The term Anasazi is generally applied to the ancestors of the Pueblo peoples who lived in the southwestern United States, including Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.
The American Southwest is a vast, arid region populated by numerous mountain ranges and plateaus. There are few rivers, none of which are navigable.
The Colorado River beings in the Rocky Mountains in southern Colorado and flows west through Utah and Arizona to empty into the Gulf of California in the Pacific Ocean. (The Gulf of California is also called the Sea of Cortez after the infamous Spaniard who brutally conquered much of the region.) The Colorado River has major streams in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah as tributaries. These include:
- The San Juan River and Little Colorado River in northern Arizona, which are famous for having created the Grand Canyon. The San Juan River originates in the southern Rocky Mountains, while the Little Colorado River originates in the mountains at the border of New Mexico and Rizona.
- The Gila and Salt River which bisect southern Arizona. Both rivers originate in the mountains at the border of New Mexico and Rizona.
Like the Colorado River, the Rio Grande also begins in the Rock Mountains in southern Colorado. This river, however, flows for south for hundreds of miles through New Mexico, and eventually passing between Texas and Mexico to empty into the Gulf of Mexico.
Ruins of an Anasazi Pueblo
The Anasazi were not a unified people. In many ways they can be considered to be a loose collective of separate tribes living in separate communities, but all having generally similar beliefs and practices. Another way of thinking about this is to say that the Anasazi were more similar to each other than they were to any other tribes in the area.
The name Anasazi
is commonly explained as originating with the Navajo
word Anaa'i Bi Zazi
literally meaning "Ancestor of Neighbor". This is highly misleading since zazi
expresses the concept of "enemy", which is how the Navajo view all non-Navajo. So the word Anasazi really means "Ancestor of Enemies". The meaning of "Old Ones" is the polite version. Anasazi had become a generic term for the early Pueblo sites and peoples, but this term is not universally accepted.
Some descendants of the Peublo Peoples discourage the use of the Anasazi name, because the Navajo
did not arrive in the area until centuries after
their culture was well established, and because harassment and raids by the Navajo and Apache may have caused the Anasazi to migrate. (Drought is part of the reason for the migrations.) Many prefer the term Pueblo Peoples
or Ancestral Puebloans
This terminology is just as inaccurate since Pueblo is the Spanish word for "communal group" or "town dwellers", and the Spanish did not arrive for centuries after the Navajo. The Spanish used the name pueblo to distinguish the residents of the area from other peoples of northern Mexico who were considered to be savages.
Because the people in question had no written language, and nothing is consequently known of the name by which they called themselves, there is no option but to use names from other cultures. These pages use the name Anasazi for no better reason than because most scholarly books use it, and because people are familiar with it.
The history of the Anasazi begins with the arrival of small groups of nomads in the Four Corners area circa A.D. 200. The period from their arrival to A.D. 450 is known as the Basketmaker comes from the fact that these peoples wove baskets, but did not make true pottery. The baskets which give them their name were woven from willow and some fibrous plant material, and, if used for water, then lined with pinñon gum, a type of pine sap, to waterproof them.
Their existence was peaceful, and depended on gathering primitive farming, with very limited hunting. Cultivated plants included corn, squash, and cotton. Caves provided shelter. Migrations of other cultures, possibly the plains peoples to the east, imported pottery, the bow and arrow, and the rectangular earth house known in Navajo
as a hogan
Their only domesticated animal were dogs, and these probably were the descendants of domesticated dogs which crossed into North America with their masters thousands of years ago.
The Basketmaker period has distinctive rock art. The most common rock art is large human figures, but handprints, zig-zags, and atlatl (spear throwers) also appear. The lack of hunting weapons and game animals suggests that the Basketmakers were primarily primitive farmers and foragers, and not hunters. Most of these rock art images were likely intended to aid in religious rites. The handprints, however, may be decorations or signatures in addition to being a symbol of the Elder War Deity. This symbolism similar to the Hopi Hand Kachina.
Leaving a handprint requires no particular artistic skill, unlike producing a human figure. One simply coats the hand with paint and places it on a wall (positive image), or places the hand on the wall and paints around it (negative image). It is simple and pleasing, and endures for a very long time, particularly in the southwest.
As a signature, the handprint was a convenient way to let the supernatural beings know which individual had left an offering or honored them with a painting or worship. (The issue of why the supernatural being would not already know who made the offering will not be addressed.) Using a handprint as a signature was not uncommon at the time, and pre-Columbian Mayan buildings often have a red handprint left by the stone mason. Among the modern Pueblo Peoples, whenever a wall is plastered the workman often leaves a handprint in the soft plaster.
As a form of sympathetic magic, the handprint is coupled with some other design, such as a cloud or deity. It symbolizes the maker's desire to have the related design be brought forth into the physical world.
