Grappling With A Great Mystery

For years archaeologists have struggled to understand why the Anasazi abandoned the Mesa Verde region in the late 1200s, and where they went. A long, ambitious, innovative project is providing some answers.

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Cliff Palace is the largest alcove habitation in Mesa Verde National Park. One of its 23 kivas has a beam that was dated to a.d. 1280, marking it as one of the last sites in the region to be abandoned.
Cliff Palace is the largest alcove habitation in Mesa Verde National Park. One of its 23 kivas has a beam that was dated to a.d. 1280, marking it as one of the last sites in the region to be abandoned. Photo Mark Montgomery / Courtesy Crow Canyon Archaeological Center

Summer 2015:

By David Malakoff

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. In the spring of A.D. 1250, you and your new spouse decided to move away from the hamlet where you were raised, in what is now southwestern Colorado. Your village, perched atop the rugged Mesa Verde plateau, was experiencing a baby boom and getting crowded. The best dwellings and croplands were already taken. But you’d heard there were perfectly good places to start your own family to the north, in the Montezuma valley. Nervous but excited, you packed up and said goodbye.

Now, decades later, you wondered if you’d made the right choice. At first, things had gone well. Yes, the small spring-fed valley you’d settled in was far from the center of things, but the rains came, your corn and turkeys thrived, and the children arrived like clockwork and had kids of their own. Then, almost imperceptibly, things got tougher. Your corn didn’t do so well some years, but you survived by trading with communities that enjoyed better weather. As the harvests became even less predictable, however, they’d begun to turn their backs; outsiders were no longer welcome. There were rumors of growing discord and violence.

Your increasingly desperate neighbors begin to talk: Better to move again than risk starving here. Things aren’t so bad a few weeks journey to the south, they’ve heard, on some high ground near a big river. They are ready to go; do you and your kids want to come too?

Such choices must have been agonizing for people living in the American Southwest between 600 and 1,400 years ago, when cultures blossomed and withered with sometimes startling rapidity. “People, especially farmers, tend to love their land, and they don’t usually leave unless they just can’t help it,” says archaeologist Tim Kohler of Washington State University (WSU). “Something really needs to force the issue.”

Today, we know that something did convince these ancient Native Americans to abandon their homes, sometimes leaving behind spectacular ruins in places such as Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. And now, as a result of the recently completed Village Ecodynamics Project (VEP)—an ambitious, $2.4 million, 15-year-long effort that teamed archaeologists with computer scientists, ecologists, and scholars from many other fields—we have a more sophisticated understanding of the many forces that buffeted these people, determining where they settled, how their populations changed, and when they migrated.

Summary.  Read more in American Archaeology Vol. 19 No. 2, Summer 2015

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