Home Page Science Frontiers

No. 59: Sep-Oct 1988

Issue Contents

Other pages












Just last year, L. L'Amour came out with his novel The Haunted Mesa. It's all about the Anasazi, a remarkable people of the ancient Southwest, circa 900-1200 AD, who, as far as we can tell, disappeared rather suddenly. L'Amour has the Anasazi returning to a parallel world through a space warp in a kiva window. Archeologists have not yet found this remarkable kiva, so we must be content with the things they left behind, but these are impressive enough.

A long article in Scientific American introduces us to the accomplishments of the Anasazi. We will concentrate here on their road system, but cannot let a few general statistics go by unnoticed. Of the nine Great Houses of the Anasazi in Chaco Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico, Pueblo Bonito is the best studied. It covers three acres and once rose to at least five stories, with some 650 rooms. Constructed of tightly fitting sandstone blocks, each Great House required tens of millions of cut sandstone slabs. For floors, the Anasazi carried logs from forests 80 kilometers away. The Chaco Canyon Great Houses required about 215,000 trees -- quite a problem in transportation. Strangely enough, the Great Houses seem to have been used only occasionally. In fact, Chaco Canyon was too poor agriculturally to support a large, permanent community. If this is so, what was the purpose of the Great Houses with their many kivas (large circular pits)? Obviously, they were for "ceremonial purposes" -- the standard explanation for enigmatic buildings and artifacts.

The Anasazi also built a marvelous system of roads leading to Chaco Canyon. The accompanying map reveals hundreds of miles of roads converging from all directions on Chaco Canyon. For long distances, these roads measure a uniform 9 meters wide. They are flanked by linear mounds of earth and are impressively straight. The Great North Road, for example, runs true north for almost 50 kilometers. What was the purpose of these roads?. One theory is that they helped channel people to Chaco Canyon for the supposed ceremonies. But why does one need a 9-meter-wide road for a sparse population? And why did the Anasazi suddenly leave all this behind? (Lekson, Stephen H., et al; "The Chaco Canyon Community," Scientific American, 259:100, July 1988.)

Anasazi roads and projected roads leading to Chaco Canyon Some of the Anasazi roads and projected roads leading to Chaco Canyon. Nine Great Houses are located in the Canyon proper; more are scattered along the road.

From Science Frontiers #59, SEP-OCT 1988. 1988-2000 William R. Corliss