Why they left Chimney Rock
Some thoughts for further analysis
By Alan Saltzstein, Volunteer, Chimney Rock Interpretive Association
Presented at the Western Anthropological Association, September 28, 2013
The most frequent question asked by visitors to Chimney Rock is “Why did they leave”? As a tour guide, I am often asked “Is it true they vanished?” “Where are they now?” “Why didn’t they come back?” Many want a simple answer to these questions implying there must have been one agreed upon cause.
This paper looks cursorily at the literature on the abandonment of sites in the Four Corners area and relates this literature to what we know about Chimney Rock. There are several unique features of Chimney Rock that may have some bearing on why they left. The abandonment of Chimney Rock is thought to have occurred from 1125 to 1130, earlier than all sites other than Chaco. It is contended that, unlike most other sites, no one returned. Chimney Rock is located in the highest elevation of all the outliers and was probably the most difficult to construct. The only feasible entrance to the Great House is a steep rocky path. Some of the needed resources were brought from the valley floor three miles below. Could the physical layout have something to do with abandonment? Lastly, the dominant explanation for the building of the Great House is related to unique astronomical features of the site. Could these properties also be related to the abandonment? I ask if any of these features or some combination of them helps explain why the site was abandoned.
The first part of the paper looks generally at the literature on abandonment. This is followed by a look at Chimney Rock’s unique features in light of the common explanations. Lastly I will suggest some researchable questions in light of this discussion.
A major disclaimer; I am probably best described as an archeology “groupie.” I am not trained in the field generally nor in its impressive research methodology. However, as a conveyer of archeological knowledge and one familiar with our guest’s reactions, perhaps this gives me some legitimacy as a ‘knowledgeable layperson.” I hope I can provide some reasonable questions to put to the archeological community.
I. What is known about abandonment?
First a definition. Nelson and Schachauer, drawing on Fish et al, define abandonment as “..the absence of evidence for habitation on any magnitude in a locus of previous habitation” (2002). Cordell more simply defines it as “large areas that were no longer occupied by those who occupied them” (1997: 365).These definitions do not preclude re-occupation but imply a significant elapse of time between occupations. They also give one no indication of the speed of withdrawal. Did all the occupants leave over a short period of time, or was the leaving rather sudden? Nothing is said about how long after people leave do we refer to it as “abandoned.”
Some divide abandonments by size and scope. “Local abandonments” seem to refer to a limited geographical area, small populations, and imply short distance movements. “Regional abandonments” refer to larger communities and movements of people over greater distances. Chimney Rock falls into the latter category because it was abandoned at an earlier time than all sites except Chaco. Since it was not re-occupied, it may be a somewhat special category.
There appears to be an agreed upon typology or organizing outline for the possible causes of regional abandonment. Cordell indicates that the use of “pull” and “push” factors occurred through informal agreement among archeologists (1997 also Varien et al; Lekson, Nelson, and Schachauer). ” Pull” factors are those that draw people to new places while “push” factors are concerns that induce people to leave because of the attraction of the new destination (2002 Nelson and Schachner; 572). Authors cite both environmental and cultural factors in both categories. Below is a brief summary of the basic literature that deals with each of these concerns.
II. Push concerns
Push factors are concerns that induce people to leave their settlements. They are factors that make living so difficult that a move, perhaps to an unknown location, is desired. These include factors that limit the growing of crops or hunting and those that cause life within the community to deteriorate such as disease and perceived danger from warfare or internal strife.
Until recently, the dominant cause cited for abandonments was environmental, particularly droughts that have occurred periodically (2005 Diamond). Droughts are thought to limit the ability of communities to produce their own food, resulting in health problems for the residents. Many cite a major drought 1279-1289 as the primary cause of southwest abandonments (1991 Breternitz in Judge et al). However, earlier though less severe droughts occurred in 1090 and 1130 (2004 Kanter:137 Stuart 120). It is assumed here that droughts cause a decline in food production that cannot be replaced by systems of exchange. Residents leave in search of more fertile ground.
