ruin near Blanding
The Anasazi ("Ancient Ones"), thought to be ancestors of the
modern Pueblo Indians, inhabited the Four Corners country of southern Utah,
southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and northern Arizona from
about A.D. 200 to A.D. 1300, leaving a heavy accumulation of house remains
and debris. Recent research has traced the Anasazi to the "archaic"
peoples who practiced a wandering, hunting, and food-gathering life-style
from about 6000 B.C. until some of them began to develop into the distinctive
Anasazi culture in the last millennium B.C. During the last two centuries
B.C., the people began to supplement their food gathering with maize horticulture.
By A.D. 1200 horticulture had assumed a significant role in the economy.
Because their culture changed continually (and not always gradually), researchers
have divided the occupation into periods, each with its characteristic complex
of settlement and artifact styles. Since 1927 the most widely accepted nomenclature
has been the "Pecos Classification," which is generally applicable
to the whole Anasazi Southwest. Although originally intended to represent
a series of developmental stages, rather than periods, the Pecos Classification
has come to be used as a period sequence:
Basketmaker I: pre-1000 B.C. (an obsolete synonym for Archaic)
Basketmaker II: c. 1000 B.C. to A.D. 450
Basketmaker III: c. A.D. 450 to 750
Pueblo I: c. A.D. 750 to 900
Pueblo II: c. A.D. 900 to 1150
Pueblo III: c. A.D. 1150 to 1300
Pueblo IV: c. A.D. 1300 to 1600
Pueblo V: c. A.D. 1600 to present (historic Pueblo)
The last two periods are not important to this discussion, as the Pueblo
peoples had left Utah by the end of the Pueblo III period.
As the Anasazi settled into their village/farming lifestyle, recognizable
regional variants or subcultures emerged, which can be usefully combined
into two larger groups. The eastern branches of the Anasazi culture include
the Mesa Verde Anasazi of southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado, and
the Chaco Anasazi of northwestern New Mexico. The western Anasazi include
the Kayenta Anasazi of northeastern Arizona and the Virgin Anasazi of southwestern
Utah and northwestern Arizona. To the north of the Anasazi peoples - north
of the Colorado and Escalante rivers - Utah was the home of a heterogeneous
group of small-village dwellers known collectively as the Fremont.
Although they continued to move around in pursuit of seasonally available
foods, the earliest Anasazi concentrated increasing amounts of effort on
the growing of crops and the storage of surpluses. They made exquisite baskets
and sandals, for which reason they have come to be known as "Basketmakers."
They stored their goods (and often their dead) in deep pits and circular
cists - small pits often lined with upright stone slabs and roofed over
with a platform of poles, twigs, grass, slabs or rocks, and mud. Basketmaker
II houses were somewhat more sturdy than those of their Archaic predecessors,
being rather like a Paiute winter wickiup or a Navajo hogan. Very few have
By A.D. 500 the early Anasazi peoples had settled into the well-developed
farming village cultural stage that we know as Basketmaker III. Although
they probably practiced some seasonal traveling and continued to make considerable
use of wild resources, they primarily had become farmers living in small
villages. Their houses were well-constructed pit structures, consisting
of a hogan-like superstructure built over a knee-or waist-deep pit, often
with a small second room or antechamber on the south or southeast side.
Settlements of this time period are scattered widely over the canyons and
mesas of southern Utah; they consist of small hamlets of one to three houses
and occasionally villages of a dozen or more structures. By about A.D. 700
evidence of the development of politico-religious mechanisms of village
organization and integration appears in the form of large, communal pit
structures. One such structure, with a diameter of forty feet, has been
excavated next to the old highway in Recapture Creek by archaeologists from
Brigham Young University.
Three important changes took place before A.D. 750: the old atlatl (spear
thrower) that had been used to propel darts (small spears) from time immemorial
was replaced by the bow and arrow; the bean was added to corn and squash
to form a major supplement to the diet; and the people began to make pottery.
By A.D. 600 the Anasazi were producing quantities of two types of pottery
- gray utility ware and black-on-white painted ware.
By A.D. 750 these farming and pottery-making people in their stable villages
were on the threshold of the lifestyle that we think of as being typically
Puebloan, and from this time on we call them Pueblos.
Perhaps the most significant developments in Pueblo I times (A.D. 750 to
900) were 1) the replacement of pithouse habitations with large living rooms
on the surface; 2) the development of a sophisticated ventilator-deflector
system for ventilating pitrooms; 3) the growth of the San Juan redware pottery
complex (red-on-orange, then black-on-orange, pottery manufactured in southeastern
Utah); and 4) some major shifts in settlement distribution, with populations
concentrating in certain areas while abandoning others.
