Digging Deep

The invaders arrive in the cool, early morning. The imposing sandstone edifices and towers, dotted with darkened windows, had been quiet and peaceful, a silent city hidden deep within a rocky tableland rising hundreds of feet above the Colorado desert. But now the canyon echoes with voices and the sounds of feet tramping down worn, rocky footpaths.

The strangers, a group of twelve, reach the village and gaze up at the carefully constructed buildings, some soaring two and three stories to the ceiling of the canyon's overhang. The leader of the group steps forward and turns to face the others. "This is the Spruce Tree House," she says. As if on cue, the strangers pull out high-end digital cameras and glossy tourist brochures and begin ambling through the sandstone ruins. Another day has begun at Mesa Verde National Park.

As the tourists snap photos and scramble into reconstructed kivas, bubbling with a coffee-induced morning high, park ranger Lorisa Qumawunu gives a brief history lesson. The builders of these structures were a prehistoric people who lived throughout what's known as the Mesa Verde region, a backdrop of stark canyons, lonely mesa tops and sparse desert expanses north of the San Juan River, a landscape stretching across modern-day southwestern Colorado as well as parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Probably beginning in the first millennium A.D., these people built increasingly complex communities here, complete with wide roads across the desert, complex dams that revitalized the landscape, and the tallest buildings in North America until the age of the skyscraper. In the mid-thirteenth century, many relocated their homes from mesa tops and open plains to canyon rims and cliff-face alcoves, building the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is known.


Mesa Verde

Fifty years later, the area was deserted.

Walking through the ruins, Qumawunu points out traces of original soot still visible on ceilings, pieces of plaster clinging to walls. She says it's no longer appropriate to call the former residents of these buildings "Anasazi," explaining that it's a Navajo word meaning "enemy ancestors." The accepted term is now "ancestral Pueblo people," reflecting the fact that they're related to the modern-day Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona. For Qumawunu, the name change is important, personal. She's from the Hopi Pueblo.

These explanations are lost on many of the visitors. Most are busy talking loudly among themselves, peering quizzically into sandstone rooms. "Where's the ping-pong court?" one exclaims loudly.

Despite the ruckus, it's a quiet time of year at Mesa Verde, with the summer throngs thinned to a wintertime trickle. But this will soon change: 2006 marks the national park's centennial, with a year-long celebration culminating in four days of hundredth-birthday festivities in June. This means more than just a big party for Mesa Verde National Park; it's a commemoration of archaeological achievements throughout the Mesa Verde region, an area that's proved to be a prehistoric gold mine.

As the tourists prepare to depart Spruce Tree House, one asks Qumawunu the question that's on everyone's mind: Why, after having invested so much work in this place, did the ancestral Pueblo people leave it all behind?

The park ranger's answer sounds well-rehearsed: "We can come up with so many thoughts about why they moved in and why they moved out. But no one really knows for sure."

It's a conundrum that local archaeologists would love to solve. Southwestern Colorado has provided abundant details of the ancestral Pueblo people's lives -- everything, it seems, except why, in the late thirteenth century, the entire prehistoric population, possibly tens of thousands of people, abruptly departed what had been their home for centuries, leaving behind immense stone cities and towns, never to return. It is one of the last great archaeological mysteries of the Southwest, the big question mark atop Mesa Verde's centennial birthday cake.

But it's a mystery that is finally beginning to unravel. Using painstakingly careful excavations of the area's prehistoric sites, elaborate computer and mathematical models and old-fashioned detective work, archaeologists are creating a more complex and subtle picture of the ancestral Pueblo people. In a field where new developments are often measured in decades, the past fifteen years have seen a flood of archaeological discoveries regarding their final years in the Mesa Verde region. Many of these new advances have come from researchers at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, who seem to break all the old rules. Working with scholars throughout the Southwest and beyond, archaeologists at Crow Canyon are forming an explanation for the long-pondered depopulation of the region not yet referenced in museum dioramas or in textbooks -- an explanation that looks disturbingly familiar from a 21st-century perspective.

