Mule Canyon: Ancestral Pueblo Village of the Anasazi

Mule Canyon: Ancestral Pueblo Village of the Anasazi

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The Four Corners region of the United States is a unique place in North America . It is the meeting place of the four corners of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. With its distinct geographical features, a long and diverse history, and a recognizable regional character, this area really has a lot to offer. The Four Corners and its surrounding regions are all home to a variety of distinct Native American tribes. Here dwell the Zuni, the Ute, the Navajo, and the Hopi people. But the very center of the Four Corners is the home to the Ancestral Puebloans, who are more commonly known by their old name, Anasazi. These natives have long dwelt in these arid landscapes, and have left valuable traces of their lives. One such trace is located in Utah, in the so-called Mule Canyon, where the Anasazi left some very important insights into their ancient way of life.

Earliest Traces of the Anasazi in Mule Canyon

The Ancestral Puebloans are amongst the most recognizable Native American tribes in the southwestern United States. They are also amongst the oldest, with scholars suggesting that the beginnings of their culture emerged as early as 12th century BC, on the bases of previous, similar cultures. They are often called Anasazi, which comes from the Navajo language, and means “ancient enemies”, or “ancestors of our enemies.” This exonym is not accepted by the Puebloans today. The neighboring Hopi peoples called them Hisatsinom, which means “ancient people”. All of these terms give us a crucial insight into the past and the very long presence of this tribe in the Four Corners region.

One of the most recognizable characteristics of the Puebloans in this region is without a doubt their architecture. These tribes expertly adapted to the arid and dry geographical features of the area, skillfully utilizing the natural features of the terrain to create thriving and imposing dwellings. Ancestral Puebloans lived in a wide variety of dwellings, from small pit houses where the majority of the dwelling is below ground, to larger villages and communal dwellings. And it’s these villages that give them their name: Pueblo simply means “village” in Spanish, and is the name given to them by the first explorers.

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But the most characteristic of all Pueblo dwellings are their cliff houses. These unique dwellings are perfectly designed to offer both defense from enemies and defense from the elements. With a range of elaborate houses skillfully built into the cliff faces, the Puebloans utilized the very best that this arid region had to offer. The cool surface of the stone and the shade it provided was essential for success in the heat of the summer. One of the great examples of this characteristic Pueblo architecture is located at Mule Canyon in Utah.

The unique architecture of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples found at Mule Canyon in Utah utilized the best the arid region had to offer. ( lightphoto2 / Adobe Stock)

Mule Canyon Architecture of the Pueblo People

Mule Canyon houses the elaborate and surprisingly well-preserved ruins of a small Ancestral Pueblo village. Excavations and the general layout indicate that it was used for general life as well as select religious ceremonies over a long period. This canyon and its sights are located in the southeastern corner of Utah, in the San Juan County, and is the integral part of a large plateau known as the Greater Cedar Mesa. This plateau is well known for the sheer amount of unique canyons, gorges, and cliffs, most of which are dotted with small and large remnants of the Ancestral Pueblo dwellings.

Visiting Mule Canyon, one can quickly spot the distinct Anasazi dwellings nestled between rock faces in the canyon sides. What remains of the houses is quite well preserved, showcasing classic Pueblo building methods. The houses were made from sandstone blocks, connected with mortar made from wet soil mixture. The structures utilize the cliffs for the floor, ceiling and back walls, with only the remaining walls being made from sandstone. These cliffside dwellings made ideal protection from the elements, especially the heat, and generated a good defensive position. Research shows that most of the structures were constructed from sandstone quarried from the most immediate vicinity, another insight into the abundance of material in the region.

Those Pueblo houses at the site that didn’t utilize cliff faces for roofs and floor, were nonetheless well protected. Remains of log frame roofs are still noticeable. They were constructed from a dense mesh of sticks and tree limbs, encased in wet soil mortar. Floors were similarly made from tough, hard-packed soil.

The ruins of an Anasazi cliff house in Utah. ( Kristin Piljay - Danita Delimont / Adobe Stock)

The Industrious Dwellings of the Pueblo Peoples

There are all the elements of a once-thriving Pueblo village at the Mule Canyon site. It consisted of a kiva - a large round building used for religious ceremonies and congregational meetings - a round tower most likely used for defense, and a spacious “room block” consisting of twelve separate rooms. This last feature was one of the crucial protective elements in a Pueblo village: the room block was used for storage and shelter, especially in bad weather.

Here we need to note a well known fact - that the Ancestral Puebloans naturally spent a lot of their time out of doors, and that the houses and dwellings were mainly used for protection. The kiva is a common feature in almost all Pueblo sites and is also visible amongst other Native cultures as well. It had a deep religious significance and was the place for many ceremonies. It also housed community meetings and had a distinct round shape.

