Spanish explorers first encountered the southwestern Native American tribes in the 1540s. There were three major Native American cultures in the southwest: the Hohokam, who were an agricultural group located in the river valleys of the desert, the Mogollon, who were hunters and gatherers, and the Anasazi (Hisatsinom), who were cliff dwellers. In this unit we will explore the spectacular desert ruins of the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) including Mesa Verde in Colorado at the Four Corners, Keet Seel and Betatakin, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, Hovenweep Castle, and numerous other sites.
Brief Chronology of Anasazi (Hisatsinom) history
The Anasazi (Hisatsinom) were likely the descendants of an Archaic Desert culture in the southwest from 6,000 B.C.E. known as the Basketmaker I culture, or from the Mogollon. They first appeared in the Four Corners region (the intersection of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado) around the time of the historic Christ. The ruins of the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) culture are the best-preserved ruins in North America. The word “Anasazi” is a later Navajo word which means “ancient people who are not us” or “ancient enemies.” The Hopi consider themselves to be descendants of the Anasazi (Hisatsinom), and prefer that their ancestors be called the Hisatsinom, which means “people of long ago.” The Anasazi (Hisatsinom) did not build cliff dwellings for the first 1,000 years of their history, but rather lived in open communities or in caves. They lived near fields where they grew corn, squash, and beans. They also gathered nuts and other wild foods and hunted game. Given the very open nature of their lifestyle, archaeologists argue that the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) had few enemies in their early history.
The Anasazi (Hisatsinom) culture from 1 C.E. to 500 C.E. is known as the Basketmaker II culture. The Anasazi (Hisatsinom) had not yet developed pottery, and made baskets lined with pitch to waterproof them. The period from 500-700 C.E. is called the Basketmaker III period, and the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) began to make pottery which was more effective for storage, began to cultivate beans and to build pithouses, dwellings which were sunk three to five feet into the ground. The next stage of Anasazi (Hisatsinom) history was the Pueblo I period, from 700-900 C.E. Near the end of this period, the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) began to replace their pithouses with above ground dwellings. They began to paint their pottery in bright red-on-orange, black-on-white, and black-on-red designs. During the Pueblo II period, from 900-1100 C.E., these designs were made even more bold, and the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) began to build kivas, or communal rooms for ceremonial purposes in their villages. Their population increased, and during this period small Anasazi villages began to spread throughout the southwest.
During the Pueblo III period from 1100-1300 C.E., the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) began to build the cliff dwellings for which they are most well-known. Many buildings in these villages under the cliffs were several stories tall. These villages were in places that were easily defensible, suggesting that the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) had perhaps acquired enemies they did not have in earlier periods. For unknown reasons, near the end of this period the western Anasazi (Hisatsinom) sites were completely abandoned, while the eastern sites continued to flourish and expand.
During the Pueblo IV period from 1300 until 1598 the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) moved further south near the homes of the Hopis and Zunis. Many Anasazi (Hisatsinom) cliff dwellings, or pueblos, became much larger, often housing thousands of people.
Major Anasazi (Hisatsinom) Centers
The ruins of the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) were first discovered in the nineteenth century, and many have since been designated national monuments and World Heritage Centers. The earliest Anasazi (Hisatsinom) site to enter the Pueblo stage of development was Chaco in northwest New Mexico. Chaco Canyon was the center of Anasazi (Hisatsinom) civilization by 900 C.E., and may have had a population which numbered in the thousands. There were three major building styles perfected here: great towns with enormous room blocks with up to five levels; great houses with plazas and kivas; and outlying villages probably designed for family groups. The Anasazi (Hisatsinom) here were known for their turquoise jewelry, and traded with other Anasazi (Hisatsinom) groups. They reached the height of their development around 1130 C.E. Some twenty years later, following a long period of drought, the Chacoans abandoned this region. In 1980 Chaco became a national monument.
Pueblo Bonito is one of the Great Houses in Chaco Canyon; each pueblo here typically has around 216 rooms. You can explore Pueblo Bonito through the links below:
View of Pueblo Bonito
Another overview of the site
A series of doorways
A kiva at Pueblo Bonito
A single doorway
Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado was another very important center of Anasazi (Hisatsinom) culture. Anasazi (Hisatsinom) of the Basketmaker III period lived here, perhaps as far back as 575 C.E. The Anasazi (Hisatsinom) began to construct villages on top of the mesas here as early as 800 C.E. By the 1300s the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) were building much more elaborate cliff dwellings protected by caves. Mesa Verde contains more than 4,000 prehistoric sites.
The Anasazi made the shift from the mesa top to the cliff dwellings below sometime in the 1200s. The inhabitants of Sun Point Pueblo on the mesa top actually dismantled their stone and wooden structures and carried the materials to the shelter of the caves below. Given the tremendous amount of labor involved, scholars have suggested that there must have been a serious threat to their safety above.
Mesa Verde contains some of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the southwest. This is Cliff Palace, which is the largest cliff dwelling in North America. It has 217 rooms and twenty-three kivas, and probably had a population of 200-250 people. The kivas here were sunk into the ground, and one entered them by climbing down a ladder.
a kiva at Cliff Palace
For other views of Cliff Palace, click on the following links:
Cliff Palace another view
Cliff Palace a third view
Cliff Palace Tower
A Kiva at Cliff Palace
Two Ladders Entering a Kiva
View of ladder from inside a kiva
Looking out over a kiva
Other large dwellings include Spruce Tree House, which has 144 rooms and eight kivas. There are over 600 cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde and, although there are other large villages such as this in Mesa Verde, 75 percent contain only one to five rooms. Balcony House is another famous dwelling in Mesa Verde, and is located high on the cliffs 600 feet above the canyon floor. Through tree-ring dating, its first timbers have been dated to 1190 C.E., and its latest timbers to 1290. The Anasazi (Hisatsinom) abandoned most cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde around 1270 C.E., and Balcony House was among the last places to be abandoned. The reasons why the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) left this site are uncertain, but drought, climatic change, or depletion of natural resources are the most likely explanations. Most scholars believe that the inhabitants of the villages in Mesa Verde moved south to join the Hopi or many other tribes in the area. The ruins of the villages were not discovered until December 18, 1888, when a Colorado rancher named Richard Wetherhill happened to spot them from the mesa top. In 1906 the site became a national park, was later excavated by the Smithsonian, and was made a World Heritage Center in 1978.
