Art & Literature

GIS & Mapping


Base Camp

The Pueblos

This study unit continues to seek the answer to the question of "Where Did They Go?". We have seen in our previous learning projects that there were thousands of early Southwest peoples who abandoned large city and outlying town sites around 1200 AD. What caused these changes? Climate? Food sources? Poverty? Cultural alliances? Warfare? Did these Ancient Ones disappear? Or did they move to create other communities?

Hopi Altar

Native peoples living along the northern Rio Grande River in New Mexico, on the arid mesas of the Hopi in eastern Arizona, and anthropologists who study the ancient Anasazi of Mesa Verde all believe that the Ancient Ones did not disappear but migrated to other locations in the Southwest. When conditions made it no longer possible to support the large populations in those majestic cities and outliers, there is an Native American oral history that tracks their relocation to the small adobe and pueblo villages that then existed on the Hopi mesa tops and around the vicinity of the Rio Grande River. Scientists also believe that part of the population may also have moved down into the Casa Grandes area as the vast city of Paquime sprang to prominence in these years immediately following the dispersal of the more northern Anasazi. As we track these migrations, we will discover that the Indian Pueblos of today in Arizona and New Mexico have direct links to these ancestral peoples.

Mesa Verde

Chaco Canyon

The Pueblos of the 13th and 14th Century

During the years between 1200 and 1400 AD there was a remarkable change in Southwest populations. While some towns and cities were abruptly abandoned, other small villages rapidly became cities built of adobe and stone in a few years.

The Hopi ancestral villages on Black Mesa shifted further east to the mesa tops they still inhabit today.


Hopi Street

The Hopi mesa towns of Awatovi and Orabi saw an influx of inhabitants and became major cultural centers that would remain large towns with 500-1,000 people into the 1700s. These Hopi villages remain inhabited today, carrying on their distinctive traditions, and provide us with a clearer picture of what life would have been like for their ancestors over 600 years ago.

In two beautiful large sandstone caves in the Tsegi Canyon, and in many areas of Coanyon D'Chelly (on what is now the Navajo Reservation), the stone pueblos of Betatakin, Keit Siel, and White House were constructed in the late 1200s.


Betatakin ultimately had 135 rooms and two kivas, and Kiet Siel had 155 rooms and 6 kivas. Using beans discovered in the ruins, and tree ring samples, scientists have been able to date the time period of these pueblos development and note that influxes of families required continual growth and redesign from the mid 1200s to the end of that century. But all three were mysteriously abandoned by 1300.

Paquime, 150 miles south of what is now the United States border, became a central trade hub and the largest adobe city ever built in the southwest with 2,000 rooms. Goods from deep in Mexico traveled up to Paquime, and goods from the four Corners area and distant coastal areas traveled down to Paquime.


At this hub the tropical and arid environment's goods were stored and then passed along trade routers to the north, south, east and west. Settlement began in the 1200s and reached a peak in the 1300s, and then the site was abandoned after a devastating fire around 1400. To learn more about Paquime, follow this link.

South of Santa Fe, the large 1200 room pueblo Arroyo Hondo was built around 13 plazas with 24 blocks of apartments. But not all of these changes in population were lasting. Some, like Arroyo Hondo, were mysteriously soon abandoned and yet a few decades later repopulated, only to be abandoned again, this time due to a pueblo-wide fire in 1410. These fluctuations in population saw entire towns relocating from one pueblo to another across distances as great as 2,000 or more miles.


Can you imagine packing up your family and along with 1,000 other neighbors relocatingto a town over 1,000 miles away? What hardships would you face in the journey? Where would you find food? And upon resettlement - would the new town accept you, feed you and house you? All emigrants who have moved from one land to another around the world have faced these unknowns as they began their journey, and the same must have been true for the clans and villages that moved from one town to another, turning small pueblos into large cities in a few years. What could have driven them to take these risks? What was a greater danger that they were leaving behind?

Paleo-climatologists and geologists, who study weather patterns and soil in prehistory, have been working to examine what factors in weather, water availability, soil quality may have been factors prompting these large migration patterns.

One of the most influential factors of that time was most likely famine - facing a severe and prolonged shortage of food and being unable to support the large town and city populations. The result was fatal starvation, deformation of bones in those who did survive, and a very high mortality rate among children where in some pueblos barely half reached five years of age. What caused this famine? One of the problems was a lack of rain; another was the shortness of the growing season in the more northern areas where they did not see enough sun to grow large enough crops to sustain the people year round. Still another was the lack of soil able to grow enough food to feed these larger populations. As the populations grew, they tried to engineer agricultural solutions - terraces, dams, and stone enclosures around fields were intended to capture and store water from rainfall and rivers. In arid areas like Betatakin and Kiet Siel, their caves had springs in the back walls to provide drinking water, but with out a river nearby, could not support large-scale agriculture.

Another factor that must have influenced these migrations - and choice to cluster together to build larger towns - was the threat of warfare. There is no evidence that the great pueblo period up to the 1200s had faced serious or prolonged threats of war. Their towns were built with open, unprotected plazas. But in these later years, towns began to cluster their buildings around internal plazas often only accessible through easily defended narrow streets. Lower stories could only be entered through ladders in the roof, and by the time the Spanish arrived in the mid-1500s, the pueblos were designed like forts well able to keep invaders out. Archeologists also suggest that the fires that wiped our Paquime and Arroyo Hondo may have been the result of intentional warfare burning. If it was no longer safe to live in small, open communities due to bands of warriors attacking your settlement, moving to larger towns with greater manpower for defense would be an understandable choice.

But as we can see above, if the threat of warfare caused initial migrations to form larger towns, then the formation of those larger towns may have lead to the threat of famine. Then another migration would have taken place, this time to seek adequate food. Only a few of the pueblos - those of the Hopi, Taos, and Acoma Indians remained continuously inhabited from prehistory into western history, making them the longest continually inhabited settlements in North America.

Exploring the Pueblos Today

Now, let's learn more about a few of the many Southwest pueblos and tribal groups who are carrying on the Ancient Ones' traditions into our modern time. Their oral history carries forwards the traditions of their ancestors as expressed through dance, song, ceremony, costume, carvings, pottery and paintings - and through the architecture and agriculture that has sustained their peoples for generations.