The tower is however the most enigmatic feature of Pueblo architecture. Round towers and their remains are seen in several Pueblo villages. Some scholars speculate that their purpose might have been defensive, while others propose that they were simply another means of grain and food storage. Another distinct possibility is its use as an observatory, for ceremonial purposes. Ancestral Puebloans had a solid grasp of the celestial bodies, and many of their dwellings show a connection to this aspect of their distinct culture.

Extensive research has shown that the dwellings in the Mule Canyon were occupied between the 11th and 12th centuries AD. During the explorations, researchers discovered one feature that could be unique for this part of Utah, as it is rarely observed in other Pueblo sites. It is a small network of tunnels which connected the kiva dwelling with both the round tower, and the room block as well. These tunnels - now permanently sealed - were used as a protective passage around the site, but why exactly the Puebloans constructed them is not known. Nevertheless, they are a rarity.

Research shows a long period of habitation in the Mule Canyon. What is present today is simply the last phase of this habitation period, built on top of a previous Pueblo occupation which possibly dates to the 9th and 10th centuries AD. Remains from this earlier period are scarce and more crude, including a kiva made entirely from earth, and some small pit houses. Even so, these remains are crucial as they show that the Mule Canyon location was strategically important, and a good place for life overall.

The Edge of the Cedars museum in Blanding, Utah, is home to a restored kiva, a large round building which was used by the Ancestral Pueblo peoples for religious ceremonies and congregational meetings. ( lightphoto2 / Adobe Stock)

House on Fire: Iconic Red Sandstone Remains at Mule Canyon

One of the iconic features of the Mule Canyon Pueblo complex, is commonly called the “House on Fire” by the hikers and researchers alike. House on Fire is located in the South Fork of Mule Canyon, and continues to be a “fan favorite” spot for travelers. Its state of preservation and its beauty are incredibly inspiring, providing a unique insight into the traditional life of the Ancestral Puebloans. The House on Fire gets its nickname due to the distinct coloring of the red sandstone above it - when hit by the sun during the day, these rocks have unique patterns that resemble flames and smoke, coming from the walls of the house below them.

The House of Fire in the Mule Canyon is one of the prettiest Pueblo house remains. It is still one of the favorite spots for photographers, considered the iconic representation of Anasazi architecture. But more importantly, its state of perfect preservation provides insight into the old Pueblo building methods, including the precision and the durability of the windows and walls. It remains one of Mule Canyon’s most visited locations.

When the central dwelling site in the Mule Canyon was abandoned, sometime in the 12th century AD, several sections were gradually eroded by the elements. However, thanks to the quality of Pueblo construction methods , the majority of the ruins were preserved for posterity. Still, we need to note the fact that certain preservation attempts were made in modern times, in order to keep the Mule Canyon ruins standing for generations to come.

Wind and rain - heat too - are important threats for these ruins. The walls were stabilized by replacing and strengthening the loose stones and mortar layers, in sectinos that were crucial for the overall stability of the walls. During this process, the preservation team took great care to precisely match not just the color and the original layout, but also to follow the traditional building methods of the Ancestral Pueblos. Thanks to this attention to detail, the sites at Mule Canyon are safe for all visitors, and also remain true to their appearance when they were originally discovered.

Today, the Mule Canyon ruin complex is under the administration and protection of the US Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. It remains one of Utah’s most important archaeological and historical sites, and a place of popular interest. But most importantly, it is an invaluable piece of the Ancestral Pueblo heritage.

The iconic red sandstone remains of House on Fire at Mule Canyon. ( kojihirano / Adobe Stock)

The Seven Towers: Observing the Stars or Defending the Pueblo Peoples?

We mentioned House on Fire as one of the most popular locations in the Mule Canyon - but it is not the only one. The Cave Towers is another secluded, often overlooked, site that speaks of the enigma of the Ancestral Puebloans. The site is also known as the “Seven Towers Ruin”, and is perched high above ground, on the rim of the Mule Canyon. Although fragile, the Mule Canyon Towers are nevertheless very impressive. The remains of seven towers are perched on the very edge of the Mule Canyon’s highest rim, offering a commanding view of the surroundings, and some of the most picturesque views overall.

The exact nature of these towers is still largely debated. Their purpose might have been defensive: their positioning and the strategic view of the surrounding lands could indicate this. What is more, these towers are roughly a mile away from the round tower of the Mule Canyon ruins and the two locations are within sight of each other. This could give them a communication role, again for defensive purposes. However, others propose that they had a ceremonial and observatory purpose, as they also offer a clear view of the starry skies above.

