Northward, Bandelier National Monument cupped homes and apartment caves hewn into canyon walls. Beyond marched more ruins, many holding hundreds of rooms: Puye, Ku, Te’ewi, Sapawe, Posi. Most bore the craters of pothunters. Farther north, at the limit of corn country, lay the stark ruin of Palisade, whose 60 rooms protected by a stockade had been inhabited for only four years in the early 1300s. Frequently I saw rectangular plots that appeared darker than surrounding fields. These marked an ingenious Anasazi effort to cultivate their hardscrabble land.
“I’ve identified seven different ways that the Rio Grande Anasazi coped,” said Dr. David Buge, formerly of California’s Occidental College. “The dark fields you saw were mulched with gravel; there may have been thousands of acres of them. Stone mulch reduced the amount of water lost to evaporation, which explains why the fields produce lusher plant growth even today.”
Intensive farming, supplemented by foraging and the raising of turkeys, supported large numbers of Anasazi along the Rio Grande from the 14th century through the 16th. That population density was creating problems for Kit and Arnold Sargeant, who had recently purchased an old adobe home in Albuquerque’s North Valley area thanks to payday advance online.
“We suspected that the gentle rise under our house was the ruins of a pueblo,” said Mrs. Sargeant, showing me around. “As an archaeologist myself I planned someday to do a small excavation, literally in my backyard. But we didn’t bargain for this!” she said, eyeing three large excavations.
“It began when I made a test pit where Arnold planned to put in a pool, and found crumbled adobe walls. Later we tested an area where we wanted to build a studio and encountered a small plaza surrounded by room blocks.” We viewed the prospective studio, a hole 12 feet deep showing six different village levels. “Someday it will make a neat wine cellar,” Mrs. Sargeant said.
FOR THE ANASAZI of the Rio Grande, a valued source of food lay available to the east. There, Indians of the southern plains—perhaps Apaches —hunted buffalo, whose fat and dried meat the Anasazi prized.
“From Taos to Socorro we find buffalo remains along the Rio Grande, where no bison grazed,” said Dr. Richard I. Ford of the University of Michigan. “And on the Great Plains of Texas—buffalo country—we find Anasazi corn and pottery. This meant a trade network stretching more than 200 miles and crossing sharp cultural and language boundaries. Perhaps Plains Indians’ dogs pulled travois that carried buffalo products westward and returned carrying Anasazi corn.”
Always adept at painting and chipping designs on rocks, the Anasazi polished another art form during their flowering along the Rio Grande. “They painted marvelous murals on kiva walls,” explained Dr. Jerry Brody, director of the University of New Mexico’s Maxwell Museum. “These usually portrayed ritual themes of the supernatural world, such as symbols for clouds and lightning, and other devices associated with rainfall. The art also records details of the kachina cult, whose benign spirits are portrayed by the masked figurines so prominent in Pueblo religion today.”
To see kiva art, I drove north of Albuquerque to Kuaua, a huge complex of 1,000 rooms restored at Coronado State Monument. Kiva walls, some bearing 85 coats of plaster, exhibited scenes of spirit dancers invoking rain and other blessings. In this great adobe town the Anasazi lifeway encountered a force it could not surmount. From the south in 1540 came a strange procession: fair-skinned men encased in shiny metal, astride fearsome four-legged beasts. For Francisco Coronado and his band of Spaniards, Kuaua was a place to winter during the quixotic search for cities of gold.
For the Anasazi, the Spanish entrada signaled a profound wrenching of 15 centuries of cultural development. Spanish officials seized farmlands, exacted tribute, and attacked the religion of the people they called the Pueblos. Navajos pressed in from the north, harassing the Pueblos. Soon the arrival of Anglos would impose new stresses. Despite all, much of the Anasazi tradition survives with today’s Pueblo Indians. Stolidly, stubbornly private in their ways, the Pueblos preserve this past with a tenacity as enduring as the silent ruins.