Ancestral Pueblo culture

Among many cultures and cultural traditions that have shaped the cultural face of the US Southwest in the past, Ancestral Pueblo culture deserves special attention. In the pre-Hispanic (pre-Columbian) period, the Pueblo lived in a large part of the Colorado Plateau, mainly in its central and northern part. Having survived centuries of contact with Euro-Americans (first Spaniards, then Mexicans, and finally Americans) the modern Pueblo groups still live and continue much of their traditions, customs, and religion in 21 reservations located in Arizona and New Mexico. In the past in its widest boundaries, the territory inhabited by Ancestral Pueblo groups included southern Utah and Colorado, and the northern and central parts of Arizona and New Mexico, extended to some parts of southeastern Nevada and periodically to western Texas (where Pueblo enclaves are known to have existed in the historic period).

The chronology of the development of Pueblo cultural tradition is as follows: Basketmaker II-III (ca. 1000 B.C.–700 A.D.), Pueblo I-IV (700–1600 A.D. or the appearance of Spanish conquistadors), and Pueblo V (sometimes called also as historic period) is also distinguished, beginning ca. 1600 A.D. and lasting until today. In the past the term “Anasazi” was often used to describe the Ancestral Pueblo culture, although it is rarely used today. It was the name used by Navajos and later adopted by archaeologists in the 1930s and it is inaccurate English equivalent of the Navajo phrase meaning “Enemies of our ancestors”. Contemporary Pueblo people regard the term as offensive and do not use it anymore; rather they refer to their ancestors in various ways depending on the group. For example, the Hopi of northern Arizona speak of their ancestors as Hisatsinom, which in their language simply means the people who were there before them. The commonly used term in English today for describing Pueblo societies from the pre-Columbian period is Ancestral Pueblo and Historic Pueblos for describing Pueblo groups after the Spaniards arrival in the sixteenth century A.D.

As for agriculture, at the beginning of the Basketmaker II period, Ancestral Pueblo societies mainly grew corn and pumpkin (early stage beans were either not yet present at all or were only grown on a very small scale), and the diet was supplemented with food from hunted animals (mainly deer, turkeys, hares and rabbits and—depending on availability—mountain sheep) as well as by foraging wild plants, including piñon pine nuts and other seeds, fruits and nuts. In the Basketmaker II and III periods, settlements consisting of ten or twenty or so pithouses, built according on a rectangular, square or circular plan, were the most commonly established; sometimes these houses had a kind of outbuilding or an adjoining small room. The walls and roof of such structures were constructed with wooden beams, then covered with branches, earth and clay. The roof was usually supported by four vertical wooden poles. The interior of such a house was entered via a ladder leading to a roof opening or through a door in one of the house walls.

The beginning of the Pueblo period witnessed fundamental changes in the material culture, economy and social organization of individual Pueblo communities, which define this period and clearly distinguish it from the previous one.

Basically, the differences boil down to the large-scale use of pottery (although it should be noted that pottery was already known in the Pueblo corner of the world at the end of the Basketmaker III period), while containers made of organic materials were also still going strong (as can also be observed in later periods as well as today). New plant species were introduced and cotton cultivation began to play a very important role in the economy, associated with the development of weaving, which in a sense revolutionised large swathes of material culture, trade and, directly, clothing. Furthermore, the breeding of turkeys was an important aspect of the economy, and the meat of this bird became the basic source of animal protein in some later phases of the Pueblo period (although other animals continued to be hunted as a source of additional food, including deer and rabbits). Turkeys and parrots were also very important for their feathers which were used in ceremonies and rituals.

It seems, however, that the most drastic change between the two periods was the transition from pithouses to overground architecture constructed, depending on the period and region, from hewn sandstone, or from mud (clay) bricks and dried in the sun, so-called adobe bricks; both structures made of sandstone and adobe bricks were connected using clay as mortar. During the Pueblo period, two-story (and higher) structures began to appear, later called pueblos by the Spaniards, today sometimes referred to as the first apartment blocks in North America; some of them, located in places not easily accessed, recall the medieval fortified castles of Europe. Such pueblos were created by compact, adjoining complexes of buildings. Individual housing units and storage rooms were built side by side, so that their walls touched. The upper floors were usually accessed using wooden ladders, and at the same time the upper floors (roofs) had terraces and empty spaces on their roofs, often the focal point of pueblo life.

Traces of the former pithouses survived in a new form of building—the kiva. A kiva is a kind of ritual-utility room, serving as a meeting place for celebrations and ceremonies, made of stone in a circular or rectangular layout, often hidden underground. The wooden roof was supported by several stone pilasters—in the case of the Mesa Verde region, since the Pueblo II period, there were usually six of them (at that time niches began to appear in the walls of the kiva), while in Chaco Canyon and sites under its influence there were eight; this was a fairly formalised and respected “pattern”. The interior of the kiva was entered, like pithouses, through a ladder that led into an opening in the roof. Additionally, there was a small hole in the floor, the so-called sipapu, located usually north of a fireplace, which, according to the beliefs of modern Pueblo Indians, is a mystical place from which their ancestors escaped from the underworld to the contemporary world.

