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Exploring the Ancient Southwest

Where Did They Go?

The remarkable developments in Anasazi, Hohokum, Mimbres and Ancient Southwest cultures that reached a peak in the southwest area around 1100 AD then suddenly ceased by 1130AD. At this time, many locations with main cities and villages were completely and forever abandoned. Why Did They Leave? Where Did They Go?

The preceding two hundred years saw the population of the Ancient Southwest increase to 20 times as many inhabitants as had been living there around 700AD. This increase in population is thought to be due to improved nutrition and permanent settlement, which in turn saw more children born per couple than, had ever been seen before. With more people, there was certainly more stress on the natural environment. More people use more water, more plants, more animals, and soil, more tree trunks and more stone to keep one another fed and sheltered. In fact, it became so populated that you couldn't walk more than half a day before finding other small villages dotted across the landscape, and the large cities reached their peak in development at Chaco Canyon. This same peak of cultural accomplishments also was seen in the now-Phoenix area of Arizona at Snaketown where the Hohokum built acres of cities with sophisticated canals, temple complexes, ball courts and housing. Likewise, by 1150 AD, populations there began to dwindle. Did a terrible disease sweep through the region wiping out populations? Did a sudden drought force people to leave? Were there other factors that caused the area to change its population pattern so radically?

Scientists see no evidence that an increase in disease played a role in the changes in population locations. There was a difficult drought in the region in the 1130s and scientists have seen evidence of this in their studies of tree ring data. But by the time of this drought, the populations appear to have already dwindled or left all together. What other factors than disease or lack of rain could have forced these people to leave behind many generations of time and effort invested in their homes, villages and cities?

One factor in the picture of life around 1000AD is the demise of the native forests. As the population increased, the need for firewood for cooking fuel, for heating, and for building also had grown to 20xs the demand. What happens when a village cuts down all of the trees nearby? Examples of the direct results of any deforestation are: loss of valuable nutrient rich top soil in every rain storm as there are no roots to hold it in place and it is swept downstream, leaving only barren soil for farming; loss of natural habitat for the wild animals that can be important food sources. Let's look at the Ancient Southwest Mimbres who lived in what we now call the Mimbres Valley in western New Mexico to see this example in real life.

" Research in the Mimbres Valley has also show that, as the Mimbres people increased in number, they cleared most the of trees from the main floodplain, destroying the habitats of animals that were important sources of food. The Mimbres people needed to adjust to their increasing numbers, to the increased settlement of risky agricultural areas, and to changes in the availability of natural plant and animal foods, but were unable to do so with out further modifying their environment or aggravating the problems caused by years of reduced rainfall and shorter growing seasons." (Stephen Plog, Ancient Peoples of the American Southwest)

This wide scale deforestation also took place in Chaco Canyon and in any area that was required to support thousands of people in the Ancient Southwest. The better nutrition that cooked food brought, also meant paying a price in destroying more trees. Trees were needed to fuel the fires that made the new clay cooking pots, firewood was needed to cook the meal of beans over the fire. The more people eating, the more pottery needed, the more cooking fires built. And trees required several generations of human life to restore themselves if re planted, so they are not an immediately replenish able resource.

This lesson of the horrible impact of deforestation is not limited to the American Southwest. This pattern of consuming irreplaceable native forests has happened in many places around the world, bringing entire cultures to an end. Ancient Crete in Greece is an example. And our current global forestry practices are also examples of the impact of loosing too much of our tree cover, which is directly linked to, changes in our planet's important protective atmosphere.

It is important to learn from our predecessor's problems, and to find solutions before we too experience such serious results from deforestation that we must migrate to other lands to live.

Now look a little further at the changes around 1100AD. The biggest question is why were places like Chaco Canyon COMPLETELY abandoned? Why didn't just some of the people move away and others remain? Anthropologists who study human behavior think that when the cities and towns faced an insurmountable problem, the decision was made that they would all move together as one group to a new location, not leaving a few people behind, but taking everyone in a major relocation. Where Did They Go?

It is interesting to note that at the same time the previously dominant cities and trade networks appear to have ceased, new ones began. The area now a part of the Hopi reservation at the edge of Black Mesa in Arizona, the villages along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico - and the entire city of Paquime - all saw a sudden increase in population after 1130 AD. In north central Arizona, the spectacular cave cities of Kiet Siel and Betatakin were developed in the early 1200s. All of these are thought to be locations where the populations migrated, bringing their culture, architectural skills, and food acquisition skills with them.