They are generally said to date back to around 1250 AD, while experts agree they are the best location of studying the tower structures in the entire Cedar Mesa Plateau. However, they are in a state of disrepair and are very fragile, so special care is advised for all visitors. Below the towers and the canyon rim, the cliff faces are again dotted with a variety of small, somewhat crude Pueblo dwellings. For those exploring the Mule Canyon Ruins, a visit to the Seven Towers can be the perfect end to a day of exploring the area.


Demise or Assimilation of the Ancestral Puebloans?

There is still a lot that needs to be learned about the Ancestral Pueblo Anasazi. Much of their history and heritage is lost to time, due to the fact that - like most native tribes - they did not have a formal system of writing and no written records of their history and culture were left behind. It is archaeology that helps us to piece together the puzzle of these ancient peoples. Locations such as the Mule Canyon remain a big and important glimpse into their past.

What we know is that the Ancestral Pueblos experienced a sudden decline and disappearance. Around the late 1300s AD, there was an abrupt end to the building of villages such as the one in Mule Canyon. The nature of their demise is unknown, but scholars agree that they did not vanish as a people. Instead, it is much more likely that they were assimilated into larger groups, or perhaps migrated further south. It is now generally agreed that the Hopi Indians of today, as well as the Jemez, Zuni, Zia, and Sandia Indians of Arizona and New Mexico, are partially descended from the Ancestral Puebloans.

Even so, there is no doubt that these ancient peoples were skilled in architecture and in exploitation of the terrain they lived in. Even though the geography of the Four Corners region is arid and inhospitable, the Ancestral Pueblos managed to make the best of it and to thrive, leaving behind them an incredible wealth of remains.

Pueblo Indians are American Indians who live in pueblos and have a long tradition of farming.

Pueblo Indians who lived long ago are sometimes called the "ancestral Pueblo" because they are the ancestors of today's Pueblo people. Another name for the ancestral Pueblo people is Anasazi.

In this history, we use "Pueblo people" or "Pueblo Indians" to talk about all Pueblo people throughout history, including those who lived long ago.

A pueblo where Pueblo Indians live today.

A Name Change

The term Anasazi is no longer in use by the archaeological community scholars now call it the Ancestral Pueblo. That was in part at the request of modern pueblo people who are the descendants of the people who populated the American Southwest / Mexican Northwest—the Anasazi did not in any way disappear. In addition, after a hundred years of research, the concept of what was Anasazi had changed. It must be recalled that, like the Maya people, the Ancestral Pueblo people shared a lifestyle, cultural material, economics, and a religious and political system, they were never a unified state.

Legends of America

More Ancient Pueblos and Ruins:

Black Mesa, Arizona – Also called Big Mountain, Black Mesa, located in northeastern Arizona, is a major geographic feature of the Colorado Plateau. This extensive plateau rises to about 8,000 feet at its highest point. It derives its dark appearance from the numerous seams of coal which run through it. Reliable springs surfacing at several locations made it suitable continuous habitation and was sporadically occupied by Paleo-Indians as early as 7000 B.C. There is abundant evidence of Basketmaker II occupation north of the Hopi villages on Black Mesa. Prehistoric farmers returned to the same habitation sites and campsites year after year. They were flood-plain farmers, collecting some portion of the seasonal rains as they streamed off the mesas and flooded their cornfields positioned in or along broad, shallow washes. The mesa is now split between the Hopi and Navajo tribal reservations. It is located 17 miles west of Rough Rock, Arizona.

Butler Wash Overlook, Utah – Butler Wash Ruin is a cliff dwelling that was built and occupied by the Ancestral Puebloans, sometimes known as Anasazi, in about 1200 A.D. Parts of the site has been stabilized and reconstructed, but most of it remains as it was found in the 1800s. There are habitation, storage, and ceremonial structures, including four kivas. This ruin is located in a side canyon of Butler Wash, on the east side of Comb Ridge. A trail to the site winds its way across slick rock and washes to reach an overlook of the cliff dwelling. Round trip hiking distance is one mile and takes approximately a half-hour. The difficulty is moderate. An interpretive sign is located at the overlook. Ample parking and a restroom are provided. There is no water at this site, and desert temperatures can be extremely hot and dry. Plan and be prepared. Bring appropriate clothing and lots of water when visiting this site. The site, administered by the Bureau of Land Management, is located about 14 miles south of Blanding, Utah, and is well signed on Hwy 95. It is open year-round, and there is no admission fee. Contact Information: Butler Wash, BLM Monticello Field Office, 435 North Main, PO Box 7, Monticello, Utah 84535, 435-587-1500.