But getting the clues out of the ground and piecing them together is only part of the equation. How to get this research into the narratives of Mesa Verde tour guides like Qumawunu is another quandary.

In the high desert of Hovenweep National Monument, a dozen miles northeast of Cortez, down a maze of crisscrossing dirt roads and past ramshackle mobile homes and rolling sagebrush plains, lies Goodman Point Pueblo, a little-known ruin whose size puts the individual Mesa Verde cliff dwellings to shame. On this clear, windy morning, Kristin Kuckelman walks past low ridges of dirt and piles of dusty rubble scattered beneath gnarled juniper trees -- all that's left of a village that once supported hundreds of people.

Kuckelman is senior research archaeologist at Crow Canyon, a non-profit organization based just outside of Cortez that's dedicated to ongoing excavations in the area, and this site is her baby. During the summer, she oversaw the removal of untold amounts of dirt, debris and artifacts from the ruins, the first professional below-ground research ever undertaken at one of the largest and best-preserved ancestral Pueblo communities in the Mesa Verde region. Today she's watching as everything is put back.

"I'm something of a fanatic about trying to make sure the areas in which we work look just like they did before we began," says Kuckelman, and she means it. As staff members prepare the site for its winter hibernation, filling in excavation pits they're finished with, using plywood and plastic tarps to seal others that they'll return to next summer, Kuckelman eyes the contours of the filled-in pits, placing lichen-covered rocks at strategic locations to make the restoration complete. "Hey, Anne, that tower you spent so much time on up there? It looks great!" Kuckelman yells to one diligent worker.

Kuckelman is like this with all of her work -- exacting, meticulous, taking nothing for granted. Skin that still hints at a deep summer tan; the wide-brimmed, fraying canvas hat holding back a ponytail of graying brown hair; a dusty red tool box marred by lumps and dents -- they all point to years of fieldwork, years that have served Kuckelman well. "She has probably done more field archaeology than 90 percent of full professors of archaeology in the American Southwest," says Bill Lipe, an archaeology professor at Washington State University who's considered one of the foremost authorities in the field.

Which makes Kuckelman an ideal leader for the unprecedented excavation of Goodman Point Pueblo. The ruins were set aside for federal protection in 1889, seventeen years before the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, which helped them escape the modern ravages of homesteading and pot hunting. Unlike most local prehistoric sites, this one was an unopened treasure chest until the National Park Service recently agreed to a six-year excavation at the site.

Crow Canyon was chosen for the sensitive job, probably because it's known for "conservation archaeology" -- that is, instead of unearthing entire ruins, its crews dig carefully placed pits at their sites, unearthing key elements of structures and cultural remains. While the results at Goodman Point Pueblo may look unexciting to the untrained eye -- a series of one-by-two meter holes in the ground -- they're more than enough for Kuckelman. "Sometimes it's difficult for non-archaeologists to look into pits and see what we see," she explains. "Archaeologists automatically fill in the blanks."

With the slow, patient tone of a teacher, she points out what she's found. In a cattail-infested seep spring in the center of the site, she glimpses the lifeblood of the ancient village, the water that led a large number of people to congregate here in the twelfth century. By the lack of refuse found on the floor of one partially unearthed building, she's determined that the structure was abandoned near the end of the entire community's occupation, sometime in the decades before 1300. In adobe-roof casts hardened by ancient fires, she's found impressions of support beams and plant-based insulation materials -- plus the fingerprints of the people who built them, the people who made this village their home. "It brings home the fact that, oh, yeah, these were real people," she says wistfully.

This type of wonder has been with Kuckelman her whole life. The daughter of a traveling military man, the Texas native became fascinated with the diverse cultures she saw around the world. In the 1970s she caught the Mesa Verde bug, drawn by the region's unrivaled archaeological wealth -- and puzzling questions.

