Anasazi Culture

Anasazi culture, little is known about these ancient people. Here is a snapshot view of these

Long before the coming of the so-called "civilized" Europeans, North America was inhabited by traveling bands of ancient people. Nomadic tribes, these early ancestors of Southwest Native Americans traveled the land in search of food from the thriving herds of large animals. But possibly as early as A.D. 900, as the wandering herds began to diminish, these people began to settle down and developed societies and cultures around what is called the Four Corners area of the southwest, in southern Utah and Colorado, and northern Arizona and New Mexico.

Referred to as "Hisatsinom" by their Hopi descendants, the people are probably better known as "Anasazi," the Navajo name said to mean "ancient enemies." Other, more traditional, Native Americans may simply refer to these ancient people as the "old ones." Whatever the name, it is evident that these people not only settled in, but were also a thriving population and cultural center for the southwest.

The Anasazi, ancestors of present-day Pueblos, Zunis, and Hopis of New Mexico and Arizona, fished, hunted small game and birds, and gathered wild foods in their newly developing home. A desert culture, these ancient people learned to live off the land, and even to make the land work for their good. Eventually building elaborate structures in the cliff walls, the Anasazi moved from their early "subterranean pit houses, sunken homes with stonework walls," into elaborately carved mansions high atop cliff walls and stone structures.

As they developed aboveground storage facilities, the Anasazis began to build grand houses into the stones, acquiring new living quarters and using their former underground dwellings as "spiritual centers" called "kivas." The kiva, used for religious teaching and rituals the Anasazi practiced, became a meeting place for the tribes and clans. The center of the kiva contained a hole, which is said to have symbolized the "sipapa," the place of origin through which Anasazi ancestors first emerged into this world. Throughout the ages, the kiva has remained a sacred site, a place of spiritual energy and space.

The early Anasazi people lived in small groups of a few families, with perhaps 10-25 people living in each village, on average, for about 10-20 years. However, the Anasazi population exploded during the last half of the 11th century, filling the Grand Canyon region of the Southwest. And, as their society grew, the Anasazi villages banded together to control their water supply with earthen dams and irrigation systems, turning parts of the high arid desert into gardens of various crops to feed their people. The old culture was able to develop crops with deep roots, able to reach underground water, and thus afford the Anasazi greater access to food supplies.

As their food grew, their society grew, and with that, culture and art flourished. Baskets and pottery were plentiful, with both functional uses and artful appearances. As the tribes grew, they also developed elaborate trading routes, enabling them to travel to far away places, trading for goods which they, themselves, lacked. These trade roads also allowed other people of the regions to come into the Anasazi villages for equal trade, as well. Life was good for these once nomadic and unsettled people.

Settlements around what we know today as Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, became a center for the Anasazi civilization. With more than 400 miles of roads leading into and away from the canyon, people from far regions were able to access the goods produced by the Anasazi people. Contact with far away people allowed the canyon residents to possess items and to see things they might other wise have never experienced, which allowed their culture to further grow and develop. Along the trading roads, signal stations began to develop, allowing messages to be sent along the route, alerting the canyon and other settlements to impending trouble or approaching travelers and traders. They also provided the traveling bands with a place to stop and rest on their journeys.

At its heyday, the Anasazi-populated Chaco Canyon may have been home to more than 5,000 people, with some 12 towns scattered throughout the canyon region. Building materials, such as timbers from far away lands, were hauled in along their roads, adding to the building efforts of the people.

Pueblo Bonito, considered the "largest single building" ever constructed by the Anasazi, housed over 1,000 residents in more than 600 rooms. In this magnificent structure lived the craftsmen, artisans, merchants, and government and religious leaders of the tribe. This one place became the "busy heart of Anasazi religion and trade."

Turquoise, long a valued art material of the Southwest Natives, found its value in the Anasazi culture, shipped in from varying regions, and handcrafted into tiles and other objects, and even shipped down through Mexico, where it also saw a permanent rise in popularity and value.

Today, with the ancient villages and buildings in ruins, scattered about the U.S. southwest and northern parts of Mexico, we don't really know for sure what caused the collapse of such a thriving civilization. It is only theorized that, after a couple hundred years of thriving culture, the civilization began to fall apart. Anasazi people began to move out of the region, and joined with other bands of people throughout the southwest and down into South America.

One theory suggests that a 50-year series of drought, beginning about A.D. 1130, may have dried up all the water resources. And, without this necessary water supply, the abundant culture could not have hoped to survive in such drastic desert conditions. A similar theory even suggests that some of the Anasazi may have resorted to cannibalism to survive. Another factor in the decline of the Anasazi culture is thought to have been a decline in the turquoise trade. Even with all of these, it is certain that a growing and thriving population like the Anasazi must certainly have faced food shortages as their numbers grew.

Whatever the reasons for decline, by A.D. 1130-1150, many of the Anasazi towns were deserted. And, by the 13th Century, Chaco Canyon was a deserted ruin.

A large population of the Anasazi concentrated around the Mesa Verde area, thought to have come from Chaco Canyon, and built their grand palaces into the cliff walls. It is believed that the Mesa Verde settlement comprised about 3,000 people, with some 30,000 in nearby Montezuma Valley. At Mesa Verde, the people farmed the mesa top, growing the food they needed for survival. However, by 1300, the entire region, once populated by such a thriving civilization, had been completely abandoned by the Anasazi.

Many ideas abound, theorizing on the decline and disappearance of the Anasazi from the southwestern region of the U.S. In addition to a declining water supply, it is thought that many battles and wars took place, as migrating Apache and Navajo tribes moved through the area.

It is believed that as many as 10,000 of the Anasazi people may have migrated south, into the Rio Grande Valley, where Spaniards found them a couple of hundred years later. These are the natives who became the Pueblos, a name conferred on them by the Spanish. ("pueblo" the Spanish word for "towns")

Other Anasazi probably migrated to the Hopi and Zuni towns in present day Arizona and New Mexico, merging with the existing populations there. And the Navajo eventually settled the greater sections of land once inhabited by the Anasazi.

The only remaining evidence of the once proud and thriving Anasazi culture lies in the scattered ruins around the U.S. Southwest. Cliff dwellings and other structural ruins can still be seen in Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Pueblo Bonito, and Mesa Verde in the four-corners regions of the Southwest. Skeletons, village archeological finds, and cliff and rock art are all that remain to tell us about the heritage and culture of the Southwest.

Other evidences abound in the stories of the "old ones," still told around council fires and pow wows. The stories of these earlier people are still told by the elders of different tribes, to teach their young ones their rich cultural heritage.

Whatever the reasons for the Anasazi civilization's decline, they were a proud and thriving people, filled with culture, arts, trading and civilization. It is a shame that their once proud homes are but ruins for those of us in this new century to view. Perhaps, one day in the not too distant future, some of our own most spectacular structures and civilizations may lie wasted in the dust, another ancient ruin for some future people to explore.

Trending Now

© High Speed Ventures 2011