The Anasazi were the ancestors of the Hopi and other Southwestern Native American tribes. They are better known as "Ancestral Puebloans" by their descendants, who include the Navajo and Hopi. They primarily occupied the Four Corners area of the American Southwest, including Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. One of their most notable settlements is at Mesa Verde.
The Anasazi originated as hunter-gatherers crossing the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia into the Americas. During what is known as the Basket Maker stages, the Anasazi transitioned from nomadic hunter-gatherers into a more sedentary lifestyle in cave and rock shelters between 300 B.C. and A.D. 450.
The first major settlements that showed signs of a distinctive architectural style arose between A.D. 450 and 750, with the establishment of kivas and pit houses, followed by the first pueblos between A.D. 750 and 900. Anasazi architecture flourished until approximately A.D. 1140, when the Anasazi decline began. The Anasazi are believed to have ceased as a culture around A.D. 1300, as their descendants formed new cultures in the American Southwest.
Anasazi architecture reached its peak in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, encompassing a broad range of building types: pit house villages, kivas, pueblos, and earthen works. Anasazi settlements were generally aggregates of pit houses scattered around clusters of large-scale public pueblos, with the ‘voids’ between buildings acting as plazas, patios, and shade structures. Almost all Anasazi buildings faced south, maximizing the warmth of the winter sun.
The first building type to arise was the pit house, around A.D. 450. These houses were round subterranean structures, three to five feet deep and between nine and twenty-five feet in diameter, with walls of plastered clay and stone. The pit houses took on rectangular, square, and D-shaped forms after A.D. 700.
Pit houses were constructed using four posts, positioned upright in the pit, joined at the top by four horizontal beams and crossed with ceiling joists. The walls were made from branches, brush, grass, or a matting of tree bark, and completed with a layer of mud on the outside roof and walls. Side vents and a hole in the roof (called a "sipapu") allowed for ventilation of a central fireplace and daylight. Most pit houses had a fire pit lined with clay in the middle of the floor. This was used for cooking and heating. They also had benches and bins or niches for storage.
These houses primarily served residential purposes, but lasted only about fifteen years before the timbers rotted and rebuilding was necessary.
Pueblos & Cliff Dwellings
Beginning in A.D. 800, the pit houses transformed into pueblos as the Anasazi added small, aboveground room blocks to the structure. Pueblos evolved into flat-roofed, multistory structures of adobe and stone arranged in terraces, and were capable of housing multiple families.
Pueblos were constructed utilizing load-bearing walls and post-and-beam skeletons, as well as sandstone foundations. The Anasazi would build parallel long walls out of rubble and mortar. They would then join these walls to form individual rooms. Each room had its own independently constructed roof, which formed platforms for the construction of the next floor.
The walls were constructed with irregular loose stones, finished with a veneer of shaped stones or mud; over time, the Anasazi also began to decorate their walls with whitewash and hand prints, though most decorations have not survived. The pueblos averaged more than 200 rooms and over four stories in height; the most famous, Pueblo Bonito, contained over 650 rooms.
For reasons still undetermined, the Anasazi began moving their pueblos to cliff dwellings in the thirteenth century. These cliff dwellings consisted of pueblos built on south-facing cliff ledges in the sandstone canyons, providing the winter sun’s warmth as well as shade during the summer. The Anasazi cultivated their crops on the mesas above and in the canyons below their dwellings, accessing the pueblos by a series of hand-and-toeholds in the walls or slender bridges.
Kivas & Earthen Works
In addition to these primary dwellings, the Anasazi also constructed kivas and earthen works.
Kivas developed from pit houses, but were associated with religious and social gatherings rather than daily life. They were large and round, and typically built partially underground.
Kivas were built much like pit houses, though they tended to be almost entirely underground instead of partially above-ground. This was symbolic of the link between the living world and the ancestral underworld of the Puebloan peoples. In fact, "kiva" means "world below."
Almost all pueblos had a kiva, with some reaching up to sixty feet in diameter. Kivas were entered through a hole in the roof and consisted of a stone bench for sitting, a small hole in the floor (“sipapu”), a central fireplace, and ventilator shafts on the sides. Starting in the tenth century, kivas were modified to include a small room opening on the south side, which might have been utilized for storage.
Most kivas are aligned on a north-to-south axis. This axis was defined by the elements within the kiva, especially the ventilation shafts. Additionally, many kivas had murals painted on the interior walls.
Kivas were built either in family units (“kin kivas”) or as part of community centers (“great kivas”). There are three main differences between the two types. The first difference is mostly in size: the great kivas are two to three times the size of kin kivas. At the height of Anasazi culture, great kivas were as large as 45 to 70 feet in diameter. Second, kin kivas were only large enough to house about 10-12 people, while great kivas could accommodate large numbers of people. Third, kin kivas were built within the villages, often becoming part of the domestic architecture. Great kivas, however, were built outside of the villages and contained more features, such as multiple ventilators and floor vaults.
Additionally, the Anasazi built several types of earthen works that supported their population. These include mounds, berms, roads, dams, terraces, border gardens, and canals. Notably, the Anasazi also built round, square, and D-shaped towers several stories tall, used for protection, communication through mica mirrors, or astronomical observation.
Influences on Modern Architecture
Today, Anasazi architecture is not directly influential on the Southwestern tribes.
The one feature that is still in use is the kiva, utilized today by the Hopi for ceremonial purposes; however, the Hopi kivas are mostly square and aboveground.
Notably, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, built in the 1970s, reflected Anasazi architecture as an abstraction of the D-shaped pueblos.
The most lasting feature of Anasazi architecture, however, is the idea that buildings shouldn't compete with their landscape - instead, they should be part of it. Notable works of this type include houses by Frank Lloyd Wright and other modern architects.
Digging for the Truth: Mystery of the Anasazi
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I am a huge fan of Craig Childs. His writing is imaginative and can transport you to his journeys through the ancestral homelands of the Southwest, while also being informative and engaging accounts of what we know about history.
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