Crow Canyon has been a good fit for Kuckelman. Founded in the early 1980s, the organization has tackled the enduring archaeological mysteries of the region in a way never before imagined. To avoid stepping on long-bruised toes, Crow Canyon has a Native American advisory committee to help plan research and education programs. Instead of squabbling over who should have access to prehistoric sites, the center invites inexperienced children and adults to work, for a fee, on its full-scale excavations, and publishes detailed reports on all of its projects online at www.crowcanyon.org, where they can be accessed by scholars and the public alike. And rather than rely on government and privately funded contract excavations, which pay well but are short-term, the group uses grant and tuition money to do ongoing, dynamic research.

"We have the privilege and luxury of doing long-term research, building on what we learned the year before," says Kuckelman. "So we are in a position to really be asking more and more complicated questions."

But while Crow Canyon has brought professional archaeology to the masses, it has yet to dismantle the biggest misconception about Mesa Verde's prehistory: that the ancestral Pueblo people simply vanished.

It's easy to see how the evocatively titled "Mystery of the Anasazi" originated. When explorers first came upon these ancient ruins, they found rooms littered with pottery and clothing, granaries full of corn. It was as if the inhabitants had been living there one day, then were gone the next. Anthropologists have long known that the ancestral Pueblo people didn't vanish, however; they moved south, evolving into the modern Pueblo societies of Arizona and New Mexico. But the truth isn't nearly as compelling as the myth. "In the popular imagination, there just seems to be a predilection to look at ancient societies as having mysteriously disappeared," says Mark Varien, Crow Canyon's director of research.

Kuckelman is well aware that the subject of her research didn't just vanish -- but she also recognizes that behind this misunderstanding lies a true mystery, one that plagues both learned archaeologists and amateur explorers. "It's one of the big archaeological issues of the American Southwest that hasn't been resolved," she says. Kuckelman sees evidence of this mystery everywhere she looks. In the mid-thirteenth century, here lay a bustling, thriving village, the culmination of hundreds of years of habitation. There had never been more people living on the land. Then, a few decades later, the village was abandoned, along with every other community in an area of more than 20,000 square miles, as thousands and thousands of people moved en masse to the far south. There's little, if any, evidence of ancestral Pueblo people living anywhere in the Mesa Verde region after 1300. Later, Native Americans in the region -- the Utes and the Navajo -- would say that ruins like Goodman Point Pueblo were full of ghosts.

Considering their history, maybe they are.

"I don't think we really ever thought that they just vanished into thin air," says Kuckelman. "I think the real enigma of the ancestral Pueblo people in the Mesa Verde region is, ŒWhy did they leave?'"

The ancestral Pueblo people didn't have a written language; no one left behind a detailed account of their last days in the Mesa Verde region. But Kuckelman believes that if she looks hard enough at places like Goodman Point Pueblo, she can find this story written on the walls -- and on the floors and in the trash heaps.

There's a partially excavated kiva, a subterranean dwelling near the northwest corner, that could hold part of the story. Standing over it, Kuckelman lifts the plywood covering that will protect the underground chamber over the winter and peers into the darkness. When this kiva was first excavated last summer, workers discovered prehistoric ash in the hearth and a rabbit skeleton nearby. Kuckelman thinks those findings may be the remains of one of the last meals ever eaten in the village.

She believes that when researchers dissolve the ash in liquid and analyze what remains, they'll find markedly little evidence of maize, compared to the amount of maize refuse in rubbish pits around the village. This isn't a wild guess. Kuckelman and her co-workers noticed the pattern when they ran similar tests at a nearby contemporary ruin, Sand Canyon Pueblo. These findings helped Kuckelman piece together a new theory about the ancestral Pueblo's departure, a theory she hopes to bolster with evidence from Goodman Point Pueblo and other excavations.

