The Pueblo Indian people of the southwestern United States are as indigenous as Americans can be, having lived among the rugged mountains, dry mesas, and cottonwood-lined rivers for thousands of years. The culture they maintain today, with its earthen houses, strong family and community ties, and rituals evoking the mystical connection between all things, is one that evolved naturally and gradually as a response to life in the landscape.
Some 2,000 years ago, a group known as the Hohokam (O’Odham) settled the area of what is now southern Arizona, where they practiced advanced irrigation techniques. Others whom anthropologists call the Mogollon settled in the mountains in southern New Mexico as early as 300 B.C. The Mimbres branch of these people produced beautiful pottery with animal and anthropomorphic designs. Eventually settlements spread throughout the Southwest, including its northern regions and parts of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. As time went on the populations of these groups swelled until thousands of villages dotted the land and tens of thousands of people farmed the red earth, and hunted, fished, traded, and shared their innovations under the blue desert sky.
The Pueblo people are conscious of the long ties of time that link them to the ancestors they call the Ancient Ones. (Pueblo people prefer not to use the term Anasazi, which is a Navajo word meaning “enemies of our ancestors” and is therefore pejorative.) The sedentary cultures of the Ancient Ones developed in the Southwest from the Desert Archaic Culture group, which practiced hunting and gathering. The new cultures at first lived in pithouses dug into the ground, with above-ground walls made of poles and brush plastered with mud. They had no pottery, but their weaving arts, especially basketmaking, were highly developed, and for this reason these early groups of Native Americans are referred to as Basketmakers.
By A.D. 700 their houses evolved into completely above-ground dwellings made of slumped adobe or of mud-covered stone, entered through the roofs via ladders. These gradually became more elaborate, until the people began to make the rooms contiguous and build room atop room, leaving terraces that they used as workspaces and using some interior rooms for storage and others as living spaces. These multistoried dwellings were America’s first apartment houses. Later they were built around a central plaza. Kivas, subterranean or semisubterranean structures used for communal ceremonial purposes, began to appear between A.D. 900 and 1100.
The people developed pottery, and they intensified their agricultural practices, still living on some wild foods, but also cultivating corn, beans, and squash. The style of pottery and the new building style are the indicators used by archaeologists to define these people as Pueblo, the Spanish word for these apartment-house villages.
A good example of the Ancient Ones’ building is preserved at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in southwestern New Mexico, built approximately A.D. 1270 and abandoned in the early 1300s.
The most spectacular and best-preserved dwellings are their ruins at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and Mesa Verde, Colorado. Chaco Culture National Historical Park, located north and west of Albuquerque, contains eighteen square miles of ruins, including major and minor building sites and miles of straight ceremonial ways or roads. The Chacoans built great houses, such as those of Pueblo Bonito. These were multi-terraced room blocks containing up to 700 rooms and many kivas, some of them great kivas that could hold hundreds of people at a time for ceremonies. Other ruins at Chaco Canyon include Chetro Ketl, Casa Rinconada, and Pueblo del Arroyo.
The Pueblos believe that it was the ancestors of the Keresans (a contemporary language group) who lived in Chaco Canyon. It was the center of the Ancient Ones’ culture from about A.D. 900 to 1150. Thousands of people could have lived there, though it is probable that the people inhabited the city at capacity only seasonally. The arts were well developed and included fine pottery, weaving, basketry, and jewelry of stone (especially turquoise), shell, and bone. After periods of drought, Chaco Canyon was finally abandoned.
Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado contains more than 4,000 sites, ranging from pithouse ruins to elaborate pueblos built inside huge caves, high in the cliffs.
Within the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, in northwestern Arizona, are more than 700 sites, including the famed White House Ruin, Canyon del Muerto, Mummy Cave, and Antelope House, as well as pithouse remains. The 130 square miles of Canyon de Chelly are today owned by the Navajo, who began to settle there around 1700.
Other Ancient Ones inhabited villages in what is now Bandelier National Monument, near Los Alamos, New Mexico, from about A.D. 500 to the late 1500s. The ruins show various types of buildings, ranging from rooms dug out of the soft canyon walls to cliff-hung rooms to a large pueblo built in the open that contained as many as 400 rooms.