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Stephen Lekson Has a Theory... And He's Sticking With It
On a road (and off-road) trip to several of the most significant prehistoric ruins in the Southwest, an impassioned archaeologist plumbs the two greatest mysteries of the Anasazi. By David Roberts


Photo: Stephen Lekson inspects Anasazi petroglyphs

Before dawn we rise, brew up some coffee on our cook stove, and speed in our rented SUV to the Kin Kletso trailhead. Striking out on the well-marked path, we hike along the bank of a dry, nearly treeless wash that bisects Chaco Culture National Historical Park, in northwestern New Mexico.

Stephen Lekson, a feisty, fast-talking 54-year-old archaeologist from the University of Colorado at Boulder, leads the way, steering us onto a spur off the main trail and toward the hundred-foot-tall (186-meters-tall) cliff to our right. There we scramble up a hidden chimney, emerging on the sweeping plateau above, then rim-walk half a mile (under one kilometer) to the east. Below us, shining in the first rays of sunrise, stands what many have deemed the most important prehistoric ruin in the United States. We have a god's-eye view of Pueblo Bonito Ruins, a village of 600 to 800 interconnected rooms made of sandstone blocks mortared together with mud, its rear wall still standing five stories tall, the whole town laid out in a perfect "D." Built a thousand years ago by the Anasazi, the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians (some prefer "ancestral Puebloans" to Anasazi, a Navajo term), Pueblo Bonito lies utterly still and vacant in the morning light.

"Imagine that you're a teenage kid in the 11th century, coming from the boondocks to Chaco for the first time," Lekson muses, as we stand on the cliff edge. "You've walked four days from the north across that desolate plain to get here. And you look over the edge . . . what would you think?" We stare down at the D-shaped village. "It would scare the hell out of you," Lekson answers, finishing his thought—a habit of his. "They planned it that way—as theater."

Even today Chaco Canyon remains remote, 23 miles (37 kilometers) from the nearest filling station, on U.S. Route 550. The place is a barren wasteland. Nor is there any evidence that the canyon was substantially more lush or fertile a millennium ago. Yet here a complex civilization flourished from A.D. 1030 to 1125—Chaco's "golden century"—only to collapse at the height of its glory.

The rise and fall of Chaco is one of the two greatest enigmas in Southwestern prehistory. The other is the Anasazi abandonment of the entire Four Corners region just after A.D. 1290. While no one knows for certain why they left, most scholars agree that a severe drought played a part. Where scholars strongly disagree is on the social order and fate of the Chacoans. What precipitated the collapse? Why did they leave and where did they go?

We still don't know, but Lekson has spent the past 20 years investigating the answers and the last ten shoring up a controversial theory that came to him one day in 1995. In addition to environmental factors, Lekson theorizes that Chaco may have been riven by a power struggle and that the Chacoan leadership deliberately moved and resettled along longitude 107° 57' west of Greenwich. That longitude bisects Chaco and runs north to Aztec Ruins and south to another ancient ruin, Paquimé. Whence the term "the Chaco Meridian," which is also the title of Lekson's 1999 book.

To revisit his theories on the ground, photographer Bill Hatcher and I join Lekson for 11 intellectually rigorous, but completely fun days in autumn. Motel-hopping, car-camping, and hiking across a vast tract of ruin-studded land between Chimney Rock, near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, we'll probe for traces of a prehistoric pilgrimage, piecing together the Leksonian puzzle that could revolutionize our thinking about the Anasazi. And while we are guaranteed several spectacular vistas, none will rival the one from Chimney Rock, where the Chacoans built their highest "great house," some 2,000 feet (610 meters) above the nearest running water.

Few travelers, or even archaeologists, have attempted this itinerary. Yet curiously enough, our zigzagging ramble across some of the most achingly lovely wilderness on the continent is a journey that any enthusiast of ancient places—armed with a tent, a sleeping bag, a gassed-up four-wheel-drive vehicle, and a couple of maps—could easily repeat.

Few alive know more about Chaco than Lekson. One of the most brilliant of a remarkably talented gang of scholars currently working in the desert Southwest, he's a generalist in a field teeming with niche academics, a big-picture guy in spades. He loves to advance bold and sweeping ideas that confound his colleagues. And nothing Lekson has published in his 30 years of research has stirred up the hornet's nest the way his idea of the Chaco Meridian has.

