INTERVIEW: The Ancient Anasazi in Focus

Blog Entry

by James Blake Wiener
published on 19 September 2012
The American Desert Southwest has some of the most impressive prehistoric ruins and artifacts in the world. Thousands of archaeological sites, spread about across the American states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, testify to the presence of a advanced civilization: the "Anasazi" or the Ancestral/Ancient Puebloan peoples. Long revered and venerated as the ancestors of the Hopi, Zuni, and other Puebloan dwellers, this remarkable civilization, characterized by its impressive architecture, sophisticated systems of irrigation, and understanding astronomical phenomena, flourished from c. 600-1300 CE before mysterious vanishing. In wake of their "rediscovery" by archaeologists over 100 years ago, many questions still remain as to how they were able to create a civilization in such a harsh climate and why their decline was so sudden.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia took the time to speak with Dr. David E. Stuart, a renown expert on the Ancient Puebloans and Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, and two of his research assistants, Ms. Jenny Lund and Ms. Christine Dubois. Probing through fact and fiction while sharing their research, these scholars reveal some curious truths about this most remarkable civilization.

JW: I would like to begin by asking what social, economic, and ecological forces enabled the Anasazi to thrive in the American Southwest, from c. 400-1350 CE, where the environment is so foreboding and precarious? How were they even able to farm and irrigate their crops?

DS & JL:  The Ancestral Puebloans (also called the "Anasazi") managed to survive in resource-limited environments by utilizing several key features. From about 300 CE to 800 CE prehistoric farmers sought out marshes and other areas where the water table was near the surface, planted mixed crops of corn, beans, squash, and relied heavily on continued foraging for wild plant resources.  These included the following: piñon and acorn; a variety of wild grass seeds; yucca root; wild amaranth; choke cherries; wolf berries; sunflower seeds and many other wild vegetals of lesser importance. They also hunted both large and small game for meat. As the population increased more complex solutions were needed, as the best water localities had long been exhausted. These solutions involved some dry farming, selecting for larger crop yields, more efficient food processing, and increased storage facilities so that the good agricultural years could offset the all too common poor ones.

In the Chaco region of New Mexico, after 800 CE, they built upon the talus slopes of cliffs and placed crops nearby to collect water runoff from the mesa tops. That water was then used to supply a sophisticated local irrigation system.  They also had a vast network of trade, which connected them socially and economically with farmers in other climatologically distinct districts or settlements. This strategy reduced the consequences of crop failures in any one district by moving surplus food resources through the great house trade network for redistribution to districts where crops had failed.

JW: Do we know how the great centers of Anasazi civilization--like Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon (New Mexico) and Hovenweep (Utah)--were constructed so efficiently and what kinds of tools were involved in their construction? Were similar technologies used in the creation of Anasazi cliff dwellings like those of Canyon de Chelly (Arizona) and Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde (Colorado), in your opinion? 

DS: Organized building plans characterized the Chaco Canyon core. To implement those plans, sizable beams (primarily mountain spruce and ponderosa pine) were cut from mountain districts 25-50 miles away and carried to construction sites.  This activity is still echoed in modern pueblos ritual beam races, where teams of young men compete to be the first to arrive with large roof beams cut from those same mountains.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of tabular sandstone blocks where shaped and stacked at the site of both a new or expanded great house project. The following spring work crews were assembled and began construction, likely under the supervision of expert building planners. We do not know the details surrounding recruitment of construction crews but we do know that most Pueblo Bonito period construction projects (c. 900-1150 CE) were technically exacting and rather efficient. For more information your readers may want to consult University of Colorado Archaeologist Steven Lekson's Great Pueblo Architecture of Chaco Canyon New Mexico (1986).

After the decline of Chacoan Regional Society in the mid 1100s CE, many farmers moved back into upland districts and local communities began to aggregate into larger residential complexes like those at Hovenweep and Mesa Verde. The peak of this era was from about 1220-1280 CE and these communities are not typically preplanned and built at one time.  The labor to build them is local and the building episodes appear to have been organic to expanding family needs. In contrast, the earlier Chacoan great houses were never primarily residential, as the majority of space was dedicated to storage and ritual.

