Understanding The Anasazi

Ancient Pueblo People or Ancestral Puebloans were an ancient Native American culture centered on the present-day Four Corners area of the Southwest United States, noted for their distinctive pottery and dwelling construction styles. The cultural group is often referred to as the Anasazi.

Wapiki National Monument

Wapiki National Monument

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Archaeologists still debate when a distinct culture emerged, but the current consensus, based on terminology defined by the Pecos Classification, suggests their emergence around 1200 BC, during the Basketmaker II Era. Beginning with the earliest explorations and excavations, researchers have believed that the Ancient Puebloans are ancestors of the modern Pueblo peoples. In general, modern Pueblo people claim these ancient people as their ancestors.

The term “Anasazi” is not preferred by their descendants, though there is still some controversy amongst them on a native alternative. The word Anasazi is Navajo for “Ancient Ones” or “Ancient Enemy.

Anasazi territory

The Ancient Pueblo were one of four major prehistoric archaeological traditions of the American Southwest. The others are the Mogollon, Hohokam and Patayan. In relation to neighboring cultures, the Ancient Pueblo occupied the northeast quadrant of the area. The Ancient Pueblo homeland centers on the Colorado Plateau, but extends from central New Mexico on the east to southern Nevada on the west. Areas of southern Nevada, Utah and Colorado form a loose northern boundary, while the southern edge is defined by the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers in Arizona and the Rio Puerco and Rio Grande in New Mexico. However, evidence of Ancient Pueblo culture has been found extending east onto the American Great Plains, in areas near the Cimarron and Pecos rivers and in the Galisteo Basin.

Terrain and resources within this massive region vary greatly. The plateau regions are generally high, with elevations ranging from 4500 to 8500 feet. Extensive horizontal mesas are capped by sedimentary formations and support woodlands of junipers, pinon, ponderosa pines, and yellow pines, each favoring different elevations. Wind and water erosion have created steep walled canyons, and sculpted windows and bridges out of the sandstone landscape. In areas where erosionally resistant strata (sedimentary rock layers) such as sandstone or limestone overlie more easily eroded strata such as shale, rock overhangs formed. These overhangs were favored sites for shelters and building sites. The range country in areas such as the San Juan, Gallup and Albuquerque basins is low and arid, supporting desert grasses and shrubs. Streams in these regions allow the growth of willows and reeds, and were utilized by the Ancient Pueblo for agriculture. Mountains in the region are as tall as 12,000 feet, and provided timber, game, minerals, and the specialized stone used for flaked tools.

In the Southwest, access to water was essential. All areas of the Ancient Pueblo homeland suffered from periods of drought and wind and water erosion. Summer rains could be undependable and often arrived in destructive thunderstorms. While the amount of winter snowfall varied greatly, the Ancient Pueblo depended on the snow for most of their water. Snow melt allowed the germination of seeds, both wild and cultivated, in the spring. Where sandstone layers overlay shale, snow melt could accumulate and create seeps and springs, which the Ancient Pueblo used as water sources. Snow also fed the smaller, more predictable tributaries, such as the Chinle, Animas, Jemez and Taos rivers. The larger rivers were less important to the ancient culture, as smaller streams were more easily diverted or controlled for irrigation.

Cultural characteristics
Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the Chacoan Great Houses, stands at the foot of Chaco Canyon’s northern rim.

The Ancient Pueblo culture is perhaps best-known for the stone and adobe dwellings built along cliff walls, particularly during the Pueblo II and Pueblo III eras.The adobe houses were built out of mud and dirt that they had molded together. The best-preserved examples of those dwellings are in National Parks (USA), parks such as Chaco Canyon or Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument. These villages, called pueblos by Spanish settlers, were often only accessible by rope or through rock climbing.

However, these astonishing building achievements had more modest beginnings. The first Ancestral Puebloan homes and villages were based on the pit-house, a common feature in the Basketmaker periods.

The Ancestral Puebloans are also known for their unique style of pottery, today considered valuable for their rarity. They also created many petroglyphs and pictographs.


The period from 700-1130 AD saw a rapid increase in population due to consistent and regular rainfall patterns. From studies of skeletal remains, this growth was due to increased fertility rather than decreased mortality. However, this tenfold increase in population over the course of a few generations could not be achieved by increased birthrate alone; likely it also involved migrations of peoples from surrounding areas. Innovations such as pottery, food storage, and agriculture enabled this rapid growth. Over several decades, the Ancient Pueblo culture spread across the landscape. Anasazi culture has been divided into three main areas or branches, based on geographical location: Chaco Canyon (northwest New Mexico), Kayenta (northeast Arizona), and Northern San Juan (or Mesa Verde) (southwest Colorado).

Modern Pueblo oral traditions hold that they originated to the north of their current settlements, from Shibapu, where they emerged from the underworld through a lake. For unknown ages they were led by war chiefs guided by the Great Spirit across North America. They settled first in the Anasazi areas for a few hundred years, then migrated to their current location.