After the Basketmaker period birds became more important to the Anasazi, likely because domestication of the turkey led to an appreciation of birds as an important food source. The turkey, in fact, was so important that a Turkey Cult appears to have developed and rock art depicted men with turkey heads. This veneration is not surprising, given that western peoples had Sheep Cults. Their rock art often shows men with sheep horns.
Rock art from the period shows turkeys, ducks, and cranes. Cranes have long necks, long legs, and long bills while ducks have solid bodies, short legs, and short bills. (The Mimbres
depicted cranes with enormously long necks.)
By A.D. 600 contact with Mexican peoples, such as the Hohokam, had led to the introduction a new type of corn, beans, and finished pottery. Making a pot involved coiling up clay to form the desired shape and then smoothing and scraping it to eliminate the coils. The potter's wheel was never invented in the southwest.
The Hohokam culture continued to evolve, and they had an elaborate system of canal irrigation, highly decorated pottery, and stone carvings. They even had courts built to play games involving balls. Housing, however, was still small one-family homes. The migration of the Hohokam around A.D. 700 led to the introduction of many of these ideas to the Anasazi.
By A.D. 900 a variety of distinct cultures existed in the area, including the Hohokam, Mesa Verde, and Mimbres
Rock art in the Great Pueblo period is largely naturalistic representations of ordinary life. Human figures are common, and men are often depicted with bows and arrows, clubs with stone heads, and planting or herding crooks. The humpbacked Kokopelli
appears about this time. The land became difficult to farm at this point, but raids were a far bigger problem.
Rock art of the period clearly reflects the impact of the Athapaskan (Navajo
) invasion. Shields, some riddled with arrows, being to appear and men are often shown impaled by arrows. By A.D. 1100 that the farmers migrated north and abandoned their single family homes in favor of pueblo fortresses. The population of Chaco Canyon migrated to the Mesa Verde canyons, but some also settled in the Canyon de Chelly. In the Mesa Verde canyons the refugees contributed their masonry skills and joined the inhabitants in constructing fortresses.
Ruins of an Anasazi Fort
These fortresses were only accessible by ladders, since these could be drawn upwards in case of attack leaving the enemy no way to enter. Living in forts, however, did little to protect the people who had to emerge in order to work in the fields. (Centuries later, the Navajo
used this very technique against the Spanish settlements on the Rio Grande.) Mesa Verde has spectacular ruins and these are a popular with tourists.
Anasazi Ruins at Mesa Verde
By the mid-1200s the Mesa Verde canyons were being abandoned, for unknown reasons, and the refugees were moving into the Canyon de Chelly and Marsh Pass. Dwellings turned into fortified apartments built into the sides of cliffs for protection, and the masonry resembled that of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. But these structures were only inhabited for a short time, and by A.D. 1300 the pueblos were abandoned and the pueblo peoples dispersed.
This migration led to the establishment of three main groups:
- The Hopi in Antelope Mesa, Arizona
- The Tanoan and Keresan pueblos on the upper Rio Grande
- The Zuñi in New Mexico
The other tribes either migrated to the Mountains of Chihuahua and Sonora in the Sierra Madra or were destroyed entirely. By the time Francisco Vasquez Coronado arrived in 1540, the region was, aside from a few pueblo fortresses, controlled by the Navajo
Coronado had been lured north by the tales of Fray Marcos, a missionary, who told of the "Seven Golden Cities of Cibola". After their extensive looting of Mexico and Peru, the Spanish, in their greed, were ready to believe just about anything. Needless to say, an expedition was organized and dispatched, no gold was found, no cities other than simple Zuni villages were discovered, and Marcos was forced to flee angry soldiers.
Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado
The Spanish wintered in the homes of the Zuni after evicting the actual owners. The angry owners of those homes then liberated some Spanish livestock in retaliation, and the Spanish burned 100 captives at the stake as a show of power. The Spanish soon returned to Mexico, likely to the relief of everyone involved, especially the Peublo peoples.
The Spanish later returned, but by that point the Navajo
were essentially in control of the area, and there was considerably more resistance than during the last occupation.
Every object in the real word -- plants, animals, insects -- and every concepts -- rain, death, power, etc. -- can be given a kachina form. Kachinas are intermediaries between the spirit world and humans, and work to promote prosperity. The kachina began showing up in Anasazi rock art in the 1300s, clearly predating the arrival of the Navajo
many Peublo religions beliefs but made them their own in a unique way.
The Hopi kachina
are descended from the Anasazi. (The Navajo do not, for example, make kachina dolls, but the Hopi do.) There are many kachina, and only a few will be described to give a general flavor of the types of kachina.
The "Star Kachina", also known as the "Heart-of-the-Sky Deity", is a warrior deity whose mask conceals the face of a star. He is associated with dangerous sky phenomena, such as lighting, thunderclouds, and destructive rains.
