by Richard Monastersky
Seven centuries ago, tens of thousands of people fled their homes in the American Southwest. Archaeologists are trying to work out why.
Vultures carve lazy circles in the sky as a stream of tourists marches down a walkway into Colorado’s Spruce Canyon. Watching their steps, the visitors file along a series of switchbacks leading to one of the more improbable villages in North America — a warren of living quarters, storage rooms, defensive towers and ceremonial spaces all tucked into a large cleft in the face of a cliff.
When ancient farmers built these structures around the year 1200, they had nothing like the modern machinery that constructed the tourist walkway. Instead, the residents had to haul thousands of tonnes of sandstone blocks, cut timber and other materials down precarious paths to build the settlement, known as Spruce Tree House, in Mesa Verde National Park.
“Why would people live here? That’s an important question. It’s not an easy place to reach,” says Donna Glowacki, an archaeologist now at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, as she walks among the ruins. Even more perplexing is what happened after they settled there. The villagers occupied their cliffside houses for just a short time before everyone suddenly picked up and left. So did all the other farmers living in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest, where the modern states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona meet (see ‘Turbulent times’).
All together, nearly 30,000 people disappeared from this area between the mid-1200s and 1285, making it one of the greatest vanishing acts documented in human history. What had been one of the most populous parts of North America became almost instantly a ghost land.
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