Kuckelman believes that as more and more people settled in the Mesa Verde region in the thirteenth century, they overwhelmed wild food sources in the area, such as deer and wild plants. As a result, they became increasingly dependent on maize crops -- not just for food, but for feed for domesticated turkeys -- as evidenced by the ubiquity of maize in refuse pits, essentially time capsules of the villagers' eating habits and customs. But then something wiped out their ability to cultivate their crops, as indicated by the limited maize remains in hearths. The rabbit skeleton may also be a clue, suggesting that turkey populations may have died out and forced these people to fall back on small wild game. This could mean that Kuckelman has found more than just evidence of the last meals ever eaten by the ancestral Pueblo people in the Mesa Verde region; she's found a possible impetus for their leaving: to search out new means of sustenance.

"The folks in this area had become very, very dependent on crops, like maize, and wild turkeys. Ultimately, I think that system backfired and collapsed on them," she says.

But why did the system backfire? Why did the entire population collapse? For a while, archaeologists thought they had the single answer: a great drought.

This idea was born from ancient wooden beams found in Mesa Verde ruins, beams whose tree rings captured the exact date and climate conditions of the prehistoric time period. Andrew E. Douglass, the father of tree-ring dating, studied these beams and, in a 1929 National Geographic article evocatively titled "The Secret of the Southwest Solved by Talkative Tree-rings," announced that he'd cleared up the mystery of the prehistoric migration. The beams, he wrote, showed evidence of a massive drought in the region from 1276 to 1299. Drought can be apocalyptic in the Mesa Verde region -- soil turns to powder, trees hold less moisture than kiln-dried wood -- and this one, it seemed, had led to a mass exodus.

Scholars are skeptical of single-factor explanations. Could one drought, no matter how devastating, be enough to depopulate an entire region? But for decades, no one had the hard evidence to challenge the drought theory. "Interpretations were kind of all over the board," says Kuckelman. That changed seventeen years ago, thanks to the work of a Ph.D. student named Carla Van West.

Van West, who now works for the non-profit wing of a historic preservation firm in Albuquerque, still exhibits the fire and pluck with which she launched her pivotal anthropology dissertation research at Washington State University. "Everyone assumed there was a major catastrophe that caused all those areas to be depopulated," she says. "Open, close book, that's the end of the story. And it didn't seem that simple to me."

Van West decided to reconstruct the damage the drought would have done, starting with the same evidence used to support the drought theory: tree rings. She compared modern tree rings to contemporary weather patterns, soil productivity levels and population numbers in the region, piecing it all together using digital geographic maps. Then she traced these patterns back through history, using tree-ring records from the late thirteenth century to reconstruct the weather, crop yields and occupation levels at the time.

It was long, tedious work, and the project stretched into years. Her colleagues told her to wrap up the dissertation, that it was just her "admission to the club," that it would end up collecting dust on a shelf anyway. But she wouldn't stop. And when the payoff came, it was big.

"Expletive, expletive, expletive! This can't be!" Van West remembers shouting one day in 1989, when her computer first printed out the results of her calculations. They showed that the drought hadn't been powerful enough to wreak havoc on all of the fields. Even in the driest years, there were still places in the Mesa Verde region, fertile mesa tops, that could have -- and should have -- supported sizable populations. Here was the evidence that archaeologists had been looking for: While the great drought did have a catastrophic impact on the area, it apparently was not the sole cause of migration.

The case of the mysterious migration had been reopened. Today, new ideas on the subject regularly appear in the pages of scholarly journals and on the agendas of archaeology conferences. Some researchers point out that the late thirteenth century wasn't just a time of drought in the Mesa Verde region; it was also a period of colder temperatures and wildly unpredictable weather, the stuff of farmers' nightmares. Others note that the ancestral Pueblo people were intrinsically transitory, often moving to higher or lower elevations, or new regions altogether, for access to the best fields. Still others have looked to prehistoric New Mexico and Arizona, the final destination of the mass exodus, and found a luring scene: more reliable weather patterns, welcoming villages, perhaps the beginnings of new, exciting religions and cultures.

"I think now you have to take a lot of things into consideration to understand the abandonment," says Tim Kohler, an anthropology professor at Washington State University who's been building on Van West's work. "You can no longer make the argument that it became entirely impossible [during the drought] to live on this landscape and be a corn agriculturalist."

