Ancient Puebloans of the Southwest

Published on November 1, 2011 by Amy

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Great Kiva of Pueblo Bonito Ruins, Chaco Canyon New Mexico, photo courtesy Sacred Sites
Great Kiva of Pueblo Bonito Ruins, Chaco Canyon
New Mexico, photo courtesy Sacred Sites

The Ancient Puebloans (Anasazi) were a prehistoric Native American civilization centered around the present day Four Corners area of the Southwest United States. The ancestors of the modern Pueblo peoples, including the Hopi, Zuni and the Puebloans, do not prefer the term “Anasazi.” Often referred to as the Ancient Pueblo people or Ancestral Puebloans, the modern Hopi call them “Hisatsinom” (People of Long Ago). The word “Anasazi” is Navajo for “Ancient Ones” or “Ancient Enemy.”

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Archaeologists still debate when a distinct Anasazi culture emerged, but the current consensus suggests they first appeared around 1200 B.C. The Ancient Puebloans first settled in the plateau area where water was plentiful, with their initial locations at Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Kayenta. Later they spanned across the entire Colorado plateau including northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado.

The earliest Ancient Puebloans were nomadic hunters and gatherers, but later the Ancient Puebloans began cultivating crops and building permanent dwellings. Archeologists have split these different eras into two groups called the Basket Makers and the Puebloans.

The Basket Makers were the first to appear in the southwest, making numerous woven baskets that were covered with mud and baked in order to make water proof containers. They camped in the open or lived in caves as they wandered the plains hunting with wood clubs, hunting sticks and spears.

From 1200 B.C. through the beginning of the new millennium, they increasingly began to rely on cultivated gardens of corn and squash. From about 50 A.D. to 500 A.D., this cultural group began to construct shallow pit houses that were mostly built underground, lined with rocks, and roofs held up by vertical timbers, thatched with mud and branches. It was also during this time that they began to construct storage bins, lined with stones in order to protect their surplus food items.

The early Basket Makers clothed themselves in fur or feather robes, string aprons, loincloths and round-toed, plant-fiber sandals. They wore ornaments made of shell, bone or stone. Women gathered wild food plants such as amaranth, pinion nuts, Indian rice grass, sunflower seeds and mustard seeds. Coarse stone basins were used to grind domesticated and wild seeds into flour. The women prepared meals in pitch-lined baskets, cooking with fire-hot stones dropped directly into the food mixture.

Around 500 A.D., the first permanent villages were established with deeper pit houses and some above-ground rooms. The bow and arrow soon replaced the spear and the Basket makers began to make pottery, as well as adding beans to their cultivated crops. Turning more and more to agriculture, growing crops assumed a significant role in their economy, making villages even more permanent.

The many settlements of this time were scattered widely across the canyons and mesas of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, generally consisting of a dozen or more structures.

Between the years of 750 and 900 A.D. the Ancient Puebloans began a period of transition and advancement that changed them from the Basket Makers to the Ancient Puebloans. Large masonry villages and kivas began to appear as well as sophisticated pottery designs. Though the deep pit houses continued to be used to a lesser extent, new structures were built of jacal, a Spanish term, which refers to construction using walls of close-set wooden stakes plastered with mud and roofed with straw, rushes, or other materials. It was also in this period that populations began to be concentrated in certain areas and smaller villages were abandoned.

By the year 900, the area of Chaco Canyon in the northwest corner of New Mexico had become the largest village of the Puebloans. Here, there was a symmetrical village of above ground structures, following the same architectural style, with roads leading from place to place. By the year 1050, the communities of Chaco Canyon were at the peak of their activity.

From the years 1160 to 1340, large pueblos, cliff dwellings and towers began to appear. It was during this time that the cliff villages, such as Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and Navajo National Monument in Arizona were built. Here the dwellings consisted of large communal habitations built on the ledges of the canyon walls and the flat tops of mesas. Highly defensible against nomadic predatory tribes, such as the Navajo, the Ancient Puebloans withdrew to their high perches in times of attack. Otherwise, the cliff dwellers planted crops in the river valleys below, where they became experts at irrigating the fields.

However; by the year 1300 the Four Corners Area had been abandoned, though other pueblos further south continued to be occupied. Many of these abandoned settlements were left as if the people planned to return, leaving behind beautiful cooking pots and baskets.

The cliff dwellings are thought to have been abandoned due to incursions by the newly-arrived Apache and Navajo, as well as a prolonged drought. The Ancient Puebloans of the Four Corners area were known to have moved south into New Mexico and Arizona, where their influence can still be seen.

In about 1325, the Kachina Phenomenon appeared. This was a religion that some believe integrated the Puebloan society into the Hopi and Zuni tribes, during times of drought and warfare. By the year 1400 almost all the Ancient Puebloans throughout the Southwest had aggregated into large pueblos scattered through the drainages of the Little Colorado and Rio Grande rivers in Arizona and New Mexico .

By the year 1600, the Spanish had virtually driven the Pueblo religion underground and the number of Pueblos shrank from more than 100 observed in 1539 to just 20. Today, a few descendants of the ancient Ancient Puebloans still continue to live in a few of the surviving pueblos.

The ancient civilization of the Ancient Puebloans is perhaps best-known for its adobe and sandstone dwellings built along cliff walls, the best-preserved of which include the cliff house at Mesa Verde National Monument in Colorado, which also displays a half-million gallon reservoir; and the five-story pueblo “apartment house” of 800 rooms at Chaco Cultural National Historic Park in New Mexico. Other remains of the Ancient Puebloans civilization include the Yucca House National Monument in Colorado; the Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico portraying a huge sunken kiva with a 95-ton roof supported by four wooden posts; the Hovenweep National Monument in Utah; and the Canyon De Chelly, Casa Grande, Montezuma Castle and Wupatki National Monuments in Arizona. These villages, called pueblos by Mexican settlers, were often only accessible by rope or through rock climbing.

The Ancient Puebloans also created many petroglyphs and pictographs, and are known for their unique style of pottery.

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