major groups of prehistoric peoples inhabited the San Juan
Skyway region, the Archaic and the Anasazi. Of the two, the
Anasazi are by far the better known. Visitors flock from throughout
the world to see the famous cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde,
the silent stone cities at Chaco Canyon, and the hundreds
of other prehistoric Anasazi sites in parks and monuments
scattered throughout the Four Comers. Less well known, but
equally important, are the thousands of Anasazi sites found
on private property, Indian reservations, and lands managed
by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in
the Four Comers area.
Anasazi were a prehistoric farming people who lived in southwestern
Colorado for more than thirteen centuries, from just before
the birth of Christ until A.D. 1300. They left behind tens
of thousands of large and small villages, hamlets, towers,
ceremonial kivas, and other structures built of stone, adobe,
and wood. Though most of these structures have fallen into
low mounds of rock over the centuries, many ruins remain virtually
intact in protected sandstone canyon alcoves. In southwestern
Colorado today, it almost impossible to walk through a pinon
forest, along a canyon rim, or across a farmer's field without
encountering a scattering of broken pottery, chips of stone,
and tumbled masonry walls of a prehistoric village. What is
common to the residents of the Four Comers is rare and exciting
to those from other parts of the country and the world.
the Archaic peoples and other mobile hunter-gatherers found
in the San Juan Mountains, the Anasazi were sedentary farmers.
Their primary crop was corn, or Zea maize, a multicolored
form of the corn we grow today. They also grew substantial
quantities of squashes and pumpkins and several varieties
of beans, a staple crop still grown by dryland farmers in
southwestern Colorado today.
Anasazi are classified by archaeologists as belonging to the Formative
Period of human society. This period is characterized by subsistence
farming, construction of permanent or semi-permanent dwellings,
production of a large variety of tools and crafts such as pottery
and jewelry, use of storage vessels and rooms, and the development
of socially integrative structures for community rituals and ceremonials.
Formative peoples also usually conducted substantial trade with
of these unique Anasazi sites can be found along the Skyway
or within a short drive of it. Several dozen of these sites
have been excavated and are open to visitors.
BRIEF HISTORY OF ANASAZI CULTURE
remains in southwestern Colorado are at the northern edge
of the prehistoric world of the Anasazi (Cordell 1984). At
its peak, this world stretched from the lower slopes of the
San Juan Mountains in Colorado throughout most of the Four
Comers region and much of the Colorado Plateau.
Four Corners is a region of great environmental and topographic
diversity, with landscapes ranging from the green, well watered
San Juan Mountains to the hot, dry, sandy Navajo desert. In between
lie miles of flat mesas cut by sheer-walled sandstone canyons. These
mesas are covered with dense gray-green pinon and juniper forests
and expanses of great sage plains, broken here and there by the
wide, tree-lined river valleys of the Colorado, the San Juan, the
Rio Grande, and smaller connecting streams.
land possesses beauty as diverse as the environments and landforms
themselves. The former Anasazi realm includes the Grand Canyon,
Monument Valley, Canyonlands National Park, Canyon de Chelly,
Mesa Verde, the San Juan Mountains, and numerous other places
known for their outstanding scenery. Because Anasazi farmers
needed a long growing season, most of the Anasazi sites along
the Skyway lie at lower elevations between Durango and Dolores,
south of the San Juan National Forest.
Anasazi lived in southwestern Colorado for more than thirteen
centuries. Emerging from the Archaic hunters and gatherers,
they developed slowly, over many centuries, the culture we
recognize today. Archaeologists have carefully tracked that
development and have divided the culture into a number of
different time periods (Matlock and Warren 1988). Change from
one period to another was slow, imperceptible to the Anasazi
themselves, and erratic from place to place.
