The "Mystery" of the Anasazi

If you’ve ever visited the extensive ruins across the Southwest in places like Mesa Verde or Casa Grande you’ll likely come across the unsolved mystery of a vanished people.

The main characters of this tale are the Ancestral Puebloans (also known as the Hisatsinom or Anasazi). These people inhabited the Colorado Plateau and created the historic ruins at Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde or Casa Grande between the years of 800-1200 AD. At the height of their civilization, they created a vast network of roads that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Eastern United States and from Mexico almost to Canada. They were also architectural wizards constructing sophisticated settlements with apartment-like structures that show astonishing masonry techniques and city planning forethought. Their black on white pottery, turquoise stone work, and basket weaving are also impressive in their artistry and technical detail.

At this point in the story, usually told by a park employee or on a sign in the visitor’s center, you’ll learn that the Ancestral Puebloans vanished around 1200 AD. There is no clear evidence as to what happened to them once they left their large cultural centers, although drought, political tensions, or overpopulation are all possible theories.

This unsolved mystery fascinated me as a child. Since my family frequently visited sites like these, I spent a lot of time mulling over the strange, unknowable history of the Southwest.

Little did I know that there are a few other versions of what happened to the Ancestral Puebloans and they’re all mixed up with the contentious issue of land ownership. The National Park employees and visitor center information is purposefully vague because the controversy of where the Ancestral Puebloans ended up is still a loaded question.

If you visit any of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico, tour guides and literature will quickly and definitively inform you that the modern Pueblo Indians are the direct descendants of the the Ancestral Puebloans. On my recent visit to Acoma Pueblo, the guide told visitors that when the residents of Chaco Canyon migrated away from their original home, they established the new cultural centers of Mesa Verde and Acoma Pueblo. “Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde,” she said, “those are my ancestors, my people.”

That’s weird, I thought. Why don’t those folks at the National Parks update their information?

After a little more digging and a visit to Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts & Culture I found out that another American Indian Nation has yet a different version of what happened in Chaco Canyon: the Navajo people.

The Navajo and both the ancient and modern Puebloan people have a long and turbulent history together. The Navajo believe that the Ancestral Puebloans were mostly gone by the time they arrived in the desert Southwest around 1400 AD. As a nomadic people, the Navajo spread out through much of the area and occupied former settlements of Ancestral Puebloans. In fact, the origins of several Navajo clans and ceremonies are also centered in Chaco Canyon.

The modern Pueblo Indians believe that the Navajo are the newcomers on the scene and should not assume a connection with the culture, ruins, and prior claims of the Ancestral Puebloans. Since the Navajo Reservation landmass and member population is the largest of any tribe in the United States, their claim to land and resources encompasses many areas that modern Pueblo people consider to be historically theirs.

Even the word Anasazi is a loaded one (which is why it has fallen out of favor). For a long time historians said the word meant “ancient ones” but the term actually comes from the Navajo language and means “enemy ancestors.” An article in High Country News reveals an even more nuanced meaning: “In Navajo ’Ana’í means alien, enemy, foreigner, and non-Navajo. ’Anaa’ means war. Sází translates to something or someone that was once whole and is now scattered, a word used to describe the final point of corporeal decay, as a body turns to bones and is strewn by scavengers and erosion.”  

So the mystery of the Southwest is not the mystery of a vanished people. Instead it’s the enigma of two differing oral histories. Is the Navajo’s version correct? Or the 19 Pueblos’? Or a mixture of both? The political implications of the question are so controversial that historians probably won’t prioritize finding this particular answer any time soon.