After the demise of the Chaco Canyon Pueblos, a marked contraction occurred in Pueblo territory. Prolonged drought, famine, disease, raids by marauding nomads, exhaustion of resources, and quarrels among the Puebloans are put forth as causes for abandoning the Pueblos. Environmental conditions, or warfare, often triggered the collapse of a culture, but the basic problem was food supply.
The simple fact was North American, or Mesoamerican, Indians never acquired the technology to grow, transport, or distribute food to large numbers of people in concentrated population centers. Stone-age Indians could live in small groups as hunter gatherers, but did not have the capability of living in large population center for prolonged periods. Eventually stone-tooled farmers could not produce enough food to sustain religious leaders and laborers within centers like Pueblo Bonita.
Until Cortez brought horses to Mesoamerica in 1519, there were no large animals in North or South America suitable for domestication. A lack of domesticated work animals limited the ability of farmers to support population centers such as Pueblo Bonita, and the Mesa Verde and Kayenta cliff dwellings.
The peak population of the Mesa Verde period in southwestern Colorado, A.D. 1000-1300, is estimated at twenty-five-to-fifty-thousand inhabitants. Today, the same area (Montezuma County) supports eighteen-to-twenty-thousand people (Anasazi Heritage Center).
During the early Mesa Verde development, there were a great many villages on the valley floor and in the mouths of canyons. The Hovenweep villages lasted into the 1300s.
The round tower construction at the Hovenweep group and Painted Hand is a mystery not yet resolved by archaeologists.
The main Lowry Pueblo was built in stages on top of abandoned pithouses of the eighth century peoples. Initially it consisted of only five rooms, and over a thirty year period was expanded to include forty rooms and eight Kiva, or ritual rooms. The central part of the Pueblo had two or three stories. Not all rooms and kivas were used at the same time. Some rooms were for sleeping, some for storage, some for work areas, and some for social and religious events. The presence of a great Kiva suggests that Lowry Pueblo was a regional urban ritual center. At its population climax, Lowry housed about one hundred people. It was abandoned around 1150 A.D. (BLM sign).
From 1150 A.D. to 1200 A.D., the small outlying villages on the mesas and in the valleys were abandoned. The people moved into larger more protected villages.
After 1150 A.D., the Mesa Verde area of the San Juan Basin had the largest number of people in the Southwest. Increases in the number of people in cliff dwellings reduced the inhabitant’s ability to raise enough agriculture products to feed themselves. Around 1276, a long drought began that continued until the end of the century. Even without a drought trying to raise enough food on the mesas and getting water out of the canyons played a big part in the abandonment of the Four Corners area–while the people were in the cliff dwellings who protected the crops from marauding raiders? There is evidence of intra-regional conflict at some sites. According to Cordell there were “…numerous burned dwellings and human skeletons that had been burned and cannibalized….”
The idea of widespread warfare in the Four Corners region remains controversial, but new evidence suggests that some villages suffered violent attacks during the 1200s. Sand Canyon Pueblo, in the Montezuma Valley below Mesa Verde, was burned, and as many as two hundred and fifty people killed. Archaeologist, Stephen LeBlanc believes the Ancestral Puebloans split themselves into at least three warring factions: Mesa Verde, Montezuma Valley, and the Aztec pueblo area. These otherwise peaceful agrarian people may have turned to violence when faced with starvation (Walker).
The San Juan Basin in Southern Utah was completely abandoned by 1300 A.D. (Walker). The major migrations from the San Juan and Mesa Verde areas were to the Kayenta-Tsegi Canyon area, the Rio Grand, the Little Colorado River in Arizona, the Zuni and Acoma pueblos of western New Mexico, and the Hopi of northeastern Arizona.
The southwest Pueblos with multiple languages and ethnic groups are the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States.
The Hopi village of Old Oraibi and the Pueblo village of Acoma have been continuously occupied since 1150 A.D. (Southwest Indian Council). Inhabitants at Old Oraibi claim their village was founded in 1051.
The Acoma Pueblo was built on a three hundred and fifty-seven foot sandstone mesa. In 1598, the Spanish Governor Juan de Oñate and seventy soldiers killed and maimed many of the villagers because the villagers killed thirteen soldiers stealing grain from the village storehouse.
…A reader recently pointed out that the Acoma Pueblo people were not part of the Zuni. I really appreciate it when readers point out errors on my part.
The cliff dwellings and the Pueblo villages in the Mesa Verde area were abandoned several hundred years before the first white men saw them. On July 29, 1776, Father Francisco Dominguez and Father Silvestre Escalante left Santa Fe with eight men to explore a trading route to Monterey, California. Father Escalante recorded in his journal the presence of ancient Indian villages near the Dolores River.
Upon an elevation on the river’s [Dolores River] south side, there was in ancient times a small settlement of the same as those of the Indians in New Mexico…
The Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores, Colorado is located close to where Escalante made his observations. The nearby “Escalante Ruins” have been excavated and stabilized.
This great Kiva was fifty- to sixty-five-feet in diameter. The small hole in the center is called a Sipapu. During the Chaco era, kivas were built above ground and were surrounded by rectangular walls. Kivas were used for social and religious gatherings.
After the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition, there is no recorded evidence of anyone seeing the Anasazi Pueblos until the mid-eighteen hundreds. In September 1849 while on patrol, Lt. James Hervey Simpson came upon a pueblo ruin, Pueblo Pintado. A few days later, the army patrol under Lt. Colonel John M. Washington saw the great houses of Chaco Canyon (Frazier). Hovenweep and Lowry Ruins on the valley floor were undoubtedly observed by the mid-1800s. William Henry Jackson, who photographed the Yellowstone and Jackson Hole area a few years earlier, photographed Two Story Cliff House in Mancos Canyon in 1874.
Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason discovered Spruce Tree House and Cliff Palace in December of 1888 (Wenger).
In 1901, Richard Wetherill homesteaded land in Chaco Canyon that included Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo Del Arroyo, and Chetro Ketl. Wetherill operated a trading post at Pueblo Bonito until 1910. During an argument over a horse, a Navajo killed him. Wetherill is buried near Pueblo Bonito.
The Mesa Verde article was written by Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming.
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