The Mysterious Migration:

Early Puebloans Abandon Their Pueblos

The great kiva in the plaza of Chetro Ketl at Chaco Culture National Historic Park

The great kiva in the plaza of Chetro Ketl at Chaco Culture National Historic Park


The Remains of the Puebloan Culture

The history of the indigenous people of the Southwest contains significant mysteries. One of them, the widespread withdrawal of the Puebloan people from large established pueblos from 1150 to 1450, is still being researched. In the last century archaeologists in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico have discovered considerable evidence of this mysterious migration.

Remnants of the mud walls of large ancient pueblos have been found in the sands of the northern Chihuahuan Desert, in the range of the ancient Mogollon peoples. In the northern Sonoran Desert, the land of the Hohokam culture, walls and age-old irrigation ditches were found standing alongside the drainage basins. Stone cities, long abandoned and frozen in time, have been uncovered in the canyons and grasslands of the arid Colorado Plateau, the center of the Anasazi peoples.

There are ruins of historically abandoned pueblos in northern New Mexico’s Pecos pueblo, and central New Mexico’s Gran Quivira, Quarai and Abo pueblos, where Spanish Franciscan missionaries had built massive churches to call the Indians to Christianity.

The people of the living pueblos, in northeastern Arizona, in central western New Mexico and in the Rio Grande drainage basins, still speak of ancient abandonments and migrations in the oral histories of their ancestral communities and clans.

Emergence of the Puebloan Culture

Most archaeologists have come to agree on the basic outlines of Puebloan history after the last century's discoveries, data collections, analysis, and debates. Scientists believe that Puebloan cultures emerged from ancient hunting and gathering traditions. Their earliest ancestors, the nomadic Paleo Indians, followed and hunted big game and harvested wild plant foods in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico during the Ice Ages.

The Archaic Indian culture emerged from the Paleo Indians. Still nomads, they hunted smaller game and harvested more wild plant foods after the Ice Age ended, about eight or nine thousand years ago. The Archaic peoples began to lay the foundation for village life and rudimentary farming perhaps 4000 years ago, giving rise to the Mogollon, Hohokam and Anasazi cultural traditions that very slowly began to arise around 500 to 900 AD. Proto-Puebloan peoples lived in small hamlets of semi-subterranean lodges, or pithouses; raised crops of corn, beans and squash; practiced the old craft of basketmaking; and took up the new craft of ceramics during most of the first millennium. The Pueblo I era is also called the Developmental Pueblo Period. It is officially dated from AD 750 to 1100; during this time the population began to live in pueblos.

House on Fire Puebloan Ruins

House on Fire Puebloan Ruins under a cliff in Mule Canyon in the Cedar Mesa Plateau of Utah

The Puebloan Culture Flourishes

The Mogollon, Hohokam and Anasazi populations coalesced across wide areas, and began building multi-story surface structures from stone, mud and timbers around 750 to 1100 AD, and on into early in the second millennium, around 1300 AD. The Mesoamericans (the great cultures of southern Mexico) left their ancient fingerprints on Puebloan agriculture, sharing trade goods, architecture, ritual, mythology and ideological symbols and figures. The long Puebloan development reached a cultural peak around 1250 AD, when the Mogollon Puebloan people produced a rich legacy of art on stone and ceramic "canvases". The Hohokam designed and excavated extensive irrigation systems in river valleys and hillside drainages, created new forms of crafts, and built Mesoamerican-style ballcourts and ceremonial platform mounds. The Anasazi planned, designed and built the most elaborate communities of the prehistoric western deserts.

Gran Quiviria post-dates the great abandonment and migrations

Gran Quiviria post-dates the great abandonment and migrations

Until the twelfth century A. D., investigators think that the archaeological record yields a fairly straightforward story, although they can't pinpoint the earliest arrival of people in the region nor can they gauge the full extent of the Mesoamerican influence in the Puebloans’ development. Without a doubt, the Puebloan peoples held ancient and powerful connections with their home lands. Descended from perhaps hundreds of generations of nomadic hunter/gatherers and, later, village farmers, the Puebloans knew their basins and mountain ranges as well as they knew their villages and lodges.

