In the American Southwest, the four corners area of southern Utah, southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and northern Arizona was home primarily to a culture typically referred to as the Anasazi.
Now called Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning “ancient enemy”), thoughts of this culture bring to mind the cliff dwellings scattered throughout the northern American Southwest. While these architectural features are impressive, they are only one aspect of the rich and varied history of this culture.
Humans have inhabited the northern Southwest since Paleo-Indian times (ca. 11,000-7,000 BC). At approximately 7,000 BC, a shift to a warmer, drier climate resulted in a change in lifeways to what archaeologists refer to as a “broad-spectrum pattern of resource use.” Essentially, populations no longer relied on large game animals such as mammoth as a primary means of subsistence; rather, the focus shifted to use of smaller game and an increased reliance on varied plant resources. This period of time is referred to as the “Archaic”; research has traced Ancestral Puebloan history to the Archaic peoples who occupied the northern region of the Southwest until 500 BC, when the distinctive Puebloan culture developed as people began to supplement hunting and gathering with maize horticulture.
Following the Archaic, visibly Ancestral Puebloan traits emerge in the northern Southwest during a time known as the “Basket Maker period.” Archaeologists have summarized changes in Puebloan culture using a chronological system termed the Pecos Classification. The Pecos Classification was developed by A. V. Kidder and others at the first annual Pecos Conference (1927) in an attempt to organize these cultural changes in the northern Southwest. Originally intended to represent a series of developmental stages rather than time periods, it is the most widely accepted terminology in referring to temporal changes in the Ancestral Pueblo region of the Southwest. Although archaeologists no longer see the Pecos sequence as a reconstruction of adaptive change throughout the Southwest, it is still used to provide a general framework for dates and broad events within and affecting the Ancestral Puebloan region for each of the major time periods
Basket Maker II: 500 BC-AD 450
There are two competing theories pertaining to the origins of the Basket Maker culture. They are that: (a) The Basket Makers descended from local Archaic populations and (b) the Basket Makers represent a migration of maize-dependent populations from an outside area. There is evidence to support both models, and there are inconsistencies in both. What is clear, however, is the persistence of a clearly Ancestral Puebloan culture following the Archaic.
Basket Maker II sites are documented throughout the Four Corners region. These sites certainly do not fit the stereotypical idea of the ancestral Puebloans as “cliff dwellers.” Basket Maker II sites are characterized by caves or rock shelters often used for storage, small storage pits (some slab lined), shallow pithouses that were not occupied year-round, and evidence for squash and maize cultivation. Material culture of this period included coiled and plaited basketry (thus the name Basket Maker), spear throwers or atlatis, fairly large corner-and side-notched projectile points, onehanded manos and basin metates, and rabbit fur blankets. The presence of stockades at a number of these sites may suggest the early instances of warfare during ancestral Puebloan times. Certainly, the complexity of ancestral Puebloan culture is evident during this early period in their history.
Basket Maker III: AD 450-750
In general, the Basket Maker III phase represents the continuation of the Basket Maker II phase. According to Lipe, the start of the Basket Maker III tradition is clearly marked by the appearance of a plain gray (called “Lino Gray”) ceramics in the archaeological record. In general, this pottery is fairly simple in decoration and form but marks an important shift in settlement and subsistence. Additional features of Basket Maker III appear to represent continued traditions that were first established during the preceding Basket Maker II tradition. The use of pithouses continued during Basket Maker III, although these pithouses were deeper and larger than before; many had antechambers. Surface storage structures increased in size from the preceding period, and the presence of these features, as well as ceramic vessels and increased use of trough metates, indicates a greater reliance on food processing and storage, although hunting and gathering still remained important to subsistence.
Pueblo I: AD 750-900
Pueblo I is best known for the area around Mesa Verde. This period is characterized by periods of aggregation and abandonment of short-lived villages; abandonments of these villages appear to occur with periods of extended drought, likely resulting in crop failure. Architecture is characterized by jacal construction and simple masonry surface rooms arranged in two rows, built as “modular units” and the continuation of pit structures used for habitation. Great kivas were first recognized at Chaco Canyon during this time period; these are large kivas that range from 40 to 60 feet in diameter in some settlements. Storage rooms were often located on the northern end of the modular units. Material culture and key characteristics of this tradition included the practice of cradleboard deformation; ceramics included graywares in the form of neckbanded ceramic jars and trade redware jars and vessels. Small, temporally diagnostic stemmed projectile points are related to small- game hunting with bow and arrow.
Pueblo II: AD 900-1100
The Pueblo II period is characterized by the development of spalled stone masonry construction and the presence of fully developed kivas. In some areas, settlements are large and represent well-planned communities. This pattern was recognized first for Chaco Canyon (New Mexico), an area that seems to have been the center or capital of the ancestral Puebloan world during the Pueblo II period. These well- planned communities include massively built structures called “Great Houses,” such as Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon surrounded by the unit pueblos first identified for the Pueblo I period. These Great Houses are often referred to as “community houses”; they do not appear to have functioned as habitation structures. In Chaco Canyon, this pattern was concentrated, however, outside of Chaco Canyon; similar communities were constructed throughout the north-ern Southwest, on a smaller scale. Other architectural features included field houses (interpreted as temporary habitations/shelters used while agriculture fields were being tended) and water control features such as check dams and reservoirs. Material remains associated with the Puebloan II period are varied, ranging from seemingly simple corrugated jars, textiles, and relatively small corner-notched projectile points with convex bases and expanding stems to extensive trade goods reflecting a trade network that may have reached as far south as Mexico. The meaning of the “Chacoan” pattern is still debated; however, the influence of Chaco Canyon during this period is apparent.
Pueblo III: AD 1100-1300
The Pueblo III period is best known for the Mesa Verde area of the northern Southwest. Early archaeologists called this the “Great Pueblo period.” This is the time during which the well-known cliff dwellings were constructed. Chaco Canyon seems to have lost its place of importance in the Puebloan world, and population increased in and around Mesa Verde. This phase is marked by architectural continuity in the form of modular room blocks; however, multistoried pueblos appeared at this time, and the use of shaped stone masonry became common. Bi- and triwalled towers similar to those found at Hovenweep appeared during the Pueblo III period; the function of these structures is unknown, although their use as a defensive feature has been postulated. It is the abandonment of the Mesa Verde region that has led to speculation about the “mysterious disappearance of the Anasazi.” Research tells us, however, that while the region was abandoned, the Puebloan people did not disappear.
Pueblo IV (AD 1300-Contact)
By 1300, the entire Mesa Verde region was virtually abandoned. The explanations for the abandonment of this area often centers on environmental change. Following the abandonment of the Mesa Verde region, population size increased in the area around the Zuni and Rio Grande area of New Mexico. By the end of Pueblo III, people moved to essentially where they lived when the Spanish arrived. The aggregated villages that were inhabited at that time look like the pueblos of today.
While many fantastic theories speculate about the “disappearance of the Anasazi,” it is clear that the people that inhabit the pueblos of Arizona and New Mexico are the descendants of the Puebloans of the past. The Ancestral Puebloan region of the Southwest was marked by a series of reorganizations, abandonments, and occupations. The “disappearance” that seemed to mark the end of the Ancestral Puebloan way of life was simply a new beginning.
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