But some experts still make that argument -- including those at Mesa Verde National Park. The park's website conclusively declares, "Beginning in A.D. 1276, drought struck the region. For 23 years precipitation was scarce. One by one the springs dried up and the people were in serious trouble. Their only escape was to seek regions which had a more dependable water supply."

Van West isn't surprised by this anachronism. "I love the Park Service, but they're always behind," she says. "The interpreters know the truth. The great inertia seems to be associated with the National Park Service."

Still, questions remain. If drought and other climate conditions destroyed the maize crop at Goodman Point Pueblo, as Kuckelman's research suggests, why didn't the people move to another, more fertile area in the Mesa Verde region instead of migrating far to the south? And even if the south did look attractive, was it enough to cause the entire village -- and countless other communities -- to leave behind all their centuries of hard work?

"You look at a landscape that had ancestral Pueblo people living off it for a millennium," Kuckelman says. "To me, if everything was fine, if they had access to plenty of food and animals, why did they leave? There had to be another factor in there."

And she might know what it is.

The skull was an unexpected find. In the early 1990s, Kuckelman and her Crow Canyon co-workers were excavating ancestral Pueblo towers and rooms that clung like mollusks to Castle Rock, a blunt pinnacle of sandstone jutting out of the McElmo Canyon floor in southwestern Colorado. They weren't expecting many skeletons -- and then they found the skull.

It was just the beginning. By the end of the four-year excavation, crews had uncovered more than a thousand bones, the remains of dozens and dozens of men, women and children -- a number all the more striking considering the village had probably held only 75 to 100 people at its height in the late thirteenth century.

Finding graves in the Mesa Verde region is rare enough. But here, none of the remains appeared in formal burials. Their state -- shattered limbs, smashed teeth, snapped noses, fractured skulls -- suggested a much less respectful fate. And the gothic overtones extended beyond the remains. Castle Rock was an appropriate name for the village; it felt like a citadel. On one rock face, archaeologists found a painting of figures armed with shields, bows and arrows, with two of them standing back to back, as if surrounded by a faceless enemy.

Something had wiped out a wide swath of the villagers at Castle Rock, something terrible. Kuckelman and her colleagues believed they knew exactly what it was. In the 1870s, a government survey team traveling through the area had been told an evocative Hopi tale about Castle Rock, an account later published in the New York Tribune. Long ago, the story went, savage strangers had attacked the people living here, besieging the village at Castle Rock for a month. The attackers were pushed back, but at a heavy price: "...the hollows of the rocks were filled to the brim with the mingled blood of conquerors and conquered, and red veins of it ran down into the cañon. It was such a victory as they could not afford to gain again, and they were glad, when the long fight was over, to follow their wives and little ones to the south."

These strands of evidence were propitious and pivotal. A suggestion of violence had always lurked behind Mesa Verde archaeology: The cliff dwellings brought to mind fortresses, and every now and then, in a canyon head or creek wash, excavators would turn up a particularly disturbing assemblage of bones. But no one had ever brought forward incontrovertible evidence of large-scale physical conflict. "Castle Rock was the first evidence of a large group of people, possibly a whole village, wiped out by a warfare event," says Kuckelman.

Crow Canyon excavators found something else at Castle Rock, but Kuckelman doesn't like to talk about it. Her reticence isn't due to any squeamishness; Crow Canyon has a policy of addressing controversial topics only through scholarly channels, such as peer-reviewed journals. And what Kuckelman and others found at Castle Rock is as controversial as it gets.

Proof of warfare is hard to find at prehistoric sites; arrow wounds and other battle scars don't often appear clearly on skeletons. But over the years, archaeologists may also have chosen to overlook evidence of prehistoric tumult and turbulence. Scholars and laymen alike have long characterized pre-Columbian North America as an egalitarian Eden filled with peaceful "noble savages." Fueled by influences as disparate as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the new-age movement, this sparkly clean image extended to the Pueblo people, modern and prehistoric, the so-called Quaker Indians living harmoniously in their cliff dwellings and villages.

