Touring Anasazi – Some Background Before You Go

If you are traveling anywhere in the Southwest United States you will run across tales of ancient civilizations. Hints of the Anasazi culture dot the land from Eastern Nevada all the way to Eastern New Mexico. Southern Utah and Southern Colorado also lay claim to great buildings, ceramics, turquoise, kivas and macaws.

Great House at Salmon Ruins near Farmington, NM

These are the ruins of the ancient Anasazi civilization that started to coalesce in the 8th century, growing and thriving until it’s zenith in the 12th century, and then slipping away at the beginning of the 13th century. Researchers have been asking the questions for almost a century, and many answers are starting to form.

Who were they? Where did they come from? What caused the fall? Where did their descendents go?

Some of these questions now have solid answers. Others are still a bit vague. As a traveler who loves history, it is a joy to explore the ruins of this fascinating culture.

I am writing a series of blogs detailing our trips to the various ruins and museums that show the life and times of the Anasazi, or Ancient Puebloans. The current article provides an overview of the developmental phases researchers use to idenfity the sites, such as Basketmaker or Pueblo. With this information you know something about the time period a site was built, which will help you understand more of what you see as you visit the sites.

To help you plan your exploration of this very large civilization, I have provided a list of sites that are worth seeing and some maps and access information in the various regions of the American Southwest.

What’s in a name? Anasazi vs. Other Names

First we need to clear up the name of this group of people. For the past 100 years or so, we have called them the “Anasazi”.  The name provided by the Navajo guides to early archaeologists. This means something along the lines of “bones of my enemies”. The tribes that are descended from the “Anasazi” do not care for this name very much.  As you might expect, has becoming more acceptable these days to call these people the Ancestral Puebloans. For more information on this part of the controversy, see What’s in a name?

Where did they come from?

It might be fun to imagine these people popping up out of no-where. Perhaps they were conquerors from Mexico? Ancient Aliens? The mystery of where they came from has persisted since the first Europeans recognized the stacked stone they were seeing as ruins.  Archeologists have done a lot of work in this area.  They have made the picture is now a lot more clear than it used to be.

The first thing to note is that there was a very natural progression from the earliest hunter/gatherer tribes to the very sophisticated political and cultural structure that excelled in the 12th century. Researchers have used a series of periods to identify the various ruins and where they came from in that progression.

Dates are approximate and vary by site. See the list of sites below for sites that show examples of these phases.

Basketmaker 1 (B1)- Earliest Traces

Before 800 BC

The earliest residents of the area were hunter gatherers. They made some tools using chipped stone, including stone grinding tools. Even at this early stage we have samples of open twined sandals, and simple, single rod/interlocking stitch basketry.

Basketmaker II (B2) – Extensive Baskets

800 BC to 400 AD
Single Row Basket made during Basketmaker I

Around 800 BC the tribes began to create simple pit-houses. They combined hunting and gathering with simple gardening of maize and squash. The baskets became more complex. Other forms of weaving, such as blankets are present in this phase.

Basketmaker III (B3) – Villages and Early Pottery

400 AD -750 AD

Around this period, we start seeing substantial villages with 4-post roofs over pit houses. These people began creating simple early pottery.

Reconstructued Pit House at the Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores CO

They are still hunters, but they have replaced the atlatl with the bow and arrow. The farmers now add beans to their corn and squash. It now makes sense to stay in one place for longer times, possibly several years if the water allows for it.  We have evidence of trade for pottery, turquoise, marine shells from as far away as the Pacific Ocean.

Pueblo I – First Kivas

650 AD – 900 AD
Early Kiva
An early kiva. This provided a common room for the clan that lived in the pueblo. Used for rituals and group activities. Roof would have been made of wood beams and thatched.

Architecture took a major step forward in this period.  Residents replaced round homes with square/rectangular homes. However, they maintained the round shape of the pit house in the new specialized building called a Kiva.

