When Europeans first began to explore the American Southwest they found both native North American agricultural people and hunters and gathers. However, they also encountered in various desolate or uninhabited portions of the region the huge ruins of stone and adobe structures. Many such ruins contain round ceremonial chambers called kivas. In some cases the ruins seemed to dwarf the physical size of the existing agricultural pueblos. Fanciful explanations were constructed around these grand ruins. No one less the eminent geographer and explorer Alexander von Humboldt subscribed to the belief that the ancient pueblo ruins of the southwestern US were the works of the Aztecs themselves. In his 1810 map of New Spain von Humboldt ascribed pueblo ruins in modern day New Mexico to the Aztecs whom he thought had migrated south to the Valley of Mexico from an ancestral homeland in the Southwest. Another set of ruins located between modern Phoenix and Flagstaff, Arizona was called Montezuma’s Castle by American settlers in the 1860’s under the belief that the last Aztec emperor had been there.
The most impressive collection of such ruins exists in the Chaco Canyon region of New Mexico. One stone structure there is called today Pueblo Bonito and covers about 3 acres of land, rises several stories high and may have had 800 rooms. It dwarfed the American apartment buildings of the mid-19th century. Not only did Chaco Canyon have a number of huge pueblos, but there is evidence of many other smaller structures, rock staircases, irrigation works and even long, straight roadways. Yet, during the 17th through 19th century Spanish period and during the first survey of the ruins in 1849 by a US Army expedition the canyon was abandoned.
Today the builders of these ancient pueblo ruins are typically referred to as the Anasazi – which itself is a Navajo word meaning ‘old enemy’. We know that the builders were not the Atztecs, but more likely the ancestors of the modern Pueblo indians of the Southwest. We also know that many of the abandoned sites were occupied over 1000 years ago and then deserted around AD 1200. We know who these ancient farmers and builders were in general – why though did they desert such impressive settlements? In the Fall of 2008 I visited a number of these sites as part of my Guggenheim research.