Casa Grande National Monument, Arizona – Casa Grande, administered by the National Park Service, is one of the most intriguing prehistoric ruins in the United States. Built by the Hohokam Indians in the Gila Valley sometime between 1150 and 1350 A.D., the four-story building and outlying structures may have been used as dwellings, a ceremonial site, or possibly an astronomical observatory. By 1450, for reasons still unknown, Casa Grande was abandoned. The Jesuit priest Father Eusebio Kino came upon the site in 1694 and named it Casa Grande (Great House). In 1892 it became the first archaeological preserve in the United States. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument encompasses 60 prehistoric sites, including the Great House complex. It is situated within the city limits of Coolidge, Arizona, off AZ 87. A Visitors Center has interpretive exhibits, and self-guided tour and ranger-conducted talks are available. 520-723-3172.

Chimney Rock Archeological Site, Colorado – Located in the San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado, the site is between Durango and Pagosa Springs. It is managed by the Pagosa Ranger District, USDA Forest Service. Designated an Archaeological Area and National Historic Site in 1970, Chimney Rock lies on 4,100 acres of San Juan National Forest land surrounded by the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. The site was home to the modern Pueblo Indians’ ancestors 1,000 years ago and is of great spiritual significance to these tribes. Their ancestors built over 200 homes and ceremonial buildings high above the valley floor, probably near the sacred twin rock pinnacles. Of the hundreds of individual sites dotting the landscape, researchers have thus far found 91 structures that may have been permanent, plus 27 work camps near farming areas, adding up to more than 200 individual rooms. The Chimney Rock Interpretive Association conducts daily guided walking tours and operates the Visitor Center during in-season, May 15 to September 30. More information Chimney Rock Interpretive Program, P.O. Box 1662, Pagosa Springs, Colorado 81147, 970-883-5359.

Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Colorado – The center is located in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest — the Pueblo people’s ancestral homeland, whose nations today are located in Arizona and New Mexico. American Indian lands in or near the area today include those of the Mountain Ute, Southern Ute, Paiute, Navajo, Jicarilla Apache, and numerous other tribes’ reservations are not too far distant. The name for this area in Keres, including Mesa Verde and the Great Sage Plain, is katach-ta kaact, meaning “wide area of dwellings.” People have lived in the Mesa Verde region of the American Southwest for thousands of years. For the vast majority of that time, the inhabitants were American Indians — hunters, foragers, and farmers who thrived in the canyon-and-mesa country of what today encompasses portions of southwestern Colorado, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. Only in the last approximately 250 years have other people — mostly Europeans and Americans of European descent –moved into the area. The indigenous peoples of the region are interested in the past because they consider their ancestors’ relationships to be sacred. More information: Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, 23390 Road K, Cortez, Colorado 81321-9408, 970-565-8975 or 800-422-8975.

El Morro National Monument, New Mexico – Also known as “Inscription Rock,” this massive rock formation rises more than 200 feet above the plains. On top of the formation are the remains of two Anasazi pueblos, the most complete of which is A’ts’ina, built in 1275 A.D. With almost 900 rooms, this pueblo is thought to have housed between 1000 and 1500 people. El Morro’s base contains hundreds of Indian petroglyphs and the chiseled names of numerous explorers, soldiers, settlers, and immigrants. The first European inscription was made in 1605 by Juan de Oñate, the first governor of New Mexico. The national monument is administered by the National Park Service and is located 43 miles southwest of Grants, New Mexico, off NM 53. It is open daily. Contact: El Morro National Monument, HC 61 Box 43, Ramah, New Mexico 87321, 505-783-4226 ext. 0.

Escalante Ruin, Colorado – The Escalante Ruin was first investigated in 1776 by the Domínguez-Escalante Expedition, looking for a northern route from the New Mexico missions to the ones at Monterey, California. The ruin consists of a partially excavated multi-storied masonry pueblo with at least 20 rooms and a kiva. Built by the San Juan Anasazi between 900 and 1300 A.D., it represents the small surface pueblos that were once common throughout the region. The Escalante Ruin is located at the Anasazi Heritage Center, an anthropological museum with exhibits on prehistoric Anasazi culture. It is situated two miles south of Dolores, Colorado, on CO 145, then ½ mile west on CO 184. A trail leads from the Anasazi Heritage Center to the ruin. It is open daily. More Information: Escalante Ruin, 27501 Highway 184, Dolores, Colorado 81323, 970-882-5600.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, New Mexico – National monument preserves cliff dwellings and other significant archeological remains left by prehistoric American Indians of the Mogollon Culture. The well-preserved cliff dwellings, constructed in the late 1200s, contain 42 rooms and are located within five natural caves in a narrow side canyon above the Gila River. The TJ Ruin contains unexcavated remains of a small pueblo inhabited for roughly 900 years, beginning about. 500 A.D. The national monument is administered jointly by the National Park Service and the Forest Service. It is 44 miles north of Silver City, New Mexico, at the end of NM 15. The cliff dwellings trail and Visitors Center are open daily. More information: Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, HC 68 Box 100, Silver City, New Mexico 88061, 575-536-9461.

