Great Kiva   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano


Tim Wong & Akiko Hirano

July 5, 1054 AD.  Chinese emperor Renzong 宋仁宗 received a report of a new star that suddenly appeared near TianGuan (zeta Tauri in Taurus constellation), so bright it could be seen in the daytime. Chinese astronomers observed it for almost two years before it faded from view. They called it a ‘guest star’ 客星, an omen foretelling something to be greatly feared. 

Supernova pictograph   Photo Tim Wong 

Halfway around the world at the Casa Rinconada pueblo in Chaco Canyon, a group of Anasazi leaders and priests emerged into pre-dawn coolness, after an all-night ceremony in the Great Kiva. They were stunned to see a brilliant new star near the moon, the light so intense they shielded their eyes with their hands. They recorded the event with a pictograph under an overhanging cliff, depicting a star next to a crescent moon and a hand. What the Chinese and Anasazi saw was the supernova explosion that gave birth to the Crab Nebula. 


The 11th century was the height of Anasazi Culture centered around Chaco Canyon. In that 10-mile long canyon, Chacoans had been constructing monumental buildings. These Great Houses were built in alignment with solar and lunar positions on specific dates of the year. Hundreds of miles of roads were built to connect the canyon with outlier communities. The largest Great House, Pueblo Bonita, had 800 rooms and stood five-story high. Curiously, most of the rooms were never lived in, nor were there enough hearths to support the residents if all the rooms were occupied. Many of the rooms were filled with beautiful pottery and luxury items like exotic birds and gemstones. One particular room was used as a crypt for burial of 14 individuals over the span of three centuries.

2016 AD, Pennsylvania, USA.  “I’ll be damned!” Dr. Kennett at the Human Paleoecology and Isotope Geochemistry Lab stared at the data on the computer screen. Dr. Kennett and collaborators had been analyzing DNA from the 14 remains from the crypt at Pueblo Bonito. These individuals were interred from 800 to 1130 AD, along with exceptionally valuable burial goods, including fine pottery, musical instrument, jewelry and utensils made with hundreds of thousand pieces of turquoise and gemstones. The DNA data showed nine of the individuals had exactly identical mitochondrial DNA, inherited from one woman who lived in the 9th century. Mitochondrial DNA is passed only from mother to child. These people were not just members of an upper class; they appeared to be an elite matrilineal family that ruled the canyon over three centuries, supported by peasants in the surrounding areas.

By 1130 AD, their dynasty started to crumble. A prolong drought that lasted 50 years rendered the ruling class insupportable. Social collapse led to widespread violence and warfare. Peasants fled north and west into remote canyons. By 1150 AD, Chaco Canyon was deserted, all the Great Houses lay empty, the Great Kiva fell silent.

Target Ruin   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Spring, 2017 AD, Southern Utah.  Following a streambed up a canyon, Kuro-e reached a dry fall with a fallen tree trunk leaning against it. She climbed up the trunk into a side canyon and continued walking over loose scree and sand. The canyon boxed her in and dead-ended at an overhanging cliff. There, tucked inside a cave above was a beautiful Anasazi ruin. Obviously built for defense, its only entrance was more than two-story above ground. Two pole holes on the ground under the entrance indicated that it was once accessed by a ladder. Without the ladder, it was impossible to enter from below or above.

Kuro-e could not see the interior of the cave. She climbed up the opposite hillside to take a better look. From there, the cave appeared to contain at least three rooms and a granary. One room was particularly well-constructed, with intact wood beams protruding from the outer wall. That wall was smoothly plastered and painted red; on it, a faded white circle was barely visible. A similar pair of white concentric circles were painted on an interior wall, giving the impression of a target. Kuro-e had seen those circles before. In a canyon a day’s walk from here, she had come upon a cliff-dwelling high up on an inaccessible ledge that displayed a similar pair of concentric circles on the rock face. Could the inhabitants of these two sites be related?

Many years ago, when Kuro-e visited the Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park, a guiding ranger explained that the inhabitants moved into those cliff dwellings to make room for growing crops on the mesa. Having seen many highly defensive cliff dwellings, that explanation seemed ludicrous to her. What she saw were widespread fear and paranoid, signs of chaos and pandemonium, aftermath of social collapse brought about by a prolonged drought that ended the Chaco dynasty that ruled the Southwest for over three centuries.  

'Target' cliff dwelling  Photo by Tim Wong 

The sun was dipping below the west mesa when Kuro-e made her way back down the canyon. In the fading light, she thought about the current drought afflicting the Southwest. Records showed the recent decades had been the driest since 800 AD. Could this be the beginning of another 50-year drought? And if so, with a thousand-fold larger population now, what kind of disasters would it bring? She had no way to know at that time, in a few years, the entire west coast from California to Washington would be engulfed by raging wildfires, annihilating whole towns and uprooting tens of thousands of families.

A new moon had risen over the rim of the darkening canyon. Kuro-e looked up and saw the first star. It seemed oddly unfamiliar and unusually bright. She could not remember ever seeing that star before.