Approximately 800 years ago the Pueblo people of Mesa Verde, in what is now southwestern Colorado, began to build sandstone dwellings in the face of the cliffs between the mesa above and the canyons below. These people were later called the Anasazi, and the reasons for why they built these structures and why they left them is a matter of interpretation.
One of the primary features of these buildings was the kiva, a circular ceremonial and multipurpose room on the lowest level. Within each kiva was a fire pit, and smaller hole, the sipapu, carved into the stone floor.
The sipapu represented the symbolic entrance to the underworld. It was the hole through which the departed soul traveled to join the ancestors, and it was also a symbolic reminder and representative of the hole through which the ancient ancestors originally emerged into this world.
The sipapu can thus be considered a “Hole of Emergence”, an element representing a mythological transition from one plane of existence to another.
The consequences of emergence are profound. The immaterial underworld that was gave way to the material world of form. New challenges and opportunities arose as a result of this transition, and these are anthropologically familiar to us: resource consumption, the natural environment, politico-social considerations, etc.
Philosophically, emergence refers to “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems”.
The Anasazi most certainly created novel and coherent structures – the cliff dwellings that still exist today. They also created novel and coherent patterns and properties – the logistical considerations for living in cliff dwellings.
The “process of self-organization in complex systems” is an alternative definition for evolution. The fundamental feature of living organisms is that they self-organize. This is seen biologically on the level of the individual organism. It is seen in societies as the internal pressure of growing population, and the external pressure of the impact on the environment create the need for increasing levels of organization.
Emergence characteristically takes what came before, includes it, and transcends it in structure and complexity. Oftentimes, what emerges looks, feels, and acts differently than the components that went into it.
What the Anasazi did, as a mythologically attuned culture, was to create a symbolic reminder for where they came from. They chose to acknowledge and honor their roots, maintaining a sense of purpose and providing a context for a daily life unlike anything that preceded them.