Anasazi Timeline - Chronology of the Ancestral Pueblo People

The History of the Anasazi in a Nutshell

Pueblo Alto Ruins, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Pueblo Alto Ruins, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Greg Willis

The Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) chronology was broadly defined in 1927 by southwestern archaeologist Alfred V. Kidder, during one of the Pecos Conferences, the annual conference of southwestern archaeologists. This chronology is still used today, with minor changes within different subregions.

Key Takeaways

  • Anasazi has been renamed to Ancestral Pueblo
  • Located in the Four Corners region of the U.S. southwest (intersection of the states of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah) 
  • Heyday between 750 and 1300 CE
  • Major settlements in Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde 

Archaeological remains of what archaeologists call the Ancestral Pueblo are found on the southern Colorado Plateau, the northern parts of the Rio Grande Valley and the mountainous Mogollon Rim in Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.

A Name Change

The term Anasazi is no longer in use by the archaeological community; scholars now call it the Ancestral Pueblo. That was in part at the request of modern pueblo people who are the descendants of the people who populated the American Southwest / Mexican Northwest—the Anasazi did not in any way disappear. In addition, after a hundred years of research, the concept of what was Anasazi had changed. It must be recalled that, like the Maya people, the Ancestral Pueblo people shared a lifestyle, cultural material, economics, and a religious and political system, they were never a unified state.

Early Origins

Cutaway illustrations of pre-pueblo pithouses, built by the Ancestral Pueblo people of Colorado
Cutaway illustrations of pre-pueblo pithouses, built by the Ancestral Pueblo people of Colorado. Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

People have lived in the Four Corners region for some 10,000 years; the earliest period associated with the beginnings of what would become Ancestral Pueblo is in the late archaic period.

  • Southwestern Late Archaic (1500 BCE–200 CE): marks the end of the Archaic period (which started at around 5500 BCE). The Late Archaic in the Southwest is when the first appearance of domesticated plants in the American Southwest (Atl Atl Cave, Chaco Canyon)
  • Basketmaker II (200–500 CE): People relied more on cultivated plants, such as maize, beans, and squash and began to construct pithouse villages. The end of this period saw the first appearance of pottery.
  • Basketmaker III (500–750 CE): more sophisticated pottery, first great kivas are constructed, the introduction of bow and arrow in hunting (Shabik'eshchee village, Chaco Canyon)

Pithouse to Pueblo Transition

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Visitors walk through the ruins of a massive stone complex (Pueblo Bonito) at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in Northwestern New Mexico. The communal stone buildings were built between the mid-800s and 1100 AD by Ancient Pueblo Peoples (Anasazi) whose descendants are modern Southwest Indians. Robert Alexander / Archive Photos / Getty Images

One important signal of development in Ancestral Pueblo groups occurred when above ground structures were built as residences. Subterranean and semi-subterranean pithouses were still being built, but they were typically used as kivas, meeting places for political and religious events.

  • Pueblo I (750–900 CE): residential structures are built above ground, and masonry is added to the adobe constructions. In Chaco Canyon villages are now moving from the cliff tops to the bottom of the canyon. Settlements at Mesa Verde begin as large sedentary villages built into the cliffs with hundreds of residents; but by the 800s, the people living at Mesa Verde apparently leave and move to Chaco Canyon.
  • Early Pueblo IIBonito phase at Chaco Canyon (900–1000): increase in the number of villages. First multi-storied rooms constructed at Pueblo Bonito, Peñasco Blanco, and Una Vida in Chaco Canyon. Chaco becomes a socio-political center, where some individuals and groups hold a great deal of power, seen by architecture requiring organized labor, rich and unusual burials, and large scale flows of timber into the canyon.
  • Pueblo IIClassic Bonito phase in Chaco Canyon (1000–1150): a period of major development in Chaco Canyon. Great house sites, such as Pueblo Bonito, Peñasco Blanco, Pueblo del Arroyo, Pueblo Alto, Chetro Ketl reach now their final form. Irrigation and road systems are constructed.

    Decline of Chaco

    Mesa Verde National Park
    A trail leads visitors to Spruce Tree House ruins in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, built between 1211 and 1278 CE. Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images
    • Pueblo III (1150–1300):
    • Late Bonito phase in Chaco Canyon (1150–1220): population decline, no more elaborated constructions in the main centers.
    • Mesa Verde phase in Chaco Canyon (1220–1300): Mesa Verde materials are found in Chaco Canyon. This has been interpreted as a period of increased contact between Chacoan and Mesa Verde pueblo groups. By 1300, Chaco Canyon definitely declined and then was abandoned.
    • Pueblo IV and Pueblo V (1300–1600 and 1600–present): Chaco Canyon is abandoned, but other Ancestral Pueblo sites continue ​to be occupied for few centuries. By 1500 Navajo groups entered the region and established themselves until the Spanish takeover.

    Selected Sources