By Linda Cordell
  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

Anasazi (from a Navajo Indian word meaning "the ancient ones") is the term archaeologists use to denote the cultures of the prehistoric Basket Makers and the Pueblo Indians of North America. Anasazi culture has been divided into eight periods, as follows: (1) Archaic (5500 –100 b.c.), (2) Basket Maker II (100 b.c. to a.d. 400), (3) Basket Maker III (400–700), (4) Pueblo I (700–900), (5) Pueblo II (900–1100), (6) Pueblo III (1100–1300), (7) Pueblo IV (1300–1600), and (8) Pueblo V (1600 to present).


The Anasazi built the numerous communal dwellings, or pueblos, many now in ruins, on the high plateau of the southwestern United States. The oldest remains are in the Four Corners region, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah adjoin. At the time of its greatest extent, the Anasazi culture was spread over most of New Mexico, northern Arizona, southwestern Colorado, and much of Utah. This is a region comparable in size to modern France, but great uninhabited stretches lay between the villages, which were located where water was available.

The Anasazi culture is believed to have gradually evolved out of a nonagricultural base of the ancient Desert culture, once widespread in western North America, though precise evidence of the transition has yet to be discovered. It may have been in part derived from the Mogollon culture, an older tradition of settled agriculturalists and ceramics producers who flourished from c.100 b.c. to a.d. 1400 in the mountain areas of east central Arizona and west central New Mexico. There is much evidence of trade and cultural interchange between the Mogollon and the Anasazi.

The Basket Makers
Although direct evidence is as yet lacking, archaeologists have postulated an initial phase of Anasazi culture, formerly designated as Basket Maker I but now called Archaic. This would have been a preagricultural, nonceramic stage during which the Basket Makers were nomadic hunter-gatherers.

Although Basket Maker I remains hypothetical, Basket Maker II (100 b.c.–a.d. 400) is fairly well known. The Basket Makers were given their name because of the profusion of skillfully woven baskets discovered in sites associated with their culture. Many of the baskets have been well preserved by the exceedingly dry conditions in the shallow caves where the Basket Makers stored their belongings. Numerous other perishable items have also withstood the ravages of time, including bags, sandals, and nets of yucca fiber. Clothing was scanty, consisting of woven G-strings for the men and short skirts of fiber for the women. The seminomadic Basket Makers of this period had no bows and arrows, but in hunting deer and small game they relied on light spears and darts, propelled by spear-throwers — flexible sticks that give additional force to the throw. Animals were also caught by the Basket Makers with a variety of ingenious nets and snares.

The Basket Makers had begun by this time to cultivate squash and a type of maize. They lived in simple shelters of perishable materials or in shallow caves or rock shelters. At least some of them made more substantial houses of logs and mud over saucer-shaped depressions. To supplement their meager harvests of farm crops, they roamed over the country periodically on hunting and gathering expeditions. During their absence, treasured articles and reserve supplies of food were cached in storage pits or cists, excavated in the dry floors of caves. The cists were used not only for storage, but also as sepulchers, in which the dead were buried with accompanying mortuary offerings. In some of the cists the unintentionally mummified bodies of Basket Makers have been found, with hair and dehydrated flesh adhering to the bones.

During Basket Maker III ( a.d. 400–700) the Basket Makers expanded their territory and introduced several new and important cultural items, including pit houses, erected over shallow excavations, and pottery. With the addition of beans and new varieties of maize, agriculture became more important to Basket Maker subsistence. The greater reliance on farming made it possible for the Basket Makers to begin a sedentary mode of life in villages. Toward the end of the period the spear was replaced by the bow and arrow.

The Pueblo People
Pueblo culture developed directly out of that of the Basket Makers and continued the same basic mode of life, elaborated with inventions and innovations and enriched by diffusion from alien cultures. The Pueblo I and II periods (700–1100) represented a time of territorial expansion and transition to the later cultural climax of the Anasazi tradition. Among the important developments were the introduction of cotton cloth, the building of above-ground houses of stone and adobe masonry, and the improvement of pottery. The Pueblo people were experimenting at this time in the building of houses, but the trend was toward single-story, multiroom pueblos of stone and adobe masonry. The old pit houses persisted in some districts, and in other places they survived as ceremonial chambers called kivas. Villages were usually located on the tops of mesas or at the edges of canyons. Pottery was of two general types: culinary wares in which the coils were pinched to produce a corrugated effect and decorated wares with black designs in elaborate patterns on a white background.

The climax of Pueblo development was reached during the Pueblo III period (1100–1300). Anasazi achievements in art and architecture were then at their height. The finest styles of black-on-white and corrugated pottery date from Pueblo III, and polychrome wares appeared with black-and-white designs on orange or red backgrounds. During this period were constructed the spectacular cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, huge apartment houses of stone and adobe masonry built on ledges in the cliffs.

Despite the cultural culmination achieved during Pueblo III (and during Pueblo IV to a more limited extent), the ultimate decline of the Anasazi was forecast. Toward the end of the period, and continuing into Pueblo IV (1300–1600), there was marked contraction of Pueblo territory, with a gradual abandonment of the outlying areas. This may have been due in part to raids by marauding nomads, in part to factional quarrels among the Pueblo, and in part to a prolonged drought from 1276 to 1299 that caused famine. The people were obliged to migrate to places with a better water supply to the south and east, particularly to the drainage area of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, to the Hopi country in northeastern Arizona, and to the Zuni country of western New Mexico. Pueblo V (c.1600 on) marks the start of the historic period, which dates from the time of the arrival of the first Spanish colonists in the Southwest. The Hopi, Zuni, and Rio Grande Pueblo peoples of today are the direct descendants of the prehistoric Anasazi, although the Zuni have merged with the Mogollon descendants.

Reviewed by Linda S. Cordell

Bibliography: Ambler, J. Richard, Anasazi: Prehistoric Peoples of the Four Corners Region, 4th ed. (1989); Cordell, Linda S., and Gumerman, George J., eds., Dynamics of Southwest Prehistory (1989; repr. 1993); Ferguson, William M., Anasazi of Mesa Verde and the Four Corners (1996); Ferguson, William M., and Rohn, Arthur H., Anasazi Ruins of the Southwest in Color (1987); Frazier, Kendrick, People of Chaco: A Canyon and Its Culture (1986); Jones, D., and Cordell, Linda S., Anasazi World (1985); Judge, James, et al., eds., Anasazi (1991); Lister, Robert H. and Florence C., Those Who Came Before: Southwestern Archaeology in the National Park System, 2d ed. (1994); Morrow, Baker H., and Price, V. B., eds., Anasazi Architecture and American Design (1997); Stuart, David E., Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place (2000).


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