Anasazi Civilization Flourishes in American Southwest Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

This Basket Maker civilization of the American Southwest emerged, advanced architecture and agriculture, and then vanished.

Summary of Event

The Anasazi, believed to be descendants of ancient Desert Archaic people, are one of the best-known prehistoric cultures of the American Southwest. Different groups of Anasazi spoke at least six languages, which were not mutually understood. The term “Anasazi” derives from an English-language corruption of a Navajo term, Anaasa’zi, which describes the many stone ruins of the Four Corners region and may mean “ancient ones,” “enemies of the ancient ones,” or “ancient enemy.”

The earliest Anasazi are known as the Basket Makers because of their extraordinary skill in basketry. Initially, these early people occupied a few cave sites and rock shelters along the San Juan River and open sites in the Rio Grande Valley. Inhabitants of these early villages planted maize and squash, a skill learned from their ancestors, and hunted and foraged.

The villages, perhaps occupied seasonally, consisted of a few pit houses: low, circular houses dug into the ground, approximately 7 feet (2 meters) across. Stone slabs were used for some houses. Upper walls and roofs of many dwellings were made of wood and adobe or wattle and daub. The houses had fire pits and were entered by ladders placed in the smokehole of the roof. Tunnel-like side entries faced the east. Larger pit houses were for ceremonial use. Smaller slab-lined structures were used for storing food. Baskets (some woven tightly enough for cooking), sandals, and other articles were of high caliber, highly stylized with geometric motifs. These designs gave rise to later Anasazi pottery painting traditions. Anasazi rock art of the period shows humans with broad shoulders, trapezoid-shaped bodies, and very large hands and feet. Elaborate headdresses, hair ornaments, necklaces, earrings, and sashes adorn the figures. Found near the villages, the art appears to have been part of community life.

As the Basket Maker Anasazi population grew and their territory expanded, their villages became larger. Almost all had ritual rooms, which the later Hopi called kivas. Pit houses became deeper, more complex, and spacious. Earth-covered wooden roofs were supported by four posts with crossbeams. Some houses were dome-shaped. Storage bins, benches, a central fire pit, and a draft deflector between the fire and the ventilator shaft were found in many dwellings. Roof or side entrances were retained.

Within the village were many outdoor work and cooking areas. Slab-lined storage buildings and ramadas (roofed, open-walled structures shading work and living areas) were built on the surface. Some kivas were modified houses, but many were larger, some 35 feet across (11 meters). Excavated holes called sipapu were dug near the center of the floor in many homes and in most kivas. Turquoise or other offerings were placed in the sipapu, the opening to the underworld from which people emerged.

Farming became increasingly important to the Anasazi. To ensure successful crops, check dams and devices were used in fields near villages. By 600 c.e., beans, introduced from Mexico, were cultivated. By 700 c.e., cotton, the bow and arrow, and stone tools were used generally. Maize was ground on large stone mortars using two-handed grinding stones.

Basketry, sandal making, and weaving also became increasingly elaborate. Feathers and rabbit fur were woven into robes. Pottery making developed as both an occupation and a basis for trade. Pots were used for rituals, storing food and water, and cooking and serving food.

The quantity and variety of rock art increased. Rock art was near or in villages, on mesa boulders, near hunting trails, or in other open locations. Subjects included birds, animals, hunting scenes, and figures playing the flute. Human handprints covered some cliff walls in mass profusion. Home, village, and the kiva were the focus of community life, which endeavored to encourage and ensure agricultural prosperity.

The great houses in Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, were built by the Anasazi between 1000 and 1250 c.e.


The Pueblo period of the Anasazi began about 700 c.e. Villages varied in size from small complexes to those with more than a hundred dwellings. Architecture gradually developed into rectangular surface buildings of dry masonry or stone and adobe that followed a linear arrangement with multiroom units. Buildings usually faced a plaza located to the south or southeast. One or more kivas were built in the plaza. Kiva architecture included an encircling bench attached to the wall, roof support poles, a central fire pit, a ventilator shaft, and a sipapu. The kiva was entered by ladder through a roof opening that also allowed smoke to escape. Jars, bowls, and ladles were frequent forms for pottery. Turkeys and dogs were domesticated. Infants were bound to cradle boards so that the child could be near the mother. By 900 c.e., trade activities and movement of the people had engendered a certain amount of cultural uniformity, although some local differences occurred in agriculture, architecture, and pottery.

