Anyone familiar with the Native history of the American southwest knows of the impressive ruins left by an ancient American civilization known most commonly today as the "Anasazi." That's the Navajo word for the people who once occupied those ruins. We don't know what the Anasazi called themselves because they are long gone, having disappeared seemingly abruptly, without a trace, centuries ago. Historians and archaeologists are still debating who they were and what became of them.
David E. Stuart, in Anasazi America (University of New Mexico Press, 2000), takes a stab at solving the mystery of the "vanished" Anasazi. He argues that the Anasazi were, in fact, the ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians, and he presents a particular, very interesting ecological explanation for their sudden abandonment of Chaco Canyon and other similar sites. Stuart argues that the impressive structures built in Chaco Canyon were a religious complex that was made possible by a specific type of social organization. The Anasazi, Stuart argues, would have relied upon intensive agricultural techniques that put increasing ecological stress on the land. Dependent as they were on ever-increasing agricultural output, the Anasazi suddenly found themselves in trouble when an extended drought left them incapable of sustaining the concentrated population that had built the Chaco Canyon complex and other impressive Anasazi settlements in the region. Famine would have led to social instability and violence, starvation, and, not long after, the rapid dispersal of the population.
As evidence for this provocative thesis, Stuart draws on the folkways and practices of the Pueblo Indians. He sees -- built into their way of life -- an awareness of the potential dangers of over-development, and signs of some collective memory of the disaster that took place in Chaco Canyon, as well as some wisdom about how to avoid similar disasters in the future.
Stuart draws some interesting comparisons between the collapse of this ancient civilization and the dominant Euro-American society that now holds sway over the lands once cultivated by the Anasazi. Like the old Anasazi, he argues, U.S. society has also built itself on an unsustainable ecological foundation, one that is in the process of leading to ruin on a global scale. The Pueblo Indians, who have lived continuously in the lands of the American Southwest for thousands of years, have always tended to assess the American experiment with skepticism. The Pueblo were here millennia before the arrival of the Europeans a mere three centuries ago, and they expect to be here millennia after American society has crumbled into the dust and become the fodder for future archaeology.
It gives one pause, especially when one considers the failure, in recent years, of the American ideology of "progress" and the blithe optimism that has accompanied it from the founding of the Republic until somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century. Until about the 1950s, Americans believed that in Calvinist Christian, Democratic, Capitalist Civilization, they held the key to the redemption of the planet. This was melded to an ideology of Manifest Destiny Americans relied on to excuse the wholesale obliteration of Native societies -- all of whom had a pretty good idea of how to live in harmony with the planet. Natives were swept aside in the name of progress and economic development. Now, at the outset of the twenty-first century, after two brutal world wars and a cold war that took us to the brink of total nuclear annihilation, we are caught in the grip of an unending "war on terror" that is accompanied by economic stagnation and the prospects of the depletion of the world's oil supply and the melting of the polar ice caps. We live in a society that is increasingly polarized and fragmented, and we grasp in vain at the kind of social consensus we once enjoyed in more prosperous times.
Americans themselves are starting to wonder if they can see the handwriting on the wall: YOU HAVE BEEN WEIGHED IN THE BALANCE, AND ARE FOUND WANTING. Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of American civilization as we know it? And if so, how will we go out?