In my recent travels in the Southwest, I visited Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, site of the most complex and astonishing pre-Columbian civilization in North America. My guide was Tori Myers, an archaeologist from nearby Salmon Ruin (whom I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone wishing to decode in person the puzzle that is Chaco Canyon). She shared what little is known of the people who built the place, and offered some educated speculation to fill in the cracks.
I had just finished writing a long chapter for the re-publication of The Revolt of the Public. My head was buzzing with odd thoughts about the fate of our elite class. Maybe for this reason, the story Tori told about Chaco sounded almost like a warning: an object lesson. Though I’m pretty sure history never works that way, I’m inclined to tell the tale anyhow – with the understanding that whatever is correct in what follows pertains to my wise guide, and whatever is just-so or fanciful or plain wrong is, as should be expected, entirely my doing.
Take it as a reconstruction of (pre)history or as a parable of social failure – either way, food for thought.
The people who built Chaco Canyon are often called Anasazi – as with so much today, the name is politically controversial. Their cultural footprint covered an enormous area of the Four Corners of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. There are Anasazi sites near Albuquerque and on the Grand Canyon: that’s a 320-mile jog. Between 900 and 1300 AD, this far-flung people pulled off the first monumental construction program on American soil.
The beating heart of Anasazi culture was Chaco Canyon, which is dotted with a multitude of “great houses” – really walled, beehive-like settlements erected in the local sandstone. The greatest of the great houses is the subject of my story: Pueblo Bonito. It holds over 800 perfectly aligned stone rooms stacked as high as five stories, dozens of ceremonial and community structures, and a large open plaza within the walled enclosure. Population must have exceeded 1,000. Pueblo Bonito was a huge stone village, the largest of many at Chaco.
Only when you stand in the desolate landscape does the strangeness of Chaco as a site, and the magnitude of the builders’ achievement, become apparent. The prehistoric environment was much like today’s: grit and sagebrush, with weather prone to extremes. On the day we were there, in late April, a windstorm pounded us like a hammer. Later, it snowed. Shoved tight under the north wall of the canyon, Pueblo Bonito must have endured sizzling summers, frost-bound winters, frequent drought, and terrifying rockfalls. Except for stone, few resources were readily available. Water was scarce. The big timbers needed to support five-story structures were brought from 50 miles away, on the backs of strong men – the Anasazi had no wheeled carts or beasts of burden. Pottery was imported, and so, I suspect, was food in the many bad years.
So how could such an unforgiving place become central to a civilization that built for the ages, laid down roads through the wilderness in every direction, and traded luxury goods as far away as Mexico and the Pacific coast? The answer leaps out once we are willing to put aside the multicultural illusions of the moment.
The distribution of gifts across peoples in history, alas, has never been equal – and the elite class of Pueblo Bonito was gifted with extraordinary genius. Engineers, architects, mathematicians, astronomers, masons, and craftsmen all worked at the highest possible levels of achievement. The thick walls of Pueblo Bonito rose and turned with straight-edged precision. The stones were dressed to beautiful effect. Structures aligned meticulously with cosmic forces. One long wall followed an 18-year cycle of the moon – a remarkable feat of cultural memory for a people who lacked writing and whose life expectancy for men was 35 years (for women it was 24).
The massive ruins of Chaco Canyon reminded the modern Americans who first encountered them of the Aztecs. Given their love of clean straight lines, symmetry, and order, and their penchant for monumentality, a more apt parallel to the Anasazi, I think, would be the old Romans. Like the Roman colony, Pueblo Bonito was built to a plan.
Someone had to know and implement the plan. Someone had to make the decisions that kept Pueblo Bonito safe and fed while the timber was being cut, the mortar mixed, and the stones dressed and arrayed. The genius of the builders extended to organization: to government. The elites of Pueblo Bonito must have been a class apart.