                                                                                                                                                                       Jenny Lund at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (Courtesy of Jenny Lund)

JW: There is evidence for extensive long-distance trade between the Anasazi and native peoples from the Pacific Coast of California, the Mississippian cultures, and the civilizations of Mesoamerica. Could trade have facilitated cultural exchange between disparate peoples and the Anasazi? If so, to what extent? Additionally, what relations existed between the Anasazi and their close neighbors in the Desert Southwest, the Mogollon (in southern New Mexico and northern Mexico) and the Hohokam people (in Arizona)?

JL: Trade definitely facilitated cultural exchange such as the sharing of agricultural techniques, desirable seeds for planting, material goods like shell and stone jewelry, pottery, macaws, copper bells, and cacao from Mexico) as well as elements of architectural styles. For example, T-shaped doorways (originally a "Mexican architectural attribute") are found among both the great houses of Chaco Canyon, and later the Casas Grandes (or "Paquimé") settlement of the Mogollon in Chihuahua, Mexico.  In general, however, the Mogollon people were a bit more isolated trade wise than the Hohokam and the Anasazi.

The trade networks among the Anasazi and Hohokam were most developed north to south, offering substantial differences in elevation and temperature.  In unusually hot years, crops were usually more reliable in higher elevation farms, and in unusually cold years, the lower elevation farms were most productive.  The result was that the Anasazi connected upland districts like Mesa Verde with lower elevation districts like Chaco Canyon, commencing relationships which were to last for centuries.

JW: The Anasazi left no written records but did leave behind tantalizing rock art and compelling petroglyphs like those at Chaco Canyon. Many of these petroglyphs are believed to represent images of celestial phenomena and perhaps a record of a supernova in 1054 CE.       

Can you comment on the importance of rock art to our understanding of the Anasazi and Ancient Puebloan peoples and also whether or not there are distinguishable differences--stylistically and chronologically--in artistic production?  

JL & DS: There are literally hundreds upon hundreds of rock art images scattered across the canyon wall faces of Chaco Canyon.

While out at Chaco for field school, I did have the pleasure of looking at the "supernova" pictograph (painted on the canyon face). Visible on the Peñasco Blanco Trail (see photograph below), it shows a hand print, a crescent moon and a star all in a beautiful red pigment. Of all the rock art I saw, this was one of few celestial events depicted. Although it does bear mention that the many spirals were probably solstice or seasonal markers. All others that were visible from public trails appear to be of geometric designs (stylistically similar to ceramic décor), and of figures.

                                                                                                                                                                                 Chaco Canyon Rock Art (Courtesy of Jenny Lund)

In short, during the height of Chacoan society celestial events, religious icons and a variety of place markers dominate.  In contrast, the post-Chacoan period of the late 1200s to about 1600 CE marks the zenith of Puebloan rock art where a wider variety of religious icons are represented, in tandem with place markers (some designating water, others designating trails, yet others identifying forbidden places and spaces). Petroglyph National Monument, in suburban Albuquerque, New Mexico, is an accessible place to see later period rock art.

JW: Many have asserted that the Anasazi were quite advanced in their understanding of astronomy. What was the role of astronomy within Anasazi civilization and to what extent was it connected with religious ritual and agriculture?    

DS: Astronomical (sun, moon and planetary movements) and cosmological considerations were increasingly integral to the large ceremonies assumed to have taken place at Chaco Canyon and its outlying great houses, during the late 11th and early 12th centuries CE. Indeed a number of architectural features in the great houses captured important celestial alignments: several windows at Pueblo Bonito were oriented to enhance solar observations. Predicting the seasons and determining the best time to plant, to water (on the full moon) and harvest, had an ancient history in the Southwest, but its importance grew as settlements became ever larger and society reached its peak of regional complexity in the late 1000s CE. Thus, experts on the cosmology point out that harvests, crop surplus and storage, major construction projects, and ritual were all tightly connected. Several of the great Chacoan roadways are even argued to have been built primarily to connect sacred places to the Chacoan Core.

In fact, several experts from the Navajo Nation's cultural resource team have argued that the great houses at Kin Ya'a near Crown Point, New Mexico, and Skunk Springs, some 40 miles (64 km) to the west, were carefully engineered so that the dawn rising of the summer solstice sun would provide an identical and simultaneous view to ritual celebrants in both the east facing courtyards. I find this remarkable! Other late 11th and 12 century buildings were constructed to capture the infrequent lunar standstills. If any of your readers visit Chaco Canyon (a UNESCO World Heritage site), they should seek out Mr. G. B. Cornucopia, a senior interpretation specialist at the Monument, and one of the world's foremost experts on Chacoan astronomy.

