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6.15: Ancestral Puebloans (700 CE – 1300 CE)

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    The Ancestral Puebloans lived in the United States in the four-corners area where the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet. They lived in the area from approximately 700 CE to 1300 CE. The Puebloans were master clay pot makers, and the artistry evolved during this period from simple clay decorations to elaborate pottery with black drawing on white clay. The high plateaus at Mesa Verde (6.71) were made of sedimentary rock formations with abundant junipers, pinion, and ponderosa pines, although the landscape was subject to wind and water erosion, drought and floods. Steep canyons developed from environmental erosion, exposing magnificent overhang cliffs, ideal locations for the Ancestral Puebloans to build their communities, and dwellings indefensible positions. Using sandstone common to the area, they made blocks and assembled them into the cliffs with a compound of mud and water to make a concrete mortar.

    Mesa Verde
    6.71 Mesa Verde

    The basic rooms were small, and each room seemed to have a different purpose; sleeping, storing crops, and work areas. Generations of a family would live in groupings of five to six rooms and added a room as they needed. The round kivas are underground or at least partially underground, and located in front of a group of rooms. It is possible that each family grouping or clan had a kiva associated with a set of five or six rooms with the flat, open roofs of the Kiva, creating an open courtyard or gathering place for the people.

    The people were known for their everyday pottery and generally unpainted with a smooth or textured surface used for cooking or storage. The pottery for formal use was highly adorned and decorated with black painted designs on white or gray backgrounds, depending on the type of clay available. The narrow-necked jars were used for liquids, taller pots for ceremonial purposes. Some groups used white on black (6.72) and others black on white, and each village had its own style.

    6.72 Pitcher

    For unknown reasons, Ancestral Puebloans abandoned their homes in Mesa Verde and other settlements, and one day the canyons were empty; all traces of the Puebloans people vanished except what little they left behind.

    The Ancestral Puebloans left few written records so historians can only estimate the exact use of the kivas; however, the belief is they were used for rituals, ceremonies, and gathering places. The earliest kiva was constructed around 600 CE in Chaco Canyon, generally underground or semi-subterranean (7.56) and accessed by a ladder in the roof (7.57). A set of housing structures in most locations also had a kiva, and each village may have several kivas depending on the population. The kivas usually had a fire pit, ventilation shafts, benches, niches in the walls, and a sipapus, the small hole in the floor denoting the place for humans to materialize from the underworld.

    Small kiva
    7.56 Small kiva
    Small kiva interior
    7.57 Small kiva interior

    Kiva comes from a Hopi word that translates to “world below”.

    The Great Kivas were constructed similar to the smaller personal kivas, made to accommodate large groups of people for meetings or ceremonies. The Great Kivas (7.58) were two or three times bigger than the clan or family kivas, with a diameter of 45 to 70 feet. The walls for the Great Kiva extend above ground to support the rooftop, as opposed to the smaller, family-grouped kivas. The Great Kiva also stood apart from the groupings of any rooms to remain secretive when necessary. The Great Kivas had big masonry-lined circles with a huge tree trunk to support the roof. The tree trunks were carried from a long distance to the structure and considered an essential element of the grand kiva; without the massive tree trunks, the roof would collapse into the walls. Seating areas built along the curve of the walls may only have been part of the construction to add extra support to the outer walls, and seating may have been secondary.

    Great kiva
    7.58 Great kiva

    The Great Kivas had large vault-like structures made of stone in the middle of the floor, probably used for ceremonies. Niches or openings built along the walls of the Great Kivas may have been specialized places to put beads, pendants, or other ceremonial items. Historians have not defined a particular hierarchy or religious structure, but may be developed rituals or ceremonies to celebrate the solstice, equinox, or other lunar events.

    The Puebloans constructed middens, and archeologists can piece together artifacts from the broken pots and bones. The Puebloans would toss trash/items down the cliffs and created piles of middens or dumps at the base of the cliffs. Over time they were covered in dirt and preserved for archeologists to sift through today.

    This page titled 6.15: Ancestral Puebloans (700 CE – 1300 CE) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .