House of rain : tracking a vanished civilization across the American Southwest

by Craig Childs

Paper Book, 2008



Call number

E99 .C37C35 2008


London : Little, Brown, 2008.


The greatest unsolved mystery of the American Southwest is the fate of the Anasazi, the native peoples who in the eleventh century converged on Chaco Canyon (in today's northwestern New Mexico) and built a flourishing cultural center that attracted pilgrims from far and wide, a vital crossroads of the prehistoric world. The Anasazis' accomplishments--in agriculture, art, commerce, architecture, and engineering--were astounding, as remarkable in their way as those of Mayans in distant Central America. By the thirteenth century, however, the Anasazi were gone from the region. What brought about the rapid collapse of their civilization? Was it drought? pestilence? war? Naturalist Childs draws on the latest scholarly research, as well as on a lifetime of adventure and exploration in the most forbidding landscapes of the American Southwest , to shed new light on this compelling mystery.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member setnahkt
Author Craig Childs is perhaps best described as a “naturalist”, although his education is in journalism and “desert studies”. This is the first book of his I’ve read, and I found it absorbing. I’ve always been skeptical about journalists writing on science; they have tendencies to
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sensationalize, to base narratives on interviews rather than data, and to selling a particular story rather than exploring all the evidence. Childs avoids most these problems; there are no sensational discoveries, just patient and methodical archaeological work; there are interviews but they’re there to give archaeologists a chance to present data; and although Childs has a particular story he prefers, he gives space and references to archaeologists with other theories.

Childs is looking at the “mystery” of the Anasazi; the people who built at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde and numerous other sites in the Southwest, then apparently disappeared. He systematically explores sites in the Southwest – sometimes alone, sometimes with archaeologists or other scientists. In a particularly impressive accomplishment, Childs hikes the Great North Road (after first caching water along it) while discussing its archaeological significance.

The back cover blurb describes the book as a “historical detective story” and there’s certainly some feel of that, but this isn’t a mystery novel where the master detective ties up all the loose ends in a magisterial dénouement. Instead Childs gathers bits and pieces of evidence and discusses how they might be significant.

Childs is sensitive to the native people he encounters but not obsequiously so. He apologizes to a Hopi archaeologist for using the term “Anasazi”; it’s a Navajo word and the Hopi prefer “Hisatsinom” or “Ancestral Puebloan”. He doesn’t tiptoe around evidence for gruesome violence – torture, cannibalism, and mass murder of children by burning alive – while noting that this raises hackles in natives: no one wants to believe their ancestors did these things.

I was particularly interested in Child’s use of the term “tethered nomadism”. He notes that although archaeologists have “restored” many of the sites – Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, for example – research has found that the sites were “living” entities; rooms were continuously being demolished, rebuilt, filled with rubbish, emptied out again, and put to different purposes. Thus no particular “restoration” represents the site at any particular time. Sometimes an entire site was abandoned, only to be reoccupied years to decades later, suggesting the occupants had moved elsewhere for better farming or defense, then returned.

The is a smooth and easy read, simultaneously scholarly and personal. Relevant illustrations, a good glossary, and an extensive bibliography. Enthusiastically recommended to anyone interested in the archaeology of the North American southwest. I’ll definitely have to pick up Child’s other books.
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LibraryThing member Shrike58
I've not read Craig Childs' work before. I wasn't even aware of the man before I picked this book off a local library 'new' shelf, due to a passing interest in the old Anasazi culture. This being the case it took me a little time getting used to the man's existential musings, and there were times
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when I was wishing for less Childs and more Anasazi. Still, there is a method to the Childs' approach, seeing as the fellow is a keen observer of what it takes to survive in the American Southwest, and how these cold equations impacted why the great old pueblos emptied out. To conceive of how and why this happened takes more then what the archaeological facts on the ground can give you, and Childs is willing to engage in the pan-disciplinary act of imagination that can give you a vision of what might have occured. This thus opens up the "black box" of the "disapperance" of the Anasazi, and gives the reader access to a wider world then they might have been expecting.
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LibraryThing member viking2917
Not long ago, I returned from a fantastic trip to the Southwest with old friends. We hiked and explored many of the key ruins of the Anasazi (or Ancient Puebloans, as is the currently accepted term) — Mesa Verde, Hovenweep and Chimney Rock, one of the northernmost outposts of the Chacoan
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empire. You can read more about our trip here.

Inspired by our trip and on the recommendation of my friend Thomas, I went after House of Rain, by Craig Childs, to gain more perspective on what we’d seen. House of Rain is ~500 page exploration of the world of the Anasazi. The Anasazi built a vast empire in the American Southwest with a complex culture, amazing cliff dwellings and stunning pottery, only to mysteriously disappear from the scene around 1300AD. Childs set out to explore, and perhaps solve, this mystery.

Awhile back there was a management school of thought called “Management by Walking Around”. Childs is from the “Archaeology by Walking Around” school. His (and others’) theory is that the Anasazi were an inherently nomadic people, in spite of the magnificent cliff dwellings they built. And his further assertion is that you can only really understand them by following them through the terrain. If you’ve ever been in the southwest, you know it’s a bleak, harsh, byzantine, but ultimately stunningly beautiful land, filled with mountains, rivers and a maze-like set of canyons littering the landscape. House of Rain is Child’s travelogue as he explores the vast landscape of the Southwest, mostly on foot and often at real personal danger. He starts at Chaco Canyon, the epicenter of the Chaco culture, then moves north to Colorado, east to Utah, South to Arizona, and eventually into Mexico. Along the way we’re treated to equal parts nature travelogue and deeply scholarly archaeology.
Childs is a modern day Indiana Jones — one moment he’s swimming a flash flood in Chaco Canyon, the next exploring the evolution of pottery patterns over time in a museum. One of the more recent discoveries is that the Chaco empire built roads in the desert running fifty miles or more in a straight line, connecting settlements with both roads as well as mountain-top signal fires straight out of a scene from the Lord of the Rings movie. Childs walks these roads and explores the canyons, and the beauty and desolation of the Southwest comes to light.

