One of the most puzzling mysteries in the history of Native Americans – the Anasazi people, ruled over the harsh lands of the Four Corners area for more than a millennium. The term Anasazi was first used to refer to the enigmatic cliff dwellers in the 19th century, by American archaeologists who learned the word from the neighboring Navajo tribes. It actually means “ancient enemies” or “old people who are not us”, because the nomadic Navajo often clashed with the ancient tribes which inhabited the cliffs. Although this term is widely used, both in historic literature and in everyday language, many native Coloradoans consider it derogatory, due to its racial connotations, and prefer the term Ancient Pueblo People.
It is believed that the Ancient Pueblo People settled the zone which is now known as the Four Corners area during the 5th century AD. The land occupied by these tribes stretches over the territory of four states, and covers the Southwestern corner of Colorado. The origin of the Ancient Pueblo People is shrouded in mystery, but the most common theory states that the Anasazi people gradually shifted their lifestyle from hunter and gathering to agriculture and village dwelling.
This transformation allowed the Ancient Pueblo People civilization to build an advanced social structure, to create fascinating works of art and ultimately to build the architectural landmarks that gave the name of their civilization – the pueblos.
The name Pueblo People was given to the descendants of the ancient Anasazi by the Spaniards, who explored and colonized the American Southwest starting from the 16th century. The Europeans were struck by the intricate labyrinths of dwellings and living spaces carved in the cliffs of the mesas, which are unique in the entire North America.
Beginning with the 9th century AD, the Ancient Pueblo People began living in large associations of related families, in order to better take advantage of the scarce resources of the Colorado Plateau. This social organization led to the need of acquiring a safe dwelling place. Initially the Anasazi inhabited the green tops of the mesas, the most distinctive geographical formation of the American Southwest. The need for protection and comfort pushed the rugged Native Coloradans to build homes on the abrupt faces of the mesas, while continuing to work the top of these plateaus for agriculture.
Initially simple chambers carved in rock, the Anasazi cliff dwellings gradually became larger and more complex. The most advanced Pueblos were masterpieces of architectural planning, taking advantage of the natural resources of the area – sunlight and water. The Anasazi were forced to haul wood logs from great distance and painstakingly sculpt their houses in rock faces that are difficult to climb even by today’s professional mountaineers.
The Anasazi cliff dwellings last for more than a thousand years, a resilience which is telling for the workmanship of this ancient people.
The swift decline of the flourishing Anasazi people is an enigmatic chapter of American history. They literary disappeared from the Four Corners area in the 13th century, and by the time the first European explorers reached the Colorado Plateau they found nothing more than ruins. The cause of this sudden disappearance is controversial among historians, but a long period of severe drought and the incursions of nomadic tribes are considered to be the most likely reasons.
Nevertheless, the amazing Pueblos, some of which sheltered 3,000 inhabitants in over 1,000 chambers, still stand today as a testimony for the courage and skill of the Ancient Pueblo People.