Ancestral Puebloans Part 1: Overview

In the Four Corners region of the United States, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet and the Colorado Plateau dominates countryside and climate, the land is riddled with innumerable ruins. Ruins reminiscent of complex societies that eked out an existence in this semi-arid to arid high desert. Once formerly nomadic Indigenous tribes settled, they fashioned permanent structures out of local rock and wood and plastered them with adobe fashioned from dirt and water, thereby transforming their habitations into edifices the color of the earth. They rang in what would later be called the Pueblo Period, spanning the centuries from 700 to 1300 AD.

Four Corners region of Colorado

Clusters of these pueblos lined canyon interiors and rims, or were nestled under overhangs, nearly all of them chosen for the proximity of a spring or seep that ensured a steady supply of water. Piñon pines, junipers, sagebrush, and the associated plant community furnished material for construction, firewood, clothing, and food.

Juniper/sagebrush plant community

Juniper berries, a food source

Wild animals still supplemented their diet and dress, but their hunting and gathering lifestyle shifted to one relying heavily on agriculture which produced the southwestern holy trinity of foodstuffs: corn and beans and squash. An infinite sky with an unobstructed view of countless celestial constellations inspired purposefully placed petroglyphs that precisely pinpointed vernal and autumnal solstices and additional astronomical phenomena.

Astronomical petroglyphs

Petroglyphs (rock carvings, depicted here) and pictographs (rock drawings, not shown here) are the only “written” documentation of the Ancestral Puebloans

“Who were these people?”– to parrot my husband’s deferential question. When modern-day observers first beheld their monumental settlements, they adopted the appellation Anasazi for their architects, from the Navajo language, meaning “ancient enemies” or “ancient foreigners”. According to early observers, they seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. In recent decades, this view has been replaced by the theory that they dispersed into surrounding regions, and mingled with the ancestors of contemporary pueblo dwellers. Consequently, the term Anasazi was supplanted by the name Ancestral Puebloans.

Cacti thrive in the arid climate…

…so do lizards

Raven on ruins

Why did these rulers of remote reaches abandon their carefully constructed communities that had withstood the caprices of centuries? Nobody knows exactly, but theories abound. That water equals life rings true everywhere, but nowhere is this more evident than in an ecosystem which operates on the slimmest margin of moisture, where the presence of this essential element is indicated by scarce emerald ribbons winding through the pastels of the desert. Did they depart because of a paucity of this precious product, when one decade of drought succeeded another, as tree ring analysis suggests? Did overuse lead to depletion of the soil, to ensuing tensions, and to armed conflict over precious commodities? As one question is answered, another arises, and many remain.

Who were these Ancestral Puebloans?

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

This is part 1 of an evolving series.

Click here for part 2, here for part 3, here for part 4.

18 thoughts on “Ancestral Puebloans Part 1: Overview

  1. What a great post. I love the idea of someone somewhere enjoying “an infinite sky”.
    The photograph of petroglyphs are almost identical to petroglyphs I have seen on rocks in Kazakhstan. They are so similar, the people who made them must have been connected.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Cathy. The similarity in petroglyphs is intriguing, isn’t it? I think many cultures were attuned to celestial events and documented their recurrences in an impressive way. But who knows if there were connections beyond continents?! There are more questions than answers, for sure.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I just started reading it. I like it so far, and I think you might like it too.

        Here’s my favorite quote in Chapter One: “Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.
        That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Some years ago my husband and me, we visited Arizona and its Navajo National Monument. I do not know were your first picture has been taken, but it looks very much alike. The place was very special and you could feel the spirituality all around.
    As for the Petroglyphs, we saw them at the Chelly National Park, and as our guide put it back than, ” these were their newspapers “.
    I am curious about the part 2 of this series!
    kindest regards from Canada

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your interest and comment, Christa. Ruins from different places resemble one another, but the one on top was actually taken at Mesa Verde, the topic of part 3 of my series. Petroglyphs are simply everywhere, and they are fascinating to ponder. I have also heard that they functioned as newspapers, but everything is conjecture. I think that’s one of the reasons we are so fascinated with these ancient cultures.
      I hope you will enjoy the “sequels”.
      Best wishes,


  3. I suspect you’ve read Ancient Ruins of the Southwest? A great book on that subject. Lovely photos, brings back memories both of being there and of all the Tony Hillerman mysteries I’ve read….

    Liked by 2 people

    • Actually, Diana, I have not read this book, know a few other guides to the area. It looks very interesting, though, need to check it out. Thank you for the tip. I am glad to bring back memories… 🙂


  4. I have always wanted to visit this part of the United States, to see the ruins at Mesa Verde. It seems like such a different society from the typical palace and mammoth temple remnants of most ancient civilizations. “An infinite sky with an unobstructed view of countless celestial constellations” would also have inspired me as it did the ancient dwellers of the region. So looking forward to the rest in your Ancestral Puebloans series.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Finally! I return to begin reading your series on the Puebloans. Your account is complete, from my recollection with the park ranger early this summer, and we too had more questions unanswered than satisfied. The kids enjoyed being among the ruins and learning about a sustainable life in the desert and under the cliffs. It is hard to appreciate the resiliency of these people without going to these places first hand.

    Thank you for superb account, supporting information, and representative photos (gorgeous lizard!!). Looking forward to the next in the series. ~ Shannon

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.