As might be expected, this, too, is controversial. The Pueblo Indians, who descend from the Anasazi but dislike the name, portray themselves as extreme egalitarians. They reject the notion that their great-grandparents might have been bossed around by aristocrats. However worthy the sentiment, the evidence runs in the other direction. The body of a man was discovered under a room in Pueblo Bonito, wrapped in a splendid cape of macaw feathers. Since macaws had to be imported, with some care, from Mexico, this was a personage of some importance. Other graves have been found outside the rooms and without goods. These were people of little importance.
You can’t run a complex matrix of activities on a thin resource base without giving someone the power to make invidious choices. A brilliant few must have given orders – most obeyed. I imagine that at Pueblo Bonito, as with us, those who labored with their hands – farmers, construction grunts – were at the bottom of the pyramid, while those with specialized knowledge stood at the top. Still, I wouldn’t make too much of this. Pueblo Bonito was a privileged enclave. The people at the bottom probably felt superior to all outside the walls, much as a Roman plebeian, by virtue of being a citizen, considered himself above the most exalted barbarian lord.
The bonds of solidarity were strengthened by ceremonies at the “great kiva”: an enormous circular structure roofed with heavy timbers, capable of containing much of the male population. In the great kiva, the elites of Pueblo Bonito probably had a place of honor, but everyone sang and danced to the same tune.
Late in the life-cycle of the village came the first event crucial to my story. An internal wall was built across the settlement. It was a typical Pueblo Bonito wall: arrow-straight, beautifully dressed, touching the outer wall north to south. Careful scholars have speculated on the purpose of this structure, but to me it seems perfectly obvious. The elites wanted to separate themselves from the riff-raff. Their sense of symmetry and order now extended to social proximity. In effect, they had moved into a gated community.
At the same time, the great kiva was demolished. Two smaller great kivas were built: one on each side of the wall. You can almost hear the gloriously-robed architect telling his laborers, “We’re not better. We’re different. We need a little more space. And look! You get your own great kiva! Works out for everyone, right?”
The new arrangement may have been an ideological response to a system driven into crisis by persistent drought.
For an aristocracy or oligarchy to endure, it must engender strong feelings of class loyalty. Otherwise those at the highest levels will be tempted to push everyone below into the ranks of the deplorables. The latter is precisely what happened at Pueblo Bonito. The nearness of rude humanity on the other side of the wall was clearly felt to be unbearable. Physical separation had to be commensurate with the immense social distance between the golden few and the bestial many. In parallel, the definition of who belonged with the elites was made far more restrictive. Former members in good standing of the upper crust were taken down – and out. The club at the top became impossibly small.
In the final act of my story, virtually the entire population has been pushed out of Pueblo Bonito. The evidence suggests that they weren’t cast into the cold. At this time, despite the drought, feverish building projects were undertaken in nearby Chetro Ketl and Pueblo del Arroyo. It’s reasonable to suppose that the new construction absorbed the outflow of plebeians from Pueblo Bonito. Again, one can imagine some exalted being saying to the departing peasantry, “You’ll be happy living with your Aunt Millie – you like her so much! And it’s not like you’re never coming back. We’ll invite you to all the parties…”
The handful of families that remained in Pueblo Bonito, super-elites all, turned the place into a ceremonial center. These people had achieved their ideal of complete social separation. They were a vanguard that no one followed, monarchs that ruled over a great human silence. Their exceptional talents were applied to hosting elaborate feasts, in which people from all over brought them offerings in exchange for something: spiritual enlightenment, possibly, or knowledge, or maybe just prestige. The last gift of the elites of Pueblo Bonito has been lost to the blind night of prehistory. Certainly, there was no more building to be done – no more straight walls or cosmic alignments. There was no need.
For a generation or two, they lived the high life. Then the stone village was abandoned to the mule deer, the rodents, and the wind.
Drought is usually blamed for the demise of the Anasazi. In the case of Pueblo Bonito, I believe there may have been an additional factor: an elite class of world-historical genius that came to think its purpose was to be, rather than to do. When the crisis arrived, elite ingenuity had turned to sterile ends, and could not forestall disaster.