You can further explore the villages in Mesa Verde by clicking on the links below:
A close-up view of Spruce Tree House
Another view of Spruce Tree House
View looking up the ladder to the Balcony House
Another view of the ladder
A kiva from the Balcony House
The inside of the Balcony House
View of the Balcony House
Other ruins in Mesa Verde
Other Anasazi (Hisatsinom) Sites in the Southwest
Near Mesa Verde are the misnamed Aztec ruins, so-called because the Spanish believed the pueblos to be too sophisticated to have been built by the southwestern Native Americans. The main ruin here has over 500 rooms. Another important Anasazi (Hisatsinom) site is Hovenweep National Monument, straddling the boundary of Utah and Colorado. Hovenweep is an Ute word which means “deserted valley,” and contains six separate Anasazi (Hisatsinom) sites. There were no places here to build cliff dwellings, and the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) built their villages at canyon heads near springs. Their pueblos were multi-story dwellings and they lived in the region from 900-1300 C.E. Drought and population increases probably caused the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) to abandon this site. Betatakin, a Navajo word for “ledge house,” is another well-known Anasazi (Hisatsinom) ruin. It has more than 135 rooms. Keet Seel, a Navajo word meaning “broken pottery,” has more than 150 rooms and six kivas. Inscription House has three-stories, eighty rooms, and one kiva. All three sites were built into the cliffs by the Kayenta Anasazi (Hisatsinom) on what is today the Navajo National Monument on the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona. The Anasazi (Hisatsinom) only lived here from 1250 to 1300 C.E. Nevertheless, these structures are among the largest ruins, testifying to the organizational strength of the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) communities.
The Anasazi (Hisatsinom) lived much longer at Canyon de Chelly, also located on the Navajo Reservation. There are over 700 prehistoric sites here, including Whitehouse Ruins, Antelope House, Mummy Cave Ruin, and others. The Anasazi (Hisatsinom) built these cliff dwellings between 1100-1300 C.E.. When the Ansazi left, the Hopi and Navajo later occupied the site. Canyon de Chelly became a national monument in 1931, and is on over 130 square miles of land now owned by the Navajo. The Anasazi (Hisatsinom) also lived in the region now known as the Petrified Forest National Park and, although they did not know what petrified wood was, they used it to build their dwellings. They lived here from 1050 B.C.E. to 1400 C.E.
As the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) abandoned their cliff dwellings here, they joined other tribes in the area. For example, one group of Anasazi (Hisatsinom) joined the inhabitants of Pecos somewhere around the twelfth century and began to build their multi-story pueblos. Pecos was an important center of trade between the Pueblo and Plains Indians. The Spanish conquistadors first arrived in the 1540s, and in 1598 Spanish missions were established in Pecos to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. The remains of the largest mission church built in 1625 can still be seen under later structures. The Pueblo Indians destroyed the mission in 1680 and drove the Spanish south to El Paso, Texas. The Pecos Anasazi (Hisatsinom) recovered their native traditions and built a kiva in the ruins of the Spanish church. In 1692 the Spanish regained control of Pecos and New Mexico, ending a long era of Anasazi occupation.
The legacy of the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) can still be seen throughout the southwest. There are many other sites associated with the Anasazi (Hisatsinom), and other groups of people who believe themselves to be descendants of the Anasazi (Hisatsinom). The Sinagua, whose name means “without water,” built smaller cliff dwellings at Montezuma’s Castle in Arizona. Although it is not certain whether the Sinagua were a branch of the Anasazi (Hisatsinom) or some other southwestern culture, they were very influenced by the Anasazi (Hisatsinom). Montezuma’s Castle, built in the thirteenth century, has two five-story pueblos, the upper of which has twenty rooms while the lower has forty-five rooms. There are also several rooms at the foot of Montezuma’s Castle. Montezuma’s Well, which is nearby, has remains of a pithouse and rooms along the rim of the well. This site was erroneously named for the Aztec king, as again the Spanish felt it too advanced for the southwestern Native Americans.
If you are interested in further exploring the Ansazi culture, try the following links:
Sipapu: Anasazi (Hisatsinom) Emergence into the Cyberworld 3D computer images of a kiva and Chaco house; an excellent resource with loads of information.
Hovenweep National Monument
The Story of Mesa Verde National Park
Navajo National Monument: Betatakin and Keet Seel
*Note on the Color Purple
The color purple was selected for the headings on this page as it was one of the four colors the Pueblo people associated with maize.
Photographs of Montezuma’s Castle and Well (and all associated sites) by Dr. Deborah Vess. Those photos and the entire text in this site copyright © Dr. Deborah Vess 2000. All rights reserved.
For further information regarding these materials, contact the author via e-mail:
or by snail mail at:
Dr. Deborah Vess
Director of Interdisciplinary Studies
and Associate Professor of History
Georgia College & State University
Milledgeville, Georgia 31061-0490