In the American Southwest, there is no more puzzling mystery than the magnificent stone cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. Why did the Anasazi Indians suddenly move their villages to these perilous cliffs in the 13th century?
Was it drought? Invading tribes? Or an insidious "cancer" from within that may have caused them to turn to fierce warfare and even cannibalism? In search of answers, our host, the intrepid explorer and survival expert Josh Bernstein, travels from Mesa Verde, Colorado to remote canyons in Utah where the Anasazi took refuge.
Piecing together the story from both archaeologists and Native Americans, he finally ends up, in his search for the truth, in the eerie and desolate ruins of the Anasazi's greatest cultural center--Chaco Canyon.
Mystery of the Anasazi: "The Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloans have been a point of fascination for me for almost 20 years. At BOSS (the Boulder Outdoor Survival School), we teach many of the skills of the Anasazi, and I'm always amazed at how well the Anasazi adapted to their environment. They were craftsmen and artists, turning the simple materials of the Southwest into beautiful, practical tools. Their pithouses, kivas and cliff dwellings are astounding, demonstrating the degree to which they could create a life in a bleak and arid land. But despite all my years studying their survival skills and practical lifestyles, I've never fully explored what actually made them move into the cliffs and eventually leave the area. Was it warfare... cannibalism... or something completely different? We'll see where the journey goes."
Mesa Verde: "Mesa Verde, located just a few miles outside Cortez, Colorado, is a World Heritage Site and a place everyone should visit. The stone walls of these enormous cliff-face villages were built in the final years of the Anasazi, during their 'Classic Period.' It was a time when the Anasazi were thriving. But then they left their regional villages (pueblos) and came up into the cliffs. Whether it was for water or for safety, no one knows, but one thing I know is that there must have been good reason to move to such precarious locations. I find it hard to imagine how the very old and the very young would safely climb in and out of these dwellings on a daily basis. Even with climbing gear, some of these dwellings are a challenge to reach!"
The Yellow Plane: "I know I've been in a lot of strange flying machines for this series, and the ultralight in the Nazca show was by far the most, um... challenging, but this twin-seat open cockpit was a trip! Having no fuselage or glass between me and the air around me really makes it feel like I'm flying like Superman—although it's pilot Skip Lange who's in control of where I go. Even so, seeing the cliff dwellings from the air is a blast—hiking the canyons by foot, one fails to see how the dwellings are built within the context of their environment. From up here, I appreciate how high they really are, and how hard it would be to attack one without being seen."
Climbing with Vaughn: "Vaughn Hadenfeldt is my kind of guy—we're both outfitters in Southern Utah, we both prefer to wear Carhartts and Chaco sandals on the trail, and we both love to explore Anasazi ruins. So I know right away that I'm in for a good time, and I'm happy to join Vaughn for a hike. Vaughn is also an accomplished mountaineer and used to guide on Denali, so his climbing skills and ropework are top-notch. I enjoy rappelling but must defer to his expertise when it comes to setting up the ropes and rappel station. Now having rappelled out of castles and into volcanoes (for the Holy Grail and Pompeii shows, respectively), I'm more comfortable with the whole process. But we shot this show BEFORE those, so there was an honest 'should we do this or not?' moment for all of us at DFT. Wouldn't want to kill the host, after all... But as you can see, we decided to go for it and I'm glad we did. The lip of the wall wasn't as tough as we all thought."
Archie's Village: "Archie is also my kind of guy—he's built his home in an Anasazi area and done everything he can to preserve the artifacts he has found there. Whereas most people would just bulldoze their way through the archeo-sites, Archie has spent a small fortune hiring archeologists and dozens of other professionals to help collect and preserve the information available on his site. BOSS has about 40 acres in Boulder, Utah in an Anasazi-rich area. Before we did any construction, I hired an archeologist to survey the site and outline the likely living spaces. When we put in the roads and utilities, we stopped the bulldozer anytime we came across an old fire pit and searched the site for archeological information. When necessary, we moved the road or the building plans. So I can speak a bit about how expensive it can get to properly document a single site—and Archie has done this for over 200 sites! It's a truly commendable commitment to unravel the mysteries of the Anasazi."
Cannibalism: "The Cannibalism theory is a hot point of discussion within Anasazi academia. It's based on several indicators which archeologists look for on human bones found in Anasazi sites. As Archie says, these include pot polish, extracted marrow, bone splitting and scoring, disarticulated skeletons, and other indicators. Basically, these signs indicate that the dead body wasn't buried—it was cut apart, cooked, and eaten. A gruesome thought for sure. But were these acts of desperation and survival, or ceremonial acts imported from Central American cultures? The jury is still out on this issue and the controversy surrounding the manipulation or testing of indigenous remains only makes it more sensitive and challenging."
Bubba Peters & the PPG: "Sounds like a rock band, doesn't it? Or maybe a children's story book. But Bob "Bubba" Peters is a friend of mine, and I don't think we quite capture the essence of PPG-ing on this show, but there's only so much we can squeeze into an hour. For those who paraglide, PPG-ing is like that but with the ability to accelerate and climb due to the engine on your back. For those who've never paraglided (and that included me) it's like strapping a lawn mower to your back and using the propeller to push you forward enough to take off. It's pretty cool! Now that we know we're going a second season, you can expect Bubba to return for more fun! But don't try this at home—I had to go through several days of intense training just to be able to fly this crazy thing, and even then I do it only during appropriate conditions with expert supervision."
Dendrochronology: "Okay, so drilling a log isn't as exciting as flying with a "lawn-mower" on your back, but it's critical information when it comes to understanding the world of the Anasazi at Chaco Canyon. Dr. Jeff Dean is THE foremost expert on dendrochronology in the Southwest, so I'm in good hands here, too. The core sample shows that the Anasazi were facing a drought, but it was only on of several factors which led to the fall of their culture."
John Kantner: "I wish DFT could have more active digs on the show—it's fascinating to see how the digs of today are producing the archeological breakthroughs of tomorrow. And John's research here at the Blue J community is making a lot of the latest headlines. However, the reality is that watching people sit in the sun and brush or scrape away dirt doesn't make for the most compelling TV. John and I head off away from the site to discuss the relationship between Blue J and Chaco, which seemed to have an inordinate amount of power in the region."
River trip with the Hopi: "My journey began with Hopi Lori Qumawunn, so it's nice to bring it full circle with Hopi elders Wilton Kooyahoema and Dalton Taylor and Dalton's son Dawa Taylor. Our river trip gives us a chance to discuss the cultural aspects of Anasazi/Hisatsinom life and explore the many pictographs and petroglyphs they and other Puebloan cultures left on the canyon walls. It's fascinating that Wilton and Dalton can so comfortably 'read' the symbols and explain what they may have meant. It's also interesting when they see things they can't interpret—makes me feel like they're honest with what their oral traditions and culture cannot explain."
"All in all, the Anasazi journey gives me even more respect for a culture I already hold in high regard. These ancient cliff dwellers created life in a desert and thrived where others barely survive. I'm grateful for the friends who've made the journey through the Four Corners with me and brought new possibilities to light."