Homolovi Ruins State Park, Arizona – In the high grassland of 14th century northern Arizona, Ancient Puebloans found a home along the Little Colorado River. These people, the Hisat’sinom (known to archaeologists as the Anasazi, paused in their migrations to till the rich flood plain and sandy slopes before continuing north to join people already living on the mesas, people who are today known as the Hopi. The Hopi people of today still consider Homolovi and other pre-Columbian sites in the southwest, to be part of their homeland. They continue to make pilgrimages to these sites, renewing the ties of the people with the land. The site includes a visitor center and museum. More information: Homolovi Ruins State Park.

Kinishba Ruins, Arizona – Kinishba Ruins is a sprawling, 600-room pueblo archaeological site in eastern Arizona that includes a combination of Mogollon and Anasazi cultural traits and is considered ancestral to both the Hopi and Zuni cultures. The large pueblo ruin containing nine masonry buildings was constructed between 1250 and 1350 A.D. by the pre-Columbian Mogollon culture. The pueblo is situated on the upper end of a grass-covered valley and originally had 400-500 ground floor rooms standing two or three stories high. At its peak, Kinishba may have housed up to 1000 occupants. The pueblo was vacated in the late 14th-early 15th centuries for unknown reasons. Kinishba Ruins, a National Historic Landmark, is seven miles west of Whiteriver, Arizona, off AZ 73 on Fort Apache Indian Reservation. For more information, call 520-338-4625.

Lowry Ruins, Colorado – Named after early homesteader George Lowry, this ancient pueblo was constructed about 1060 AD on top of abandoned pit houses from an earlier occupation period. Its 40-100 inhabitants were farmers who also hunted small game, made elaborately decorated pottery, and wove cotton obtained by trade. Lowry Pueblo was excavated during summer field seasons (1930-1936) by Paul S. Martin of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1967 and now is a part of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Lowry’s architecture and masonry indicate a strong influence from Chaco Canyon, about 100 miles south in New Mexico Lowry, among the northernmost Chaco-style communities, which may have formed an interdependent network spread thinly across the eastern half of the Ancestral Pueblo homeland. It is located 27 miles northwest of Cortez, Colorado. More information: Canyons of the Ancients National Monument/Anasazi Heritage Center, 27501 Highway 184 Dolores, Colorado 81323, 970-882-5600.

Montezuma Castle, Arizona by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona – Montezuma Castle was built by prehistoric Indians in the early 1100s and received its name from Anglo-American settlers who mistakenly believed that Aztec Indians had built it. Situated in a cliff recess 100 feet above the Verde Valley, Montezuma Castle is a five-story pueblo with 20 rooms similar in style to the many Anasazi dwellings found throughout the Southwest. Nearby is Castle A, a 45-room pueblo built at the base of the cliff. Montezuma Well, just north of the pueblos, is a large limestone sink used as a source of water for irrigation by the pueblo inhabitants. In the early 1400s, the valley was vacated for unknown reasons. Montezuma Castle National Monument, administered by the National Park Service, is north of Camp Verde, Arizona, off I-17. A self-guided tour is available. A Visitors Center and museum are open daily. 527 S. Main St, PO Box 219, Camp Verde, Arizona 86322, 928-567-3322.

Mule Canyon Ruins, Utah – A small Anasazi village, this Ancient Puebloan ruin is located on Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah. Well-preserved pueblo surface ruins found at this site are over 700 years old. The ruin complex includes above-ground and underground dwellings: a kiva and tower that have been excavated and stabilized and a block of twelve rooms. The Bureau of Land Management administers mule Canyon Ruin. The Mule Canyon Ruin site is located about 20 miles south and west of Blanding, Utah. It may be accessed from Highway 95. It has a paved parking area, which is well signed on the north side of the highway. More information: Mule Canyon Ruins, BLM Monticello Field Office, 365 North Main, PO Box 7, Monticello, Utah 84535, 435-587-1500.

Other Nearby Sites

Three-Kiva Site

Drive 9 miles off pavement on a gravel road. Sections of the road are very steep and slippery when wet. It is also subject to frequent wash-outs and crosses the stream many times as it goes through the bottom of Montezuma canyon. If there has been bad weather, travel the road with caution.
(route: CR 146/446, then 7.25 miles on CR 146 parking 37.565095, -109.252037)

Bradford Site

Additional 2.37 miles beyond Three-Kiva Site
(Parking 37.585967, -109.269137)

Why was Chaco Canyon important to the Anasazi?