However, some have argued that many Puebloan communities had the ability to withstand even relatively severe droughts. With advanced irrigation and wider exchange systems, it is likely communities could withstand even major dry periods. Judge points out that exchanges within communities may have lessened the effect of droughts. In his words, “(B)ecause rainfall comes in very patchy and unpredictable fashion in the San Juan basin, we suggest that the Chacoan system response was to disperse farming resources throughout the Basin in order to maximize the collective potential yield” (1990; 35). Varien et al add “(A)lthough the adaptive problems ..must have posed challenges, the Pueblo inhabitants were resourceful farmers.” (105). They point out that even in the driest years on record, Puebloan farming produced successful crops.
Others argue drought becomes the primary cause of abandonment when combined with other factors. The effect of drought is magnified as population increases and resources, most notably trees and the soil, are over used. Diamond makes this point most succinctly. He states “Over the course of six centuries, the human population of Chaco Canyon grew, its demands on the environment grew, its environmental resources declined, and people came increasingly close to the margins of what the environment could support. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was the drought that finally pushed the Chacoans over the edge; a draught that a society living at a lower population density could have survived.” (156) That “straw” in the case of Chaco was the drought of 1130.
B. Epidemics and diseases
A second environmental factor that encouraged people to leave a site is the spread of disease and epidemics. Cordell points out, as people migrated to large settlements, trash was placed in abandoned rooms or in nearby middens and bodies may have been buried in vacant rooms. Add the possibility of contaminated water and the spread of serious diseases is likely. As diseases spread, the non-diseased inhabitants leave in the hopes of avoiding illness.
However, Cordell points out that thus far conclusive evidence of the spread of diseases is lacking. Summarizing several efforts to assess the health of the pre- abandonment population, she concludes “The general health situation ..shows problems with inadequate protein, disease associated with weaning, and a continuing low level or infectious disease. It is not indicative of pandemic” (382).
Extensive warfare among villages and settlements may motivate residents to move to more peaceful locations. Warfare among the Ancestral Puebloans has been extensively documented. Haas and Craemer, following a broad review of evidence throughout the four corners area, maintain that warfare was endemic throughout the southwest in the thirteenth century (205). As they state,”..warfare was probably a fact of life in the late Pueblo III period throughout the Anasazi area. It certainly may have varied in intensity across time and space” (209).
Haas and Craemer also argue that warfare may be, in part, a response to environmental degradation. As resources became scarce, raiding parties from other villages and armed conflicts among village members were likely. Cordell also points out there is some evidence of increased defensive structures when violence becomes more common. Haas and Creamer maintain that, during the thirteenth century, as a consequence of violence, there was a move toward political centralization and consolidation (205).
However, examples of warfare or extensive interpersonal conflict in the 1100’s when Chimney Rock was abandoned are lacking in the literature.
III. Pull concerns
Pull concerns are factors that make living in another community desirable. These include the search for better agricultural land, interest in a new ideology or belief system, external peace that lessens the need for the protection provided by the home location, and the “lure of bright lights”? the intrinsic appeal of larger communities.
A. Search for better land
When rainfall levels decline, the logical response from a society where there is open land and few impediments to movement is to search for land with a more predictable water supply. Varien et al note that areas experiencing population growth in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century were those with more reliable rainfall (105). This may explain the expansion in population south and the emergence of larger settlements following Chaco’s collapse.
B. New ideologies or belief systems
Is there evidence of the emergence of new religions or belief systems that attracted residents to a different location? Could new religious tradition or the perceived failure of the existing tradition cause people to seek another community where a new religion is practiced? Lipe, for one, notes a significant shift to larger communities and fewer kiva- and plaza-oriented communities in the newer communities south of Chaco following its demise (in 1991 Judge ed. 39; Adams in Adler ed. 52). Others suggest there is evidence of attraction to the Katsina religious tradition (Adams: 54; Lekson and Cameron 187). Cordell points out that “.. the post abandonment era witnessed a remarkable flourishing of novel religion forms, specifically katsina iconography, trade networks, and new interaction spheres” (389).