Like trained biologists, they knew the game and wild plant communities from the desert basins up through the mountain elevations. The Puebloans knew their fields, and the agricultural seasons, marked by the transits of stars and planets. Their life was a fabric of sacred peaks and landmarks which bounded their range, the traditions and rhythms of their community life, and the rituals and dance of ceremonial chambers and plazas. The Puebloan universe was bounded by the powers of shamans, the kinships of clans, and the graves of their ancestors.

They had mastered the skills and developed the artistry to produce sophisticated ceramics, jewelry, and woven fabrics. They spoke their own languages, probably early dialects of Keresan or Tewa. Centuries of grinding labor had been spent constructing their pueblos, excavating irrigation channels, building sacred monuments, and painting and scribing ritualistic rock art images. Trade networks spanned the western deserts and extended from the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains to Southern Mexico. Over thousands of years, they had forged powerful physical and spiritual bonds with their lands.

Trauma and Change for the Puebloan Cultures

Then something strange and ominous happened. Just as they reached their cultural pinnacle across the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, the Puebloan peoples began to grow restless in their respective ancestral homelands. They began to break the bonds with their traditional ranges, their revered mountains, their hard-won fields, irrigation systems, pueblos, sacred monuments, rock art galleries and long-established trade routes. Forsaking the great physical and spiritual investments by generations, they walked away from their homes and their lands with no more than what they could carry on their backs. Between 1150 and 1450 – a small slice of time in their long history – the Puebloans simply abandoned an unprecedented region, primarily the vast expanses of marginal farming areas which encompassed canyonlands, mesa tops, open grasslands and desert basins in the Four Corners region, eastern Arizona, western New Mexico and northern Mexico.

What happened to the people? Over time they moved to river and stream bottoms – irrigable land – like iron filings attracted to a magnet.

The Mogollon

The Mogollon people seem to have moved generally northward, toward central New Mexico, where families or groups, or possibly entire villages appear to have affiliated with Anasazis moving southward. Some bands may have returned to their ancient desert hunting and gathering roots. Others may have drifted eastward, onto the Great Plains, where they followed and hunted the buffalo. The Mimbres branch, who created what is perhaps the most famous ceramics in the prehistoric United States, seems to have just melted into the landscape.

The Hohokam

The Hohokam culture withered away, the people dispersing. Some may have migrated northward, toward the Hopi area of northeastern Arizona. Others, possibly including the ancestors of the Pima, the Papago and the Yuma, may have reverted to their early and simpler village and farming lives. Still others disappeared from the archaeological record, as if they simply vanished.

The Anasazi

The Anasazi peoples, the master community planners, architects and builders, walked away from their Four Corners heartland, leaving a vast landscape of forlorn and stony ghost towns behind them. Some apparently moved southward into the vicinity of Arizona’s Hopi pueblos and New Mexico’s Zuni, Acoma and Laguna pueblos. Many others continued to locations still farther south and east. Many of the Mesa Verde Anasazi people moved southeastward into the upper Rio Grande drainages.

The Puebloans' Wanderings

By the mid 1400’s, the Puebloans had given up their cultural cohesion, the product of thousands of years of cultural evolution, and they had relinquished their traditional lands, the homes of generations of their ancestors. Effectively refugees, at least some groups – possibly entire village populations – may have wandered in the desert like Moses and the Jews in the wilderness, searching for a new home, what they called "the center place." Stephen H. Lekson said in his article "Flight of the Anasazi" in Archaeology Magazine, September/October 2001, that "traditions suggest that the migrations were long and convoluted."

Researchers have tried to map the Puebloan peoples’ wanderings by correlating the community plans, architectural designs and construction methods of more recent pueblos with those of the early pueblos, and they have tried to follow the trails of groups’ distinctive pottery, the archaeological equivalent of DNA for the desert cultures. They have found a broad and confusing mix of archaeological evidence.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Linda Cordell in her book, Archaeology of the Southwest, says that "...sites of the Rio Grande area and eastern New Mexico exhibit considerable variation in construction materials and techniques..." Like Anasazi pueblos, "The larger sites had multiple plaza areas surrounded by roomblocks, one very large kiva or great kiva [ceremonial chamber], and frequently smaller kivas as well... Other large sites...are multistory, multiplaza masonry pueblos..." Unlike typical Anasazi pueblos, however, "...kivas are neither uniformly present nor always round... In none of the excavated examples of kivas...were the elaborate floor features known from [the Chacoan branch of the Anasazi] (benches, niches, paired vaults, etc.) present.

