We were walking on the short bluff above the Little Colorado River on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, looking for archaeological sites. Though surrounded by empty desert, we scoured the surface and found plenty of evidence of past occupants. Pottery shards littered the ground among the greasewood wherever the sand had been blown off down to the clay.
Most were small pieces, and I examined some of the larger, more interesting ones. Tim, the archaeologist from the local university, had explained that the individual shards were not particularly revealing or valuable, but he could tell the age of the sites from their collective design and construction. I was particularly taken by a piece that clearly showed a fingerprint – these were not just Anasazi, they were people, as individual as you and I.
I was planning a pipeline to carry water from the aquifer near the river to two communities that currently hauled their water. We had to get clearance from Tim to ensure we weren’t disrupting any valuable sites. He explained that the Indians had been camping on these short bluffs above the river for centuries, but more permanent settlements would likely have been near springs back in the mesas or the canyons.
More recent detritus was visible, too, including the rusting carcass of a wrecked Model A, old cans, broken bottles and decaying nondescript junk. We found the foundations of what Tim believed had been the Leupp Japanese-American resettlement camp from WWII. We agreed on an alignment that would avoid the area completely.
Tim showed me how to locate the native camp proper from the distribution of the pottery shards. We found the biggest concentration of shards, faced west and squatted down. Then, I picked up a shard and tossed it as far as I could. He had me repeat the action three or four times, and then go to where they landed.
Tim must have sensed my skepticism, so he explained that the door of the camp structures always faced the rising sun, and the campfire was just in front of the door. If you imagined cooking at the fire and breaking a pot, you would throw the shards as far from you as you could. We scuffed around in the sand and found a black and gray layer on top of the clay base – the remains of an ancient campfire. There was no other evidence of the campsite, indicating that it was only temporary.
After two days of walking the pipeline route across the dry, desolate landscape, I asked Tim the question that had been eating at me, “How could anyone live here? Even today with trucks hauling water and various kinds of external support, no one makes much if any money from their herd of sheep or horses. It is only possible to exist here by taking jobs in town.” I noted the old saying, applicable to places with mild climates and plenty of moisture, “Behind every successful farmer is a wife that works in town.”
“How could these people,” I pointed at the scattered shards, “have even survived?”
Tim explained that three factors had to be taken into account: one, over the last several hundred years the climate had become much drier; two, putting the Navajo on reservations limited their ability to migrate to better pasture with the seasons; and three, Navajo culture was centered on large herds of sheep and horses. Those combined factors had led to the desertification of their land.
In the 1860’s the US government sent a survey party across this country. The lieutenant in charge recorded riding across this specific area, and how he had to stand in his saddle to see over the tall grasses. Certainly, moisture levels had changed for the worse. Pueblo peoples also experienced the shift to a drier climate, and had to move their villages to follow the springs, which is why we find so many cliff dwellings abandoned but in good shape. (The Delight Makers, by Adolf Bandelier is a good read about that time.)
(I later found and explored some granaries and small houses built into the cliffs above the river. They must have farmed the river-side land below, but the ledge that led down to the river had been broken off, so we had rappelled down the canyon wall to visit the site.)
What we saw in the desert was climate change in recent times. Certainly, some of the effects were global, but local actions had made them worse. I wonder that the traditional Navajo couldn’t adjust to the clearly visible changes in climate and change their behaviors. In retrospect, it seems so obvious that their herds needed to be reduced, particularly the horses that weren’t part of the food supply.
Then, I have to think about the rest of us, who seem today to be more focused on who is responsible for climate change instead of what we do about it. We seem to be arguing about whether it is man-caused or natural, even in the face of overwhelming science. Should we not put the effort into reducing the impacts rather than finding blame?
In Collapse, Jared Diamond examined societies that didn’t respond to changes and ultimately died away. He discusses the concept of stubbornly staying the course and being the last people to starve.
It’s apparent that we need to do something, whether it’s the whole solution or just a piece of it. The problem is real, there’s no outside fix coming to save us. We’re on our own here and need to start making adjustments.
Maybe we could start by reducing our own ‘horse herds’ – those big gas-guzzling land whales of vehicles we drive. What do you think?