Ancestral Pueblo People (Anasazi)

The American Southwest which I have visited for the last few years, is area that receives a mere 10 inches (25 cm) of rain each year, but has supported inhabitants for at least 12,000 years. Paleo-Indians arrived at about 12,000 years ago and they learned how to live there.

Thousands of years later, the Ancestral Puebloans, Indigenous People of the American southwest and are also known as Anasazi, arrived, but that name was given to them by Navajo for it basically means “Ancient enemy ancestor.”  That is not the most complementary name. The Ancestral Puebloans are thought to have settled near Mesa Verde in about AD 550 where they lived in pithouses and later astonishing cliff dwellings. By about 800 AD they had developed significant masonry skills and began to build housing complexes using sandstone, which is fairly common in the region. From about 1100 to 1300 AD they used their impressive skills in weaving, pottery, jewelry and tool-making.

Kivas are round pit-like room dug into the ground and roofed with beams.   The kiva was the religious and ceremonial center of Ancestral Puebloan life and is still used by modern Puebloans. It usually had no windows and the only means of access was through a small hole in the roof. Small kivas were likely used by one family. Larger ones could be designed for the entire community, like a church in Europe.

Ancestral Puebloan ruins can be found in Chaco Culture National Park and Mesa Verde National Park as well as Canyon de Chelly. This is the White House in Canyon de Chelly.

By AD 1,300 the Ancestral Puebloans had abandoned many of their long established settlement sites perhaps on account of climate change. Things got much drier around about the time they left. There was a 50-year drought that placed great strain on their civilization. A large population could not be sustained in the desert with its minimal resources and led to a lengthy period of social upheaval.

The Ancestral Puebloans did not disappear but live on today in Puebloan descendants. The Ancestral Puebloans or Anasazi, lived there from about 500 until some time in the 12th century.  They are the ones that created the numerous evocative ruins found in the area including those at Mesa Verde in Colorado, and the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and Canyon de Chelly and Camp Verde in Arizona.



Many people forget that the Ancestral Puebloans were farmers who began to cultivate maize (corn) and pumpkins. Eventually they added beans, squash, and other vegetables to their arsenal. They even domesticated turkeys from a native subspecies.  It is interesting that eventually “Through trade and plunder, the same turkeys would eventually make their way south to the Aztec empire in Mexico. Conquistador Hernan Cortes later appropriated some and shipped them home to Europe. From there, farmyard turkeys traveled back to the New World with colonists of the East Coast. All domestic turkeys descended from the wild turkeys originally tamed nearly two millennia ago in the North America’s drylands.”


The descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans include the Hopi whose pueblos are reputed to be the oldest continuously occupied towns in North America. They began to occupy territory a little farther west of Canyon de Chelly.  We drove through First Mesa, where they live to this day, even though our friends Dave and MaryLou advised against it.


Then we drove near to Second Mesa, another settlement still occupied by Hopi people.


A very interesting question is “Why did Anasazi leave their cliff dwellings?”  I thought about a brilliant book—Desert Solitaire written by Edward Abbey. It is a fantastic book. One of the best books I have ever read on the American Southwest. Abbey compared the ancient Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloans) to modern Americans. Abbey said, “Apparently, like some twentieth century Americans, the Anasazi lived under a cloud of fear.” Why else did they go to such trouble to build their homes where they did?  As Abbey commented,

Fear: is that the key to their lives?  What persistent and devilish enemies they must have had, or thought they had, when even here in the intricate heart of a desert labyrinth a hundred foot-miles from the nearest grassland, forest, and mountains they felt constrained to make their homes, as swallows do, in niches high on the face of a cliff.

Their lives must have been severely cramped by their overpowering fears. As Abbey said,

“Their manner of life was constricted, conservative, cautious: perhaps only the pervading fear could keep such a community together. Where all think alike there is little danger of innovation.”

That seems like a perfect description of the gated communities in modern North America subdivisions. From my experience, the people are fearful, nervous, and entirely lacking in courage. They fear everyone and everything. For example, many people in Arizona fear that Mexicans are coming across the border in hordes to take their best jobs, cleaning toilets in airports. Does that make sense? So they want to build a wall to keep them out of the country. Then the people fear that the Mexicans who someone got into the country, will send their youth to attack their homes.  So they build a wall around their tiny communities. The existence of these walls makes it perfectly clear—the people live in fear. Is that a sign of a guilty conscience or cowardice?

What will happen to the modern Americans in their insular communities? Will they survive or perish as the Anasazi did? Will the same forces like climate change that drove the Anasazi to abandon their cliff top homes cause the modern suburbanites to abandon theirs?  Abbey writing in the 1960s, long before the time the gated communities became so popular, described the situation this way,

Long ago the cliff dwellings were abandoned. Were the inhabitants actually destroyed by the enemies they had always dreaded? Or were they reduced and driven out by disease, by something as undramatic as bad sanitation, pollution of their water and air?  Or could it have been finally, simply their own fears which poisoned their lives beyond hope of recovery and drove them into exile and extinction?

What a great question?  In my view, it is likely that the modern American gated “community” will suffer the same fate as the ancient cliff dwellings of the Anasazi.  No wall no matter how high, can keep the barbarians out. The Romans learned that the hard way, so did the Anasazi, and so will the modern suburbanites. It probably won’t be actual external enemies that lead to their doom. It is much more likely that it will be the combined effects of pollution and minds being cooked in the juices of their own lurid fears.

Perhaps this is what the modern gated communities will look like in a hundred years?

2 thoughts on “Ancestral Pueblo People (Anasazi)

  1. Hi Hans, Another interesting fact is that the Pueblo were some of the first to build large apartment type complexes. I find them fascinating.

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