The generous wild yucca offers banana-like fruit, fibers for sandals and baskets, roots to pulverize into soap, and a sweet stalk for chewing (archaeologists will find your quids by the thousands). If you are a woman, you probably own all the family’s personal property. One of your possessions is a metate, a large troughed stone used for mealing corn and other seeds. You are its slave. Day after day you bend over it, grinding, grinding, grinding. If you are a man, you run the ceremonial side of life, with its focus in the kiva. This role means much more than possessing property, for religion dominates all—the planting, the hunt, the design of the pueblo and the kiva, the rites to bring rain.
Outside the sanctuary of the kiva a man’s life also is hard. You and a few others carried the sandstone for the pueblo—hundreds of tons of it—block by block from a local outcrop. The search for firewood lengthens as stands of pirion and juniper dwindle. At times the hunting groups fail, sometimes for weeks. Then your diet consists largely of protein-shy corn, and hunger saps your vitality. Hint of famine brings dread; stories tell of starving neighbors who resorted to cannibalism in their despair.
One, a priest, occasionally goes forth with a hard stone in hand to peck designs on cliff faces. Another, a musician, entertains in evenings by playing a flute made from the wing bone of a golden eagle. You reach your 40s, and you groan under the accelerating disrepairs of old age. Arthritis torments your joints. Your teeth, worn to the gums by grit from the metate, pain intolerably from abscesses that are eating deep into your jawbones. The dreadful winters—surely they are growing colder. You stoke the fire until smoke disturbs the rest of the family; at night you wedge your stiff body between theirs to draw on their warmth.
Deep into that harsh winter you sink into a final sleep. Relatives place your body in an empty storage room or dig a grave in the loose soil of the village trash mound. They fold your body into a fetal position, and place beside it a few possessions to serve you on your journey to the spirit world. IN A.D. 919, according to the tree rings, workmen from Chaco Canyon cut roof beams for a new pueblo, situated beneath the north rim where a side canyon channeled runoff during storms. Known as Pueblo Bonito, it would be the finest expression of North American Indian architecture.
Two other large structures also began taking shape, both situated near mouths of side canyons. Their locations support other archaeological evidence that Chacoans had begun to capture runoff from the canyon rim to water crops on the canyon floor. Within a few years the buildings were immense. Pueblo Bonito raised three stories and embraced more than a hundred rooms; no other Anasazi building rivaled it. Then, for almost a century, construction halted.
The lull was perhaps a strength-gathering time, a period when Chacoans were drawing back a cultural bow that would catapult their society to its heights. As they entered the 11th century, the people of the canyon cast off the bonds of the past and launched Time-gnawed walls of Pueblo Bonito (above) testify to prodigious labor that fitted sandstone blocks into towering five-story walls. Wooden beams nestled into the masonry reveal the builders’ attention to detail. A layer of mud plaster, long since eroded, smoothed the walls. Probably afflicted by drought, these Anasazi abandoned Chaco Canyon around A.D. 1200.