The two-hundred-fifty-year period subsequent to A.D. 900 is known as Pueblo
II. The tendency toward aggregation evidenced in Pueblo I sites reversed
itself in this period, as the people dispersed themselves widely over the
land in thousands of small stone houses. During Pueblo II, good stone masonry
replaced the pole-and-adobe architecture of Pueblo I, the surface rooms
became year-round habitations, and the pithouses (now completely subterranean)
probably assumed the largely ceremonial role of the pueblo kiva. It was
during this period that small cliff granaries became popular. The house
style known as the unit pueblo, which had its beginning during the previous
period, became the universal settlement form during this period. In the
unit pueblo the main house is a block of rectangular living and storage
rooms located on the surface immediately north or northwest of an underground
kiva; immediately southeast of this is a trash and ash dump or midden.
The redware pottery industry continued to flourish, as a fine, red-slipped
ware with black designs was traded throughout much of the Colorado Plateau.
During the middle-to-late Pueblo II period, however, the redware tradition
ended in the country north of the San Juan River, although it blossomed
in the area south of the river. Virtually all of the red or orange pottery
found in San Juan County sites postdating A.D. 1000 was made south of the
San Juan River around Navajo Mountain in the Kayenta Anasazi country. The
reasons for this shift are unknown, and the problem is a fascinating one.
Production and refinement of the black-on-white and the gray (now decorated
by indented corrugation) wares continued uninterrupted in both areas, but
the redware tradition migrated across what appears to have been an ethnic
The styles of stone artifacts also changed somewhat during Pueblo II. The
beautiful barbed and tanged "Christmastree" style point that had
been popular since late Basketmaker III times was replaced first by a corner-notched
style with flaring stem and rounded base, then by a triangular style with
side notches. Also, by the end of the period, the old trough-shaped metate
that had been popular for half a millennium was replaced by a flat slab
form with no raised sides. The change in grinding technology appears to
have accompanied a change from a hard, shattering, flint type of corn to
a soft, non-shattering flour corn. This permitted use of smaller metates,
and thus also increased the efficient use of the floor space.
During the 1100s and 1200s the Anasazi population began once again to aggregate
into large villages. This period is known as Pueblo III, and it lasted until
the final abandonment of the Four Corners country by the Anasazi during
the late 1200s. Numerous small unit pueblos continued to be occupied during
this period, but there was a tendency for them to become more massive and
to enclose the kivas within the room block. A number of very large villages
developed. It was during this period that most of the cliff villages such
as the famous examples at Mesa Verde National Park and Navajo National Monument
During Pueblo III times the Mesa Verde Anasazi developed the thick-walled,
highly polished, incredibly beautiful pottery known as Mesa Verde Black-on-White.
They also continued to make corrugated gray pottery. Redwares, often with
two- or three-color designs continued to be imported north of the river
from the Kayenta country. Arrowheads continued in the triangular, side-notched
form, but were often smaller than those of the previous period.
Starting sometime after A.D. 1250 the Anasazi moved out of San Juan County,
often walking away from their settlements as though they intended to return
in a few minutes - or so it looks. Why did they leave behind their beautiful
cooking pots and baskets? Perhaps because they had no means to transport
them. When forced to migrate a long distance, it was more efficient to leave
the bulky items and replace them after they reached their destination.
We do know that they moved south. Classic late Mesa Verde-style settlements
can still be recognized in New Mexico and Arizona, in high, defensible locations
in areas where the local Anasazi sites look quite different. By A.D. 1400
almost all the Anasazi from throughout the Southwest had aggregated into
large pueblos scattered through the drainages of the Little Colorado and
Rio Grande rivers in Arizona and New Mexico. Their descendants are still
there in the few surviving pueblos.
Why did they leave? It is impossible to find a single cause that can explain
it, but there appear to be several that contributed. First, the climate
during the Pueblo III period was somewhat unstable with erratic rainfall
patterns and periods of drought. This weather problem climaxed with a thirty-year
drought starting about 1270 that coincided with a cooling trend that significantly
shortened the growing season. Perhaps the expanding population had pressed
the limits of the land's capacity to support the people so that they were
unable to survive the climatic upheavals of the thirteenth century.
Could they have been driven out by nomadic tribes, such as Utes or Navajos?
There is no direct evidence that either group, or any other like them, was
in the area that early. There is mounting evidence, however, that the Numic-speaking
peoples, of whom the Utes and Paiutes are part, had spread northwestward
out of southwestern Nevada and were in contact with the Pueblo-like peoples
of western Utah by A.D. 1200. It is certainly possible that they were in
San Juan County shortly after that. Ute and Paiute sites are very difficult
to distinguish from Anasazi campsites, and we may not be recognizing them.
Navajos were in northwestern New Mexico by 1500, but we do not know where
they were before that. Perhaps the answer to the Anasazis' departure from
Utah lies in a combination of the bad-climate and the arriving-nomads theories.
See: J. Richard Ambler and Marc Gaede, The Anasazi (1977); and Linda
S. Cordell, Prehistory of the Southwest (1984).