Bandelier National Monument: What made ancient people vanish into history?

— Photo by Mike Nardacci

Eroded pinnacles of the volcanic rock known as “tuff” tower above the valley of Frijoles Creek in Bandelier National Monument. Within and around the grottoes in the rock, the ancient Anasazi people stored food and carved out living spaces.

Scattered across the Southwestern states of the United States are the remnants of an ancient civilization as mysterious in its own way as that of the Etruscans or the Minoans. Evidence of the rising culture of the people long known as the Anasazi appears over 2000 years ago and reaches its highest stages of development in the 1200s A.D.

They are the ancestors of today’s Pueblo-dwelling people, and visitors to the modern-day villages at Taos or Acoma in New Mexico will see the resemblance of the ruins of the ancient people’s cliff-dwellings and free-standing buildings to modern Pueblo dwellings. Developed archeological sites easily accessible to visitors include Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, but other known ancient sites number in the tens of thousands, and no one can be sure how many more have yet to be discovered.

The beauty and ingenuity of construction of the dwellings and religious structures of the Anasazi are legendary, existing as they do in some of the driest, hottest, least inhospitable parts of the country — places that frequently resemble the arid, rocky landscapes being explored by robots on Mars. Inevitably, questions arise about why these people chose such places to live and how they were able to find sufficient food and water to survive.

More frustrating is the fact that the Anasazi did not have a written language and the many petroglyphs (carvings on rock faces) they left behind are both beautiful and tantalizingly abstract. They seem to depict a culture in which a spirit world and the material world existed side by side and frequently interacted.   Perhaps none of the mysteries the ruins evoke is as profound as what appears to have been the sudden and possibly violent end to the Anasazi culture.

The first archaeologists to explore at Anasazi sites such as Mesa Verde found dwellings from which the inhabitants appeared literally to have grabbed what they could carry and fled — often leaving behind clothing, beautifully-crafted pottery, and partially-eaten meals on tables. If these discoveries seem comparable to similar findings at Pompeii, the cases are not in any other way parallel.

In the Southwest, there is no evidence of a sudden natural disaster such as a series of volcanic eruptions.  Although an extended drought occurred in the 1200s, such events had occurred before and the ancient people had managed ingenious methods to survive them. In addition, objects too heavy to carry — such as stones for grinding corn — were often smashed to prevent anyone else from using them, strong indications that the sites were abandoned suddenly and under duress.

Archeological wonder

Located a few dozen miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bandelier National Monument is one of the archeological wonders of the American Southwest. The site was first explored (and subsequently named for) Adolph Bandelier, an anthropologist of Swiss-American extraction.

It is situated where a clear stream known as Frijoles Creek that flows year around — a rarity in this arid region of New Mexico — has cut deeply through the surrounding plateau forming a craggy hidden valley.  From time to time, the stream overflows its banks and, when it returns to its bed, it leaves behind — like the Nile River — a layer of rich soil.

Both on the creek’s floodplain and in the cliffs that tower above it are some amazing remnants of dwelling places of the ancient people. The floor of the valley is green and fertile and the remains of free-standing pueblos and walled gardens can be seen there today. But it is in the vertiginous cliffs that the handiwork of the ancients is most spectacular.

Here are artificial caves carved into the bedrock accessed by ladders or precipitous stairways that meander through crevices eroded into the bedrock forming natural windows and grottos. There are also homes and storage places built ingeniously into the bedrock, sometimes in harrowingly precipitous locations.


— Photo by Mike Nardacci
A modern reconstructed ladder leads to a cave high in the volcanic tuff in which an ancient Anasazi family once set up housekeeping.


It is of course tempting to see these structures as having been built in such spots for protection — but it is also possible they were situated there for the same reason that modern people buy condos in high rises:  The views are great!

The bedrock at Bandelier, hundreds of feet thick, is an igneous rock called “tuff” — not to be confused (as even some geologists have been known to do) with “tufa,” which is a chemical sedimentary rock often found at springs and seeps in areas of limestone bedrock. Composed of very light-colored dust and sand-sized particles and tiny sparkling quartz crystals as well as larger, angular pebble or cobble-sized rock fragments, the Bandelier tuff formed from the compaction of materials blown out of a gigantic volcanic eruption that occurred near Jemez Springs, New Mexico, over a million years ago leaving the giant collapse feature known as the Valles Caldera.

Though the caldera is quiet today, hot springs around its perimeter and occasional earthquakes indicate that — just as at Yellowstone National Park — a great pool of magma lies beneath the surface and could erupt again.