I first met Lekson in 1994 while researching a book of my own about the Anasazi. It didn't take long to recognize that among the scores of professional Southwesternists I consulted, he was hands-down the most quotable. And his published works are a delight to read. In a field notorious for dry scholarly prose, Lekson writes like John McPhee on speed.

Now, from the Bonito overlook, we strike out on the five-and-a-half-mile-long (nine-kilometer) loop trail to Pueblo Alto, the remains of an Anasazi great house that stands alone on a stark plateau a mile (1.6 kilometers) north of the Chaco Wash. As we hike, Lekson unfurls his notions about the lost civilization around us.

As far back as we can trace them—for thousands of years stretching into the Archaic, long before the time of Christ—the Anasazi seem to have been egalitarian peoples, living in small, virtually autonomous villages. Yet starting in A.D. 900, they built not only Pueblo Bonito, but a mini-empire that included a dozen great houses, such as Pueblo Alto, strung up and down the Chaco Wash. Laborers carried some 220,000 timbers, which would serve as roof beams for the Chaco great houses, from forests 50 to 70 miles (80 to 113 kilometers) away.

And Chaco is far more than a sandstone metropolis of 12 mansions. Radiating out from the shallow canyon is an extensive network of roads, many of them as wide as 30 feet (nine meters), characteristically arrowing in dead-straight lines for miles at a stretch. Why would a people without beasts of burden or wheeled vehicles need roads at all? They may have been ceremonial pathways or they may have connected as many as 150 outlying great houses, aka outliers, to "downtown." Lekson maintains the latter, and he believes that the great houses were the residences of the Anasazi's ruling class until A.D. 1125, when Chaco went into bad decline.

Thirty years ago, the consensus among Southwest scholars was that Chaco was so anomalous and sophisticated, it had to have been the work of Mesoamericans from central Mexico—Toltec, perhaps. (Similarly, Stonehenge was once attributed to Phoenicians, rather than barbaric neolithic Brits.) But between 1976 and 1986, the Chaco Project, an intensive study involving scores of archaeologists who probed every aspect of the matchless Anasazi complex, demolished the notion that local folks had not been clever enough to build it. Chaco Canyon, the project proved, was unmistakably a homegrown phenomenon.

It was in 1976, as a young, newly hired shovel bum, that Lekson dug his first Chacoan room, up at Pueblo Alto. Ten years later he had become one of the leading experts on the place. During those years, a debate raged among the participants: Was Chaco so complex that it ought to be called a state? Designating it as such is anathema to traditionalists, who cling fiercely to their ideal of egalitarian Pueblo Indians. Was Chaco instead simply a redistribution center for trade goods—those vast rooms mere warehouses, not living places? Early on, Lekson saw Chaco as even more than a pueblo—a true chiefdom, perhaps even a kind of hierarchical mini-empire. The evidence, he insisted, was everywhere.

"Some people want to see the Pueblos, both modern and ancient, as a communal, egalitarian people who could build great towns and monuments and do wonderful things without mayors or cops or inequality," he says, hiking along. "Interestingly, that view actually inspired Karl Marx and served as a justification for communism. If the Pueblos could do great things communally, so could Russia or China."

Lekson hits his stride. "But that idealized view of the ancient Pueblos was wrong. They did have governments and kings and the great houses were palaces. And if I'm right about the Chaco Meridian, those governments lasted maybe four and a half centuries—which is two centuries longer than the U.S.A., so far. So Marx based his ideas on false premises."

As we walk along, I size up the glib scholar. Slender, six foot two, with sandy hair, a trim moustache, and the timid onset of a goatee, Lekson is nothing if not impassioned about his subject. Even in casual chat, he speaks at the frenetic, unpunctuated pace of a play-by-play sportscaster. When he gets agitated he speaks even faster, while his voice climbs in pitch to a screech of disbelief: How could the sheer reasonableness of his ideas somehow fail to sweep away his critics' doubts?

Read more about Lekson's controversial theory in the March 2005 issue of Adventure.

Photograph by Bill Hatcher



Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, March 2005

Stephen Lekson Has a Theory: The unfolding of an Anasazi mystery


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