An Introduction to Anasazi Puebloan Societies

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon

Mark Byzewski/Flickr

Anasazi is the archaeological term used to describe prehistoric Puebloan peoples of the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. This term was used to distinguish their culture from other Southwestern groups like the Mogollon and Hohokam. A further distinction in Anasazi culture is made by archaeologists and historians between Western and Eastern Anasazi, using the Arizona/New Mexico border as a fairly arbitrary divide. The people who resided in Chaco Canyon are considered Eastern Anasazi.

The term "Anasazi" is an English corruption of a Navajo word meaning "Enemy Ancestors" or "Ancient Ones." Modern Puebloan people prefer to use the term Ancestral Puebloans. Current archaeological literature as well tends to use the phrase Ancestral Pueblo to describe the pre-contact people that lived in this region.

Cultural Characteristics

Ancestral Puebloan cultures reached their maximum presence between AD 900 and 1130. During this period, the landscape of the entire Southwest was dotted by large and small villages constructed in adobe and stone bricks, built along the canyon walls, the mesa top or hanging over the cliffs.

  • Settlements: The most famous examples of Anasazi architecture are the famous Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde National Parks. These areas contain settlements constructed on the mesa top, at the bottom of the canyon, or along the cliffs. Cliff dwellings are typical of Mesa Verde, whereas Great Houses are typical of Chacoan Anasazi. Pithouses, underground rooms, were also typical dwellings of Ancestral Puebloan people in their earlier times.
  • Architecture: Buildings were usually multistory and clustered near the canyon or cliff walls and were reached through wooden ladders. Anasazi constructed typical round or squared structures, called kivas, which were ceremonial rooms.
  • Landscape: Ancient Puebloan people shaped their landscape in many ways. Ceremonial roads connected Chacoan villages among them and with important landmarks; staircases, like the famous Jackson Staircase, link the bottom of the canyon with the mesa top; irrigation systems provided water for farming and, finally, rock art, such as petroglyphs and pictographs, dots the rocky walls of many sites' surrounding, testifying to the ideology and religious beliefs of these peoples.
  • Pottery: Ancestral Puebloans crafted elegant vessels, in different shapes, such as bowls, cylindric vessels, and jars with distinct decorations typical of each Anasazi group. Motifs included both geometric elements as well as animals and humans usually portrayed in dark colors over a cream background, like the famous black-on-white ceramics.
  • Craftwork: Other craft productions in which Ancestral Puebloan excelled were basketry, and turquoise inlay works.

Social Organization

For most of the Archaic period, people living in the Southwest were foragers. By the beginning of the Common Era, cultivation was widespread and maize became one of the main staples. This period marks the emergence of the typical traits of Puebloan culture. Ancient Puebloan village life was focused on farming and both productive and ceremonial activities centered around agricultural cycles. Storage of maize and other resources lead to surplus formation, which was re-invested in trading activities and feasting celebrations. Authority was probably held by religious and prominent figures of the community, who had access to food surpluses and imported items.

Anasazi Chronology

The Anasazi prehistory is divided by archaeologists into two main time frames: Basketmaker (AD 200-750) and Pueblo (AD 750-1600/historic times). These periods span from the beginning of settled life until the Spanish takeover.

  • See the detailed Anasazi timeline
  • See details on the Rise and Fall of Chaco Canyon

Anasazi Archaeological Sites and Issues


Cordell, Linda 1997, Archaeology of the Southwest. Second Edition. Academic Press

Kantner, John, 2004, Ancient Puebloan Southwest, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Vivian, R. Gwinn Vivian and Bruce Hilpert 2002, The Chaco Handbook. An Encyclopedic Guide, The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City

Edited by K. Kris Hirst

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Maestri, Nicoletta. "An Introduction to Anasazi Puebloan Societies." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Maestri, Nicoletta. (2021, February 16). An Introduction to Anasazi Puebloan Societies. Retrieved from Maestri, Nicoletta. "An Introduction to Anasazi Puebloan Societies." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).