"The major issue," says Cordell, "is that whereas the large, aggregated sites of the Rio Grande area suggest a population influx, and the archaeological record of the then deserted San Juan Basin and Mesa Verde indicate that they are likely sources for this population, there are no known sites that are so closely similar to those of the source areas that they can be considered evidence of a migrant community..."

At Point of Pines, a large 13th century, east central Arizona pueblo site excavated in the 1940’s and 1950’s, lead archaeologist Emil Haury and his research teams uncovered a 70-room section with architecture and pottery which spoke to an intrusion by Kayenta Anasazi, from 200 miles to the north. The migrants apparently proved to be unwelcome guests. "...most of the rooms in the Kayenta neighborhood were intentionally burned, with all of their contents [as well as several occupants] in place," said Steve Lekson. "Haury noted that after that conflagration no trace of the Kayenta people or their pottery remained at Point of Pines."

The migrants – whether extended families or entire villages – had to blend with new peoples in a new land or possibly face a perilous life of uncertainty in a contested region. "I would characterize the period [of abandonment and migration] as a ‘reformation,’" ceramic specialist Toni Laumbach told me. She, with her archaeologist husband Karl Laumbach, their colleague Steve Lekson and Earthwatch volunteers are investigating a large, possible Mesa Verde immigrant pueblo site, called the "Pinnacle Ruin," on central New Mexico’s Canada Alamosa. In some regions, she said, the migrants may have merged so completely that they lost their cultural identity. In other regions, they may have founded their own pueblos – possibly like Pinnacle Ruin – and retained their identity for a time.

In sum, the Puebloan abandonments and migrations became a time of change, adaptation and conformance, a long march to different drummers.

The Drought No Doubt?

For years, archaeologists thought that the Puebloans moved from their ancestral homelands across the deserts of the southwestern U. S. and northern Mexico because, it seemed, the intermittent droughts which occurred between 1150 and 1450 must have caused crop failures and diminished game and wild plant food resources. Investigators can determine the very years when droughts have occurred by examining the annual growth rings within the trunks of certain tree species such as ponderosa pines. A wide growth ring points to relatively high rainfall for the year, a narrow ring, to lower rainfall.

After additional research, however, archaeologists realized that comparable droughts occurred just as the Puebloans began making the transitional leap from pithouses to multi-story surface structures. They saw that the Anasazi established the Great House pueblos of Chaco Canyon during the heart of a period of drought. Then in 1990, a graduate student, Carla Van West, demonstrated that the Mesa Verdan Anasazi could have raised enough corn to support their population in spite of the droughts. "Nobody is talking about great droughts anymore," archaeologist Linda Cordell told New York Times reporter George Johnson back in 1996. Since then archaeologists have been searching for other explanations.

In Archaeology of the Southwest, Cordell points out that archaeologists can often see in the archaeological record the reasons for localized abandonments and migrations, which occurred frequently in Puebloan history. They knew, for instance, that a population might abandon a community because of drought, chronic flooding or resource depletion. The people may have seen drought or flood as a final straw after they had exhausted fields, used up fire wood, hunted out the game and consumed the wild plants in their immediate area. The archaeologists could see, too, that several neighboring villages might abandon a marginal farming area because of drought, flooding, resource depletion or overpopulation. They knew, however, that explanations for localized abandonments and moves did not necessarily serve for great regional change.

As archaeologists looked beyond the traditional explanation of drought as the trigger for the regional abandonments and migrations, they began to think, said Cordell, "in terms of push factors and pull factors,"—the combined forces which might drive populations from their traditional homelands and attract them to a new region. The "push" and "pull" factors proposed so far appear to have both strengths and weaknesses as explanations.