BASKETMAKER PERIODS (200 B.C.-A.D. 750)
earliest evidence for the Anasazi culture in southwestern
Colorado was found near the modern town of Durango. In the
mid-1930s a local amateur archaeologist, Zeke Flora, discovered
two deep sandstone caves, or rock shelters, in a remote valley
just north of Durango. At the back of the cave he found scores
of small red, white, green, and black figures painted on the
sandstone walls but observed little else that would indicate
a major archaeological site. However, when he excavated a
section of the North Shelter, he found, buried in a natural
sandstone "vault," the most remarkable mummified
human remains ever encountered in the United States. The dry
cave environment had preserved intact the bodies of over half
a dozen 2,000-year-old Anasazi people. Included with them,
or nearby, were also well-preserved baskets, sandals, nets,
cordage, beads, necklaces, and many other rare objects.
that he had discovered a site of great importance, Flora called
the University of Colorado Henderson Museum in Boulder and talked
to Earl Morris, a prominent southwestern archaeologist of the time.
After a preliminary assessment, Morris concluded that the site,
called variously the Falls Creek Caves or Durango Rock Shelters,
was from what archaeologists called the Basketmaker II Period of
Anasazi culture, a period previously unknown in Colorado. Before
Flora's discovery archaeologists working at these early Basketmaker
11 sites had found only small stone-slab-lined pits. Further excavation
at the Falls Creek Caves by Morris led to the discovery of actual
houses used by the Basketmaker people (Morris and Burgh 1954). Even
more important, wooden logs used in the wood and adobe structures
had also been preserved. These wooden beams yielded dates of between
200 B.C, and A.D. 200, the oldest dates known for Anasazi people
the wide Animas River valley, north of Durango, is littered
today with shoddy trailer houses, condominiums, golf courses,
and other leavings of our own society, it would have looked
very different 2,000 years ago. Across the flat river valley
from Durango almost to the present site of the Tarnarron resort,
one would have seen small garden plots of corn and squashes
laid out to conform with the land and the figures of Anasazi
men, women, and children working the farm plots.
on the discoveries at the Falls Creek Caves and later sites
found in the valley, the Basketmaker Anasazi probably wore
elaborate necklaces of juniper berry, shell, and ground, polished
colored stone (Morris and Burgh 1954). Women carried babies
on their backs in elaborately prepared cradle boards.
Anasazi sites are rare, and the population probably was relatively
small. The people lived in small family groups and probably
hunted and gathered as much food as they raised by farming.
By the end of this period, the Anasazi were well established
in the Four Comers, and from this base they expanded throughout
a large area of the Southwest.
the next period of Anasazi culture, the Basketmaker III Period (ca.
A.D. 450-750), the Anasazi continued to live in the Animas Valley
north of present-day Durango. But they had by now spread widely
throughout the Four Corners and over the full range of the prehistoric
Anasazi world (Nickens and Hull 1982). Basketmaker III culture varied
from earlier Anasazi culture in a number of significant ways: the
development of a distinctive type of subterranean or semi-subterranean"pithouse"
with an associated storage room or rooms; the development of ceramic
storage and cooking vessels to supplement the baskets used almost
exclusively during the earlier period; the addition of beans to
the agricultural inventory; and other changes.
the Basketmaker III Period, nearly all Anasazi people lived in pithouses
near their farm plots and close to available water sources. The
pithouses seem to be single family units, although excavations have
revealed some two- to five-unit pithouse villages that were probably
occupied by extended families. Each pithouse would normally contain
the generally circular subterranean main living structure, a slightly
smaller attached antechamber or storage room, a central firepit
(often constructed of stone or with a clay collar), and a seemingly
random set of subfloor pits and storage vaults, some filled with
sand on which to set hot pottery vessels. The occasional presence
of outdoor firepits attests to the cooking and processing of foods
out of doors. Careful excavations of these plaza areas have encountered
large, bell-shaped storage pits dug into the ground surface. These
pits were ordinarily lined with clay and would have been relatively
insect-, rodent-, and human-proof
of these storage pits tell us that the Basketmaker III Anasazi must
have been very successful in their farming, hunting, wild plant
gathering, and other subsistence activities and that surplus foods
must have been available. The fact that these pithouses and small
villages are scattered widely and in open, unprotected locations
suggests that the Basketmaker III peoples must have been relatively
free of hostilities from outside groups or from disagreements and
PUEBLO I PERIOD (A.D. 750-900)
Pueblo I (PI) Period extends from about A.D. 700 or 750 to A.D.