The Anasazi realized their cultural apogee between 1000 and 1300. The building of Chaco Canyon, the cliff houses of Mesa Verde, and the ruins of Kayenta date from this time. Many communities of this period and virtually all of the Chaco-style “great houses” were planned or renovated into single, self-enclosed structures. New rooms were attached to older ones. Linear units grew into L-shapes when a room was added at the end of a row to enclose space. L-shapes became U’s and U’s turned into rectangles. If a village grew or became old enough, the public space of the plaza was enclosed. “Great kivas” were usually built in the Chaco plazas in addition to smaller ones. Rooms were organized into units of two or three, with a doorway facing the plaza. Ladders led to upper-level units.

The Chaco Canyon district included nine great houses and eighteen great kivas within an eight-mile area. Families occupied suites of rooms in the great houses. Other rooms were for storage, turkey pens, trash, or sometimes burial chambers. Anasazi ate stews of meat, corn mush, squash, and wild vegetables and cornmeal cakes.

Beginning about 1050, the Chaco Anasazi built a complex of twelve elaborate towns that became their religious, political, and commercial center. Grandest of all the great houses was Pueblo Bonito, a five-story D-shaped structure with eight hundred rooms and thirty-seven kivas, covering three acres (a little over a hectare). It took 150 years before the planned village of Pueblo Bonito realized the conceptions of the original designers.

Skilled as astronomers, the Anasazi built celestial observatories on clifftops. Of these, Fajada Butte is the most famous. Three stone slabs lean against a vertical cliff face on which two spiral petroglyphs are carved. Each day before noon, sun daggers fall through the slabs onto the spirals in different places and, depending on the time of year, mark the solstices and equinoxes.

The Chaco Anasazi built an elaborate road system of about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers). The 30-foot-wide (9-meter-wide) roads were paved and curbed. Straight paths cut through or were built over gullies, hills, or cliffs. Roadside shrines were constructed in widened parts of the road. These roads may have served some ceremonial purpose.


By 1150, the Chacoan culture began to decline. The people of Pueblo Bonito walled up the doors and windows facing the outside of the great houses. Stones closed the entrance to the pueblos, leaving access by ladder only. Slowly the people left the basin, never to return.

About 1100, the Mesa Verde Anasazi began to abandon many small settlements in the mesa. Large pueblos developed, which initially followed the traditional Mesa Verde pattern with the kiva in front of the main dwelling. Soon, the kivas were enclosed within the circle of houses and walls. Stone towers were built, perhaps as watchtowers. Walls were made of large rectangular sandstone blocks with little mortar. Mud plaster was applied inside and out. One hundred years later, the Mesa Verde Anasazi moved into the caves below the mesa, although they continued to farm the mesa. Some of the cliff dwellings became quite large. Cliff Palace numbered two hundred rooms with twenty-three kivas. The Mesa Verde Anasazi prospered for some time in their cliff dwellings, but decline fell on these Anasazi, too. A savage, twenty-three-year drought occurred in the Southwest. The Mesa Verdeans left as the crisis intensified.

By 1300, few Anasazi remained in their once-large domain. As their legacy they left descendants who became the Hopi, Zuñi, and other Pueblo peoples, as well as some of their religious and social traditions. Today the adobe pueblos of the Southwest serve as reminders of the great stone houses of their Anasazi forebears.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brody, J. J. The Anasazi. New York: Rizzoli International Press, 1990. Presents a definitive view of the Anasazi, from prehistoric tribes to modern Pueblo people. Color photographs and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bullock, Peter Yoshio, ed. Deciphering Anasazi Violence: With Regional Comparisons to Mesoamerican and Woodland Cultures. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: HRM Books, 1998. A collection of essays examining the signs of violence at Anasazi sites and the possible meanings. The cannibalism theory, along with others, is discussed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gabriel, Kathryn. Roads to Center Place. Boulder, Colo.: Johnson Books, 1991. Provides insight into the development of the Chaco roads. Photographs and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reed, Paul F., ed. Foundations of Anasazi Culture: The Basketmaker-Pueblo Transition. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000. An analysis of the early Anasazi, in particular the Basket Maker culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, David. In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996. A history of the Pueblo Indians, in particular the Anasazi. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sebastian, Lynne. The Chaco Anasazi: Sociopolitical Evolution in the Prehistoric Southwest. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A look at the government and social conditions of the Anasazi in Chaco Canyon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, Christy G., II, and Jacqueline A. Turner. Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999. Anthropologist Turner asserts that the signs of violence at Anasazi and other sites in the American Southwest are evidence of human sacrifice and cannibalism.

Categories: History