In terms of the "push" factors, archaeologists have pointed to environmental problems, including not only drought, but also erratic rainfall patterns, falling water tables, failing springs, persistent seasonal flooding (especially in the Hohokams’ Sonoran Desert region) and resource depletion. Based on earlier patterns, however, it seems that the Puebloans would have responded to these factors on a local, rather than an orchestrated regional basis. Some archaeologists have proposed that warfare with invading nomadic raiders – perhaps the Apaches, Navajos or Utes – might have triggered abandonment, but the raiders, if they even arrived in the desert as early as the 1150 to 1450 period – before the introduction of Spanish horses – seemed to have lacked the mobility or the numbers to terrorize large pueblo settlements. Moreover, the "raiders," in fact, often traded and intermarried with the Puebloans, at least in late prehistoric (and historic) times. Other archaeologists have suggested that warfare between competing Puebloan peoples may have produced profound change, and while there is indeed significant archaeological evidence of battle and defensive construction (and possibly even cannibalism) in pueblo ruins, it doesn’t explain why both the vanquished and the victors might leave their homes. Investigators have also suggested that village factional disputes, political collapse, religious failures, witchcraft, disease or interrupted trade routes may have contributed to the abandonments, but it seems likely that the Puebloans would have regarded those factors as local, not regional, issues.

As for the "pull" factors, researchers speculate that Puebloan migrants may have felt attracted to the south and east to join growing and possibly more vigorous and stable pueblos, where they found more irrigable lands, more predictable rainfall patterns, larger and more protective populations and a larger labor force. In the northern Rio Grande drainage, archaeologists have found pueblo ruins which had more than 2000 rooms, larger by a significant margin than the great houses of Chaco Canyon. Such pueblos signal an aggregation of peoples.

Perhaps, too, Puebloan refugees, downcast by their displacement from their ancestral homelands, sought spiritual renewal, which they may have found in the flowering of the kachina masked dancing cults. Across the re-defined, 14th and 15th century Puebloan range – from the upper drainages of the Little Colorado River and the Rio Grande – newly aggregated communities turned to kachinas as mediators who would intercede with deities to answer the calls for rain, health and fertility. (Similarly, the profoundly religious Spanish colonists of the American Southwest prayed before their santos – wood carvings of saints – expecting the figures to intercede with the saints to plead for divine help.) At times of ceremonies, Puebloan clans emerged from their kivas to stage elaborate dance and ritual, unifying their communities in a call for spiritual intervention in their lives.

Although archaeologists and anthropologists dispute the origins of the kachina movement, most agree that some aspects appeared very early, some possibly with Mesoamerican roots. "...the katcina (sic) rituals seem to have crystallized out of diverse and very ancient elements in Pueblo culture," Cordell said. Perhaps even more importantly, "The ceremonies and beliefs were very successful in integrating Pueblo peoples of different languages and histories. They were particularly successful at times of population movement and concomitant social stress."

An Enduring Mystery

In the end, we still don’t fully understand what prompted so many people across the southwestern United States and northern Mexico to give up ancestral homelands and move en masse to new regions within the same period. We can guess that communities felt themselves "pushed" by some combination of social and environmental factors and "pulled" by promises of more stable weather, irrigable farm land, safer communities and spiritual fulfillment. We may never understand, however, how the phenomenon of abandonment and migration extended over such a wide area at the same period in prehistoric times.

For more information about the great Puebloan abandonments and migrations, refer to Linda Cordell’s Archaeology of the Southwest, my primary source for this article.

Jay W. Sharp

"Paleo-Indians" (Part 1)
Desert Archaic peoples( Part 2)
Desert Archaic peoples - Spritual Quest (Part 3)
Native Americans - The Formative Period (Part 4)
Voices from the South (Part 5)
The Mogollon Basin and Range Region (Part 6)
The Mogollon - Their Magic (Part7)
Hohokam the Farmers (Part 8)
The Hohokam Signature (Part 9 )
The Anasazi (Part 10)
The Anasazi 2 (Part 11)
The Great Puebloan Abandonments (Part 12) This page
Paquime (Part 13)
When The Spanish Came (Part 14)
Life on the Margin (Part 15)
Life on the Margin (2) (Part 16)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 1 (Part 17)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 2 (Part 18)
The Outside Raiders (Part 19)
The Enduring Mysteries (Part 20)
Some Sites to Visit (Final Part)
Pueblo Rebellion
Profile Of An Apache Woman
Cochise and the Bascom Affair
Geronimo's Last Hurrah
Books on Native American healing


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