A Snowy Start to Our Southwest Adventure

After a good amount of snow and a brief lesson on how to put chains on tires, we crossed into New Mexico and stopped at the Aztec National Monument. We then had an early stop in Cortez, Colorado, for dinner and the day’s discussion. During our drive from Aztec to Cortez, we saw beautiful valleys and other geologic features next to the Ute mountains.

The Aztec ruins are a misnomer. The people who built the great Kiva (a ceremonial community center) and the surrounding structures were actually ancient Pueblo people. Their civilization flourished from 600-1200 AD, with a period of drought, which caused migrations and some social conflict. The Pueblo people primarily hunted deer and farmed maize, but later supplemented their food with domesticated turkeys. However, this made them even more dependent on maize and vulnerable during the drought. In their final days, before migrating away from southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico and Arizona, they resorted to eating wild plants-so called “starvation foods” because of severely depleted resources. This lack of resources caused violent conflict to erupt and former traditions to be abandoned. Proper burials were rare, waste was disposed of in places that were ceremonially significant. After 1200 AD no Pueblo peoples returned to the area and still haven’t today.

What is peculiar about the ruins we saw is that the structures weren’t made of local materials. The beams of the roofs were made of Ponderosa pine, of which the nearest forest is 50 miles away. Tradition says that Pueblo people carried the timbers (without help from pack animals or carts) and the trees did not touch the ground after they were felled until they were put into the structures. The stones were also carried. Additionally, there are many artifacts, some of which came from the Pacific coast and central Mexico. Aztec Ruins represents what seems to be a culturally significant place, with many clans of people gathering to be together in the Great Kiva. Aztec Ruins has the only restored Great Kiva in the Southwest and it was astounding to see.

In one of our reads, we learned about a similar community located in Mesa Verde. Archaeologists estimated the populations of this community at 1,000 households in 800 AD and 3,000 in the mid-1200s. This population at Mesa Verde also left in the 1200s.

To discover possible reasons for leaving the community, archaeologists came up with a model  that included food, water, shelter, and wood availability. Initially they did not include turkey domestication as a source of protein. However, based on the number of deer in the model, the number of people estimated to be in the area would have starved. When they added the turkeys, the hypothesized population was able to be explained. Like the Pueblo, the turkeys also relied on maize, adding more pressure to maize farming.

Ultimately, the Pueblo congregated together, creating settlements that became crowded. This led to conflict, violence, and more resource scarcity. To this day, the Pueblo have not returned to the four corners region.

Tomorrow we will be heading to Paige, Arizona to see the Glen Canyon dam and possibly Antelope Canyon, if weather permits. We will end tomorrow in a lodge in Grand Canyon National park.

Kate Reilly and Dr. Baack putting chains on the vans.
Doorways in a Kiva. These doorways were created by burial robbers in the 1800s.