Is there a link between environmental problems and the emergence of new religions? Cordell suggests religious beliefs are premised on stable conditions. When these conditions are strained through droughts, warfare, or other destabilizing occurrences, the religious bonds may break. As she states “When .. a network fails, the gods have failed. Ritual and ceremony fail. Former allies may become enemies. Trusted leaders may become witches and the world must not seem a safe place. On the other hand, those who lived outside of the realm of unpredictability ..may have been seen to know the right ceremonies, worship the appropriate gods in correct ways, and be safe from wars and witches.” (396) Drought and warfare, in other words, may cause a search for new value systems as one tries to secure a more positive environment.
C. “It is time to go”
When asked why the Ancestral Puebloans left sites, a frequent Puebloan response is “It was time to go.” This response is viewed by many as flippant. However it is more likely a reflection on the history of movement among the Pueblo people. Given significant open space at their disposal, limited possessions, and the ability to build new structures easily, moving to a new location was a feasible option.
Others point out that in times of peace, movement was a more likely option. Land may be better elsewhere or a move could bring them closer to friends, family, and pleasures. Lacking danger, conflict, or other undesirable conditions, why not move?
IV. The uniqueness of Chimney Rock
Several characteristics of Chimney Rock and the nature and scope of its abandonment raise questions and amplify what we know generally about abandonment. These include the timing and scope of Chimney Rock’s abandonment, the difficulties of building the great house, and the important role of Chimney Rock as an astronomical observatory. In this section, each of these is discussed in turn.
Popular authors often convey the impression that the four corners area was abandoned totally in a relatively brief time period. Childs, for example reflecting on a discussion with archeologist Susan Ryan at a site in the Mesa Verde region, concludes that “..late in the thirteenth century, the site was suddenly empty?not only this site, but every site around here. This was the famous Anasazi disappearing act, the moment when these people are said to have vanished off the face of the earth” (123).
Reality, of course, is more complex. A cursory survey of abandonment dates in the literature shows a range from 1125 for Chimney Rock and Chaco to 1300 for Sand Canyon and Mesa Verde. Other abandonment estimates fall within this broad range. Thus the abandoning process went on for a considerable time.
Several things are curious about Chimney Rock’s abandonment in 1125-30. Within the Chacon sphere of influence, it is the earliest abandonment. Furthermore, according to Adler, the demise of Chaco did not halt the construction of outliers (1996:11), and Lekson (1999) indicates people returned to Chaco. Yet at Chimney Rock, construction halted in 1125-30. Does that suggest the fate of Chimney Rock was most intimately connected with that of Chaco? We contend that Chaco and Chimney Rock were closely connected through the construction of the Great House and a series of fire pits that we believe served as a signaling system. William Lipe also commented to me that he felt the Great House was clearly “the most Chacoan” of all the outliers he had seen. Was the connection so close that one could not survive without the other?
According to Lekson and Cameron, Chaco retained its influence into the 1200’s (1995: 188; 1999 Lekson). We contend, however, Chimney Rock was evacuated in 1125-1130 and never re-occupied. Lekson and Cameron also argue that most outliers were re-occupied by villagers.
Wilcox suggests another explanation for Chimney Rock’s early exodus. He and others argue that, as Chaco declined, Aztec emerged as the center of the Puebloan system. Chimney Rock, as the continuation of Chacoan hegemony, was, in his words, “a potential threat” to the emergence of Aztec. He adds “(T)hus its (Chimney Rock’s) rapid demise coincident with the rise to power of Aztec is no big surprise” (18).
