cliffs and ravines. Towers appeared, evidence that settlements were likely in a state of conflict and sought to protect their resources from neighboring raiders. By 1200AD the area had experienced severe drought and they were unable to sustain such a large population. Evidence indicates that by 1300AD the area that once supported tens of thousands of people was essentially deserted.
Genetic evidence indicates there was a gradual exodus of survivors to regions farther south nearer the Rio Grande River valley where conditions were more favorable to farming. The modern Pueblo people are the Cliff Dweller’s descendants.
By the 1900s many, possibly most, of the ancient structures had been looted for ancient artifacts. But eventually they came under the protection of the Federal Government. They are well worth a journey to that part of America. One should bear in mind, however, that the Pueblo people have a deep spiritual connection to the ruins and consider them sacred. One should be respectful when visiting their ‘church’.
As one walks the trails it is not uncommon to see ancient artifacts lying exposed to the elements. Sometimes visitors decide to take some piece of artifact home, even though it is not legal. However, the park folks say little by little over the winter months these artifacts often come back in packages with anonymous letters of apology and a precise description of where they were ‘found’.
It gives some degree of comfort that ‘conscience’ is still alive and well, though it may take a little time for it to make its way up through a bad decision. Meanwhile, the history of the Cliff dwellers provides a lesson in what happens when a rapidly expanding population runs out of resources, and also how much our own survival depends upon a predictable climate.
Email Terry Mejdrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.