Rows of living and storage rooms are now built mostly above ground. The wattle and daub construction that has been used for centuries is now faced with adobe. The people learned new pottery skills and became more artistic  Agriculture was more dominant than it had ever been.

Pueblo II – Gathering Clans into Communities

900 AD – 1150 AD

Up to this time, the basic living group was the family, and the extended clan. The clan was defined as relatives of the mother rather than the father. The group of buildings we see up to this period consist of homes for families grouped together for the clan, with the addition of a Kiva and open area for common use of the clan.

In the Pueblo II phase, those clans are beginning to gather into larger communities. In this phase, we start seeing more important buildings begin to be faced by stone. Scattered unit houses start to gather together into larger communities with shrines, reservoirs, multiple kivas and extended common space.

Pueblo III – “Classic Pueblo”

1050 AD – 1300 AD
Cliff Palace – Mesa Verde. Back structure is 5 stories.

In what is called “Classic Pueblo” the idea of the community expands into what appears to be cultural and governmental centers, with influence over a wide area and multiple communities. This is the era of multi story apartment buildings, large settlements up to 2500 residents, including plazas, shrines, kivas, and some three-wall structures. Structures up to 5 stories in height. Some below cliffs as in Mesa Verde.

Variety of pottery and architectural styles become regionalized. Northern San Juan (Mesa Verde), Kayenta, Chaco now had different styles.

Most sites open to the public are from Pueblo III.  You can read more about  our trip to Chaco Canyon here. 

Pueblo IV – After the Great Migration

1300 AD – 1540 AD

By the end of Pueblo III the entire population migrated from Kayenta, Northern San Juan and Chaco Regions TO the little Colorado Valley and Rio Grande Valley in NM. It is no longer really a question of “where did they go?”. The real question is “why did they leave?” Many theories have been proposed. There was a significant drought, but even during a drought the rivers flowed and some would have stayed. There clearly was warfare as evidenced some rather macabre burial scenes and the defensive nature of much of the later construction. But even this is not an adequate answer to why ALL of them left. Winner takes all right?

After the great migration, areas north of Gallup were abandoned. There is good evidence that most moved south. The destinations included Hopi Villages, Homolovi, Hawiku, El Morro and the various villages near Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos.  The people expanded agriculture around the Rio Grande River using ditch irrigation. In this area, clay was more available than stone. This was the beginning of adobe brick construction.

Even after this migration, much of the cultural qualities and way of life were re-created in their new homes. What appears to be lost, however, is that higher level of regional government that was clear from Chaco, Salmon Ruins, Mesa Verde and many others. Current descendents, including the Hopi Tribes and other Pueblos do not have this wide ranging organization.

Pueblo V – Spanish Conquest

1540 AD – 1850 AD

This is the period following occupation by Spanish conquistadors. The Spanish greatly re-organized the villages, taking some for themselves. They Established churches, and imposed Spanish government styles. The newcomers also introduced horses, cattle, sheep, goats along with wheat and fruit trees.

New technologies included metal tools and spanish pottery. Of course, they also provided a market for native goods and agricultural products.

Pueblo VI – Current

1850 AD to present

The United States defeated Mexico in mid 1800s. With Anglo exploration and settlement in the southwest came expanded markets and increased use of cars, electricity and other “modern” lifestyle items. The Pueblos have incorporated some of the tools provided by this lifestyle. However, many have also maintained a great deal of their traditional culture including family and government relationships, and their religious traditions.

Conclusion

The Anasazi culture developed over a period of several hundred years from simple homes, often built into the ground, to large communities often exceeding several hundred people.  Those communities became more sophisticated until, late in the 12th century, they were organized through large cultural centers such as Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon.  Additional large cultural centers are just now being discovered and excavated.

Although it is sometimes believed that they just “disappeared”, in fact they faded away.  Over a period of 50-100 years, the residents of the primary Anasazi cultural centers moved south into various new homes.  Why they all moved away, is still not clear.  Questions for another day!