— Photo by Mike Nardacci
The Valles Caldera is source of the volcanic rock called “tuff” in Bandelier National Monument. The cinder cone in the right center of the photograph is extinct, but earthquakes and hot springs in the region indicate that liquid magma still exists not far underground.


The great advantage of the tuff into which Frijoles Creek has carved its deep canyon is that the stone is relatively soft, and with the primitive tools available to the Anasazi people it was possible both to hollow out the shallow caves that were carved into the canyon walls and to shape blocks from which the free-standing buildings in the valley were constructed.

The blocks were also used to build walls and terraces surrounding gardens on the green, well-watered valley floor in which the ancients grew their staple crops of corn, beans, and squash. The plateaus above the valley were rich in game — there were herds of elk providing meat and hides, flocks of turkeys, rabbits, and other wildlife that could be used for food or clothing.


— Photo by Mike Nardacci
The D-shaped ruin on the fertile, well-watered floor of Frijoles Canyon is all that remains of a freestanding pueblo that once may have held hundreds of ancient people.


An ideal place to live

In sum, Bandelier was an ideal place to live, especially when compared to many of the other ancient settlements such as Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and hundreds of other sites that show the ingenuity of the ancient people in adapting to appalling geographic and climate conditions but were hardly ideal places to live.

In addition to having a moderate climate, Bandelier was largely hidden from the view of passers-by, it was sheltered from storms, it could be easily defended if necessary, and it had a well-watered, fertile space for growing crops.  So the question naturally arises: What made the ancient people abandon such an ideal location, supposedly to vanish into history?

Well, to start with: The romantic notion that the Anasazi simply vanished, like Attila the Hun and his hordes after Attila’s legendary meeting with Pope Leo I, is simply incorrect.  The Pueblo people today whose villages are scattered widely across the Southwest are the direct descendants of the Anasazi, and their oral traditions frequently pinpoint specific locations even down to individual ancient pueblo sites as their places of origin.


— Photo by Mike Nardacci
A dwelling in Santa Clara is a modern-day pueblo in New Mexico. It has the same multi-story structure as many ancient Anasazi buildings and its stone walls are plastered with adobe. The small dome-shaped oven is known as a “forno” and is an important feature of every pueblo dwelling.


The appearance of a dwelling in a modern-day village such as the Santa Clara Pueblo near Santa Fe, New Mexico shows the direct influence of the heritage of the ancient Anasazi: their astoundingly beautiful pottery; the multi-levelled dwellings with upper homes accessed by ladders; the starkly beautiful simplicity of design; and the ubiquitous “horno” — outdoor oven — around which meals are prepared and family and friends will gather.

But the fact remains that something of staggering impact occurred during the mid- to late-1200s A.D. causing the ancient people to evacuate their dwellings on exceedingly short notice and to take whatever they could carry, destroy much of what they could not, and flee to the south, resettling in the areas in which their descendants live today.

Disturbing factors

Once the lack of persuasive evidence that the migration was caused by drought or other natural disasters is taken into account, other sometimes disturbing factors must be considered. Recent archaeological digs in sites such as Chaco Canyon have found strong evidence of ritual cannibalism and violent warfare, adding an unsettling note to the romanticized depiction of the ancients living in blissful harmony with other tribes and their natural surroundings.

Moreover, even the term “Anasazi” has come to be considered politically charged in many quarters.  Derived from a Navajo word, “Anasazi” may be translated as the benign expression “ancient ancestors” — but it may also be read as “ancient enemy.”  This ambiguity has come to be regarded as explosive and in scholarly literature today is frequently replaced by the neutral expression “ancestral pueblo people.”

However — it has been duly noted by serious historians that the people of ancient cultures did not live their lives for the approval of those of us living in the 21st Century and we cannot impose our values in interpreting ancient clues, even if those clues lead us to unpalatable conclusions.

Whatever our admiration for the accomplishments of the Anasazi, whatever our trepidation over evidence of violent behavior that may emerge, one simple fact remains: These people did not write history books or carve inscriptions on their monumental works.

The reasons that they fled from such ideal sites as Bandelier and sometimes left behind evidence hinting at dire events will likely never be known, and explanations in oral traditions are ambiguous and sometimes contradictory.

But in thousands of sites such as Bandelier, Mesa Verde, and Chaco Canyon we may see their artful, ingeniously constructed stone works, their exquisitely painted pottery, and their haunting petroglyphs, all of them evoking a world about which we know far little than we would like but within which we can see both glimmers of the creativity of the human spirit and shadows of the dark events of our own sometimes violent past.