The Enduring Mystery of the Anasazi
Time – worn pueblos and dramatic cliff towns, set amid the
stark, rugged mesas and canyons of Colorado and New Mexico, mark
the settlements of some of the earliest inhabitants of North
America, the Anasazi (a Navajo word meaning "ancient ones").
By 500 A.D. the Anasazi had established some of the first
villages in the American Southwest, where they hunted and grew
crops of corn, squash, and beans. The Anasazi flourished over
the centuries, developing sophisticated dams and irrigation
systems; creating a masterful, distinctive pottery tradition;
and carving multiroom dwellings into the sheer sides of cliffs
that remain among the most striking archaeological sites in the
United States today.
Yet by the year 1300, they had abandoned their settlements,
leaving their pottery, implements, even clothing – as though
they intended to return – and seemingly vanished into history.
Their homeland remained empty of human beings for more than a
century – until the arrival of new tribes, such as the Navajo
and the Ute, followed by the Spanish and other European
The story of the Anasazi is tied inextricably to the
beautiful but harsh environment in which they chose to live.
Early settlements, consisting of simple pithouses scooped out of
the ground, evolved into sunken kivas (underground rooms) that
served as meeting and religious sites. Later generations
developed the masonry techniques for building square, stone
pueblos. But the most dramatic change in Anasazi living was the
move to the cliff sides below the flat – topped mesas, where the
Anasazi carved their amazing, multilevel dwellings.
The Anasazi lived in a communal society. They traded
with other peoples in the region, but signs of warfare are few
and isolated. And although the Anasazi certainly had religious
and other leaders, as well as skilled artisans, social or class
distinctions were virtually nonexistent.
Religious and social motives undoubtedly played a part in the
building of the cliff communities and their final abandonment.
But the struggle to raise food in an increasingly difficult
environment was probably the paramount factor. As populations
grew, farmers planted larger areas on the mesas, causing some
communities to farm marginal lands, while others left the mesa
tops for the cliffs. But the Anasazi couldn't halt the steady
loss of the land's fertility from constant use, nor withstand
the region's cyclical droughts. Analysis of tree rings, for
example, shows that a drought lasting 23 years, from 1276 to
1299, finally forced the last groups of Anasazi to leave
Although the Anasazi dispersed from their ancestral homeland,
their legacy remains in the remarkable archaeological record
that they left behind, and in the Hopi, Zuni, and other Pueblo
peoples who are their descendants.
Directions: Read the text above, then answer the questions below.
1. The name for the
__________ comes from a Navajo word meaning "ancient ones."
2. Which of the following statements is
not true of the Anasazi?
multi-room dwellings into the sheer sides of cliffs
b. Created a masterful,
distinctive pottery tradition
c. Developed sophisticated dams
and irrigation systems
d. Flourished until the end of
the sixteenth century
3. What served as meeting and religious sites
for the Anasazi?
a. cliff dwellings
4. What type of society did the Anasazi live
c. rigidly hierarchical
5. What, lasting from 1276 until 1299,
finally forced the last groups of Anasazi to leave permanently?
Click here to print this worksheet.
Text courtesy of the U.S. State Department, Bureau of International Information Programs, 2005