Difficulties in building the Great House
The construction of the Chimney Rock Great House was a feat of immense engineering and construction requiring much manpower. At 7,600 feet in elevation, it is the highest of the outliers and its northern most location gives it a short growing season and significant snow and cold weather. It sits atop a narrow ridge accessible only by a narrow dirt and rock path that rises more than 200 feet in one-third of a mile. Little grows on the mesa top; there is no source of water and few stones are available. Thus most of the stones, all of the trees for construction of the roofs, and all the water for masonry and food for the workers had to be brought up the narrow and treacherous path.
The Great House contains more than 35 rooms and two large kivas. It is also built on a 35 degree slant, yet the floors are level. The walls were plastered and painted white. Building such a well-designed and beautiful edifice under these conditions surely makes it one of the marvels of the world. One does wonder why such an effort was undertaken and how they could induce people to work on it.
We know little about who built the Great House. Was it an occupying group of Chacoans or was it the local inhabitants or some combination of the two? Were they working because of a commitment to the rulers of the site or were they compelled to work? In either case, the commitment and skills required were extensive.
The study of the sky
We maintain that the purpose of the Chimney Rock Great House was to house the high priest whose skill was the study of the sun and the stars. The connection between the lunar standstill and the natural pinnacles, Chimney Rock and Companion Rock, gave the site a special sacredness. Most likely, the huge commitment of resources occurred because inhabitants believed the site was sacred and the high priests were, in effect, agents of the gods. As construction hit its stride, the minor drought of 1090 occurred. Kanter argues the effect on the building of Chaco was most significant. In his words “For a sociopolitical system built on religious influence over the climate, the timing of the A.D.1090s drought could not have been worse. It is no coincidence that this marks a cessation of construction and a decline in canyon imports. And the effect snowballed” (139).
Did this drought have the same effect on Chimney Rock? Were some workers discouraged, particularly as the drought affected their resources? A revolt or an exodus of the workers is not difficult to imagine. If that caused the exodus from Chimney Rock, it may explain why the Chimney Rock abandonment occurred when it did and why it may be unrelated to abandonments of other outliers. In other words, internal conditions at the site coupled with the fall of Chaco may have triggered the abandonment.
Let’s look at this in practical terms. As a worker, you believed in the sacredness of the site and your role in it because the high priests are able to predict many of the features of the sky. They understand the sun’s cycle. They know when the moon will rise between the spires. They probably knew other features of the heavens that haven’t been revealed to us.
Yet one wonders how they were able to handle the heavenly events they couldn’t explain. In their time, the sky was rather turbulent. In 1054 a new, very bright star, the crab nebula, was suddenly easily visible during the day as well as at night. In 1064, the Sunset Crater in Arizona exploded. It was probably visible at Chimney Rock, perhaps covering the area in ash. In 1066, Halley’s Comet passed directly over the pinnacles, covering perhaps one third of the sky. In 1097, probably during the midst of construction and following the drought of 1090, a total eclipse of the sun occurred directly over the site. It is unlikely any of these events were predicted by the high priests.
If you are working at the Great House and you lack sufficient food and water, what do you make of the eclipse of the sun? As the sun casts a very strange light on you, you see your shadow elongated, showing ten fingers on each hand. Do you ask yourself, why didn’t the high priests know about this? Maybe you and your friends discuss the other astronomical and earthly anomalies from years past that weren’t predicted. Do you conclude the high priests may not understand the ways of the world? Do you then decide to leave or at least begin to think seriously about it? Do you hear of new religions in other towns? Are you attracted to them?
Fanciful speculation on my part? Undoubtedly. However these are the words of several of the leading lights in the field. Varien et al speculate that “(I)n searching for social or cultural evidence that might have a bearing on San Juan abandonment, it is worth noting that among the characteristics of Mesa Verdean culture that did not survive the movement to the south were some that probably were involved with religious symbolism and practice” (105). They add “Adaptive failures or social stresses experienced in the Mesa Verde area may have weakened the power of existing religious practice there.” (ibid).
