Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In Search of the Old OnesIn Search of the Old Ones by David Roberts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"With respect to the Anasazi, at least we have begun to know just how much we do not know."

I love the general area of Four Corners, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. My wife and I have traveled extensively there and we know many of the locations appearing in David Roberts' In Search of the Old Ones (1996), a book about explorations of the "Anasazi World of the Southwest." In fact, in one passage the author mentions the Pecos Conference that took place in 1994 in the Mesa Verde campground and we might have been on that campground at that time. This very interesting work reflects the author's quest to learn about the history of the Anasazi and to understand the Old Ones' culture.

The book is inordinately thought-provoking and inspires reflections on diverse topics. Mr. Roberts (Dr. Roberts, to be precise, as he has a PhD in English) sheds light on the Basketmaker and Pueblo phases of Anasazi culture and we read fascinating descriptions of various archaeological digs. To me perhaps the most surprising and unsettling aspect of the exploration of the Anasazis' past is its political dimension. The author feels obliged, already in the "Author's Note" that precedes the Prologue, to defend his use of the term 'Anasazi': he notes that there exists "a movement among younger archaelogists and some Pueblo people" to substitute the term 'Ancestral Puebloans' for 'Anasazi'. We learn more about this much later in the text: the Hopi - who are the descendants of the Anasazi - object to that name and prefer "Hisatsinom'. Even a sharper controversy concerns the archaeological traces of Anasazi cannibalism: many people, not only Native Americans, do not want to accept this as a proven fact. I find it sad that the identity politics and the so-called political correctness interfere with the research, which is the best tribute we can offer to the ancient ones.

Unsurprisingly, the author dedicates a lot of space to the main mystery of the Anasazis' history: why did they abandon the elaborate cliff dwellings and the territory they had occupied for so many centuries? Archaeologists even try to pinpoint the date of the final abandonment to the year 1296. Theories abound as to the causes of the event: researchers mention environmental crisis in the form of a very long period of extreme drought, warfare with unknown enemy (there is a long-standing archaeological controversy about the defensive versus non-defensive nature of the cliff dwellings), and - the most fascinating theory - the Kachina Phenomenon, a social and religious paradigm that in the present times is one of the cornerstones of social and religious life for many Puebloans:
"kachinas [...] are reincarnated ancestors who act as messengers between the people and their gods."
Many, many other fascinating topics are touched. For instance, Dr. Roberts ruminates on whether the Native American civilizations were Dionysian or rather Apollonian in nature. He writes about figuration vs. abstraction in the ancient Southwestern art, and claims that "virtually all Anasazi designs are abstract." Readers interested in linguistics will find a mention of glottochronology, a "promising science that tries to link language change with the migration, dispersion, and intermixing of peoples."

From the above it may seem that the book is a research monograph. It is not that by any means. On the contrary, one could even call it an adventure book as the author vividly describes his explorations of seemingly inaccessible canyons, rock walls - Dr. Roberts is an accomplished and rather famous mountaineer - and pourovers (waterfalls in a canyon streambed). It is precisely this pervasive "adventure component" - which will be a great attraction to many readers - that decreases my overall enthusiasm about this important book. I feel the book meanders a little and the author is, somewhat unsuccessfully, trying to combine two rather incompatible visions of his writing: adventure text versus a sociohistorical essay. Still, I highly recommend the book.

Three and three quarter stars.

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