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Flight of the Anasazi Volume 54 Number 5, September/October 2001
by Stephen H. Lekson

Where did they go after abandoing Mesa Verde? A site in southern New Mexico provides intriguing clues.


The Anasazi abandoned the Four Corners region by A.D. 1300. Evidence now suggests they moved long distances to new homes.

In 1988, my colleague Karl Laumbach and I were surveying in the Rio Alamosa gorge. There we found the remains of a 150-room pueblo atop a 100-foot-tall butte. Aptly named the Pinnacle Ruin, it is the most spectacular of the many Alamosa sites. Today, we are excavating there in hopes of solving the mystery of the Anasazi disappearance.

Who built the Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon sites, why did they leave, and where did they go? Anthropologists at the turn of the last century proved what Native Americans knew all along: the ancient ruins of the Four Corners were built by the ancestors of the modern Pueblo peoples who live today at Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and the many Rio Grande Pueblo towns of New Mexico (see "Tracking the Movements of an Ancient People," September/October 1995). Why did they leave? Drought from about A.D. 1275 to about 1300, a "nuclear winter" caused by a volcanic eruption, climatic fluctuations, increased violence and warfare (see "Chaco Death Squads," May/June 1999), and rise of the kachina religion are among the posible reasons.

Where did the Anasazi go? Some came to Pinnacle. At a distance of 260 miles, the Pinnacle Ruin is almost twice as far from Mesa Verde as the modern Pueblos. But it isn't just the distance that's important. Pinnacle and other southern Mesa Verde sites housed large groups--scores of families, probably entire clans--that moved and resettled as organized towns. The Four Corners region was rapidly abandoned, with thousands of people leaving in only a few decades. The scale of the abandonment suggests that decisions were made not at the family level, but at a higher, perhaps regional political level. Ironically, Pueblo tribal officials reading about Pinnacle Ruin in the local papers told me this wasn't news to them; in their traditional histories it is clans, villages, and whole peoples that move.

Stephen H. Lekson is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America