900 or 950, depending on what part of the Anasazi world you happened
to be in. During this period, the pithouse continued to be used
for living, but the first above-ground structures were built. These
small, contiguous rooms were made of upright wooden poles coated
on both sides with a thick adobe or mud plaster, an architectural
form known worldwide as "wattle and daub" (Plog: 1979).
The rooms tended to be arranged in a semicircle and generally faced
south, capturing the sun's warmth in the plaza work areas. The Anasazi
and other peoples in the Four Comers region regularly made very
effective use of solar energy.
its most typical form, a PI village consisted of several fairly
large pithouses with an arc of above-ground wattle and daub
structures nearby. Occasionally some of these structures used
stone masonry in portions of the walls, with upright stones
providing a stabilizing foundation for the vertical post and
major characteristic of the villages of this period was their increased
size and the presence of structures for ceremonial and/or community
use. Over time pithouses became larger and larger, then more and
more standardized in terms of their internal features, with a great
deal of care being taken in their construction. These elaborate
pithouses became, in time, the well known multifunction (ceremonial
and social) kivas of the Anasazi and their modern descendants, the
Pueblo Indians, who continue to use them today.
you might expect, the other crafts, tools, and material items
manufactured by the Anasazi during the PI Period were also
more elaborate and greater in kind and number compared to
the Basketmaker III Period. Ceramic vessels with black and
white painted decorations were well made. Baskets and sandals
continued in use, as did many elaborate forms of jewelry in
shell, turquoise, jet, clay, and other materials. Evidence
of these early periods, the first 1,000 years of Anasazi culture,
is hard to see from the Skyway itself, but Mesa Verde National
Park and the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores provide excellent
displays of sites from this era.
PUEBLO II AND PUEBLO III ANASAZI PERIODS (A.D. 900-1300)
about A.D. 900, the Anasazi were living in masonry villages
in large family or clan groups. These settlements and the
highly distinctive pottery from the Pueblo II and III Periods
probably represent the best known and most distinctive characteristics
of Anasazi people. During both of these last periods of their
history, the Anasazi produced unique and enduring contributions
to world culture.
the Pueblo II Period, the Anasazi splintered into a number
of regionally distinct groups in various parts of the Four
Corners, each with its own unique masonry, pottery, and other
cultural items. The Anasazi of southwestern Colorado are called
the Northern San Juan or Mesa Verde Branch. Evidence of this
branch can be seen along the Skyway, and therefore it is the
focus of this discussion.
masonry walls that form the homes and villages of the PH and PIII
sites were made of shaped sandstone set in a simple adobe or clay
mortar. The villages consist of clusters of mostly rectangular rooms
that by the later part of the PH Period were often two stories in
height. Within or outside these living and storage rooms were found
circular masonry-walled subterranean kivas. These Anasazi manufactured
hundreds of fine craft items. Foremost of these were beautifully
made ceramic bowls, pitchers, specialized ritual jars, finely corrugated
cooking and water-storage vessels, and unusual effigy and ritual
forms. Though they are best known for their fine, creamy-white,
almost perfectly smooth vessels bearing deep black geometric designs,
the Anasazi in southwestern Colorado manufactured and traded for
scores of different types and forms.
the PII and PIII Periods, the population and size of Anasazi
villages grew dramatically. Whereas early PII masonry villages
had four or five rooms and a single kiva, by the mid-1100s
large Anasazi settlements such as the Yellow Jacket site and
others contained hundreds of rooms, kivas, and other structures
within what by now had become substantial towns (Rohn 1989).
