Sites of the Ancestors

Various elements that were found in ancient pithouses on display: baskets, pottery, ladle, food grinding stones, fireplace, hearth
Items found in ancient pithouses
Map of the southwestern States showing the approximate locations of the 3 main cultures of Oasisamerica during the 1300's
Oasisamerica Cultures in 1350 CE

The stories of the Ancestral Puebloans are still told by their descendants in their native tongues. But it wouldn't be understandable to the ancestors because of the passage of time. Languages are living, evolving things. People and their clans migrate. Intermarriage happens. Among the Rio Grande Pueblos, the pueblo a couple miles downstream might speak a very different language, based on where their forefathers might have migrated from so many hundred years ago.

Today, we trace the evolution of the Puebloans through their migrations: pottery styles, decorations, clan symbols, translations from oral histories and archaeological findings. I find the migration stories really interesting, especially how they are usually supported by following the migration of designs on wall murals, pottery and textiles.

So the question on my end is: How far back do I go? In this section of Eyesofthepot, I've so far opted to go back about 9,000 years, to the roots of the Picosa culture. Should I later decide to get more into the Clovis culture, that would take me back to about 14,000 years ago. But the further back I go, the less there is to work with.

Then again, there were two large migration movements into the Four Corners area about 2,000 years ago. One came from the east and north, the other from the south and west. These seem to have been important migration events.

The folks who came from the east and north were Shoshonean stock and they first settled in the forests and mountains east of Mesa Verde between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago.

The folks who came from the south and west started coming north about 2,000 years ago from MesoAmerica and the Hohokam lands in what is now southern Arizona. Most of them settled into the area south and east of the Colorado River, what we might now refer to as "Kayenta-Tusayan." Many of the ruins found in the Grand Gulch and Cedar Mesa areas in Utah are from them.

Some of those folks from the south went to the area east of the San Francisco Peaks for several hundred years, then left around 1060 CE when Sunset Crater erupted. Many of them went south to pueblos just above and below the Mogollon Rim for the next hundred years or so. Then they returned and rebuilt pueblos at Wupatki and Wukoki to take advantage of the renewed soil, until the Great Drought ended that in the late 1200's.

The Utes are a branch of the Paiutes, a Shoshonean tribe scattered across the InterMountain West. The Comanches are another Shoshonean tribe of the southern Plains. As the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned areas in the forests and mountains of southern Colorado, the Utes and Comanches flowed in from the west and from the east. Then somewhere around 1400 CE (give or take 50 years), the Athabascan Apaches and Navajos showed up, coming from the north.

The Athabascans had migrated down the eastern flanks of the Rocky Mountains to eastern Colorado where they met up with the Comanches. There, the less-warlike of the Athabascans turned and headed west over the mountains and settled in to the nearly empty Four Corners area. Eventually they were named "Navajo" by the Spanish, in honor of their ability to steal sheep. The Athabascans who stayed east of the mountains were slowly pushed south around the southern end of the Puebloan settlements to where they could finally go west and get away from the Comanches on the east.

That got easier after the first Spanish expeditions came through as the spread of European diseases wiped out whole communities and depopulated the countryside of southern New Mexico between 1540 and 1780. The further south the Apache tribes moved, the fewer native people they found to oppose them. By the early 1700's they had occupied a large part of eastern and southern New Mexico and southern and eastern Arizona. By the early 1800's, the Apaches and Navajos had almost completely encircled the Puebloans.

The Picosa Culture

Bronze statue of a Native American warrior
Bronze warrior in front of the
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture
Santa Fe, NM

The "Picosa Culture" is an encapsulation of three separate instances of similar lifestyles, housing and burial practices spread across the Southwestern states and northern Mexico. These three instances: Pinto Basin (Pi), Cochise Tradition (co), and San Pedro (sa), make up the word "Picosa."

Pinto Basin seems to be incorporated within the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. If that's the correct Pinto Basin, that would indicate the model includes projectile points found at a Pinto Culture site in the central Mojave Desert dated to be between 4,000 and 8,000 years old. The older the actual time frame, the wetter the local climate. Artifacts found indicate that these were most likely from a Paiute offshoot of Shoshonean ancestry, possibly precursors of today's Chemehuevi people.

The Cochise Tradition is tied to the area of now-dry Lake Cochise, in the Willcox Playa of southern Arizona. The Tradition lasted from about 7,000 years ago to about 2,200 years ago. Archaeologists have broken the Tradition further into three phases, based on discernable changes in projectile point and food processing technology: the Sulphur Spring (7,000 to 5,500 years ago), the Chiricahua (5,500 to 3,500 years ago) and the San Pedro (3,500 to 2,200 years ago).