The Kokopelli is a fertility deity, and is the origin for the the Navajo Humpbacked Ye'i
and possibly for the the Fringe Mouth Ye'i of the Night Way
, and the Hopi Panwu
Kachina, or Mountain Sheep Kachina
. The sculpture to the right is a Kokopelli.
Kokepelli first appeared among the Anasazi during the Great Publeo
period (A.D. 1100 to A.D. 1300). A similar design appears on Hohokam pottery dated A.D. 1000 and also on Mimbres
pottery dated between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1150. The Kokopelli is related to an earlier kachina known as "Lenya", or the Flute Kachina. He represents qualities of growth, renewal, fertility, and gentle rains. A misconception is that all flute players are Kokopellis. This is not the case.
It was common practice among the Anasazi and other Pueblo Peoples for a man to play a flute for a woman as part of the courting rituals, as well as to indicate an interest in trading precious items like hides for a wife. Since a man could not hold a weapon while playing a flute, and the sound was audible long before he was visible, the peaceful intentions of a fluteplaying man were obvious.
Rituals to prevent inbreeding led men to search far afield for wives in other tribes, offering various goods in exchange for a wife. Farming communities often lacked access to large game animals, and consequently valued the large hides of wild animals. The fact that many of these flute playing figures have a full pack and a prominent penis indicates the goal of the flute playing.
One petroglyph shows figures of diminishing size, each with a right-angled arm. A series of figures with diminishing size usually shows that the figure, of whatever type, has come a long distance. In this particular case, the diminishing size shows that the man has traveled far to find a wife, and the right angle shows he will not be turned-aside or give up in his quest. A backwards facing right angle at the end of the petroglyph shows that the man abandoned his quest. (No reason is given, however.)
A centipede is a copper colored mass of writhing legs and poisonous pincers. Some grow to be nearly a foot long. Centipedes are insect hunters which live in the earth and are rarely seen without digging or turning over rocks. Because they travel between the underworld -- where many native peoples belive humans originated -- and the physical world they are seen as potent sources of power.
Many centipede petroglyphs appear in the Upper Little Colorado area of east/central Arizona. The centipede may also be a symbol of a single pole ladder which represents the means used to move from one level of existence to another. Pueblo mythology relates how the first humans climbed up from the underworld on a ladder, or in some cases, a reed. Central Asian mythology also uses single pole ladders as a symbol of emergence and transformation, so some centipede images may, in reality, just be single pole ladder images unrelated to centipedes.
and their cousins the Zuñi
, and the Mimbres
regard the centipede as a symbol of the transition from the world of the living to the world of the dead, and consider it to be taboo
Tlaloc "He Who Makes Things Grow" was a rain deity common throughout the southwest, Texas
, and Mexico. Tlaloc lived on the tops of high mountains where the clouds form, and had control over other destructive weather forces, like hail, frost, floods, and lightning. He was also associated with deer.
Tlaloc, the Rain Deity
(Sculpture based on Pictograph from Texas
Without the rains and good weather it was impossible to raise crops on the high central plateaus of Mexico, and in the arid southwest. Depicting Tlaloc was probably intended to bring the rains and keep the forces that destroyed crops at bay. Since Tlaloc appears on Mimbres pottery, the Mimbres likely counted him among their pantheon of powerful spirits.
Tlaloc is normally depicted
with enormous eyes with small pupils, inside a boxy head. The head is normally attached to a figure with stepped elements representing clouds, and sometimes has a kilt or skirt with fringes, signifying rain. There are parallels between the Hopi Rain Kachina -- which also bring rains, govern clouds, and make their homes in the mountains -- and Tlaloc, which suggest that the Pueblo Peoples adopted this deity from the Aztecs. The Aztecs believed he had helpers, named Tlaloques
, which are like the Hopi Rain Spirits
. All of these deities lived in Tlalocan
, the "Home of the Rain Deities".
The stepped patterns are similar to Tlaloc masks with trapezoidal patterns on the Aztec temple of Quetzalcoatl in Teotihuacan, and likely reflect a Mexican origin. Tlaloc was, in fact, a supreme deity of the Aztecs and he is represented throughout Mexico using ceramics, paintings, and sculpture. The Aztecs also linked Tlaloc to springs and caverns, and sacrificed children to him. Pueblo mythology relates how the Blue Corn Girl committed suicide by drowning, and this may be how the Aztec's ritual of child sacrifice was adopted into their mythology.
Tlaloc brings the rain, and his favor was undoubtedly very important to the native peoples highly dependent upon the rains. Images of Tlaloc overlooking the Mimbres Valley
in Arizona were likely painted to ensure adequate rainfall. It is possible that after the collapse
of the Mimbres culture that some of the Mimbreños migrated to Texas and this accounts for the pictographs there