"We sanitized the history and ignored the violence," says Wendy Bustard, museum coordinator for the Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico. "I think that our interpretations of the Pueblo peoples as peaceful people came out of the 1960s, when we as a people were looking for examples of peace."

Lately there's been added incentive for maintaining this tranquil prehistoric picture. After decades of strained relations, Mesa Verde archaeologists, with Crow Canyon leading the way, finally began building tentative relationships with Native American communities in the 1990s. Announcing that these people's ancestors were war-loving would not have been a good peace offering.

Into this simmering political pot, a physical anthropologist named Christy Turner II tossed a grisly skull -- as well as a load of other gruesome bones. After thirty years of research detailed in his and his late wife's 1999 work Man Corn (a translation of the Aztec word "tlacatlaolli," roughly meaning "human stew"), Turner revealed that he'd discovered a dark secret long overlooked by his colleagues. By looking for very specific evidence among skeletal remains -- cutting marks, unusual burn patterns, abrasions apparently caused by rocks used as anvils, fractures that exposed marrow-rich interiors, an absence of spongy bones like vertebrae and a beveling of bone tips possibly caused by cooking these pieces in ceramic pots -- Turner said he'd found proof of 38 cases of cannibalism in the prehistoric American Southwest.

It looked like it hadn't been such a peaceful place after all.

The outcry was immediate. Many scholars agreed with Turner that cannibalism had apparently occurred in the prehistoric Southwest, but they were concerned by Turner's dramatic ideas about who these cannibals were -- zealous warrior cults, possibly led by Charles Manson-like sociopaths -- and worried that such lurid explanations would stir up unwanted media attention. Sure enough, the headlines came fast and furious: "A reign of Terror!" "Cannibals, Witches and War," "American Cannibal" "Ancient American Cannibals," "Cannibals of the Canyon," all disturbingly reminiscent of the xenophobia and racism directed at Native Americans that archaeologists had been working hard to overcome.

"I don't think any of us would like to have our ancestors called cannibals, but in a community that has suffered from archaeological incursion for so long, it's an even more sensitive issue," says Bustard.

Some scholars suggested that such a divisive topic should only be breached in the mainstream media if there was incontrovertible evidence of cannibalism, rock-solid proof. As Kurt Dongoske, a Turner critic and archaeologist for the Hopi tribe, put it in a 1996 National Geographic article, "As far as I'm concerned, you can't prove cannibalism until you actually find human remains in prehistoric human excrement."

But in the Mesa Verde region, you have to be careful what you say. Because when you start digging, you never know what you're going to find.

In the mid-1990s, an archaeological team from the private consulting firm Soil Systems Inc. began excavating prehistoric pit houses in a broad floodplain a few miles west of Mesa Verde National Park, a lonely place called Cowboy Wash. They soon uncovered piles of disarticulated bones scattered among the ruins. In an article published in 2000, the team reported that many of the bones exhibited the traits identified by Turner as demonstrating cannibalism. But the Cowboy Wash team also found something else. They uncovered coprolite -- a piece of human excrement -- deposited flagrantly within a hearth. Richard Marlar, at the time an associate professor of pathology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, analyzed the coprolite and found evidence of human myoglobin, a muscle protein. Myoglobin isn't found in the intestinal tract unless it gets there as a meal.

"We were able to demonstrate, though his work, that this coprolite deposited in this hearth, by someone clearly making a statement, contained human muscle tissue," says Patricia Lambert, a bioarchaeologist who was part of the Cowboy Wash team. "It was kind of a complete package of evidence."

But it wasn't enough for some scholars, who turned up their noses at the ancient excrement and still refused to acknowledge the possibility of cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest. "The intentions are good of scholars who don't want to talk about these things," says Lambert, "but when you hide the truth, you are making decisions about what should be reported and what shouldn't. You are putting your own moral values on the past, and that's dangerous."