Crawdad Canyon Petroglyphs

Crawdad Canyon Petroglyphs

Migration from the homeland
Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Dark Canyon Wilderness, Utah

It is not entirely clear why the Ancestral Puebloans migrated from their established homes in the 12th and 13th centuries. Factors examined and discussed include global or regional climate change (cf. Little Ice Age), prolonged periods of drought, cyclical periods of topsoil erosion, environmental degradation, de-forestation, hostility from new arrivals, religious or cultural change, and even influence from Mesoamerican cultures. Many of these possibilities are supported by archaeological evidence.

Current opinion holds that the Ancestral Puebloans responded to pressure from Numic-speaking peoples moving onto the Colorado Plateau as well as climate change which resulted in agricultural failures. The archaeological record indicates that it was not unusual for ancient Pueblo peoples to adapt to climatic change by changing residences and locations.[citation needed] Early Pueblo I sites may have housed up to 600 individuals in a few separate but closely spaced settlement clusters. However, they were generally occupied for a mere 30 years or less. Archaeologist Timothy A. Kohler excavated large Pueblo I sites near Dolores, Colorado, and discovered that they were established during periods of above-average rainfall. This would allow crops to be grown without benefit of irrigation. At the same time, nearby areas experiencing significantly drier patterns were abandoned.

The ancient Pueblos attained a cultural “Golden Age” between about 900 and 1130. During this time, generally classed as Pueblo II, the climate was relatively warm and rainfall mostly adequate. Communities grew larger and were inhabited for longer periods of time. Highly specific local traditions in architecture and pottery emerged, and trade over long distances appears to have been common. Domesticated turkeys appear.[citation needed] After approximately 1150, North America experienced significant climatic change in the form of a 300 year drought called the Great Drought, which also led to the collapse of the Tiwanaku civilization around Lake Titicaca.[3] The contemporary Mississippian culture also collapsed during this period. Confirming evidence is found in excavations of western regions in the Mississippi Valley between 1150 and 1350, which show long lasting patterns of warmer, wetter winters and cooler, drier summers. In this later period, the Pueblo II became more self-contained, decreasing trade and interaction with more distant communities. Southwest farmers developed irrigation techniques appropriate to seasonal rainfall, including soil and water control features such as check dams and terraces. However, the population of the region continued to be mobile, abandoning settlements and fields under adverse conditions.

Along with this change in precipitation patterns was a drop in water table levels, due to a different cycle unrelated to rainfall. This forced the abandonment of settlements in the more arid or over-farmed locations.

Evidence also suggests a profound change in the religion in this period. Chacoan and other structures constructed originally along astronomical alignments, and thought to have served important ceremonial purposes to the culture, were systematically dismantled. Doorways were sealed with rock and mortar. Kiva walls show marks from great fires set within them, which probably required removal of the massive roof – a task which would require significant effort. Habitations were abandoned, tribes split and divided and resettled far elsewhere. This evidence suggests that the religious structures were deliberately abandoned slowly over time. Puebloan tradition holds that the ancestors had achieved great spiritual power and control over natural forces, and used their power in ways that caused nature to change, and caused changes that were never meant to occur. Possibly, the dismantling of their religious structures was an effort to symbolically undo the changes they felt they caused due to their abuse of their spiritual power, and thus make amends with nature.

Most modern Pueblo peoples (whether Keresans, Hopi, or Tanoans) and historians like James W. Loewen, in his book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Markers and Monuments Get Wrong(1999), assert the ancient Pueblo did not “vanish” as is commonly portrayed in media presentations or popular books, but migrated to areas in the Southwest with more favorable rainfall and dependable streams. They merged into the various pueblo peoples whose descendants still live in Arizona and New Mexico. This perspective is not new and was also presented in reports from early 20th century anthropologists, including Frank Hamilton Cushing, J. Walter Fewkes and Alfred V. Kidder. Many modern Pueblo tribes trace their lineage from settlements. Evidence also suggests that a profound change took place in the Anasazi area and areas inhabited by their cultural neighbors, the Mogollon. For example, the San Ildefonso Pueblo people believe that their ancestors lived in both the Mesa Verde and the Bandelier areas.

Warfare and cannibalism

Stress on the environment may have been reflected in the social structure, leading to conflict and warfare. Near Kayenta, Arizona, Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago has been studying a group of Anasazi villages that relocated from the canyons to the high mesa tops during the late 1200s. The only reason Haas can see for a move so far from water and arable land is defense against enemies. He asserts that isolated communities relied on raiding for food and supplies, and that internal conflict and warfare became common in the 13th century. This conflict may have been aggravated by the influx of less settled peoples, Numic-speakers such as the Utes, Shoshones and Piutes, who may have originated in what is today California.

