What happened to the Anasazi?
This is an enduring question, and I become less certain the more I look into it.
The term “Anasazi” is derived from a Diné (Navajo) term that means “ancestor of my enemy.” Since this is an exonym (a term applied by an outside group) that is often considered derogatory by their modern descendants – the Pueblo Indians – it is now more common to refer the Anasazi as “Ancestral Pueblo People” or “Ancestral Puebloans.” Of course, the term “Pueblo” originated with the Spanish, so I think it is best to use the Hopi term “Hisatsinom” – which means “ancient people” – although other Pueblos have their own terms.
The Hisatsinom lived in communities in the Four Corners region from around 1200 BCE to 1250 CE. Their architecture varied quite a bit, but the most distinctive characteristic of their towns and cities is the kiva, which likely served a ceremonial role similar to that served by the kiva among modern Pueblos. Various settlements had housing that included pit houses, elaborate pueblos, and cliff dwellings. They often used stone for their houses rather than the adobe that was common later, and many of their structures are well preserved.
What happened to the Hisatsinom is relatively easy to determine: they left their communities and settled in the nearby pueblos, which were already populated by related peoples. This explanation is satisfactory because it is consistent with traditional stories of the Puebloans and with the archaeological record.
The place where it gets sticky is when you try to find out why they did this. For decades, the story has been that Hisatsinom settlements were founded during a period in history with above-average rainfall. Since they relied on dry-land farming (farming without elaborate irrigation systems), their lives became increasingly difficult as the wet period came to an end in an event called the “Great Drought.” As they found it harder and harder to produce adequate food, the Hisatsinom slowly left their settlements and moved to the pueblos, which were close to major rivers and reliable seasonal streams.
There are a couple of problems with the Great Drought theory. At first, tree-ring data seemed to indicate an enormous drought that came without precedent. Further research indicates that the Hisatsinom had survived many droughts before, and it is not clear that they were experiencing widespread famine at this time. Also, the Hisatsinom had actually started to leave before the Great Drought, which indicates that something else might have been happening.
The departure from the Hisatsinom settlements was also accompanied by other changes. Stone habitations were closed up or dismantled. Pueblo tradition holds that their ancestors had found ways to manipulate the weather, and that this brought unexpected and disastrous consequences. They tried to reverse these changes by destroying their sacred buildings.
Some recent research finds evidence of warfare and cannibalism that began a few decades before the towns and cities were abandoned completely. Some people speculate that this was caused by the scarcity of food, but there are other possibilities. Christy and Jacqueline Turner propose the possibility that Meso-American invaders may have taken over the Hisatsinom territories. They required offerings of food that would be stored in Great Houses (large, centrally located structures that seem to have had ritual and storage uses). The Turners proposed that the ritually prepared human bones that were found at several sites could be victims that were offered as tribute to the invaders, who had established themselves as the rulers. In this view, the Hisatsinom left because they were escaping.
The Turners' theory has not been universally accepted by scientists, and most Pueblo leaders have rejected it. Anthropologists claim that there are other reasons to ritually prepare bones. Most Pueblo elders say that the Hisatsinom were peaceful, and they had no tradition of cannibalism. That being said, I have a vague memory of a man who came from San Ildefonso Pueblo to tell us stories at campfire program at Bandelier National Monument. He said that the horrors that took place when the Hisatsinom were practicing black magic before they dispersed were “unspeakable.” If I remember what he said correctly, it seems possible that there is some oral tradition that is consistent with cannibalism and warfare.
Among the descendants of the Hisatsinom there are many stories about the reason they migrated to the pueblos, but the best known is that told by the Hopi. They say that the Hisatsinom left because they had a spiritual dedication to a life of movement. They started to experience bad luck caused by staying in places that were meant to temporary, so they left to respect the practices of their ancestors.