Ancient Puebloan History

A view of Casa Rinconada in Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Casa Rinconada in Chaco Culture National Historical Park

The southwestern states saw Native American tribes moving across the landscape for thousands of years. "Folsom Point" arrowheads of the Clovis culture have been dated as much as 13,000 years old and have been found from the Mississippi River valley on the east to the Sierra Nevadas on the west, from northern Mexico to Montana. That's physical evidence there was a lot of travel and trade happening across a lot of countryside over thousands of years.

The Clovis culture is named for a discovery site at Blackwater Draw, near Clovis, New Mexico. Archaeologists have found numerous arrowheads there of the distinctive Clovis type dated up to 13,000 years ago. Another burial site found in central Montana had the remains of an infant surrounded by various items including Clovis arrowheads. The body was interred about 12,600 years ago. Artifacts from the Clovis culture indicate it was possibly the first widespread culture in the New World. Some archaeologists say the Clovis culture lasted from about 13,000 years ago to about 12,600 years ago.

The pueblos couldn't begin to evolve until the nomads began to develop agriculture and that couldn't happen until water sources got more reliable. In the case of the often drought-stricken Four Corners area, that required long term periods with more moisture and less dry. Agriculture couldn't really develop until the plant cycle and importance of seeds were understood. One of the early elements allowing the nomads to settle down was the arrival of maize seeds that grew and matured into cobs of plump kernels. That importation appears to have come from the south.

Many of the ancient pueblo structures that have been excavated indicate they were built in times of adequate or above average rainfall. Some of them were occupied for hundreds of years, some for thirty years or less. Two elements they all had in common: underground religious structures and above-ground masonry structures. The underground religious structures most likely emerged because of the area-wide commonly held belief that "the people" emerged on this Earth through a hole in the ground, a sipapu. The Basketmakers lived in small huts above ground or in pithouses partially dug into the ground. There is evidence that some pithouses evolved into kivas as residential complexes were built above ground.

An Anasazi pithouse
Anasazi pithouse display at the Anasazi Heritage Center
Map of influence areas in the southwestern states
Areas of influence in the southwestern states
click on the map for a larger version

One thousand years ago there were four major cultural groups in the southwestern states: the Mogollon, the Ancestral Puebloans, the Hohokam and the Patayan. The Patayan mostly occupied southwestern Arizona (along the Colorado River) and southern California and Nevada. The Hohokam were dominant in south and central Arizona. The Mogollon were in southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico. The Ancestral Puebloans occupied northern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, southwestern Colorado, southern Utah and southeastern Nevada. There were many cultural similarities between the Mogollon and the Ancestral Puebloans, fewer similarities between either of them and the Hohokam and even fewer with the Patayan.

Puebloan pottery is an art that has been honed over thousands of years. However, pottery is an indication of a relatively stable lifestyle as the nomadic lifestyle with its constant motion requires the use of less weighty and less fragile baskets as storage vessels. Pottery couldn't develop until the people settled down a bit and that couldn't happen in the arid Southwest until the principles of irrigation were disseminated through the area: agriculture in the desert requires knowledge of irrigation principles, a stable water source and enough people available to do the work of developing an irrigation system.

So the first bits of pottery the archaeologists have uncovered in the Southwest are associated with pithouses. The construction of pithouses indicates a society that is still semi-nomadic but with an increasing use of agriculture. Over time, areas that grew more crops attracted more people, more people meant more workers for digging irrigation canals, more people required larger living structures... and the cycle repeated itself until any particular settlement (or group of settlements) came into trouble when the climate varied for any period of time. Looking back from the present, many structures were almost built as disposable units. Many structures were occupied for only thirty or forty years while others were occupied for one-to-two hundred years. It's only been over the last thousand years that communities came into existence that are still inhabited after a thousand years: Taos, Acoma and Old Oraibi. Most of the other pueblos have been moved and rebuilt since the time of the Spanish arrival.

For the most part, daily-use pottery was functional in design and usually an unpainted gray in color. From about 500 to about 1300 CE, decorated pottery began to develop, usually using black painted designs on a white or gray background. Polychrome designs began around 1150 with the use of various mineral-based pigments. By the 1200's, bright colors grew more popular and in the 1300's highly developed motifs and designs were developed from Rio Salado in Arizona to the newly settled Rio Grande Pueblos in New Mexico. The design and style changes have been traced to significant social changes among the people and the geographical movement of the styles to the movement of people as their climate changed. The Salado people are classed as a subset of the Sinagua (meaning: without water) people who lived all across central and northern Arizona. The Sinagua are classed as a subset of the 'Anasazi' (meaning: Ancestors of our enemies) whose present-day descendants are the Pueblo peoples of northern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona. And these days, the term "Anasazi" is in disfavor with "Ancestral Puebloan" being preferred.