Containing the most sweeping collection of ancient ruins north of Mexico, the park preserves one of the most important pre-Columbian cultural and historical areas in the United States. Between AD 900 and 1150, Chaco Canyon was a major center of culture for the Ancestral Puebloans.

Furthermore, how was Chaco Canyon discovered? United States army Lt. James H. Simpson and his guide, Carravahal, from San Ysidro, New Mexico, discovered Chaco Canyon during an 1849 military expedition. They briefly examined eight large ruins in Chaco Canyon, and Carravahal gave them their Spanish names, including Pueblo Bonito, meaning beautiful village.

Secondly, why are the Anasazi important?

Anasazi means "ancient outsiders." Like many peoples during the agricultural era, the Anasazi employed a wide variety of means to grow high-yield crops in areas of low rainfall. Their baskets and pottery are highly admired by collectors and are still produced by their descendants for trade.

History & Culture

Betatakin is a Navajo word that translates to "Houses on the Cliff".

White fir log across the entrance of Keet Seel.

Navajo National Monument represents a long cultural history. The monument was first created in 1909 to protect the remains of three large pueblos dating to the 13 th century C.E.: Keet Seel, Betatakin, and Inscription House. In addition to the large pueblo villages, archaeological evidence documents human use of this region over the past several thousand years.

The earliest people to live in the Tsegi and Nitsin Canyon regions were hunters and gatherers, who relied on hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants for food. These early people were highly mobile, and moved around a large region to gather food with the changing seasons. Their archaeological footprint is limited.

Around 2000 years ago, the inhabitants of the region began to grow maize, soon followed by other crops. They also began to live in more settled villages of semi-underground pithouses. The early communities are known as the Basketmakers.


The Ancestral Pueblo culture emerged as these early farmers began to depend on farming for most of their food. They built above-ground masonry houses, farmed the canyon streambeds, and interacted with far-reaching communities across the Colorado Plateau.

Betatakin, Keet Seel, and Inscription House were all built in large, natural alcoves which formed in the towering Navajo Sandstone Formation due to the local geological conditions. As water moves through the porous Navajo Sandstone, it hits the less porous Kayenta Formation of shale and limestone, and moves horizontally. This movement causes cracking, sheeting, and spalling of the rock, resulting in eroded alcoves, as well as seeps and springs inside the canyons. For villagers living here and farming the canyonlands, the alcoves offer shelter from the elements, as well as natural spring water.

Keet Seel

The Ancestral Pueblo people farmed the streambeds in the canyon bottoms, enabling them to flourish in this high desert environment. They hunted wild game and grew corn, beans, and squash. Climate at this time was similar to today, and these farmers relied on the canyon streams for water. Although they succeeded here for several hundred years, by 1300 CE, the villagers had all moved on. They may have left after a prolonged drought made farming here extremely difficult.

Today, the land surrounding Navajo National Monument is part of the Navajo Nation. The Navajo, or Diné, have lived in this region for several hundred years. Sheep and cattle ranching are an important part of life for the Navajo, which is visible on the landscape today.

Making Prehistoric Music: Musical Instruments from Ancestral Puebloan Sites

Decorated gourd rattle from Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Collection of the Western Archeology and Conservation Center.

The world of the Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, has been a major research area for archeologists of the Southwest, who have examined the nature and evolution of these prehistoric people from many angles. Emily Brown, a former NPS archeologist, is taking a fresh approach to the Ancestral Puebloans: she is studying the instruments that were used to make music.

For Brown, combining archeology and music was almost inevitable. Her bachelor’s degree is a double major in music and anthropology, and her master’s and doctorate degrees are in archeology. She classifies herself as an archeomusicologist. Brown finds music a natural gateway into the world of the past because there are no known human societies without music in some form. Instruments are a primary source of music, a frequent component of ritual, which in turn was used for social and political ends.

Brown has studied 1,300 ancient musical instruments from 17 national parks in the Southwest, where the Ancestral Puebloans once lived. The time period of her research goes from A.D. 200, the first period from which Brown was able to find instruments, to 1540, when the Spanish entered the region. The majority of these instruments are found in museum collections on the East Coast and in the Southwest, and some are in NPS collections. Though the items from more recent excavations have better documentation, she found that collections from earlier excavations and now housed at the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC, the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and the two Peabody Museums in Boston had the more unusual instruments.

What Brown discovered is a surprising range and variety of both materials used and the kind of sounds that could be produced. Falling into the basic percussion and wind categories, the instruments yield a sonic picture that in its own way is as varied as the modern orchestral world of strings, winds, and percussion.