JW: What kind of government and social structures did the ancient Anasazi have during their height around c. 1100 CE? Was society composed of political elites and farmers, and what of the role of women? I have read that women in Anasazi communities may have had the right to own and inherit property.    

DS: This is a subject of enormous conjecture and contention among scholars. The direct answer is that we don’t know most of the details. A more useful response is that the condition of skeletons found in great houses as opposed to farmsteads during the height of the Chacoan period clearly indicates that great house occupants were elites in the sense that they were taller, consistently better fed, and suffered from lower infant mortality than nearby farmers. Thus, it is tempting to argue that the planners and priests in the great houses were "elites" and the farmers were "commoners" by comparison. These differences are also reflected in ritual burial goods in the great houses comparative very modest ones in the farmsteads.  If there was a political "government" hierarchy as most of us conceive in modern terms, the Hohokam Classic Period (1050/1150-1450 CE) and the Chacoan Bonito Period (900-1150 CE) could have approached that.

JW: From what I understand, scholars are still debating the element of social violence in Anasazi life and culture. What evidence exists which suggests that the Anasazi were particularly prone to conflict in contrast to Hopi and Puebloan folklore? Does any exist whatsoever?

If so, were localized politics to blame or was some other variable at play? I realize that environmental factors could also explain outbreaks of protracted conflict between individuals and polities. 

DS: Some depictions of violence and cannibalism are, in my view, overdone. From my perspective (I was first trained as a Cultural Anthropologist) levels of violence were quite ordinary except during several episodes of dramatic climatological and demographic change. These periods focus on climatic changes in 750s-850s CE. More changes occurred during the droughts of the late 1000s till about 1200 CE, in protracted droughts of the late 1200s to early 1300s, and again in the mid 1400s CE. What we do know is that when the Spanish conquistadores arrived, the first few expeditions (1540-1595 CE) all portrayed the historic pueblo communities as surprisingly peaceful, industrious, and well organized. For me, this is quite telling.

JW: There has been great deal of historical revisionism in Southwestern archaeology in the past decade and that the question of Anasazi decline is once again an "open book." Previously, it was assumed that there was a "Great Drought," which forced the Anasazi to abandon their villages and cities and migrate elsewhere. The same paradigm has also be used to explain the similar disappearances of the Hohokam and the Mongollon peoples.

Your most recent research --in collaboration with your students-- has focused on the caloric costs for food, fuel, and infrastructure at different periods of time in the prehistoric Southwestern United States. Can you elaborate further for our readers as to what you hope to accomplish through this research and what discoveries you have uncovered so far? We are all very keen to hear them.

CD & DS: We believed we could highlight just how calorically costly population growth and expansion was in different prehistoric time periods in the American Southwest. Calories are standard familiar units of measure and effect our daily lives now just as they did prehistorically. Acquiring additional calories through prehistoric hand gardening and foraging was a real challenge, not like our own times when paper money and grocery stores are the standard formula for putting food on the table. To highlight prehistoric circumstances we used modern day ethnographic information (i.e. weight, height, mortality rates, and fertility) from selected "hunter/forager" groups (Kung San, Ache, Yanomamo).  We then calculated the daily caloric need of a model prehistoric Southwestern family of 11 persons.

We then entered the age distribution, caloric information, fertility and mortality rates into a Leslie Matrix (a standard computerized method used by population experts around the world) and "asked" it to produce an age structured distribution of population growth through a 150 year period. Because the populations we investigated relied largely on agriculture, we assumed that the amount of rainfall would directly impact the survivability of infants. Using simulated crop yields (from Barney Burns, 1983), we adjusted the infant mortality rates depending on the year's rainfall.

After all the necessary information was assembled and fed through the Leslie Matrix, we then compared the modeled population growth to the archaeological site frequencies from the same time period. Our population predictions mirrored the increase in site frequencies with very high correlations: r=.90 for the Basketmaker III period (~400-750 CE) and r=1 for the transitional Pueblo I/Pueblo II period (~800-925 CE).  That correlation was remarkable, and tells us that our working methodology and assumptions matched the independent results of archaeological site surveys compiled over an 80 year period.