A 1997 excavation at Cowboy Wash near Dolores, Colorado, found remains of at least twenty-four human skeletons that showed evidence of violence and dismemberment, with strong indications of cannibalism. This modest community appears to have been abandoned during the same time period. (LeBlanc, p. 174) Other excavations within the Ancient Pueblo culture area produce varying numbers of unburied, and in some cases dismembered, bodies.This evidence of warfare, conflict, and cannibalism is hotly debated by some scholars and interest groups.

Anasazi as a cultural label

The term “Anasazi” was established in archaeological terminology through the Pecos Classification system in 1927. Archaeologist Linda Cordell discussed the word’s etymology and use:

“The name “Anasazi” has come to mean “ancient people,” although the word itself is Navajo, meaning “enemy ancestors.” [The Navajo word is anaasází (<anaa- “enemy”, sází “ancestor”).] It is unfortunate that a non-Pueblo word has come to stand for a tradition that is certainly ancestral Pueblo. The term was first applied to ruins of the Mesa Verde by Richard Wetherill, a rancher and trader who, in 1888–1889, was the first Anglo-American to explore the sites in that area. Wetherill knew and worked with Navajos and understood what the word meant. The name was further sanctioned in archaeology when it was adopted by Alfred V. Kidder, the acknowledged dean of Southwestern Archaeology. Kidder felt that it was less cumbersome than a more technical term he might have used. Subsequently some archaeologists who would try to change the term have worried that because the Pueblos speak different languages, there are different words for “ancestor,” and using one might be offensive to people speaking other languages. (Cordell, pp. 18-19)

Some modern Pueblo peoples object to the use of the term Anasazi, although there is still controversy among them on a native alternative. Some modern descendants of this culture often choose to use the term “pueblo peoples.” The modern Hopi use the word “Hisatsinom” in preference to Anasazi.

However, Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department (NNHPD) spokesperson Ronald Maldonado has indicated the Navajo do not favor use of the term “Ancestral Puebloan.” In fact, reports submitted for review by NNHPD are rejected if they include use of the term.[citation needed]

In David Robert’s “In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest” the author explained his reason for using the term “Anasazi” over a term using “Puebloan,” noting that the latter term “derives from the language of an oppressor who treated the indigenes of the Southwest far more brutally than the Navajo ever did.”

[edit] Cultural distinctions
Boy in doorway, Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park

Archaeological cultural units such as “Anasazi”, Hohokam, Patayan or Mogollon are used by archaeologists to define material culture similarities and differences that may identify prehistoric socio-cultural units, equivalent to modern societies or peoples. The names and divisions are classification devices based on theoretical perspectives, analytical methods and data available at the time of analysis and publication. They are subject to change, not only on the basis of new information and discoveries, but also as attitudes and perspectives change within the scientific community. It should not be assumed that an archaeological division or culture unit corresponds to a particular language group or to a socio-political entity such as a tribe.

When making use of modern cultural divisions in the American Southwest, it is important to comprehend that current terms and conventions have significant limitations:

* Archaeological research focuses on items left behind during people’s activities: fragments of pottery vessels, garbage, human remains, stone tools or evidence left from the construction of dwellings. However, many other aspects of the culture of prehistoric peoples are not tangible. Their beliefs and behavior are difficult to decipher from physical materials, and their languages remain unknown as they had no known writing system.
* Cultural divisions are tools of the modern scientist, and so should not be considered similar to divisions or relationships the ancient residents may have recognized. Modern cultures in this region, many of whom claim some of these ancient people as ancestors, contain a striking range of diversity in lifestyles, social organization, language and religious beliefs. This suggests the ancient people were also more diverse than their material remains may suggest.
* The modern term “style” has a bearing on how material items such as pottery or architecture can be interpreted. Within a people, different means to accomplish the same goal can be adopted by subsets of the larger group. For example, in modern Western cultures, there are alternative styles of clothing that characterized older and younger generations. Some cultural differences may be based on linear traditions, on teaching from one generation or “school” to another. Other varieties in style may have distinguished between arbitrary groups within a culture, perhaps defining status, gender, clan or guild affiliation, religious belief or cultural alliances. Variations may also simply reflect the different resources available in a given time or area.

Defining cultural groups, such as the Ancient Pueblo peoples, tends to create an image of territories separated by clear-cut boundaries, like border boundaries separating modern states. These simply did not exist. Prehistoric people traded, worshipped, collaborated and fought most often with other nearby groups. Cultural differences should therefore be understood as “clinal”, “increasing gradually as the distance separating groups also increases.” (Plog, p. 72.) Departures from the expected pattern may occur because of unidentified social or political situations or because of geographic barriers. In the Southwest, mountain ranges, rivers and, most obviously, the Grand Canyon can be significant barriers for human communities, likely reducing the frequency of contact with other groups. Current opinion holds that the closer cultural similarity between the Mogollon and Ancient Pueblos and their greater differences from the Hohokam and Patayan is due to both the geography and the variety of climate zones in the Southwest.

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Published on February 19, 2009 at 7:31 PM  Leave a Comment  

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