During a business trip to the Four Corners area, and having several hours before needing to make our flight from Albuquerque, my friend and I made a stop at the national monument here. You come upon the location suddenly, unexpectedly. The area to the east of Farmington is stereotypical New Mexico: flat, endless, dry, deserted. Like Hollywood views Texas, but without the characters. As you drive south from the highway, you slowly approach a great river canyon, but this canyon has been empty for a thousand years.
Anyone so interested can go to various web sites and look up the history of the place. When Europeans were building cathedrals, bridges, roads, water wheels, ships that sailed around the Horn of Africa, when the Chinese were peering through telescopes and recording the heavens, when the Middle East was inventing algebra, the people here gathered stones together and built a rabbit’s-warren of dwellings and ceremonial rooms.
Many of the hundreds of individual archeological sites were reburied after excavating during the initial exploration in the late 19th and 20th centuries, to preserve them from looting and from the elements. Many were destroyed during exploration, such about 80 years ago when a National Geographic survey used wood beams from the construction for cooking fires (this, according to the park ranger).
A couple months after I visited this site, I picked up Jared Diamond‘s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I loaned my copy (I’m looking at YOU, oldest son), so I don’t want to discuss specifics from memory, although I recall a discussion of Chaco Canyon’s collapse included environmental factors, such as when arroyo cutting made it difficult to irrigate crops without having pumps to bring water to the fields, as well as man-made problems such as deforestation. I’m quoting this from Amazon’s review:
Moving from the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island to the flourishing American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya and finally to the doomed Viking colony on Greenland, Diamond traces the fundamental pattern of catastrophe. Environmental damage, climate change, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices were all factors in the demise of these societies, but other societies found solutions and persisted. Similar problems face us today and have already brought disaster to Rwanda and Haiti, even as China and Australia are trying to cope in innovative ways. Despite our own society’s apparently inexhaustible wealth and unrivaled political power, ominous warning signs have begun to emerge even in ecologically robust areas like Montana.
Chaco Canyon is interesting, not very well known, but important historically. After a couple hours we were ready to leave,but I think this national monument would be a good destination for someone who likes the desert, hiking, and is interested in pre-Columbian American or Mayan archeology and history.
- On Location: Chaco Culture National Historic Park (markd.typepad.com)
- Craig Childs’ House of Rain (yourwatercoloradoblog.wordpress.com)
- Social Media, WAY Past, and Present. (psychologytoday.com)
(Note: After I posted this, Jeff Wagg sent me a link to a scholarly paper about cannibalism at this site: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8372934)