Anasazi

Apparently the Hohokam, Mogollon, and Anasazi cultures co-existed peacefully through most of their time together. In time, the Hohokam and Mogollon were absorbed by the Anasazi, and the three cultures blended into one. Together they formed a vibrant, growing culture which attained amazing achievements. But the great Anasazi cities vanished by 1500 AD, before the arrival of the conquistadores. Theories abound, but no one is sure why this happened.

We are not even sure what to call the Anasazi. The word actually means "Enemies." Modern Pueblo Indians, such as the Hopi and Zuni, are the descendents of these common ancestors. They prefer the term "Ancient Ancestors," or simply, "Ancient Ones." (I use Ancient Ancestors whenever possible, but in your reading you will not often come across that term. I will often use the term Anasazi in this course to try to limit confusion, but please be aware that many Native Americans find that term offensive.)

Note: This important site is pronounced "Canyon day shay"

The technological achievements of the Ancient Ones were very impressive. Like the Mogollon and Hohokam, they were extraordinary artists, farmers, and engineers. Their cliffside structures seem not to be built so much as to grow from the mountainside.

Note the way the apartments grow out of the base of this cliff

Chaco Canyon, the center of the Anasazi world, contained hundreds of apartments and housed thousands of souls. As if that was not enough, the apartments were the first structures in the world to take advantage of passive solar technology. The overhangs of the cliffs sheltered them in the summer, while the winter sun warmed their walls.

But the Ancient Ancestors never forgot their roots. Like the Mogollon, they had begun as pithouse people. Every village kept a pithouse--called a kiva--for ceremonial purposes. To this day, Pueblo Indians believe that they entered this world of light from a subterranean world of darkness. The kiva is the place where people renew that journey.

The greatest achievement of the Ancient Ancestors may well be their skill as astronomers. This famous example is called the Sun Dagger. The spiral grooves represent the spiritual world, traveling in endless cycles. This carving is dark for 364 days a year, but on the day of the summer solstice a beam of light traces its was across the spirals.

Like Mesoamericans before them, the Anasazi also built structures specifically to observe the movements of heavenly bodies. This tower at Hovenweep, Utah is an extraordinary example. Niches in the walls of the tower allow the light to reach its destination only during certain hours of certain days of the year.

We know many amazing things about the Ancient Ancestors, but there are many more questions than answers about this culture. The cliffside dwellings were not the most convenient place to build. It appears that these sites were chosen as natural fortifications. But against what? Or whom?

We see no evidence that anyone ever attacked an Anasazi city. So why did they go to such great lengths to defend themselves? And where did these people go? And why?

When they abandoned their fabulous cities they actually left so quickly that there was food left on the tables. This basket from a storehouse was left undisturbed, full of corn. This was no slow migration. Everyone just suddenly left... and no one knows why. Was it climate change? Did some leader suddenly just decide to go--and everyone else decided to follow? Could disease have played a part? We simply cannot say.


The Moundbuilders

Once again we must turn back the hands of time as we look east across the continent. In the year 1500 BC (3,500 years ago) the largest civil engineering project the world had ever known was being completed.

This is a sketch of the earthen works at Poverty Point. The overall design is meant to be the outline of a thunderbird or eagle. At the top of the drawing is the head of the bird with its beak pointed toward your right. The village priest would make offerings from atop this central mound. The ridges, which represent the outstretched wings of the bird, are large enough that homes were built atop them. The entire structure is 3/4 mile across, by far the largest construction ever accomplished by human beings at the time it was built. Yet it blends in so subtly with its surroundings that European immigrants had no idea it was there. Only the advent of aerial photography revealed this vast construction.

Mounds at Etowah, Georgia

When Poverty Point was discovered, archeologists took a closer look at many known mounds. The mounds at Etowah were well known but an aerial examination revealed concentric mounds over a two mile area that had gone undetected. Closer examination revealed that the gaps and ridges were carefully engineered to match equinoxes, solstices, and other heavenly events.

Aerial photography revealed even more stunning mounds that had gone unnoticed. Some were in the shape of animals, visible only from high in the sky. These are called effigy mounds. This is the famous Serpent Mound near Chillicothe, Ohio. Because snakes shed their dead skins they are a symbol of new life and renewal. This snake is swallowing an egg, symbolic of the sun's life. The entire sculpture is a testimony to the cycles of life, death, and new life.

Like paleo-Indians of the desert southwest, we have few record of these ancient moundbuilders. They left behind few tools or identifiable dwellings, yet we know they were organized into complex social groups. After all, nomadic hunter-gatherers would have a very hard time getting together long enough to build the world's largest mounds. In time, the ancient moundbuilders were gathered under the umbrella of the Mississippian culture--the greatest builders of all.

These mounds are much more wide-spread and technically advanced than most people realize. The map above shows red dots where major mounds have been found. By the time the Mississippian culture was in full flower (ca. 1000 AD) these mounds began to take on common characteristics.

This is an artists representation of Angel Mounds in Indiana. It has several features common to Mississippian cities. It is near water. The focal point of the village is a large, flat-topped pyramid. This pyramid served sacred functions. Smaller pyramids might serve as a base for the chieftan's house, burial grounds, or other purposes. A plaza is at the center of the city for commerce and ball playing. Houses are grouped around the edge of the plaza. Surrounding all of this was a plastered palisade wall, complete with towers for defense.

This is a photograph of one of those flat-topped pyramids, taken from the end of the plaza. This one is Aztalan mound in Wisconsin. It was so named by a landowner who thought--mistakenly--that it must have been built by the Aztecs.

Go to Week 02 Lecture, Part 3