Most of these large communities have yet to be excavated,
and much remains to be learned about the Anasazi.
the PII Period, the Anasazi of southwestern Colorado became
part of or were influenced by so-called regional systems that
developed out of Chaco Canyon to the south (Judge 1991). Several
scores of small, specialized villages with traits of the Chaco
people were constructed throughout the Four Corners. A number
were built in southwestern Colorado, including the Escalante
ruin and the Chimney Rock site (Reed et al. 1979, Eddy 1977).
The regional sites probably served as trading centers, ritual
centers, or processing centers for raw materials needed by
the Chacoans. The Chacoan regional system collapsed in the
late 1100s. Other, more complex features of Anasazi culture
in southwestern Colorado at this time included the development
of irrigation and water-control systems, extensive and intensive
farming, large population centers or central towns, and communities
exerting influence on surrounding smaller villages. All of
these phenomena bespeak the elaborate and complex nature of
Anasazi society at this time.
these indications that Anasazi life was flourishing, troubles
set in by the early thirteenth century, and many of the Anasazi
in southwestern Colorado moved into large sandstone caves
or overhangs, where they built large villages, apparently
for defensive purposes. These are the cliff dwellings for
which the Anasazi are so well known. In fact, they represent
only the very latest period of Anasazi culture and certainly
one of its most unusual, if also most intriguing, forms.
the end of the PIII Period, the Anasazi abandoned southwestern
Colorado and other parts of the Four Corners. Most moved south
to settle in or near existing villages along the Rio Grande
River and its close tributaries. A few may have drifted into
the villages of the Hopi in Arizona. This unusual total exodus
from Colorado by a people so very successful in the past has
puzzled archaeologists and visitors to the region since the
Europeans first encountered the ruins in the late 1800s (Cordell
1984). Although some of the reasons have begun to emerge,
a full explanation remains unclear. The most common and certainly
one of the strongest theories is that environmental stress
caused by a period of extreme dryness during the last part
of the thirteenth century forced the abandonment. But drought
alone cannot explain the migration into New Mexico.
the collapse of the Chacoan branch in the latter part of the
1100s, a century of turmoil and instability seemed to follow
for the Northern San Juan Anasazi. Some of them reoccupied
the great cities at Chaco after its downfall. There may have
been hostility and violence between the two branches or increased
raiding and warfare between the Anasazi and nearby hunting
and gathering groups. The location of villages in the cliffs
would seem to suggest strongly that the Northern San Juan
Anasazi sought protection against someone. There may have
been too many people, too little food, and/or too little firewood
to provide warmth, and Anasazi society may have been disrupted
and distressed from the events leading to the collapse itself.
Many archaeologists today look strongly to social and or organizational
problems among the Anasazi (Cordell 1984).
any case, there is no doubt that as the Anasazi left Colorado,
they migrated into New Mexico and Arizona, where their descendants
live today. They did not, as you will frequently hear, disappear
mysteriously. The Pueblo Indians along the Rio Grande and
the Hopi in northeastern Arizona include some of the descendants
of the Anasazi. The way of life of the Anasazi, changed and
altered in the last 700 years, is alive and well with them.
But that is another story.
the San Juan Skyway unquestionably offers some of the most
beautiful mountain grandeur in the United States, it is well
to remember that people have lived in and used the resources
of these mountains, mesas, and canyons of southwestern Colorado
for more than 8,000 years. The idea of pristine natural areas
unused and unvisited by humans is a modern misconception.
The Anasazi, the modern Ute Indians, and the Archaic people
and Paleo-Indians before them have considered the wilderness
areas of the San Juans home for a very long time. The lower
mesas and canyons were intensively used by native American
agriculturists for centuries. The farms you see today in southwestern
Colorado are simply the latest example of a use that has been
going on for almost 2,000 years.
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