But even those who accepted the evidence had more questions. What had led to these extreme activities? Was it the work of psychopathic death cults, as suggested by Turner and others? And furthermore, every example of possible cannibalism uncovered thus far had occurred before the thirteenth century. What, if anything, could these macabre incidents have had to do with the Mesa Verde region's mysterious depopulation a century later?

With the Castle Rock excavation, Kuckelman helped answer some of these questions. In a 2002 American Antiquity article that attracted little mainstream media attention but was recognized in the circles that counted, she described very specific findings at Castle Rock, findings largely absent from earlier, more general reports on the dig. In overtly unsensational language, she reported that Crow Canyon crews had discovered bones scarred with cutting and anvil marks, marrow-rich bones splintered, skulls that had been heated and cracked open, and bone fragments with polishing at their tips. While there was no telltale coprolite, she argued that there were enough similarities to link these remains to Turner's findings and those at Cowboy Wash -- essentially connecting Castle Rock with direct evidence of cannibalism.

Then Kuckelman went a step further. Not only had she found evidence of cannibalism, she placed it in a very specific context: an archaeologically and perhaps historically verifiable battle that occurred at the end of the ancestral Pueblo people's occupation of the Mesa Verde region.

For Kuckelman and her colleagues, cannibalism alone isn't that noteworthy. (Just last week, archaeologists announced that, after extensive research, they'd found little evidence that one of the country's most legendary group of cannibals, the Donner Party, had actually resorted to eating humans.) What's far more important is how the developing themes of cannibalism, hostility and warfare create a much more complex and tumultuous picture of the waning years of the ancestral Pueblo people, a picture that could help solve the puzzle of why they left.

Ancient social upheaval and cannibalism isn't limited to the Southwest. The proof here just seems to be easier to spot, thanks to the region's abundance of well-preserved prehistoric sites. But now archaeologists are starting to find similar evidence across North America -- from the present California coast to the frozen Canadian north to the woodlands of Illinois -- and beyond. The centuries leading up to the clash of the Old World and the New appear to have been a brutal, bloody time.

"Personally, I look at the cannibalism and violence thing and I think it portrays the [ancestral Pueblo people] in a better light. It shows that they were indeed human. They had foibles just like every other civilization," says Craig Childs, a Southwestern naturalist and author who's been studying Mesa Verde's archaeology for years. "Welcome to the world of civilization, Anasazi. We knew you'd arrive."

Kuckelman looks uncomfortable sitting in her office at Crow Canyon headquarters, a messy room with bookshelves crowded with such volumes as Digging in the Southwest and Gray's Anatomy, desktops cluttered with papers, Post-it notes and dirty trowels. In the mid-afternoon sunlight, her feet swing her swivel chair back and forth, her hands fly through the air. It's like each part of her wants to be back in the wide-open spaces of Goodman Point Pueblo, the endlessly fascinating jigsaw puzzle through which she meandered all morning. But finally, after hours of technical explanations and precisely worded disclaimers, her mind is starting to relax. Her words flow faster, more easily as she puts her carefully constructed story together.

She pictures hundreds, thousands of people moving across a barren landscape, departing their big, beautiful villages, their life-giving fields. She sees the ones who didn't get out in time, those who couldn't bear to leave, eating the last of the maize, maybe waiting for the first shadows of attackers to come over the hill. "What was it like?" she asks. "What made them tick? Why did this whole world work as long as it did, and then what happened to make it all go wrong?"

Meticulously, she lays out her evolving explanation, a picture she's been building for decades, born from her years exploring places like Castle Rock and Goodman Point Pueblo, honed by the opinions of scholars, excavators and Native Americans. It's a heady, complicated story, one far too complex and subtle to fit easily into pre-packaged Mesa Verde birthday brochures or centennial speeches. But it's a story that's slowly seeping out to the public, as Crow Canyon convinces more and more people to sift through the dirt alongside Kuckelman and other major players in the field.

