New Mexico: Bandelier National Monument Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Pajarito Plateau is an elevated area of volcanic rock called tuff (hardened volcanic ash) and basaltic lava thrown out thousands of years ago by a great volcano. The surface of the plateau is crossed by deep gorges cut by streams running east to the Rio Grande valley. One of the largest and most accessible of these valleys is Frijoles Canyon, the site of numerous ruined structures and cliff dwellings built mostly between 1200 and 1400 c.e. by the Anasazi, ancestors of modern-day Pueblo Indians.

Site Office

Bandelier National Monument

HCR-1, Box 1, Suite 15

Los Alamos, NM 87544

ph.: (505) 672-0343

Web site:

Some knowledge of the dramatic geologic history of the Bandelier site is necessary to understand the physical changes to the land that made possible human habitation, the remains of which are of such compelling interest to modern visitors. The monument is on the east side of the Jemez volcanic field in northern New Mexico. This was a large group of volcanoes active within the last ten million years, part of the Rio Grande Rift formed by the movement and spreading of tectonic plates. This rift now containing the Rio Grande, runs generally north to south from central Colorado to Mexico and has been characterized by active faulting and volcanism.

Constant volcanic activity led to massive, catastrophic eruptions 1.4 and 1.2 million years ago. More than twenty-four cubic miles of ash and molten lava covered the area east of the eruptions with a thick layer of hardened ash intermixed with fragments of volcanic glass and lava. The explosions left the remains of large craters now known as the Valles Caldera and the smaller Toledo Caldera, immediately west of the monument within sight of New Mexico Route 4. Their rims form the Jemez Mountains. Meanwhile the lava and hardened ash thrown out by the eruptions formed a flat, sloping shelf between the volcanoes and the Rio Grande Rift. This shelf became known as the Pajarito (little bird) Plateau.

The Bandelier Monument occupies about fifty square miles of the more than three hundred square miles of the Pajarito Plateau. Like the rest of the plateau, the monument is crossed from west to east by a series of deep canyons, in order from north to south: Frijoles Canyon, Alamo Canyon, Capulin Canyon, and Sanchez Canyon. Intermixed with these on the eastern side of the monument are shorter canyons such as Lummis, Hondo, and Medio. All of the canyons were cut by streams running east to the Rio Grande. The streams provided well-watered settlement and agricultural sites in the canyons for Indians fleeing drought in the western lowlands. The Indian settlement in the Frijoles Canyon is a major feature of the Bandelier National Monument.

First Human Inhabitants of the Region

The distant ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians can be traced back to groups of hunter-gatherers who lived in northwestern New Mexico and along the Rio Grande during the so-called Archaic period from around 5500 b.c.e. to about 400 c.e. Their lifestyle was based on gathering a variety of vegetation and hunting game with stone knives and arrowlike darts hurled by an atlatl (throwing stick). Radiocarbon dating of numerous campsites in these areas and on the southern Pajarito Plateau, including the site of the Bandelier Monument, reveals that human occupation occurred around 1750 b.c.e., 670 b.c.e., and 590 b.c.e. The periods of occupation involved constant movement from campsite to campsite in search of fresh game and better selections of plant food. These ancient people did not build permanent settlements. Archaeological remains reveal that they had a variety of cooking procedures such as stone boiling, in which heated rocks were dropped into a watertight basket sealed with pitch. In this way the Archaic Indians could cook without the use of fireproof ceramic utensils, which were not yet widely developed.

The era between 600 and 1200 c.e. has been labeled the Developmental period, and was characterized by a change from hunting and foraging to increasing reliance on agriculture. Corn, beans, and varieties of squash were among the staple crops; however, the limited archaeological research on the Pajarito Plateau has not yet defined the extent to which these early agriculturists farmed in the Bandelier area. Permanent dwellings such as circular pit houses dug into the ground together with small rectangular masonry structures were in use by the tenth century. Natural or excavated caves in hillsides were also used when available.

