In about A.D. 1300 the Anasazi people abandoned Long House Valley. To this day the valley, though beautiful in its way, seems touched by desolation. It runs eight miles more or less north to south, on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona, just west of the broad Black Mesa and half an hour's drive south of Monument Valley. To the west Long House Valley is bounded by gently sloping domes of pink sandstone; to the east are low cliffs of yellow-white sedimentary rock crowned with a mist of windblown juniper. The valley floor is riverless and almost perfectly flat, a sea of blue-gray sagebrush and greasewood in sandy reddish soil carried in by wind and water. Today the valley is home to a modest Navajo farm, a few head of cattle, several electrical transmission towers, and not much else.
Artificial Society Animations
Watch QuickTime animations of the artificial societies discussed in this article.
Interviews: "The World on a Screen" (March 29, 2002)
Jonathan Rauch talks about what the study of artificial societies has to tell us about the real world.
Yet it is not hard to imagine the vibrant farming district that this once was. The Anasazi used to cultivate the valley floor and build their settlements on low hills around the valley's perimeter. Remains of their settlements are easy to see, even today. Because the soil is sandy and the wind blows hard, not much stays buried, so if you leave the highway and walk along the edge of the valley (which, by the way, you can't do without a Navajo permit), you frequently happen upon shards of Anasazi pottery, which was eggshell-perfect and luminously painted. On the site of the valley's eponymous Long House—the largest of the ancient settlements—several ancient stone walls remain standing.
Last year I visited the valley with two University of Arizona archaeologists, George Gumerman and Jeffrey Dean, who between them have studied the area for fifty or more years. Every time I picked up a pottery shard, they dated it at a glance. By now they and other archaeologists know a great deal about the Anasazi of Long House Valley: approximately how many lived here, where their dwellings were, how much water was available to them for farming, and even (though here more guesswork is involved) approximately how much corn each acre of farmland produced. They have built up a whole prehistoric account of the people and their land. But they still do not know what everyone would most like to know, which is what happened to the Anasazi around A.D. 1300.