Cultural History - Ancestral Puebloans

People have lived in and around Glen Canyon for thousands of years. The first inhabitants were hunters and gatherers and left us few clues about their culture.

About 2,500 years ago, groups of these Archaic people began to build semi-permanent homes and started to grow corn. This gradual transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer was so significant that archaeologists saw this as the beginnings of a new culture which is called Ancestral Puebloans or Anasazi (by the Navajo - a word which has numerous translations, including "the ancient ones", "enemy ancestors", and "ancient people who are not us").

Note: Recently, the term "Ancestral Puebloans" has been favored in referring to the group formerly referred to widely as "Anasazi." Also, when referring to sites that are known to be Puebloan in nature, the term "Hisatsinom," the Hopi word for ancestors, can be used, since the Hopi do believe they are directly descended from these people.

Corn needed planting, tending, and protection from animals. Farmers who stayed in one place for most of the year were more successful than those who let their crops fend for themselves. Families continued to move from one location to another on a seasonal basis, following animal migrations and plant growing seasons. They often followed the same pattern and occupied the same places year after year. They had to be in "harmony" with their environment and ecosystem to survive and prosper.

There are a number of misconceptions about hunter-gatherers:

  • They are continually on the brink of starvation and destitution.
  • They lack a complex material and social culture.
  • They were confined to dry and less productive regions.

On the contrary, recent research shows that hunter-gatherers have access to a much greater variety and (often) quantity of foods than more "advanced" agricultural people and thus often have more time to devote to cultural and social activities.

The Colorado Plateau was "…enormously productive in grasses, plants, animals, and other usable items. Hunters and gatherers usually spent much less time getting and preparing food than did farming people. They spent far less time than modern urban dwellers do making a living." The interesting question is "…why any group of people would give up hunting and gathering to accept the complications and staid, uninteresting life of he agriculturist."1


For the next 1000 years, the Ancestral Puebloans grew corn and continued to hunt and gather. They made fine baskets (during this period they are referred to as Basketmakers), stone tools and yucca and other fiber-woven items. They built slab-lined cists in dry caves and alcoves and storage of dried corn and seeds. They also buried their dead in these cists, and much of what is known about them comes from these burials. Many artifacts and even human remains were preserved in the dry sand.

The Ancestral Puebloans were not an isolated people. They were constantly exposed to new ideas, cultures, and technologies. Slowly, their culture continued to change as a result of these contacts with other peoples. They started growing beans and squash with their corn, replaced their spears and spear throwers (atlatls) with bows and arrows, and began building permanent "pit houses". These were dug a few feet into the ground, had log or stone walls, and were entered through a hole in the roof. The population grew, and there was less moving about. Pottery began to replace baskets as containers and cooking utensils.

Pueblo Period

About 750 C.E., the Ancestral Puebloans began to group into villages. Above-ground groups of buildings were built of stone, sticks, and adobe mud. By 900 C.E. the distinctive Ancestral Puebloan characteristics were in place:

  • Decorated pottery, masonry buildings (called "pueblos" - from the Spanish word for "village")
  • Fine weaving and other crafts
  • Well-developed system of agriculture

Despite being widely dispersed though out the Four Corners area of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, the early Ancestral Puebloans shared more cultural similarities than differences. A "kiva," probably a modified form of the old pit house, was part of almost every village. Like the pithouse, a kiva was a room dug underground and entered through the roof. Unlike the pithouse, it was not used for habitation, but was probably a social and religious center - much like the kivas built by modern Pueblo Indians.

The period from 900 C.E. until about 1130 C.E. was a period of good summer rainfall which produced ample crops. The Ancestral Puebloans were able to expand all across the area. In Glen Canyon, they lived east of the Colorado River in the north and on both sides of the river south of the Kaiparowits Plateau. The Fremont culture, a separate Indian culture contemporary with the Ancestral Puebloans, flourished north of the Escalante River.

The Ancestral Puebloans seemed to readily abandon a village and move elsewhere, leaving many ruins scattered throughout canyons and mesa tops. The Ancient Puebloans may have moved often due to erosion of the soil, change in climate, pressure from other villages, disagreements amongst themselves, or just a lack of firewood. Most villages relocated every 50 to 80 years.

By about 1100 C.E., the population increased dramatically in most areas. There were more and more well-planned, elaborate villages across the mesa tops. There was wide spread, well-organized formal system of trading and communication. Some areas had good irrigation and water systems.

By 1100 C.E., the Ancestral Puebloans had developed into three distinct branches which archaeologists call the Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Kayenta. They were aware of each other's differences and their own uniqueness. The Mesa Verde area has been described as the breadbasket of the culture with its successful farmers. Chaco Canyon became the great trading center with "roads" connecting far-off villages. The Kayenta area around Glen Canyon has been referred to as the culture's Bohemia!

The Kayenta had some of the finest ceramics and weaving, but their homes and villages were primitive in comparison to the careful stonework of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. There were no great planned cities; rooms seem to have been added just as needed. Round and rectangular kivas were not as carefully built and may have been less important than in the other two areas.

Author Jesse Jennings has called the people in and around Glen Canyon "typical frugal backwoods Anasazi [Ancestral Puebloans]," and he means it as a compliment. He feels that the genius of he Kayenta may be in the way they retained their ancient foraging skills (hunting and gathering) while becoming some of the most skilled farmers in the Ancestral Puebloan world. "They specialized in gardening in marginal areas, and, by understanding water and its conservation and use (and the idiosyncrasies of the crops), extended their domain into areas where neither then nor now is gardening truly feasible."

Ancestral Puebloan - Modern Puebloan Transitions

In the early 1200s C.E., the Kayenta, and Mesa Verde began to move from the open mesa lands and started to build large cliff dwellings in isolated alcoves and caves. The reason for the move is unknown but could have been partially defensive. In a little over 100 years, the Kayenta moved out of the canyon country altogether and probably moved south onto the mesas overlooking the Little Colorado River. We know their descendants today as the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, including strong links to the Hopi and Zuni people.

By the early 1300s C.E., the great cities of the Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon were also completely abandoned. Those groups may have moved to the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and joined with peoples already living there.

Modern Pueblo Tribes

There are close cultural and historical ties between the Kayenta Ancestral Puebloans and the modern Pueblo tribes, especially the Hopi and Zuni. Their villages are similarly constructed; their kivas have many of the same details; even their pottery is similar. The Hopi and Zuni claim many prehistoric Puebloan sites as their ancestral homes, and they still play a major role in some of their ceremonies.

While the "mysterious abandonment" of the Ancestral Puebloan cities has been debated for years, many archaeologists now propose that the Kayenta area as a whole has never really been abandoned. The modern Pueblo tries, especially the Hopi, continue to exhibit a nearly full range of Ancestral Puebloan cultural traits. "At least among the Hopi, the Anasazi [Ancestral Puebloans] are alive and well today."1


    Matlock, Gary - Enemy Ancestors-the Anasazi World, 1988, Northland Press.
    Jennings, Jesse - The Desert West, 1964, U of Ariz Press.