The Anasazi

Beginning around 1175 c.e., a migration of Anasazi Indians from the west began to occur, caused by drought in former living areas and the search for higher-yield farming grounds. This is now known as the Coalition phase. The well-watered and fertile canyons of the Pajarito Plateau, including Frijoles Canyon, proved to be popular settlement sites, as was part of the Rio Grande valley. Stone axes, the bow and arrow, and more developed ceramic pottery appeared. Settlements ranged from one-room structures to larger fifteen- to twenty-room sites usually accompanied by a round subterranean space known as a kiva, where meetings and religious ceremonies were held. The basic social grouping was a household of up to four families, with some sites containing several such households living together. The evidence for social groupings, however, must be inferred from archaeological remains since the Indians were not literate until the coming of the Spanish in the sixteenth century.

Starting around 1300 or 1325 c.e., the archaeological remains indicate that significant cultural changes occurred in the Pajarito and Rio Grande areas both north and south of Frijoles Canyon. These changes are believed to represent the presence of new Indian populations and more intensive occupation as well as developments and adaptations among the older settlement groups. This new era is known as the Classic phase. One change was the appearance of Rio Grande glazeware pottery, an improvement over the earlier Santa Fe carbon-painted ceramics. Settlement patterns expanded to sites of from two hundred to as many as eight hundred ground-floor rooms. According to archaeologists Richard C. Chapman and John V. Biella,

The southern classic population had evolved a social and economic system that allowed considerable residential flexibility. . . . Family units or households of related families could freely relocate from one part of the northern Rio Grande region to another in response to local fluctuation in climate that affected crop yields.

Indians of this period, which lasted until roughly 1525 c.e., dispersed to small sites during the growing season then congregated at larger sites during the winter. Other improvements included the building of agricultural terraces, checkdams, small-scale irrigation systems, and networks of trails between the larger pueblos. Ceramic manufacturing centers appeared, although the possible existence of trade networks is still conjectural. The major ruins of the Frijoles Canyon settlements, which might have been a focal point of trade, were excavated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when modern excavation procedures and analytical techniques were unknown.

Scattered artifacts have been found that indicate some occupancy of Bandelier itself as far back as 9500b.c.e. However, the most productive period of Bandelier settlement occurred from early 1200 c.e. until the Indians abandoned the Bandelier during the 1500’s to move to pueblos (towns) along the Rio Grande. Numerous cliff houses and caves were built in all of the canyons. Those in the Frijoles Canyon have been the most studied and, in some cases, excavated by archaeologists. The Frijoles Canyon is also the most accessible to visitors and the site of the visitors’ center maintained by the National Park Service.

Archaeological Sites

A number of important ruins and cliff dwellings are within walking distance of the visitor center. One of the major ruins in the Frijoles Canyon is just to the east–a large circular pueblo site on the valley floor called Tyuonyi, an Indian name meaning “meeting place.” The site includes the remains of around three hundred masonry rooms covered with adobe plaster and built around a large circular plaza nearly one hundred fifty feet in diameter. The rooms are arranged in four to seven concentric rings around the plaza and may have originally been two or even three stories in some sections. Three kivas were dug into the northeast side of the plaza, and a single large kiva has been excavated just down the canyon.

Steep cliffs of tuff with slopes of accumulated rock and debris at the base are found on the north side of Frijoles Canyon. Small houses, known as talus houses, were built for about two miles along the base of the cliff and, together with the caves, were used as dwellings. The longest section of these talus houses, stretching about seven hundred feet, is called the Long House and is considered a typical pueblo cliff dwelling of the time. It is made up of five separate clusters of rooms. Each cluster is believed to have housed a group of related families forming a clan. Fragments of elaborate plaster decorations on Long House walls can still be seen. Also, a large variety of rock art, figures of people and animals, and religious symbols can be found in cave rooms adjacent to many of the talus houses. These petroglyphs were incised into the walls using sets of dots, circles and lines, later colored for better visibility. West of the Long House is a ceremonial cave, a cavern in the north cliff 160 feet above the canyon floor. It contains a kiva and about twenty rooms and can be reached by ladders and a trail cut in the rock.

In addition to these easily accessible ruins, the Bandelier Monument covers some twenty-five thousand acres of parallel canyons separated by narrow mesas that can be reached only by foot and horse trails. This area contains some interesting prehistoric sites such as one with carvings of two mountain lions, which is a sacred shrine to some Indians down to the present day. A few miles from the lions is a large cave known as the Painted Cave, which is covered with colored pictographs. Tsankawi, a separate portion of the monument, is reachable by driving about eleven miles north on New Mexico Route 4. This site includes a pueblo ruin believed to have been occupied during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This would have been near the end of Indian occupation of the Pajarito, but the site has not yet been intensively studied. In fact, much of the Pajarito Plateau and the Bandelier Monument has not been closely surveyed by experts. Much research remains to be done.