Mention was made of other possible causes of abandonment in the first part of this paper. What of armed conflict or intervention from outsiders? Wilcox sees Chimney Rock as a military fortress (163). “Its functions may have included enforcement of military rule over local populations, protection from possible threat coming from that quarter as well tribute procurement.” (ibid). We have no evidence of warfare at Chimney Rock though, with the presence of the Guard House at the top of the trail leading to the Great House, one can imagine concern for an invasion. The soldiers could be present but, without an attack, there is no reason to assume their presence was related to abandonment. Likewise, there is no evidence of high levels of disease or epidemic. If such factors were related to Chimney Rock’s abandonment it would be evident in skeletal remains.
V. Conclusions and thoughts for further research
In spite of the significant literature on abandonments in the Four Corners area, much confusion remains about why Chimney Rock was abandoned. Why were Chimney Rock and Chaco abandoned at the same time while other outliers remained inhabited? We tend to view the Chimney Rock community as divided into two groups: the San Juan people who had lived there for centuries and the Chacoans who came to build or assist in building the Great House. The Chacoans may have left as those in Chaco Canyon left, but why would the San Juan people, who had more invested in the area, also leave?
Let me close with some thoughts for further research. Is there evidence at Chimney Rock that perhaps the residents intended to come back? One of the mysteries at Chimney Rock is why would they undergo such a monumental effort only to leave soon after completion? Do the artifacts that remained suggest in any way that their abandonment might be temporary?
Why didn’t anyone re-occupy the site? The literature gives me the impression that most sites were reoccupied at least for a few years if not longer. The river valley in particular, with access to water and plenty of game, should have been a good place to stay.
The emphasis on astronomy, we argue, is the unique feature of the site and a source of knowledge that was very useful to people throughout the Chacoan system. Why wasn’t the peculiar location of the site and the skill of the high priests desired by the others? We argue that knowledge of the path of the moon and the ease with which the sun could be charted were valuable assets to the Chacoans. The moon was an object of worship as well as the source of their ceremonial calendar. Why would they give it up? And why wouldn’t others want to use it?
Aztec is thought to emerge as the capital of the system when Chaco fell and remained so until it was evacuated in 1275. Given the proximity of Chimney Rock and Aztec (40 miles with a direct river connection), why wasn’t Chimney Rock occupied by the Aztec residents? Chimney Rock had things the Aztecs needed: food, game, and trees. They could also use Chimney Rock to track the sun and the moon.
Then again, it has been pointed out that Aztec may have been a source of tension with Chimney Rock. Did this tension contribute to the abandonment?
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- Childs, Craig, House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest. New York, N.Y.: Little Brown 2007.
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___ and Catherine Cameron “The Abandonment of Chaco Canyon, The Mesa Verde Migrations and the Reorganization of the Pueblo World”. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 14: 184-202.
- Lipe, William “Some Attractions to the South” in W.James Judge ed. The Anasazi: Why did They Leave? Where Did They Go? Albuquerque, NM Southwest Natural and Cultural Heritage Association.
- Nelson, Margaret C. and Gregson Schachaer. “Understanding Abandonments in the North American Southwest” Journal of Archaeological Research 10, No. 2 (2002).
- Stuart, David E. Anasazi America. Albuquerque, NM University of New Mexico Press. 2000.
- Varien, Mark D. William D. Lipe, Michael Adler, Ian M. Thompson and Bruce A. Bradley “Southwest Colorado and Southeastern Utah Settlement Patterns: 1100-1300” in Adler ed. The Pre-historic Pueblo World A.D. 1150-1350 Tucson AZ. University of Arizona Press. 1996.
- Wilcox, David “The Evolution of the Chacoan Polity” in J. Kim Malville ed. Chimney Rock: The Ultimate Outlier Lanham M.D. Lexington Press. 2004.