Brown first measured the instruments and developed instrument typologies. Then, she examined anything depicted on the objects themselves as well as musicians portrayed in rock art, kiva murals, and on pottery. Brown also consulted historical and ethnographic sources. These included Spanish accounts of Puebloan music that yielded information on the places where the ritual performances took place, such as plazas and kivas, and who the performers were. Then, she analyzed the materials in archeological terms, looking at the distribution, provenience, and contextual information for each site. Architectural features of a site were of particular interest since they might offer clues about where and how the instruments were used.

Tubular bone whistles from Sapawe Pueblo. Collection of the Maxwell Museum.

Brown did not actually play any of the instruments. “Curators would frown on the hot, moist air and vibrations going into objects in their care,” said Brown. But, she found that a great deal of sound information was gained simply by gently examining them, turning over small bells, for example, or handling a kiva bell made out of resonant volcanic rock called phonolite. And, she made replicas—flutes made from turkey bones.

Her inventory conjures up a vivid sound world that includes flutes and whistles made of wood, reed, and bone from a wide variety of species such as turkey, Canada goose, whistling swan, eagles, fox, and bobcat. Bells were made from copper and clay. So-called kiva bells were large suspended stones that resonated when struck. Rattles were divided into two categories—tinklers and rattles. Tinklers referred to objects that could be strung on a string, like seashells, walnut shells, pieces of petrified wood, or hooves. Rattlers referred to cases with things inside to shake, like gourds with dried seeds inside or leather cases stretched around wooden frames filled with seeds or small stones. Brown also studied delicate, small-scale rattles made of cocoons and the tube-shaped nests of trapdoor spiders that could be filled with little seeds. Rasps—pieces of wood or bone with a serrated edge yielding a percussive sound when rubbed with another stick or bone—were also examined. There were trumpets made from large shells and a possible wooden bull roarer as well. She also points out that people can sing, whistle, clap, and make other kinds of sounds without the aid of musical instruments of any kind.

Curiously, she found no physical evidence of drums, which are ubiquitous in Pueblo culture today. Drums made from pottery or baskets might not be recognized as instruments. Brown asks, “Is there a long tradition [of drumming] and we archeologists just are not seeing it? Or, are they really a much more modern invention or introduction and, if so, how did that happen?”

Apart from foot drums, the term given to trenches found in kivas that were covered with a board that was danced on, no drums have ever been found in the prehistoric Southwest. Brown has checked various sources in the archeological record, including rock art. She has found many images of the little flute player popularly known as Kokopelli and depictions of people carrying rattles and shell tinklers, but she has never found an image of a drum.

Having documented and classified this large body of instruments, Brown then applied that data to questions of authority and leadership among the Ancestral Puebloans. Would the instruments and the settings in which they were used yield possible connections between music and ritual, political and social life?

The earliest instruments, wood and reed flutes of the Basketmaker period (A.D. 400-700), were few in number and most of them came from small village sites in northeastern Arizona. There are some rock art sites from this period depicting flute players with shamanic characteristics like flying or wobbly legs. She concluded that a few shamans in the society probably used the instruments.

Brown found less than a dozen instruments dating to the Pueblo I period (A.D. 700-900). These instruments were found primarily in the Mesa Verde region in southwestern Colorado. It was a period when people were settling down, becoming more agricultural, and it marked the first appearance of foot drums. Brown theorized that in the process of settling down, questions of land tenure and access to resources would arise and that it might be useful to have connections to the land in your mythology and rituals. In the 1980s archeologist Richard Wilshusen interpreted food drums as representing sipapus, the holes where Pueblo ancestors emerged into this world according to the origin myth. There is also ethnographic evidence that dancing on the foot drums was viewed as a way of communicating with ancestors in the underworld.

The Pueblo II period (A.D. 900-1150) marks a fluorescence of Ancestral Pueblo culture, epitomized by the civilization at Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, Chaco Culture National Historical Park contains many spectacular sites, some with vast plazas and great kivas. According to archeological interpretations, Ancestral Pueblo social organization became more complex, a development that Brown finds reflected in a fluorescence of new instruments. Their sonic power or visual appeal led her to theorize that they were used for public ritual spectacle as well as in the kivas.

Some, like conch shell trumpets, copper bells, and shell tinklers imported on trade routes from Mexico, were valued items. Based on the volume of the modern shell trumpets played by Tibetans, Pacific Islanders, and other cultures, Brown surmises that shell trumpets could have sent loud waves of sound across the plazas, while the copper bells, often found associated with beads, and shell tinklers were eye-catching musical additions to costumes.

