Author:: T. J. Ferguson. Adapted from: Ferguson, T.J., 1996. Historic Zuni Architecture and Society: An Archaeological Application of Space Syntax. Anthropological Papers, No. 60. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, p. 25-40.
The Zuni Indians and their ancestors have lived in the Zuni River valley and the surrounding region for more than 1,500 years [location map]. Contemporary Zuni Indians are the direct descendants of the prehistoric Pueblo people who settled the region sometime prior to A.D. 400. Mirroring the developments that took place throughout the region occupied by prehistoric Pueblo Peoples, the first settlements in the area were comprised of agriculturalists living in pithouses of various types. Later above-ground masonry structures (pueblos) were comprised of small, dispersed room blocks associated with subterranean pit structures or kivas. By A.D. 1000, the population in the Zuni area began to construct larger settlements oriented around Chacoan great houses with associated circular great kivas. Throughout this period, the occupation spans of most settlements were relatively brief, and many new villages were constructed over a wide area, perhaps in response to variability in climate and the gradually decreasing productivity of agricultural strategies.
As the prehistoric population of the Zuni region gradually increased in size through internal population growth and immigration, the mobility of communities became constrained. Each community required an agricultural area, presumably near its habitation, and an increasingly larger sustaining area for resource procurement. As the number of communities increased, the amount of available agricultural land decreased, and new settlements adversely impacted the ecology of the sustaining areas used by previously established communities. Regional packing of population into a finite area greatly diminished the ability to expand or maintain the settlement system, leading to a major change in the form and distribution of settlements.
In the mid-thirteenth century, a major shift occurred in the settlement patterns of the Zuni area. The occupation of virtually all small pueblos was relinquished and fewer, much larger, plaza-oriented settlements were founded in areas where more intensive agriculture was possible. In the drainage of the Zuni River alone, more than 37 of these large villages were occupied between A.D. 1250 and 1540, incorporating an estimated 10,000 rooms. Initially, many of the large pueblos in the Zuni area were only inhabited for relatively brief intervals, as short as 20 to 30 years. As the occupation of one pueblo was relinquished, another was founded somewhere else in the drainage of Zuni River. The settlement pattern in the late prehistoric era thus entailed the occupation of 8 to 12 large pueblo villages at any one time. Archaeologists have suggested various explanations for the relatively brief occupation spans of these large settlements, including the development of new forms of social organization needed to integrate large numbers of people living in dense settlements, climatic fluctuations that made the concentration of labor in larger villages advantageous with respect to more intensive agriculture, or an increase in the incidence of prehistoric warfare. Regardless of the precise set of causes, there was a trend through time toward the occupation of fewer, much larger villages located in the lower elevations of the Zuni River.
By about A.D. 1450, a series of communities was established in the lower Zuni River valley that continued to be occupied into the historic period. These developments were accompanied by a relinquishment of habitation in other areas in the drainage of the Upper Little Colorado River. By the end of the prehistoric era, a Zuni settlement system had emerged that entailed the occupation of a few, very large villages in a core area of habitation that contained the best agricultural land in the region. This core area of settlement was surrounded by a much larger uninhabited region used for resource procurement. A similar development of settlement patterns occurred in the neighboring Acoma and Hopi areas, and by the onset of the historic period the only occupied villages in the Western Pueblo region were the Zuni, Acoma, and Hopi pueblos.