And one more thing: among the people, the making of pottery is sacred work. Every aspect of the process, from first gathering the clay through to removing it from the fire, is accompanied by appropriate prayers. Some potters see it as infusing spiritual energy in the finished piece.

But it goes further than that. The tribes have many clans and each clan has its own area of action within the lives of the people. Each clan has its own ritual specialists: people who know the costumes, the dances, the songs, the music, the prayers, the textiles, the pottery and the designs. Even today, a tribe may decide they are short of one specialist or another and they will make a deal with another tribe that has that clan knowledge available. Sometimes they send someone to learn the rites and bring them back, other times they invite specialists to come and live with them and teach them the rites. I've come across a potter at Acoma who was born and raised at Zia, married into Zuni and moved to Acoma when her family was invited to strengthen the Acoma Bear Clan. Many times the clans have their own special designs, their own methods of decorating textiles and pottery. Those designs have a power and meaning of their own, especially when applied by someone who speaks the language of the prayers fluently.

A view of Puye Cliff Dwellings
Puye Cliff Dwelling at Santa Clara Pueblo

One breakdown of the Ancestral Puebloan period looks like this:

  • Archaic/Early Basketmaker Era - (7000 to 1500 BCE) This is the big gap, after the Clovis people disappeared and before any larger local societies came together.
  • Early Basketmaker II Era (1500 BCE to 50 CE)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 (50 to 500 CE)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.
  • Pueblo III (1150-1350 CE) There was a significant community change during the Pueblo III period. This was the time of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, Mimbres Mogollon and 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 Pecos, then south into the Galisteo Basin. Potters there developed a multi-colored lead glaze from the turquoise, silver and lead formations found in the Cerrillos Hills. Due to trade connections with tribes from the eastern Plains, Pecos Pueblo became one of the largest and most prosperous settlements in the Puebloan world, rivaled only by Picuris Pueblo to the north. The Santa Clara people first built the dwellings at Puye on the eastern slopes of the Jemez around 1200 CE. It was completely abandoned around 1600 CE when the Santa Clarans moved further down the hill to where the Santa Clara River meets the Rio Grande. Most of the other Tewa people had already come down out of the Jemez and after making a centuries-long stop in the area around what is now Bandelier National Monument, moved on to settle where they are now.
  • Pueblo V (1600-present) Pueblo V saw the arrival of the Spanish and a consolidation of Puebloan tribes and lands. The arrival of the Spanish turned their world upside down, beginning in earnest in 1598. Conditions under the Spanish were so bad the pueblos got together and revolted in 1680 and threw the Spanish out. The Spanish came back in 1692 and began again a little differently. But there was pushback from the people and their villages were sometimes looted and burnt, only to be rebuilt a bit differently.

    The Spanish also brought about a massive depopulation simply through the spread of diseases they were immune to, but the indigenous people weren't. With the Spanish came Franciscan priests intent on forcing the indigenous people to build great mission structures to glorify their Christian God, while destroying any indigenous religion and working and taxing the people to the brink of death. The 19 Rio Grande Pueblos survived the transition to Pueblo V, as did Ysleta del Sur in Texas and the pueblos on the Hopi mesas in Arizona. Around 1625 is when Sikyatki (on First Mesa) was destroyed and during the winter of 1700-1701, Awatovi (on Antelope Mesa) was destroyed. The Spanish destroyed Picuris in 1692 and Picuris still hasn't fully recovered. Several of the Rio Grande pueblos were burned by the Spanish between 1692 and 1696 but when the people came back down out of the hills, they usually rebuilt close by. The Piro pueblos were mostly destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The Tompiro pueblos were almost completely depopulated by then.

    The last residents of Pecos Pueblo were invited to join their kin in the Jemez Mountains and they moved there in 1820. The Santa Fe Trail came by a few years later and many Anglo-European migrants along that trail marveled at the large empty edifice. The Galisteo Basin pueblos had been decimated by disease and abandoned years before. They were the pueblos most specialized in the production of glazed ceramics but their access to the lead they needed for their glazes was denied by the Spanish after 1694. With that, they lost their most valuable products for trade and things went downhill from there.


Upper photo courtesy of the National Park Service
Pithouse photo courtesy of In the Eyes of the Pot, CCA-by-SA 3.0 License
Lower photo courtesy of Einar Kvaran, CCA-by-SA 3.0 License