There were also elaborate versions of earlier instruments, notably the wooden flutes. At Chaco Canyon, they are decorated with painted geometric designs and carved animals, and one example was more than three feet long. They were visually arresting, both in their size and their decorations though their pitches would have been low and relatively quiet.

Brown theorizes that these flutes could have been used to enrich the spectacle and also to invoke the past and thus add the weight of tradition to Chaco rituals. Foot drums, which the Ancestral Puebloans continued to use, could have served a similar purpose.

Brown noted that the Chaco burials in which instruments were found contained more grave goods than any other burials uncovered in the Southwest. They included “thousands and thousands of pieces of turquoise, lots of pottery, and carved wooden staffs that modern Hopis recognize as being ritual objects,” she said. Brown posits a close correlation between the people buried with so many luxury and ritual items and the music, which might have been either for secular or ritual performance. “Chaco [culture] was all about spectacle,” explained Brown. “It’s the people at the top who are putting these things on and they have either the power or means to. And that’s what these [instruments] are being used for.”

Rattle of Arizona walnut shells from Antelope House, Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Collection of the Western Archeological and Conservation Center.

Early in the Pueblo III period (A.D. 1150-1300) Chaco Canyon and its outliers were abandoned due to an extended drought. The disruption is reflected in the instruments. Wooden flutes disappear altogether and shell trumpets and copper bells vanish from Chaco and places where Chacoan influence spread. Brown theorizes that since these instruments had been significant components of ritual spectacle at Chaco, their absence points to a rejection of Chacoan ideology. In her view, “Whatever rituals and ideologies were in place at Chaco ultimately didn’t meet people’s needs during the great droughts.”

By A.D. 1400 the Ancestral Puebloans had regrouped along the Rio Grande Valley, western New Mexico, and eastern Arizona, where their modern Pueblo descendants live. Brown theorizes that a surge in the number and types of instruments and the expanded variety of materials from which they were made reflect the rise of new ritual practices. Rasps, clay bells, kiva bells, eagle bone flutes, and certain kinds of rattles and whistles appear for the first time. Some instruments, like rattles and tinklers, would have been easy to make and play. Others, like eagle bone flutes, were more difficult to play or construct, or the materials they were made from were hard to obtain. Elaborate kiva murals with people carrying instruments offered additional indications of an efflorescence of ceremony.

Brown also noted architectural differences between the Pueblo IV pueblos and those from previous times, particularly a shift in the kivas, which overall are much reduced in number. Whereas before communities were composed of roomblocks associated with individual kivas, there were now big, rectangular plazas surrounded by large roomblocks with kivas in the plaza. It was an arrangement where certain very public dances took place in the large plazas and a tradition of secrecy surrounded the most sacred knowledge of rituals performed in kivas.

Brown theorizes that community leaders used kiva fraternities with specialized ritual knowledge coupled with large, community-wide ceremonies as a means of organizing and knitting together these large pueblos. In her view, these leaders “acquired and maintained their personal, social, and political power by keeping their sacred knowledge very secret and by having, for example, only certain people be able to play these eagle bone flutes. Whereas some of these other rattles and things that are pretty easy to make and play—many more people could use them in the public dances in the plazas.”

Besides giving us a better understanding of the way that music supported social and political power through ritual, Brown hopes that her work will benefit the public at large. Her research adds a new dimension to our knowledge and gives a more vivid sense of Ancestral Pueblo life. Brown hopes to break through the silence of the past, and make ancient music come alive.

From article by Joanne Sheehy Hoover, published in American Archaeology, Winter 2004-2005. Posted with the permission of the editor and the author.

Mule Canyon: Ancestral Pueblo Village of the Anasazi - History

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Home of the Ancient Ones - The Anasazi

Throughout El Morro Valley, lie scattered the ancient ruins and mounds that long ago were great community centers of the Anasazi - The Ancient Ones. During the 1200s AD, there was massive human migration into El Morro Valley, drawing together social groups with diverse origins and social practices to form new communities, creating situations ripe for social change. An Anasazi community we now call "Atsina Pueblo" sprang up, high atop El Morro Mesa, with 875 rooms, 1000- 1500 residents and was 2- 3 times larger (in population) than present day Ramah, NM and larger in size than the better known Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon.

Atsinna Pueblo - El Morro Mesa

About 800 years ago, Native Americans in the Southwest began building stone citadels and sky- high pueblos. What were they afraid of?

The attackers probably struck the sleeping pueblo at dawn. Dozens of warriors, moving as silently as the rising sun in the cold desert air, climbed to the flat roofs of the tightly clustered multistory dwellings. (From Discover Magazine)

Watch the video: Anasazi Electric - Ancestral Pueblo Flute and Synthesizer