Departure of the Anasazi

The Anasazi seem to have abandoned Frijoles Canyon and the southern Pajarito Plateau by the early sixteenth century, probably because of drought. The first Spanish explorations of the area in the mid-sixteenth century found little evidence of current Indian occupation. By then most of the Indians had moved to pueblos along the Rio Grande, many of which are still inhabited by descendants of the Bandelier and Pajarito settlers. Spanish colonization began around 1600 c.e. and was characterized by the brutal enslavement of the Indians. The famous 1680 Pueblo Revolt drove the Spanish from New Mexico, although they were back by the end of the century. Bandelier thereafter saw only occasional Indian settlement by sheep herders and small family groups of farmers and hunter-gatherers.

Some logging was carried out by American companies during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During World War II, the Los Alamos Laboratory was established a few miles from the Bandelier site. Because of security concerns during the work on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, the Bandelier Monument was taken over by the army for the duration of the war.

Adolph F. Bandelier

The importance of the Pajarito Plateau in the search for information about the early Indian culture of the Southwest was originally dramatized by a single remarkable individual. Adolph F. Bandelier was born in Switzerland in 1840 and came to the United States as a boy. He grew up in St. Louis and worked in his father’s banking business. Bored by business life, he undertook a new career as an anthropologist and ethnologist at the age of forty. Interested in the Southwest, in 1880 he became the first researcher to study the ruin-filled canyon in Pajarito, which he called Frijoles. Though he lacked academic training, Bandelier was a careful observer with a passionate and somewhat romantic desire to study prehistoric societies. His investigations in New Mexico between 1880 and 1892 led to the publication of his Journals and, in 1890, a novel about prehistoric life in the Frijoles Canyon called The Delight Makers. The novel was a best-seller and remains in print to this day. The Journals remain a useful reference source for Pueblo Indian society and the ancient ruins he studied.

Bandelier’s publications helped to inspire the prominent ethnologist Edgar Lee Hewett to take an interest in the Pajarito. Hewett carried out studies and excavations during the years before World War I. Equally important, he was worried about vandalism and the theft of artifacts from the area, and he encouraged the U.S. government to take some action. In 1915 the Department of Agriculture proposed that a national monument be created there, and in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation establishing Bandelier National Monument. The monument was managed initially by the U.S. Forest Service until 1932, and subsequently by the National Park Service. During the early 1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corps, a depression-era federal work program, constructed a visitors’ center, a lodge, and, in 1935, a road leading into the monument. Except for the army takeover from 1943 to 1945, Bandelier National Monument has been continuously open to the public. The monument’s sixty-five miles of maintained trails and its variety of impressive and significant ruins continue to provide absorbing views of the early Indian culture of the Pajarito Plateau.

For Further Information
  • Bandelier, Adolph F. The Delight Makers. 1890. Reprint. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. Of particular interest as a primary source.
  • _______. The Southwestern Journals of Adolph F. Bandelier. Edited by Charles H. Lange and Carroll L. Riley. 4 vols. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1966-1984. Written between 1880 and 1892. Another excellent primary source on the area.
  • Barry, Patricia. Bandelier National Monument. Tucson, Ariz.: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1990. A history of the park and of Pueblo Indians. Includes illustrations and maps.
  • National Park Service. Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico. Harpers Ferry, W.Va.: Author, 1941. A somewhat dated but informative and still useful survey of the monument.
  • Noble, David G., ed. Bandelier National Monument: Geology, History, Prehistory. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School of American Research, 1980. Contains a series of well-illustrated essays on the monument with good coverage of its geologic and cultural history.
  • Rohn, Arthur H. Rock Art of Bandelier National Monument. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989. Offers a scholarly and very well illustrated survey of the remains of ancient Indian rock art. Many of the illustrations are in color.
  • Stuart, David E. The Magic of Bandelier. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Ancient City Press, 1989. Discusses the anthropological history of Bandelier in some detail, with emphasis on specific sites within the monument. The book is well illustrated with an index and a brief bibliography.
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