Sunday, February 14, 2016

Castle and Cottonwoods, Montezuma Castle National Monument, Camp Verde, Arizona

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, Arizona, is seen through the white branches of leafless, winter cottonwoods.

Montezuma Castle National Monument has nothing to do with Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II. (You know, the guy Coronado defeated to conquer Mexico.) But it has everything to do with an ancient mystery: What happened to the Ancestral Puebloans?

The Ancestral Puebloans – ancestors of today’s Hopis and others – had extensive, well-developed villages. These were spread throughout the Colorado Plateau, what’s known today as the Four Corners region: Northern Arizona, Southern Utah, Northern New Mexico, and Southern Colorado.

The civilization, which archaeologists believe was comprised of several nations, ramped up from around the 10th century. Farmers, traders, and irrigation specialists, they built cliff dwellings, like Montezuma’s Castle, and non-cliff villages, even cities, like Chaco Canyon, usually near perennial water sources. They also had extensive road systems which covered the entire region and traded with Central and coastal Mexico.

Then in the 14th century, many, many of these settlements were just ... abandoned. That’s the mystery! What drove them away? Was it drought? War? Religious fervor? No one really knows. Hopi oral history says they headed toward present Hopi settlements for spiritual reasons, kind of like the Jews wandering the desert, then settling the promised land. 

But that’s sketchy. Religious motivations tend to be undergirded by pragmatic considerations.

I think it was a combination of war and drought. Reading up on the history, I noticed that the ancients resettled closer to large river valleys. Why? Well, first, rivers are more dependable water sources than smaller streams, like Montezuma Castle’s Beaver Creek. That speaks to drought. But rivers also allow you to support a larger, more concentrated population. That has defensive advantages that a cliff dwelling can’t meet.

In the same period, I noticed, Apaches, Ute, and Navajos moved into Colorado Plateau. Maybe they came as invaders or bandits. Let’s say there’s a drought and wild food sources aren’t enough. The Puebloans have crops. Why should hungry Apaches, Utes, and Navajos not take them? As it happens, the cliff dwellings and other cities don’t show much record of war, such as fires.

But why should wandering tribes try a siege? They don’t want to take over farms or settle in houses. Let the Puebloans hold up while your people take as much crop as you can eat and carry. All you need is to gather a band that vastly outnumbers any defenders, and there wouldn’t be much of a fight. Small, scattered Puebloan communities would have sat there helpless as their crops were ravaged. Hunger and migration would follow.

The solution is to field an equal or larger army to the invading bands. But armies take food. Small, scattered villages could only raise up a few dozen fighters. But larger settlements with vast croplands could raise hundreds, perhaps more, certainly enough to protect what they have. In other words, I suspect that in a time of drought and an influx of new peoples, the Hopi’s ancestors found refuge in urban concentration along the river valleys.

It’s a hypothesis, anyway. Maybe I’ll turn archaeologist and get to test it one day.