The San Pedro area is in the San Pedro River basin of southern Arizona. Indications are that the first settlers in the area were infused with migrants headed north from central and/or southern Mexico. This is the area where ceramics first appeared in western North America.

The following sequence of events, first proposed by archaeologist Cynthia Irwin-Williams, defines no fewer than six phases of occupation of Ancient Puebloan sites in the Four Corners area, each identified by projectile point forms and other less well defined artifacts. These, more northern incarnations of the Picosa culture are encapsulated in the Oshara Tradition.

The Oshara Tradition

  • Jay phase : 7,450 to 6,750 years ago – Artifacts found indicate a hunter-gatherer society, distinguished from earlier Paleo-Indians. The evidence suggests that families concentrated on the hunting and gathering of locally available game and food. Over time they learned this was most easily done by living near the heads of canyons. Artifacts found include crude stone tools for processing food and long, narrow projectile points for hunting.
  • Bajada phase : 6,750 to 5,150 years ago – An evolution from the Jay phase distinguished by the presence of different projectile points, different cooking hearths, the evolution of ovens and more sites indicating a larger population.
  • San Jose phase : 6,750 to 3,750 years ago – The appearance of metates and manos to process food. The size and number of ancestral sites continued to increase. Trash heaps dated to this phase were also found, indicating a level of organization of village society.
  • Armijo phase : 3,750 to 2,750 years ago – The cultivation of maize began. In good years, that allowed for food surpluses. Seasonal sites, for gatherings of up to 50 people, evolved, possibly due to the growing ability to grow and store surpluses of cultivated maize. Projectile points evolved to be different from the concave, short projectile points used by other cultures of the northern Colorado Plateau during the Middle Archaic period. Late in the phase the stone projectile points evolved further, becoming serrated, stemmed blades.
  • En Medio phase : 2,750 to 1,550 years ago – Population continued to grow but was locating villages generally at the base of cliffs. The phase was also marked by the introduction of storage pits for surplus food. The time was roughly analogous to the southwestern Basketmaker culture.
  • Trujillo phase : starting about 1,550 years ago – Pottery was first introduced during this period.

The Traditional Ancestral Puebloan Timeline

Map of the Ancestral Puebloan Region in 1300 CE
The Ancestral Puebloan Region
1300 CE

