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Tracking a Vanished Civilization in the Southwest

For 1,000 years, long before Columbus, the Anasazi Indians were lords of what's now the American Southwest. Their civilization was as complex and sophisticated as that of the Mayans. Then, apparently without warning, the Anasazi all but disappeared. Commentator Craig Childs is author of House of Rain, a new book that tries to solve that ancient mystery. A visit to an Anasazi site in southeastern Utah offers clues.

I'm walking across bare rock where the desert unfolds. Waves of sandstone reveal a deeply carved canyon below.

This is where the Anasazi lived. Their ruins are everywhere out here, the remains of a great Neolithic civilization. Single buildings the size of the base of the Sears Tower. Huge, round ceremonial chambers with 90-ton ceilings. This was a landscape of monuments.

Coming down into this canyon I reach an ancient stairway. I can see where it was chiseled by hand, the hammer strokes of stone tools.

It's the largest stairway out here I know of. It's been carved right into the bedrock. You walk down these first one, two, three, four, five steps, and then the steps start getting deeper. They're two feet wide and three feet wide, cut deep into the rock, so that it's very clear that this is the way. You're on the route.

A friend of mine, an archaeologist, recently discovered that this stairway is part of a prehistoric road, a 30-foot-wide corridor the Anasazi cut across the desert. Four hundred miles of these roads have been documented. They were probably used by Anasazi caravans.

Traders and migrants would have followed them, carrying exotic birds and carved sea shells; elaborately painted pottery and colorful, loom-woven textiles. All of this material has been found in excavations, evidence of extensive trade routes.

The canyon opening is the size of a ballroom. Its walls are decorated with rock art: petroglyphs of animals and people and pre-Columbian symbols.

There are figures carved into everything. You can see a person's body there, formed on the rock with arms sticking up in the air and legs pointing straight down and a torso.

The Anasazi lived here for more than 1,000 years. Then, within a single generation, they were gone. Between 1275 and 1300 A.D., they stopped building entirely, and the land was left empty.

It's a mystery. The answer lies deep within the canyon.

Below the stairway, water seeps from bare rock—an amphitheater filled with the drips and spatters of abundant springs. I have ample water in my pack, but I feel compelled to crouch beside one of these seeps and drink. It tastes clean, filtered through 10 million tons of sandstone.

Water is what made everything possible here. When rainfall was reliable and water tables were up, the Anasazi built their roads and monuments. Then, when the population reached its highest level, a severe drought hit. Malnutrition coursed through villages. Warfare broke out. Settlements that once stood proudly atop mesas fell to ruins.

I've been in this desert when the springs were dry. I know what it's like to not have enough water. I've sucked on balls of damp clay scrounged from a dried mud pit. I've filtered water through my teeth, drinking out of sun-warmed pools that taste like dirty aquariums.

Perched on ledges and tucked into cracks of this canyon are the ruins of cliff dwellings. These are the last breath of the Anasazi in this part of the world.

I climb up to one of these cliff dwellings, scaling hand over hand, to a wall of square stones and mortar, covering a 10-foot-wide crack in the rock face, with a tiny door.

It's a lot cooler inside. Outside the sun is just roasting on the front of the cliff dwelling. But in here, there's a crack going way up high, kind of a little air conditioner.

But you don't live in these cliffs unless you have to. For all of its artful construction, the dwelling is a sign that they were moving to the last water sources.

After this, they were gone. Looking for rain, the Anasazi headed south, leaving trails of pottery and architecture showing the way. Their descendants are the modern tribes of Tewa, Acoma, Zuni, Hopi. Others kept going into Mexico and haven't been heard from since.

As I follow in their footsteps, I find they left the Southwest with their belongings in place, ladles left in ceramic bowls, granaries sealed full of supplies. It is as if they intended to return. But they never had a chance to come back.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Craig Childs