Searching for the Anasazi

For many of us “lost civilization” is one of the most intriguing phrases in the English language. And few lost civilization tales rival that of the Anasazi, the ancient cliff and pueblo dwellers of the southwest.    

What's in a Name?

Kivas. Aztec Ruins, Aztec NM

Kivas. Aztec Ruins, Aztec NM

Contemporary Pueblo people are descended from the Anasazi. Some of them object to the name given to their ancestors. Anasazi is a Navajo word that means “ancient enemies.” It's worth noting that the Navajo are not descended from the Anasazi. The term came into common usage in the 1920s when archeologists adopted it to describe the Ancestral Puebloans. Not all modern Puebloans have a problem with the word. They point out that in Navajo Anasazi also means “ancient ones” and “ancient ancestors.”

In any case, the name Ancestral Puebloans is replacing Anasazi, although you’re likely to run into both terms for some time yet. For the sake of simplicty and clarity in this introductory post, I’m going to use Anasazi. No disrespect intended.

There are three main reasons the Anasazi story is so captivating. The first has to do with their enigmatic ruins. The size and complexity of their structures are staggering. For example, the 15 complexes within Chaco Canyon in Northern New Mexico were the largest buildings in North America until the late 19th century.

Anasazi ruins are not just large, they are accessible and aesthetically pleasing. Found in spectacular natural settings in one America’s most beautiful regions, they are open to the public and are fascinating to explore.

Window. Aztec Ruins, Aztec NM

Window. Aztec Ruins, Aztec NM

The second reason people are drawn to the Anasazi story is they can connect with the culture on some level, something that is virtually impossible with other people of the past. This is because elements of Anasazi beliefs have survived and are reflected in the artistic and ritual traditions of modern pueblo people.

The third reason the mere mention of the Anasazi evokes such a romantic reaction relates to their supposedly sudden and mysterious disappearance in the 12th century.

Myth and Memory

There’s plenty of nonsense about the Anasazi floating around the zeitgeist. Let’s take a look at what we actually know.

About 2000 BCE nomadic hunter gatherers in what became the American southwest began cultivating crops. By 500 BCE the people we call the Anasazi had established semi-permanent villages in what is now the Four Corners region of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. They wore turquoise, loved dogs, raised turkeys, wove beautiful baskets and grew corn, beans and squash.

Around 700 CE there was an explosion of artistic creativity and cultural innovation. Building techniques also changed. The Anasazi began constructing enormous complexes that included elaborate stone buildings with multiple stories and hundreds of rooms. At the same time they expanded their trade routes.

Aztec Ruins, Aztec NM

Aztec Ruins, Aztec NM

For the next several centuries the Anasazi thrived. They lived in towns, made exquisite pottery, built long straight roads through the desert and constructed their intricate buildings on mountainside cliffs and valley floors. They traded with people as far away as Central Mexico and the Pacific coast. The Anasazi were especially fond of exotic luxury goods including seashells and the brilliantly colored feathers of macaws and parrots.   

The story goes off the rails when we get to the 12th century. According to the most widely circulated version of events the Anasazi suddenly abandoned their beautiful homes, left their ceremonial objects behind and disappeared. No one knows why.

There are whispers of something very dark, hints of human sacrifice and cannibalism. Maybe an extended drought caused the corn stalks to wither. Maybe warfare or some sort of internal conflict destroyed their society. Maybe there was an epidemic. Maybe all the priests went mad. Maybe aliens abducted them. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

This rendition of the Anasazi disappearance is similar to the persistent tale of the vanishing Maya. The Maya got a lot of media attention in 2012, the year their calendar predicted the world would end. Almost every report about the impending cataclysm included a reference to the Maya’s sudden and mysterious disappearance about 900CE. While it’s true that classical Mayan society disintegrated in the 8th century, the Maya themselves did not disappear. More than seven million of their direct descendants live in Mexico and Central America today.

Interior courtyard. Aztec Ruins, Aztec NM

Interior courtyard. Aztec Ruins, Aztec NM

The Anasazi didn’t disappear either. It's true that they abandoned their great complexes in the 12th century and archeologists are not sure what precipitated their departure. But their descendants, the people who live in the pueblos of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley and on the Hopi mesas of Arizona, say they know precisely what happened and why.

According to stories passed down through hundreds of generations of Puebloans, the Anasazi were and always had been on a great journey. As soon as the first Anasazi emerged from Earth Mother the journey began. The villages and ritual complexes they built – even the grand ones at Chaco and Mesa Verde – were never meant to be permanent settlements. They were nothing more than stops along the migration route. Furthermore, there was nothing sinister or mysterious about the people’s departure from the ritual complexes in the 12th century. It was simply time to move on, to continue the journey.

The debate continues. And although new discoveries are made all the time, many fascinating questions remain. One thing is certain. The Anasazi saga is something you can investigate to your heart’s content right here in New Mexico.

Plan Your Visit

Consider visiting some of the following sites and facilities to broaden your understanding of and appreciation for the distant past. The largest and best preserved Anasazi sites are managed by the National Park Service. Most include Visitors Centers with interesting educational exhibits and are staffed by friendly, knowledgeable people. 

Doorways. Aztec Ruins, Aztec NM

Doorways. Aztec Ruins, Aztec NM

Additonally there are several excellent museums to explore as well as the pueblos themselves, the modern embodiment of ancient Anasazi traditions. Click on the ones that interest you and you’ll either be taken to a detailed blog post with a link for further information or directly to the appropriate website.

Check back often. This list will grow as posts and material are added. If there’s a something you think should be included, let me know.

Archeological Sites

Bandelier National Monument - breathtakingly beautiful.

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park   

Cliff Dwellings. Bandelier National Mounument NM

Cliff Dwellings. Bandelier National Mounument NM

Aztec Ruins National Mounment - This easily accessible site has no connection to the Aztecs of Mexico. It's an Anasazi site named after the town it's near, which is Aztec, NM. Salmon Ruins is nly 12 miles away. Combine both sites for an interesting and satisfying day trip.

Salmon Ruins

Mesa Verde – Even though this site is in southern Colorado, it’s only 50 miles from Shiprock, NM. Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon are the largest, most complex and most important sites in the Anasazi story. Plus it is jaw-dropping gorgeous.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

The Pueblos

Acoma Sky City


Mesa Verde, Colorado

Mesa Verde, Colorado