Ancestral Puebloans: The Anasazi

Leighann Brooks & Monique Everhart

Who Were the Anasazi?

The Ancestral Puebloans were an ancient Native American culture that spanned the present-day four corners region of the United States, comprising southeastern Utah, northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado.

Method of Sustenance

Recent research has traced the Anasazi to the "archaic" peoples who practiced a wandering, hunting, and food-gathering life-style from about 6000 B.C. until some of them began to develop into the distinctive Anasazi culture in the last millennium B.C. During the last two centuries B.C., the people began to supplement their food gathering with maize horticulture. By A.D. 1200 horticulture had assumed a significant role in the economy.

What Happened to the Anasazi?

Scientists have found one possible answer by looking at tree rings in the Sand Canyon area. In the period between A.D. 1125 and 1180, very little rain fell in the region. After 1180, rainfall briefly returned to normal. From 1270 to 1274 there was another long drought, followed by another period of normal rainfall. In 1275, yet another drought began. This one lasted 14 years.

When this cycle of drought began, Anasazi civilization was at its height. Communities were densely populated. Even with good rains, the Anasazi were using their land to its limits. Without rain, it was impossible to grow enough food to support the population. Widespread famine occurred. People left the area in large numbers to join other pueblo peoples to the south and east, abandoning the Chaco Canyon pueblos and, later, the smaller communities that surrounded them.

Population of Anasazi over time

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When the Anasazi arrived at the Canyon it was densely forested and the land was very fertile. Over the years however, as they felled more and more of the trees, the underground water level sank. Droughts further lowered the water level and after approximately 300 hundred years the water level became so low that the Canyon turned into a desert.
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Food and Water Preservation

The Anasazi often sun dried their vegetables. Many food items were stone-ground, using grinding stones . Seeds were parched in hot coals and ground into meal. Pine nuts were ground into a paste. Corn was ground to make corn meal. Food was stored in large pits, often sealed in baskets or pottery for protection from insects, animals and moisture.

The Anasazi did not build huge irrigation canals. Anasazi diversion and collection of natural precipitation was not irrigation in the usual sense. In general, their dry-land farming relied on the natural blessings of rain and the runoff from melting snow. Often they helped Mother Nature by building check dams, terracing hillsides or locating fields near the mouths of arroyos and springs. One of the largest of their water conservation efforts was a 500,000 gallon reservoir at Mesa Verde.