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People of the Colorado Plateau
Paleoindian and Archaic Peoples
Archaeological Treasures
Prehistoric Farmers
Population Change
The Anasazi "collapse"
Pueblo Peoples
Western Apache
Navajo (Diné)
Southern Paiute
Spanish Exploration
Mormon Pioneers
Anglo Settlement

peoplebutton.gif (1940 bytes)Prehistoric Farmers

A century ago, few believed that the magnificent cliff dwellings of the semi-arid Colorado Plateau were built by highly successful prehistoric farmers, ancestors of the present-day Pueblo Peoples. But archaeologists have discovered that even Late Archaic foragers on the Plateau built pithouses and adopted limited agriculture, storing corn (maize) and squash in caves as a backup resource.

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Well preserved granary, Texas Canyon, Anasazi Wilderness. Photo © 1999 Ray Wheeler

Corn seems to have spread slowly north from Mexico, but by 500 to 300 B.C. an agricultural revolution that also included beans and squash was underway. The characteristic aridity of the Southwest, the short growing seasons, and the unpredictable timing and amount of rainfall make this revolution all the more remarkable. The sophistication seen in contemporary Hopi farming in selecting locations for planting, maintaining genetic diversity, and controlling insects and other competitors is based on thousands of years of careful lessons in agricultural land-use.

The Anasazi were nothing if not adaptable. Most Pueblo I sites were occupied a mere 30 years of less even though they may have housed up to 600 individuals in a few separate but closely spaced settlement clusters. Archaeologist Timothy A. Kohler found that large Pueblo I sites excavated near Dolores, Colorado were established during periods of above-average rainfall when crops could be grown without benefit of irrigation. At the same time, nearby areas that were not experiencing moisture patterns favorable for dry farming were being abandoned. Settlements in the more arid western portion of the Colorado Plateau remained small.

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Pictographs in western Grand Canyon. Photo © 1999 Ray Wheeler.

Centralization of population in large settlements has the disadvantage of putting distance between farmers and their fields, but may have had the advantage of facilitating the sharing of food among community members. These opposing factors tended to create an oscillation of coming together and dispersal, which at a different scale becomes an oscillation between occupation and abandonment. This boom and bust pattern among the Anasazi derives at least in part from the inability of the environment of the Colorado Plateau to support them over a substantial period.

The Anasazi attained their Golden Age between about 900 and 1130 A.D. The climate was relatively warm and rainfall mostly adequate. Pueblo II communities were smaller than they had been in Pueblo I, but they were greatly dispersed over the landscape. Peoples of the Kayenta Anasazi tradition expanded north of the San Juan and west to the Grand Canyon and the Virgin river area of southern Nevada. Habitation sites, especially for the main Kayenta area, have been found in "virtually every conceivable spot," avoiding only areas prone to flooding.

Soil and water control features such as check dams and terraces appear at this point. Turkeys were domesticated. Highly specific local traditions in architecture and pottery emerged as the Anasazi became more provincial in terms of decreased exchange and interaction with other communities. The Pueblo II world became more self-contained and self-sufficient.

Follow these links to:
Population change
The Anasazi "collapse"

The Spread of Maize to the Colorado Plateau. Migration theories have become an essential part of our understanding of Anasazi origins. The convergence of archaeological research on the Colorado Plateau and elsewhere in the Greater Southwest demonstrates that the traditional view of Anasazi development as essentially independent of Mexico is clearly no longer viable.


Bradley, Z. A. 1959. Three prehistoric farm structures at Wupatki National Monument. Plateau 32: 12-22.

Clark, S. P. 1928. Lessons from southwestern Indian agriculture. 125. University of Arizona, Tucson.

Cordell, L. S. 1994. Ancient Pueblo Peoples. Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C.

de Buys, W. 1985. Enchantment and Exploitation: The life and hard times of a New Mexico mountain range. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Fish, S. K. and Fish, P. R., editors. 1984. Prehistoric Agricultural Strategies of the Southwest. Agricultural Research Papers No. 33. Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ.

Gregory, D. 1999. Perspectives on Early Agricultural Period Population Size and Sedentism. Archaeology Southwest 13: 14-15.

Gumerman, G. J. and Dean, J. S. 1989. Prehistoric Cooperation and Competition in the western Anasazi Area. Pp. 99-137 In: Cordell, L. S. and Gumerman, G. J., editors. Dynamics of Southwest Prehistory. Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.

Hurt, R. D. 1987. Indian Agriculture in America: Prehistory to the Present. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS.

LeBlanc, S. A. 1999. Prehistoric warfare in the American Southwest. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Matson, R. G. 1991. The Origins of Southwestern Agriculture. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Smiley, F. E. 1994. The Agricultural Transition in the Northern Southwest: Patterns in the Current Chronometric Data. Kiva 60: 165-189.

Sunseri, A. 1973. Agricultural techniques in New Mexico at the time of the Anglo-American conquest. Agricultural History 49: 329-337.

Van West, C. R. 1991. Reconstructing prehistoric climatic variability and agricultural production in southwestern Colorado, A.D. 901-1300: A GIS approach. Pp. 25-34 In: Hutchinson, A., Smith, J. E. and Usher, J., editors. Proceedings of the Anasazi Symposium 1991. Mesa Verde Museum Association, Inc., Mesa Verde, CO.

Wills, W. H. 1988. Early Prehistoric Agriculture in the American Southwest. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, NM.