Along with his athletic explorations, Childs brings a deep knowledge of the scholarship of the southwest to bear on his tale. As he travels the southwest, he’s moving both through the migration paths of the Anasazi as well as moving through time. The Anasazi periods have very distinct pottery styles that identify region of origin, time of origin, even individual potters. Childs tells the story of the evolution of pottery and architecture over time and shows how it documents the migrations of the time. Materials sampling of pottery and human remains show pots and human remains that came from hundreds of miles away.

As the drought of the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries made life ever more difficult for the Anasazi, migration and social upheaval increased greatly. It’s well documented that were mass murders, religious warfare and ritual cannibalism during that time. Childs relates the studies of Ernandes, that have shown a corn-only diet can lead to malnutrition, and in the extreme to OCD, aggression and even mystical states of ecstasy. It’s considered a possibility that the corn-only diet of religious priests may have led to documented mass sacrifices amongst the Aztecs, Toltecs, and the Anasazi. To quote Childs:

Ernandes did not leave the Southwest out of the study, mentioning a fervor that swept the Anasazi landscape. Terribly disfigured human skeletons have been found from that time, bones polished by cooking, heads severed. The authors of this study believe that corn could have been a factor — that dementia could have occurred on a cultural level.

(The upheaval of the Southwest during this time of drought is an interesting phenomena given the drought that’s occurring today in the Southwest and California in particular.)

Childs book is a fascinating exploration of a little-known time and place in the history of the Americas. And if you live anywhere in the southwest, it’s right under your nose. As for Child’s solution to the mystery of the disappearance of the Anasazi? Well, you’ll have to read the book.
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LibraryThing member co_coyote
I've traveled in the Four Corners are of the desert southwest that Craig Childs explores in this book, and have been to many of the Anasazi ruins he describes. I have often wondered about these people and their civilization. Why did they disappear? Where did they go? This is the first book I have
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read that explores these questions in a thorough, comprehensive, and--most importantly to me--personal way, with boots on the ground, seeing for himself where and how these Ancestral Pueblo people lived on the land.
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LibraryThing member doomjesse
This book is a great overall history of the Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloans). The author also incorporates his personal travel experiences. He also incorporates his imaginings of what occurred in certain places. While it may or may not be supported by archaeological evidence he gives no indication it
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is. Unfortunately this undermines his credibility because it isn't always easy to differentiate what is supported by fact and what is just imagining.
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LibraryThing member satyridae
Very absorbing chronicle of Childs' tracing of the Anasazi diaspora. One lovely passage: "There are places in the world where no clocks or calendars are needed, landscapes where time is as palpable, as abrasive, as any of the elements, sharp as hail."
LibraryThing member AmronGravett
"Normally during a drought, Anasazi population centers would have disbanded, sending people into the hinterlands to farm in smaller, more sustainable groups. However, with increasing conflict people moved closer together for protection rather than spreading apart."

Uncovering layers of history,
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archaeology, geology and mystery, the author explores the Four Corners region on down to northern Mexico seeking answers to the fate of the Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloans). It is a fascinating, well researched investigation. His other popular works explore the Southwest’s animals, archaeology rights, water issues, and the desert landscape.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
“I wrote this book, setting out to find who the Anasazi were and what became of them. I traveled deeper into the land than ever before, hunting through villages where no one lives, looking for ancient walkways across the Southwest. I searched the history of these people to give this granary
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context, to return it to a place in time when a civilization danced across this desert like rain.“

Craig Childs goes off on foot, literally, traveling great distances in the desert to track people who lived in the Southwestern US and Mexico centuries ago, formerly called Anasazi, and now referred to as ancestral Puebloans. This book of non-fiction has many facets – travelogue, archeology, sociology, and nature writing. It is organized geographically by location. These locations contain a collection of ruins, including cliff dwellings, pot shards, baskets, signal stations, murals, bones, and other evidence of past occupants.

“We climbed to these towering cliff dwellings and walked awestruck through their rooms and hallways. Some buildings were three stories tall, cave ceilings black with wood smoke. With frayed parts of baskets on the floors and painted bits of murals peeling off the walls, they appeared not to have been touched for centuries. We felt as if we had walked into a lost Mesa Verde. Not for an instant were we unaware of the antiquity surrounding us.”

This is a beautifully written book. Readers will almost feel like they are accompanying Childs on his journeys. He provides a vivid sense of place through detailed descriptions. We get to know the people he met, foods he ate, and of course, the sights, sounds, and textures of the environment. It is one to be read slowly and savored.

To fully appreciate this book, I think it requires a firm interest in the subject matter. Childs experiences these regions first-hand, telling the reader about the locations, history, and scientific facts. He weaves it into an archeological adventure. The photos are a nice touch.
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LibraryThing member mapg.genie
What happened to the Anasazi... I've always heard they simply vanished? In this part travelogue and part research recap, Childs takes readers along as he searches for the answer. He is a master of storytelling and vivid description keeping readers entranced and entertained in both the process as
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well as the mystery. Whether you agree with his conclusion or not, this is an educational and enjoyable read!
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Physical description

xiv, 496 p.; 21 cm


0316067547 / 9780316067546


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