The Puebloan Legacy

Anasazi - Hohokam - Mogollon - Sinagua

by Jay W. Sharp

From the Colorado Plateau and upper Rio Grande drainage, southward across New Mexico and Arizona into northern Mexico, the Puebloan peoples have left the most distinctive and complex prehistoric and historic Native American legacy of our western deserts.

Pueblo Bonito wall

Collectively, the Puebloans represent the culmination of tens of thousands of years of cultural and social evolution. It began with Ice Age nomadic big game hunting, and as our climate warmed, progressed to a more systematic game hunting and plant gathering. Later a more stable yet simple village life and rudimentary agriculture was established until, finally, late in the first millennium, elaborate Puebloan standing-wall and, often, multistory communities and more advanced agricultural practices were developed.

The Puebloans raised the classic trio of crops – corn, beans and squash – as well as numerous other crops, irrigating with sophisticated water distribution systems. They transformed woven basketry, fabrics, bejeweled ornaments, ceramic pottery and stone surface imagery into art forms. Long-distance traders of goods and ideas, they bartered with peoples from the Great Plains to the Pacific coast and from the Rocky Mountains to southern Mexico. They formed complex political and religious institutions and infused their lives with spirituality, ritual and symbolism.

In late prehistoric times, many chose, for reasons not fully understood, to abandon traditional homelands and to migrate to new locations. There, they founded new and, sometimes, culturally blended groups. They built new and, often, larger villages, attracted larger populations, reinstituted irrigation agriculture, reinvented art forms, created new trade relations, and forged new political and religious organizations. They reestablished lives rich in spirituality, ritual and symbolism. At their zenith, the Puebloans melded into several branches, primarily, the Anasazi, the Hohokam, the Mogollon and the Sinagua. They spoke various dialects of at least four different languages.

The Anasazi

The Anasazi occupied a region that spanned the southern Colorado Plateau and the upper Rio Grande drainage, encompassing what is now northwestern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona, southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. At their cultural peak, during the first third of the second millennium, the Anasazi Pueblo people emerged as the preeminent community planners, architects and masons among all the desert cultures. They defined their similarities – and their differences – largely in terms of their multi-storied, multi-room pueblo “Great Houses” and “cliff dwellings.”

When their Creator, “The Grandmother,” summoned the Anasazi people from the underworld through a portal, or sipapu, onto the earth’s surface, she directed them to find the “Center, or Middle, Place” to build their pueblos. Responding to Her guidance, the Anasazi chose village sites which, ideally, served not only to mark their place at the “Center,” but also to function as instruments for tracking celestial movements and predicting seasonal change.

Early in the second millennium, Chaco Canyon – the “Rome” of the Anasazi world – served as the political, religious and cultural center of gravity for a network of communities knitted loosely together by roads or road segments, all converging on the core.

Typically, the residents of Chaco Canyon built Great Houses which included room blocks with spaces for living quarters, storage, towers and family or clan kivas; a large plaza with areas for food preparation, work and ceremony; and a community kiva, or “Great Kiva,” or semisubterranean ceremonial chamber, with features for community activities and ceremonies.

D-shaped Pueblo Bonito

The almost perfectly D-shaped Pueblo Bonito, apparently the largest, perhaps the most architecturally elegant, and certainly the most celebrated of the eleven Chaco Canyon Great Houses, stood five stories in height along its back perimeter rooms.

The principal community planners of the Chaco Canyon Great Houses aligned their structures with cardinal directions or with celestial events. The principal axes of Pueblo Bonito, for example, point almost exactly in the cardinal directions. More astonishing, according to researchers from the University of Colorado, axes of other Great Houses appear to be aligned with “lunar standstills,” the point when the moon makes its northernmost ascension over the earth’s horizon—an event which only occurs every 18.61 years.



The Mesa Verde Anasazi people, who approached a cultural crest at about the time the Chacoan people began their decline, faced different circumstances in the planning, design and construction of their multi-storied, multi-room communities within the higher and colder ranges of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah.

Embraced by stone canyon alcoves, the Mesa Verde cliff dwellers built smaller and more intimate living and storage room blocks than those of the Chaco Canyon Great Houses. In fact, in some pueblos, the Mesa Verdans could scarcely stand erect beneath their low roofs. They punctuated their Great Houses with towers, with both square and circular floor plans, which rose above the surrounding room blocks.

Chaco Canyon pueblos

During the same time period, at Hovenweep, in the arid sage, grass and canyon country of southeastern Utah, people of the Mesa Verde branch of the Anasazi built pueblo complexes at the heads of shallow canyons fed by springs. Like the cliff dwellers to the east, the Hovenweep groups built their room blocks and kivas of shaped sandstone blocks. Unlike the cliff dwellers or the Chacoans, however, the Hovenweep people did not built Great Kivas. Rather, they built what, apparently, were ceremonial towers, some of the most strange and distinctive in the region.

In the southwestern reaches of the Colorado Plateau, primarily in northern Arizona, the Anasazi branch called the Kayenta arrived late to the cultural cresting. The Kayenta people built the cliff dwellings known as Betatakin and Keet Seel in towering alcoves in Tsegi Canyon, in northeastern Arizona.

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace pueblo

In the middle of the 12th century, the Kayenta Anasazi began building multi-storied, multi-room pueblos in the alcoves of the majestic 1000-foot high sandstone walls of Canyon de Chelly and its branch Canyon del Muerto. Like the builders of Betatakin and Keet Seel, the Canyons de Chelly and del Muerto residents built a few small kivas. They built perhaps one Great Kiva, a rectangular roofless structure, near the ruin called Mummy Cave, and they built three Great Kivas at a ceremonial center isolated from the cliff dwellings.

Canyon de Chelly Mummy Cave ruin

The relatively late cliff dwellings of the canyons spoke of the restlessness, movement and cultural stirring across the lands of the Anasazi. In the long-abandoned walls, archaeologists have found the refined masonry of the Chaco Anasazi, for instance, at the ruin called White House; a classic tower of the Mesa Verde Anasazi, at Mummy Cave; and the trademark stonework of the Kayenta, at various sites.

Next: The Hohokam

Anasazi - Hohokam - Mogollon - Sinagua

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