This is an archived article that was published on in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By Craig Childs

Little, Brown, $24.99

Speculations on the Anasazi

Craig Childs has written two books in House of Rain. One is a thorough and informative summary of various theories about what happened to the Anasazi civilization that seems to have disappeared from the American Southwest 800 years ago. The other is an adventure story without much adventure.

Childs doesn't reach firm conclusions about the fate of the Anasazi, but several points he makes shape his theories. One is that Anasazi "is not a people as much as it is a way of life - dryland farmers, hunters, and wild-plant gatherers living in complex kinship groups." He adds, "It is defined by a collection of archaeological traits, such as black-on-white pottery . . . masonry architecture, and the wide-scale importation of birds for ceremonial use . . . "

Thus, when people in the Southwest began to produce pottery with reds and other colors, the black-on-white pottery disappeared. That contributed to a belief, centuries later, that the people and their culture disappeared.

Childs also notes the Anasazi always moved. "In the late centuries B.C. and the early centuries A.D.," he writes, " . . . they occupied any one settlement for no more than 10 to 20 years . . . Rarely would a person have been born, grown old, and died in the same place."

He adds, "even with the onset of agriculture, the Anasazi remained a wayfaring people." Later, ritual burnings accompanied moves, leading people in later centuries to mistakenly think the Anasazi had been unwillingly driven from their homes. Much of the moving was probably induced by drought, but drought alone doesn't explain all the movement.

Other Anasazi culture blended with "old-guard cultural groups of Hohokam . . . and Mogollon" to form the Salado culture. These cultures, he writes, "were thrust together in the southern Southwest in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by mass migrations and escalating trade."

Childs thus reflects a consensus among modern archeologists that Anasazi culture did not disappear but rather transformed and blended into other cultures. In accepting that, he rejects more fanciful explanations, such as one by an Italian scientist that they ate too much corn. Anasazi are known to have also consumed lots of beans, amaranth, and meat.

Discussing the theories takes up less than half the book. The rest is about Childs's hiking around the desert, often with his wife and child or with friends. No doubt the trips were interesting, but reading about them isn't. It reads like your neighbor's slide show.

But the parts about the Anasazi, theories about what happened to them, the competing theories - all that makes House of Rain a book worth reading.

- Martin Naparsteck reviews books from and about the West for The Salt Lake Tribune.