  • Archaic/Early Basketmaker Era : 9,000 to 3,500 years ago - This is the big gap, after the Clovis people disappeared and before any larger local societies came together.
  • Early Basketmaker II Era : 3,500 to 2,000 years ago - The beginnings of the roughest pithouses. The Hohokam are building their first irrigation works but most people in the southwest are outright hunter-gatherer nomads migrating back and forth across the countryside with the seasons and the wildlife. Rough ceramics first appear.
  • Late Basketmaker II Era : 2000 to 1500 years ago - Pithouse technology spread across the southwest as new strains of maize appeared, most likely carried north from central Mexico by immigrants from that area. The new maize had larger kernels and offered a much better food source, if only decent soil and regular water were available and if the folks took the time to protect it a bit while it grew.
  • Basketmaker III Era : 500 to 750 CE - The first decorated pottery began to emerge as tribes and families settled down more and grew more maize. The first above-ground houses appeared and many pithouses were converted into the first kivas. The people began to gather together in villages and develop as societies.
  • Pueblo I : 750 to 900 CE - Pueblo buildings were constructed of stone with south-facing windows, and in U, E and L shapes. The buildings were located closer to each other, reflecting deepening religious celebration. Some kivas had towers built nearby, towers most likely used for look-outs. Pottery became used for more than just cooking, and included pitchers, ladles, bowls, jars and dishware for food and drink. White pottery with black designs first emerged in this time period, the pigments being developed from plants. Water conservation techniques and complex irrigation systems using reservoirs and silt-retaining dams also emerged during this period.
  • Pueblo II : 900-1150 CE - During the Pueblo II period the population increased so much that more than 10,000 sites were created in 150 years. Since most of the countryside was arid, the people supplemented their diet by foraging, hunting and trading pottery for food. By the end of the Pueblo II period, there were many two-story dwellings made almost exclusively of stone masonry, the presence of towers and the development of family and community kivas. This was the Classical Period for the Mimbres Mogollon and the Chaco Culture. The Mimbres Culture seems to have virtually collapsed around 1150 due to changing weather conditions. The elites at Chaco had already sent engineers and crews north to build a new capital near the Animas River, where today's Aztec Ruins National Monument is. By 1150, Chaco Canyon was essentially deserted, the people having moved north to Mesa Verde and Aztec.
  • Pueblo III : 1150-1350 CE - There was a significant community change during the Pueblo III period. This was the time of Mesa Verde and the founding of Pottery Mound. Much of the population moved in from dispersed farmsteads to community centers at canyon heads or to cliff dwellings on canyon shelves. Population peaked between 1200 to 1250 at more than 20,000 in the Mesa Verde region alone, far more than could be sustained for any length of time. By 1300 the Ancient Puebloan people abandoned most of their settlements as a result of climate changes, food shortages and dwindling resources. Many of them migrated to villages in northern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico with more stable water sources. Many in New Mexico spent 50 or more years living on the Pajarito Plateau before migrating closer to the Rio Grande river bottom.
  • Pueblo IV : 1350-1600 - The Pueblo IV time period saw many tribes and familes still migrating toward more stable water sources, and building "disposable" (not meant to be occupied for more than a few years) pueblos along the way. The Towa expanded eastward to Cicuye (beside the Pecos River) and the Southern Tewas moved into the Galisteo Basin. It was a hard living in the drier Galisteo Basin but potters there developed a multi-colored lead glaze from the turquoise, silver and lead formations found in the Cerrillos Hills. That pottery sustained them for several generations, until the Spanish arrived and the living conditions became unbearable. Then the Spanish claimed the lead mines for themselves and denied the people access. By 1700 many of these Southern Tewas were migrating to Hopi First Mesa where they became the ancestors of today's Hopi-Tewas. The Santa Clara people first built the dwellings at Puye in Santa Clara Canyon on the eastern slopes of the Jemez Mountains around 1200 CE. The structures were completely abandoned around 1600 CE when the Santa Clarans moved further down the hill to where the Santa Clara River meets the Rio Grande. The San Ildefonso people had stopped at what is now "Tsankawi" before continuing down to the Rio Grande. Tsankawi is between Puye in Santa Clara Canyon to the north and Tyuonyi in Frijoles Canyon to the south. Most of the other Tewa people made a centuries-long stop in Frijoles Canyon before moving on to settle where they are now.
  • Pueblo V (1600-present) Pueblo V saw the occupation by the Spanish and a consolidation and reduction of Puebloan tribes and lands. The arrival of the Spanish turned the pueblo world upside down, beginning in earnest in 1598. Conditions under the Spanish were so bad the pueblos banded together and revolted in 1680 and threw the Spanish out. The Spanish came back several times, looting and burning the southern-most pueblos again and again. Finally, the Sandias packed up and moved to Payupki, a pueblo they built on the northern end of Second Mesa in Hopiland. The Spanish came back in force in 1692. Their army was composed mostly of prisoners from the Chihuahua dungeons, ordered to march north with Don Diego de Vargas and never come back on pain of death. With that driving them, the Conquistadors began again under the Spanish Catholic flag, but they began again a little differently. This time around, the missionaries weren't nearly as hard on the people. De Vargas, though, was intent on punishing the people for every perceived tiny infraction of Spanish law. There was significant pushback from the people and the Spanish kept attacking, looting and burning their villages, only to see them be rebuilt more defensively a short time later. The Jemez pushed back so hard the Spanish finally just forced them out of the mountains and into one village on the Jemez River, Walatowa, where most Jemez (and Pecos) are today.
Upper right maps courtesy of Wikipedia userid Yuchitown, CCA-by-SA 4.0 License
Middle right maps courtesy of Archaeology Southwest
Photos courtesy of Eyesofthepot, CCA-by-SA 4.0 License  

Sites of the Ancients and approximate dates of occupation:

Atsinna : 1275-1350
Awatovi : 1200-1701
Aztec : 1100-1275
Bandelier : 1200-1500
Betatakin : 1276-1300
Casa Malpais : 1260-1400
Chaco : 850-1145
Cicuye : 800-1838
Fourmile : 1276-1400
Giusewa : 1560-1680
Hawikuh : 1400-1680
Hohokam : 300-1450
Homolovi : 1100-1400
Hovenweep : 50-1350
Jeddito : 800-1700
Kawaika'a : 1375-1580
Keet Seel : 1250-1300
Kuaua : 325-1600
Mesa Verde : 600-1300
Montezuma Castle : 1200-1400
Payupki : 1680-1780
Poshuouingeh : 1375-1500
Pottery Mound : 1320-1550
Puye : 1200-1580
Sikyatki : 1375-1625
Snaketown : 300 BCE-1050
Tonto Basin : 700-1450
Tuzigoot : 1125-1400
Wupatki/Wukoki : 500-1225
Wupatupqa : 1100-1250
Yucca House : 1100-1300