Cultural Anthropology


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The Anasazi were a native people that lived in an area bordered by Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.  Although their territory corresponds to that occupied by the current Navajo Nation the Navajo and Anasazi never met. By the time the Navajo came to the area in the fifteenth century the Anasai had long gone leaving only silent remains.

Richard Wetherill, a rancher and trader first used the phrase Anasazi to describe the ancient people in 1888. The name is somewhat artificial. In the Navajo language the word means “enemy ancestor”. Although academics use the word Anasazi to describe the ancient people it is not used among the Pueblo Indians.

Remains from the Anasazi culture can be found among the stone and adobe ruins that remain along the edge of cliff walls in the southwest. Some sites are only accessible by rope or through rock climbing. There are petroglyths inscribed on the rock walls that we can only hope to understand.

Sometime around 500AD the native people of upper Rio Grande, Colorado, and San Juan river basins moved on from a nomadic existence and accepted a settled agrarian lifestyle. Seasonal movements from place to place following the annual migrations of animals were abandoned in favour of farming.

From 700 to1130 AD the Anasazi enjoyed a golden age. Their population grew tenfold and their people spread out across the landscape. The climate was warm and there were consistent and regular rains. The Anasazi developed distinctive architecture and distinctive pottery and traded over long distances.

Historians think that the Anasazi were ruined by the drought. Their villages were abandoned wholesale. Religious structures were desecrated because the gods had failed. There was contempt for the great astronomical structures of the past. At some sites, scorch marks  hint at irreverent fires. Their people became more nomadic. Many migrated onto the high Colorado plateaus. There, Anasazi society degenerated into a world of warfare, conflict and cannibalism.

The Anasazi did not develop a writing system we can only guess their true fate.

During the golden age the Anasazi lived in harmony with nature.  They led an outdoor life and became keen observers of the heavens. This was important because rainfall was scarce but periodic. It often came in short bursts The Anasazi could tell impending weather changes by looking at insects and feeling the changes in the wind. To understand the daily, monthly and yearly cycles of the heavens the Anasazi developed a remarkable solar calenders.

Three of the most famous Anasazi solar calendars can be seen at Casa Rinconada and Pueblo Bonito and Fajada Butte. These sites can appear enigmatic until the ancient orientation of the sun is taken into account. These that we know of today have been deciphered since the early 1980s.

At Casa Rinconada sunlight falling onto ledges in a stone wall indicates the seasonal days of solstice and the equinox. Light reaches the wall through windows aligned to the northeast and southeast. The wall was built in the kiva, or religious complex which indicates the importance of the sun to the society and its religion.

At Pueblo Bonito two windows face towards the position of sunrise on the winter-solstice. Although their use remains a mystery scientists believe that they were used by the Anasazi to anticipate the coming of the solstice.

In 1997 remarkable stone carvings were discovered by Anna Sofaer at Fajada Butte  in Chaco Canyon. By 1982 scientists had discovered that these were part of a remarkable sun dagger calendar. Fajada Butte contains a series of parallel rocks that serve as a sun and moon calendar. When sunlight passes through the cleft between the rocks it creates a dagger of light on the cliff behind the rocks. The image shines onto a spiral that has been carved on the cliff. The “light dagger” appears on the cliff for about 20 minutes during a solstice.

The Anasazi seem to have used natural features in the landscape to anticipate the solstices.  At Wijiji, which is also in the Chaco canyon, in early December the sun rises through a distant notch in the landscape. This observation anticipates the winter solstice by sixteen to seventeen days.

Even more extraordinary, the Anasazi were able to observe and predict the phases of the moon. Some of their petroglyphs are even being reinterpreted to show the explosion of a super nova in 1054 that gave birth of the Crab Nebula and the solar eclipse of 1076.

More about this author: Nick Ford

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