Individual regions in the Pueblo I-III period (700-1300 A.D.), although they had many features in common, such as economy, architecture or certain elements of technology and ceramic ornamentation, were divided by many local differences and they often differed slightly in terms of their rhythm of changes and cultural development. In these periods large settlements were erected and inhabited by several hundreds and even more than a thousand people at one. This refers to various subregions of the Ancestral Pueblo world, but mainly to Chaco Canyon (northwest New Mexico), Kayenta (northeastern Arizona), and the Mesa Verde regions (border between Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico). Large settlement centers were built there featuring examples of the most monumental and public architecture in the pre-Columbian Southwest, and also extensive system of roads, artificial irrigation, and other things. Another characteristic feature of these centers was a developed system of long-distance trade, including with Mesoamerica, and the emergence of a kind of social hierarchy with a dominant elite, which was probably able to pass power from one generation to the next. The communities (and elites) of Chaco Canyon were certainly able to create gigantic residential and religious architectural complexes, along with numerous and unparalleled types of buildings. Puebloan societies had also developed knowledge of astronomy and celestial bodies that was connected with the farming practices and rituals and ceremonies (as it is until today in modern Pueblo societies).

The last two centuries before the arrival of Europeans in the Southwest, i.e. in the 14th and 15th centuries A.D. (the so-called late pre-Hispanic or protohistoric period) was a time of many changes in the Pueblo world and the emergence of a certain settlement and cultural model. In 1530s and 40s, the Spaniards were the first to find an already well-developed and consolidated organism (or rather, many independent organisms) in this territory. In many respects, it survived throughout the 16th century, due to the fact that permanent Spanish settlement in this area only occurred at the end of the 16th century. This cultural and settlement model, despite the interference of European and American culture, is still largely evident today. Many Puebloan settlements (mainly from Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde regions) were included in the World Heritage List and are under the patronage of UNESCO.

Rock art

The Basketmaker III period features some quite rare examples of clay figure production (perhaps also created in the Basketmaker II period and in the western part of the region, in Utah). From that period too, rock art (both carvings and paintings) began to be created, mainly near settlements, which would become an integral part of the Pueblo culture over the centuries to come.

A characteristic feature of San Juan Basketmaker Anthropomorphic style representations were large, frontally presented figures with broad shoulders and a rectangular or tapered (trapezoidal) torso; as a rule they appear in pairs or in large numbers, often composed in bands, where many of these figures are depicted in rows. In general, these characters’ arms hang along their torso and feature clearly defined fingers and toes. Sometimes the torsos have decorations, including items of clothing and ornaments, such as necklaces (often several semicircular cords and coils) and belts with types of tassels.

This style features more paintings than petroglyphs, and the painted representations were usually located in rock shelters and caves; besides the rock art, these places often bear other remnants of their use from that period, such as residential structures, as well as storages and graves. The dominant colors in these paintings were red and white, along with the occasional presence of other dyes, such as yellow. Apart from anthropomorphic figures, other motifs in rock art painting from this period include, first of all, hand prints, as well as birds.

The transition from the end of the Basketmaker II-III period to the beginning of the Pueblo period appears to have been driven by changes of a religious nature, as indicated by the appearance of kiva-type buildings in settlement sites along with other major shifts in the economy, social structure and material and spiritual culture. Rock art of the Pueblo period reflects these major transitions in the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo societies. Most noticeable  is the reduction in the size of the anthropomorphic representations so characteristic of the San Juan Anthropomorphic style, as well as the emergence of more complex depictions with a host of motifs and symbols. The majority of these newer images have been found in the San Juan River basin, but there are other regional styles as well.

The richness and diversity of rock art and as murals on building walls produced until 1300 AD is extraordinary. Notable features of the art include carving petroglyphs on exposed canyon walls and individual boulders. Paintings are prevalent in shelters and rock niches where settlements were also often established, particularly in the late phase of the Pueblo III period. Unlike the very large anthropomorphic representations of the Basketmaker period, human figures were of a size comparable to other motifs. So-called stick-figure——thin and schematically depicted humans—were also fairly common. These are shown with both hands down and raised resembling the orans gesture—which is one of the most common motifs in the rock art of this period. Human hands were also frequently depicted many times using various techniques and there are also engraved representations of human feet and sandals, often finely decorated with geometric motifs including sandals woven from plant fibers.

The geometric motifs are repeated in iconography in painted ceramics, decorated baskets, and in murals in houses and kivas; there is a clear tendency towards the widespread use and repetition of such motifs, including stepped elements, meanders, spirals, and concentric circles and others.

Another variant of anthropomorphic representation is the so-called fluteplayer (Kokopelli) motif which probably evolved from earlier periods. Kokopelli is a human figure playing the flute, often shown with a hump, sometimes with a phallus, and has marked feathers or more lines resembling insect heads. The fluteplayer is sometimes shown lying down or in a scene playing the flute and dancing. Kokopelli was extremely widespread in the Southwest and is one of the most prevalent images in the rock art of this region, so much so that today it is often used as a logo for shops, motels, restaurants, and objects and has become an element of pop culture.

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