Kuckelman's explanation begins in the mid-thirteenth century, a time when the Mesa Verde region was in the midst of population growth like never before. People were flowing into the area, lulled by good weather and fertile fields. But there was only so much of the land's single most valuable resource: water. Communities coalesced around precious water supplies, such as the seep spring at Goodman Point Pueblo. Then the weather turned bad, and the region balkanized. Villages turned jealous eyes on their neighbors' resources, protectively hoarding their own crops and streams. Communities became fortresses built into cliff walls at Mesa Verde and around outcroppings at Castle Rock. By the time the rains stopped, in 1276, as fields withered and children starved, people had turned to violence, raiding the stores of other villages, defending their remaining food with their lives. To frighten their enemies, they may have resorted to desperate, macabre measures learned from other people in other times, measures like cannibalism. Fertile lands still existed nearby, lands for which families might have pulled up stakes and relocated in lean times past. But now the area was too crowded, communities were too sedentary and interconnected, there was too much danger in the land. As the century drew to a close, the only choice was to begin leaving the region, traveling as families, as villages, to the south. Those who were left behind found themselves in a world too fragmented, too depopulated, to continue the old ways, the religious rituals and kinship systems; they'd reached a point of no return. Soon they were gone, too, moving across the desert, looking for someplace they could start fresh.

It's just a story, Kuckelman knows, and a partial one at that. And even if it's completely accurate -- and she's worked long enough in the region to know that no theory can be taken as fact -- many questions about the final migration remain. Why did every single village, every single vestige of society, drift away? If there were battles, why didn't the victors stay? What remnants of this fractured society were reborn as the migrants mixed with other cultures, rebuilding their world far to the south? Why didn't anybody ever come back?

Archaeology is fluid. One excavation flows to the next, each question that's answered leads to new, more challenging questions. The mystery of Mesa Verde's prehistoric depopulation will keep growing, expanding beyond the boundaries of the region, as scholars strive to understand how this episode fits into the history of the entire Southwest.

This evolving mystery is creating a new breed of archaeologist, people like Kuckelman who are willing to look past their own mesa tops and talk to scholars in other areas, to learn about the world of the ancestral Pueblo people beyond the Mesa Verde region. "Southwestern archaeology is kind of a dry science until you sit down with the archaeologists. Then they start moving beyond that," says Childs, who's writing a book about archaeologists and their ideas. "You see them start putting these stories together in their minds, stories they don't want to lose hold of. Archaeologists often have a very personal connection. Overall, they are a bunch of imaginative people getting together and arguing their ideas."

The Mesa Verde region's prehistoric wealth has been both a blessing and a curse; it's been far too easy for some archaeologists to get so caught up in their digs that they forget to search out new frontiers. "In a way, we are choking on our own data," says Steve Lekson, anthropology curator at the University of Colorado's Museum of Natural History. As he writes in his book The Chaco Meridian, "If Southwestern archaeologists don't ask big questions, we will slide back into feeble provincialism -- endlessly fine-tuning the record of a region where archaeology is easy."

Asking these big questions -- and seeking out big answers -- is critical, and not just as a capstone to a hundred-year-birthday celebration. Population levels spiraling out of control. Water battles fracturing communities. Devastating climate changes, and societies too entrenched in their ways to do anything about it. Wars spurred by dwindling natural resources. People willing to resort to horrific violence over a piece of land. Towns, cities, societies laid to waste by natural disasters. This is the picture Kuckelman paints of the past, but it's also a picture she sees in the newspapers every day. Seven hundred years from now, will archaeologists ponder the ruins of 21st-century cities, wondering what happened to their occupants?

Kuckelman crosses her arms and looks out the window of her office, gazing across the parched, inhospitable landscape. She chooses her words carefully.

"You cannot retreat to an ivory tower. What professional archaeologists need to keep in mind is that we are not just doing this for ourselves," she says. "I think it is particularly timely to be learning about a pretty large group of people, a society, that clearly made some pretty pivotal decisions about living in a particular landscape. We need to learn about how resources can be mismanaged and really cause devastating problems down the road. If you don't manage resources carefully and thoughtfully, you may be sowing the seeds of your own downfall."


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