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They flourished for over four centuries at the height of their civilization. The span from their emergence as a distinct people to their disappearance and integration into other tribes was more than fiteen hundred.
When the Navajo discovered their abandoned cities, they dubbed them the Anasazi, "alien ancient ones," unable to believe humans could have created these masterworks of stone in the dry canyons of the Chaco River.
I've wondered if it's easier for North Americans to remember the civilizations "modern" America has displaced because, unlike in Europe and Asia, most of the peoples living in the land taken by invaders, explorers, and colonists were nomadic and didn't build permanent reminders of their presence.
The Anasazi were different. They built huge cities of stone, containing multi-family dwellings that weren't matched in size in America until the 1870s. They created a network of more than 500 miles of roads, some wider than modern interstates, and running Roman-road straight between communities.
They diverted the meager water resources of the Four Corners area of America to grow corn, squash, and beans, the basic diet when hunting was scarse. Their only domestic animals were the dog, and the turkey.
Although the Anasazi landbase was greater than the area of California, not much is known about them, and not many of their ruins have been excavated. And more are disappearing every year.
It doesn't help that under their historic dwellings is about a tenth of the world's uranium, as well as coal, oil, and gas. Companies with mineral rights have been more likely to use bulldozers than archaelogical tools to uncover them, destroying the records of the Anasazi in the process.
But these "alien ancient ones" left a rich legacy of ruins, pottery, and tantalizing hints of a complex spiritual life.
When the area centered on the four corners of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona became too dry for even the tenacious Anasazi, they vanished from the land on which they'd left their mark. Their descendants may be among the Pueblo and Hopi tribes.
And you can't help wondering how history might have been different if Europeans had encountered an established, city-dwelling culture as they moved west across the continent. Would it have been harder to claim territory settled in a more recognizably "civilized" manner?
Except for the failure of the rains in this arid, difficult land, America might be a very different place today.