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Prehistory of the Southwest-
A Brief Introduction

The Earliest Evidence- The Paleoindian Period

The prehistory of the southwest begins somewhere around 16,000 years ago, or about 14,000 B.C., with the Paleoindian period. Earliest evidence for occupation comes from Folsom, New Mexico, the archaeological find which defined the Paleoindian period. Other sites such as Clovis and Sandia Cave in new Mexico, the Olsen-Chubbock site in Colorado, and Ventana Cave in Arizona helped to refine and create the Paleoindian chronology. Older, pre-Paleoindian dates may have been found in the lowest levels from Sandia Cave and Pendejo Cave, also in New Mexico (Cordell 1997: 76,79). These early dates are disputed however. Paleoindian sites are typically game processing or kill sites used by transient hunters (Cordell 1997: 74). They are characterised by Clovis and Folsom-type points early on, and by a series of other, related-type points as time progressed. Often found associated with these sites are now-extinct, late Pleistocene megafauna, such as bison and mammoth.

The Archaic Period

The next recognised period is the Archaic, which begins about 6,000 B.C. and ends somewhere between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 150, depending on which source you read or exactly what part of the southwest you are looking at. It probably ends earlier in the Four Corners region. During the Archaic period the climate of the southwest stabilised and became much as it is today. The Archaic period is characterised by mobility and hunting and gathering, with a focus on smaller game animals, those which we see today. Archaic hunters used the atlatl and darts; the bow and arrow came later. Population density was low, in part due to the high mobility of Archaic people. It is during the late Archaic period that cultivated crops are introduced into the southwest from further south and thus we see a growing dependence on plant foods.

Basketmaker II and a Discussion of Chronologies

The Basketmaker II period begins about 1500 B.C. and ends about 500 A.D. Some archaeologists break Basketmaker II into early and late phases at about 50 A.D. Others break the Basketmakers into two periods- Basketmaker II and III, with Basketmaker III being more recent. At one time there was a Basketmaker I period, but it has now become part of the Archaic period. Remember that the classifications as presented here are rather general, but are more focused on the archaeology of the Four Corners region. Change and development did not occur at the same rate throughout the southwest, across regions, or even within the same region. Regional differences in development are represented by regional chronologies. For example, Chaco Canyon may share named sequences with the Cedar Mesa area, but with some variation in dates. In southern Arizona, the Hohokom will have an entirely different chronology, as will the prehistoric inhabitants of the Great Basin.

The Basketmaker period overall is characterised by the adoption of agricultural practices, initially in the form of floodplain and streambed farming, then later with the addition of dryland farming. Pottery is not present until late in this period, towards the end of Basketmaker III. Shelter and storage in Basketmaker II is seen in caves and open sites. In Basketmaker III pithouses are being used and some settlements are seen.

Pueblo Periods- I Through V

Following the Basketmaker periods are the Pueblo periods- numbered I through V, or the historic period. They begin with Pueblo I spanning from about 750- 900 A.D., Pueblo II from 900- 1150 A.D., Pueblo III from about 1150- 1350 A.D. and Pueblo IV from about 1350- 1500 A.D., or until Spanish contact.

The Pueblo period in general sees advancement from the pithouse through villages with room blocks, unit pueblos, Great Houses, large pueblos, and cliff dwellings. Kivas become more elaborate, larger, more important and more numerous through time.

The bow and arrow replaces the atlatl and dart during the Pueblo I period. Pottery advances from utilitarian gray, to coiled and corrugated wares, to delicately painted black on white and polychrome vessels through the Pueblo period.

Cultivation becomes more important as populations rise. Agricultural practices advance as well- farming becomes a full-time job and terracing, irrigation and water catchment are seen.

Eventually defensive measures are seen such as towers, walls, hilltop settlements and cliff dwellings. Other technological advances in the later Pueblo periods include astronomy, seen at sites such as Chaco Canyon, Chimney Rock, and Hovenweep; the engineering feat that was the system of road building with Chaco Canyon as the hub; and
trade as far away as Mesoamerica.

The decline of the great Pueblos is generally accepted as occurring around 1250- 1300 A.D., during the Pueblo III period. The decline is characterised by abandonment of the large settlements and dispersion of the population. This is seen in pottery styles with a return to more utilitarian, less elaborate vessels.

Following are a number of recommended titles about the people and prehistory of the Four Corners region. For a more complete list of recommendations visit our Book Store page.


Further Reading:
Click here for a brief introduction to University of Colorado archaeologist Steve Lekson and his Chaco theories.

The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center near Cortez, Colorado offers many site reports, papers, a glossary of terms, and a chronology online.

The following links open new pages at for the specified titles:

Edward Dozier's Pueblo Indians of North America is an ethnographic account of the Pueblo people of the Four Corners Region.

For an overview of Southwestern Prehistory see Linda Cordell's Archaeology of The Southwest.

The volume by Wills and Leonard, The Ancient Southwestern Community, is an edited volume which discusses population growth, boudaries and social organisation.

Visit our Book Store page to see more books on archaeology.

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