This research also allowed us to quantify the caloric costs of increasing population over time. In short, having more kids was calorically more expensive than we had initially assumed and forced extended farming families to both plant more acreage and seek ways to increase crop yields. The archaeological evidence that they pursued both of those strategies is overwhelming: this line of research has enormous potential for generating new and more accurate interpretations.

JL: My portion of the research involved extrapolating a formula to calculate the caloric yields of an acre of maize crop, under different levels of rainfall. This was then used to calculate the caloric needs, and availability, for the Southwestern family of 11 on a daily and yearly basis. We calculate the Southwestern family of 11 requires approximately 21,500 calories to sustain themselves on a daily basis. This is (in terms of modern day corn cob size and 55% of the diet being corn) is around 106 cobs of corn for the whole family! Daily!

Our research focuses on the caloric needs of a single-family unit throughout two different time periods. We are hoping to gain a better understanding of what caused their society to grow as well as possible collapse triggers. Could it have been more than just a drought that caused people to leave their ancestral home? We are also hoping to find out more about their nutritional needs, not just an overall caloric requirement, but also how much of each type of food needed to be consumed before malnutrition takes hold. In terms of architecture, we are looking at exactly how calorically costly it was to build a housing unit (be it pithouse or adjacent storage room blocks) and to maintain those buildings. This will help flush out how any additional caloric costs required during building surges.

JW: This is all very interesting and certainly applicable to future studies. On that note, what are your plans for future research?    

DS: Currently, I am planning to continue developing energetic portraits for different prehistoric periods in the Southwest. We call this project "Finding the Calories," which analyses archaeological changes from about 500 BCE to 1600 CE in the American Southwest. Surprisingly, we have already found many parallels to the modern U.S., several of which I discussed in the book Anasazi America, which is being updated to include our most recent findings.

JW: Dr. Stuart, Ms. Jenny Lund, and Ms. Christine DuBois, it has been such a pleasure to speak with you all! Thank you much for your time and for informing us all about this impressive ancient civilization. On behalf of all of us at the Ancient History Encyclopedia, I wish you many happy adventures in research!

DS, JL & CD: Thanks so much James!

DS=David E. Stuart is an American anthropologist and novelist, and Associate Provost Emeritus at University of New Mexico. He graduated from West Virginia Wesleyan College with a BA in Anthropology and Sociology in 1967, and from University of New Mexico with an MA in 1970 and PhD in 1972 in Anthropology. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, Ecuador, Mexico, and the Southwestern United States. An expert on the Ancient Puebloan peoples, he currently teaches at University of New Mexico. For more information on Dr. Stuart, please see his biography in Who's Who in America and Who's Who in the World.


  • Prehistoric New Mexico, Stuart and Gauthier, 2nd. ed., New Mexico Archaeological Council, 1986.

  • The magic of Bandelier, Ancient City Press, 1989.

  • Anasazi America, University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

  • John Martin Campbell, Thomas C. Windes, David E. Stuart, Katherine Kallestad (2007). "Chacoan Great House Society". The great houses of Chaco, University of New Mexico Press.

  • The Morganza, 1967: Life in a legendary reform school, University of New Mexico Press, 2009.

  • Pueblo Peoples on the Pajarito Plateau: Archaeology and Efficiency, University of New Mexico Press, 2010.


JL=Jenny M. Lund is a graduating senior at the University of New Mexico's Anthropology Program. She's the co-author "Finding the Calories," UNM Field School, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico 2012 and the co-researcher "Finding the Calories."

CD=Christine DuBois, is a 2012 Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of New Mexico's Anthropology Program. She is the co-author and co-researcher of "Finding the Calories." Currently, Dubois is graduate student at the University of New Mexico.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is a freelance writer and who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his articles and interviews to be "illuminating."

 All photographs and images are the exclusive property of the interviewees mentioned herein. They have been given to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, as a courtesy, for the purposes of this interview. All rights reserved. Special thanks is extended to the University of New Mexico Press for supplying the Ancient History Encyclopedia with the press photo of Dr. David E. Stuart.
Posted by James Blake Wiener on September 19, 2012, 16:33.


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