A few years ago I spent some time climbing through the ruins of a pueblo constructed by a branch of the Anasazi, a tribe at the heart of one of North America’s most persistent archaeological mysteries. I defy anyone to study the architecture of these dwellings perched high on canyon walls, to stand silently as the hot afternoon sun passes over the cool adobe and to not admire the ancient people who dwelt there.
The mystery concerns why the Anasazi left their Colorado pueblos 700 years ago and traveled into Arizona and New Mexico and set up home in far less hospitable surroundings. There has been speculation that this creative and peaceful people were nearly destroyed in their original habitat by drought that decimated their food supplies and made them warlike, to the extent that they turned to cannibalism and fled their homeland in a mad stampede.
That's why I was relieved recently to read an account of the latest archeological theories. Researchers now are describing a far more orderly Anasazi migration that may have been motivated, at least in part, by a new religion. Early Anasazi religion had involved multi-story “great houses” for worship – round, subterranean structures with study roofs – frequently only by priests and a select few others.
By the mid-13th Century, however, the places of worship were uncovered and resembled amphitheaters. Serving bowls became larger and seem to have been designed for ritual communion. Some researchers contemplate that the tribe experienced its equivalent of the Protestant reformation, that the journey southward was something like the Mormon journey west, and that evidence of this newer, more evangelical religion resulted in the Kachina rituals that survive today on Hopi and Zuni reservations.
I admit, the idea of a new, more open religion appeals to me much more than warfare and cannibalism as we come closer to solving the mystery of the Anasazi.
(Photo “Anasazi Sunbeam” by Ian Parker, 2005)