- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2000

Fires roaring through Mesa Verde National Park are threatening what many call one of the nation's greatest and most mysterious archaeological treasures.
So far, the 22,000-acre wildfire has burned a quarter of the nation's largest archaeological preserve.
A brief shower kept the lightning-sparked fire from spreading Monday night, but with dry heat still in the forecast, firefighters at the southwestern Colorado park braced for more trouble for the remainder of the week.
While they struggle to save the Cliff Palace, Spruce House and other famous cliff dwellings, the fires are uncovering scores of previously unknown sites where the Anasazi Indians once lived.
A 1996 Mesa Verde fire burned 3,000 acres, one-sixth of the acreage that has been scorched this month. In so doing it uncovered 440 previously unknown sites, said park archaeologist Linda Towle.
Scientists hope the new sites revealed this year will help solve the great mystery of Mesa Verde and the Anasazi: Why did the ancient people suddenly disappear from the Four Corners area, and under what circumstances did they possibly turn to cannibalism?
Whatever the fires reveal, scientists will have to act fast. The bonanza for archaeology may vanish with the first heavy rain.
"The fires are great for visibility, but when the rains come, there will be big erosion problems," said Rick Wilshusen, curator of anthropology for the University of Colorado museum.
The cliff dwellings were built by 12th century farmers skillfully piling sandstone blocks.
The Hopi, Zuni and Acoma are among the 29 tribes claiming some linkage with the Anasazi, which means ancient enemies in the Navajo language. The people lived in the Four Corners area for 1,400 years until about 700 years ago.
Dwellings sheltered by rock overhangs, such as the Cliff Palace, are the best preserved and the ones that attract most of the tourists. But the ruins of some 20,000 Anasazi dwellings are scattered through the Southwest, as far south as Tucson, Ariz.
The ancient people of the American Southwest were wanderers, surviving on the animals they killed and the berries they gathered, until trade with their southern neighbors brought them something more valuable than gold: corn seeds.
With those seeds of agriculture, they settled in, building simple one-story pit houses.
As their farms thrived and they had more time to spare, they developed elaborate religious ceremonies and crafted intricate baskets and black-and-white pottery.
The Anasazi grew corn, beans and squash on terraces, built to capture precious rainwater.
A fair percentage of children didn't live beyond age 5, Mr. Wilshusen said. Those who survived childhood had a good shot of getting to 40 or 50 years old before dying.
Over the years, the Anasazi became adept at architecture and engineering.
To shape the loaf-size sandstone for their two-story houses, they pounded the rock with a harder substance, quartzite, said Catherine Cameron, assistant professor of anthropology at Colorado University.
"It obviously took a lot of knowledge to build something of two stories," she said. The stone fit so tightly in some of the buildings still standing that they didn't need much mortar.
The Anasazi seemed to have abandoned their dwellings in the Four Corners area at least a couple of times before the final abandonment around 1280.
They left behind the densest collection of archaeological ruins in the United States. Hillary Rodham Clinton last year called Mesa Verde one of America's great historical jewels and targeted it for increased preservation through the Save America's Treasures program.
But why did the ancient people leave? There are several theories, most with at least a hole or two.
Overpopulation: There might have been 18,000 people living in the area of the park about 1280, just before the Anasazi seem to have vanished. That could have put a strain on resources, forcing the people to search ever farther for game and firewood.
Drought: A severe 25-year drought toward the end of the 13th century may have forced the Anasazi to abandon the Four Corners area.
Climate change: The gentle spring rains and summer monsoons, which still hit New Mexico and Arizona, might have given way to a pattern of summer thunderstorms. That would have made soil erosion a bigger problem and irrigation a greater challenge.
Those theories are arguments for some of the people leaving the area.
"But why would everyone leave?" Miss Cameron asks.
She and Mr. Wilshusen have another theory.
The Anasazi might not have been pushed out. They might have been pulled to a greater attraction or better opportunity.
"There were new religious ideas to the south and east, such as the Kachina religion," she said. "Maybe it was the bright lights of the big city. There were wonderful social things going on in the south. They ended up in areas where the Hopi, Zuni and Acoma are now."
"Nobody leaves an area for just one reason," Mr. Wilshusen said. "There were pull factors as well as push factors."
Another theory states that the Anasazi lost their source of protein near the end of the 13th century. They had domesticated turkeys, but the absence of deer bones at the later sites indicates all the big game had disappeared.
The no-protein theory ties in with another issue that the Anasazi, at least for a time, were cannibals.
A few years ago, the remains of 12 persons were discovered at Cowboy Wash in southwestern Colorado, but only five were buried. The other seven appeared to have been dismembered, defleshed, battered and in some cases burned or stewed.
Three years ago, analysis of ancient fecal matter indicated that at least one person an invader? a chief? a rogue citizen? had eaten a human.
Others aren't so sure.
If the Anasazi were cannibals, the prevailing theory is that they learned it from a neighboring tribe south of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.
But those who lived in what is now Mesa Verde may never have learned.
"Mesa Verde was notorious for not being connected with the trade loops," Miss Cameron said. The obsidian, seashells and turquoise found in abundance in other Chaco sites are rarely found inside the park.
Other researchers say tell-tale marks and burns on human bones found at Anasazi sites may say more about their religious rites than their eating habits. The Anasazi may have practiced the same religious rites as other tribes, including ravaging corpses to find the so-called evil heart, actions that could leave marks on bones that might be mistaken for cannibalism.
The Anasazi never could have experienced a fire as big as the one now torching the national park, say anthropologists.
The small gardens they cultivated acted as natural fire buffers. The Anasazi burned those farms periodically to keep them clean, they had controlled burns of other areas, and they cleared trees for use as firewood.

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