From cliffside fortresses, they controlled a sprawling trade network — and hoarded wealth beyond dreams. Meet the merchant princes of the ancient Southwest.
When we hear terms like “invasion” and “first contact” in American history, we naturally think of European colonialism — and with good reason.
The Spanish arrival in New Mexico devastated indigenous populations, disrupted regional trade, introduced horses and guns, and left the Southwest irreversibly transformed.
But the Spanish were not the first foreign people to set foot on Southwestern soil — nor were they the first to introduce new technologies, languages, beliefs and ways of life that radically altered the region’s ecology and social structure.
More than a thousand years before the Spanish, a different group of colonists erupted into the Southwest.
The story of these newcomers’ rise and fall provides a number of eerie parallels with the European invasion, more than a millennium later.
It also demonstrates a point I’ve been making throughout this series: Pre-Columbian North America was far from a peaceful wilderness.
As you saw in Part 1 of this series, North America was already home to many different hunting, gathering and farming peoples as early as the 7000s BCE. We know astonishingly little about most of these peoples, because they did not write — nor did they have much interest in long-distance trade, or large-scale military conquest, or the building of monuments or cities.
The thousands of years between the Ice Age and the city-building era must have been filled with transformative technological innovations, terrifying battles, great migrations, star-crossed love affairs, tragic betrayals, and countless other episodes preserved for centuries in poem and song.
Sadly, almost all those oral traditions are now lost — along with the languages in which they were sung, and the peoples who sang them.
This means our picture of the archaic Southwest is limited to mere fragmentary glimpses — a few remains of ancient campsites; paintings on rocks and cliffs; tales and legends preserved by distant descendants of the peoples who once thrived in this land.
But from those fragments, it’s clear that for thousands of years, the Colorado Plateau was inhabited exclusively by nomadic hunter-gatherers.
These people lived much as their ancestors had lived, as far back as the 9000s BCE, when the Ice Age gave way to a warm, dry climate that drove the great herds of mammoth and mastodon to extinction.
Since then, the people of the plateau had followed the bison on their seasonal rounds. In the spring and summer, people harvested wild juniper berries and mesquite beans. In the fall and winter, men hunted deer, big horn sheep, bison and antelope with stone-tipped spears and darts.
They were prolific artists, decorating rocks and cliffs with elaborate petroglyph scenes, and weaving ornate baskets to carry the wild seeds, nuts, berries and fruits that sustained them between hunts. In fact, local variations in tool shapes and basket designs hint that this archaic population may have been comprised of several different clans or peoples.
But those minor differences would soon be swallowed by a much more powerful wave of change.
Beginning in the 400s BCE, waves of foreign people began arriving in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. These newcomers brought strange technologies, beliefs, languages and styles of art — along with a new sedentary, agricultural way of life.
Thousands of people would abandon their nomadic roots to settle in permanent towns and cities — a shift that permanently altered this region’s culture and ecology.
In Part 2 of this series, you met one of the new peoples who brought this sedentary way of life north from Mexico. In the 300s BCE, these people were exiled — we still don’t know why, or from where — to wander the wastes of Arizona’s Sonora Desert, until at last they settled on the banks of a river, and recreated the civilization they’d left behind, piece by painstaking piece.
These exiles brought exotic luxuries from their lost home: fine jewelry, cactus wine, brightly colored parrots. They brought new technologies for digging canals, planting maize farms, and building mud-brick houses and temples. And most significantly of all, they brought disruptive new ideas about how society ought to function.
Whoever the exiles were, wherever they came from — they re-forged the Southwest in their own image.
Within just a few generations (by the 1st century CE) many indigenous peoples of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah would abandon their specialized nomadic lifestyles to dwell in clay houses, to labor on farms, to speak new languages, and to pay tribute to an emerging aristocracy of priests and nobles.
Did the newcomers absorb the local populations, or annihilate them — or convert them, somehow?
The sparseness of genetic evidence makes it hard to say for certain. But one fact is abundantly clear: within a few centuries, Arizona’s nomadic hunting clans were replaced (and/or absorbed) by a succession of agricultural city-states, which would rise and fall throughout the region for more than a thousand years, until the 1300s CE.
Though these farming peoples spoke many languages (and almost certainly thought of themselves as separate nations), their fortified towns and cities were connected by similar ideals of agrarian living and centralized government — and by a region-spanning trade network.
Long-distance trade transformed the Southwest’s material culture — perhaps more than any other innovation.
Until the arrival of the newcomers, the Southwest’s nomadic peoples had traded almost exclusively with their nearest neighbors — never with people from hundreds of miles away. But now, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado were crisscrossed by caravans bearing exotic shells from California, gleaming turquoise ingots from the Rocky Mountains, fine cactus wine, soft fabrics, and a wealth of other luxuries from distant lands.
Trade fostered common ideas of value and beauty — and may have helped create a regional “lingua franca,” as trade networks often do.
This new Southwest would have been unrecognizable to a person from a few centuries earlier. Where wild deer once grazed, farms now sprawled. Where tiny villages once huddled, towering walls divided cities from the surrounding wilderness. Where warriors once hunted, priests now chanted liturgies in the shadows of great pyramids.
And on a backwater frontier of this ordered urban world, a new power was rising.
Far to the northeast of Arizona’s urban heartland, the Colorado Plateau was an impoverished place; its people caught halfway between nomadism and city life. In the early 1000s CE, they lived in small hamlets of mud-brick houses, and grew maize on farms — but harvests were often so poor that they had to be supplemented with year-round hunting and gathering.
The people who lived in these villages must surely have heard tales of Arizona’s metropolitan hubs, from the traders who brought shells, turquoise, copper bells and other exotic goods to trade for meat and furs.
As in frontier villages around the world, the arrival of a trade caravan must’ve been cause for celebration.
As the local bigwigs wined and dined the visiting dignitaries, they would’ve marveled over new fashions, trinkets, songs, and stories of the wide world — as children peeked through the windows, captivated by the travelers’ strange customs and words.
Perhaps these provincial villages occasionally hosted bureaucrats, military recruiters and religious evangelists from the great cities to the south. Maybe some voyagers even made the long, perilous journey from Colorado to Arizona, to see Snaketown’s wondrous palaces and pyramids for themselves.
But before long, these provincial farmers would be building great cities of their own.
For centuries, villagers throughout the region had regarded Chaco Canyon, New Mexico as a sacred site. They often made pilgrimages to Chaco from faraway villages, bringing tribute for priests who lived at the site full-time, in a vast semicircular temple that served as a storehouse for maize and other supplies.
But as wealth in the storehouse piled higher and higher, the priests metamorphosed into professional traders, stockpiling maize, dried meat, seeds, furs, and parrot feathers; and laying out broad roads that stretched hundreds of miles into the wilderness.
By the 1000s CE, Chaco was home to several thousand people — many of them very wealthy.
Other people who lived at Chaco Canyon seem to have been full-time craftsmen. Traders brought turquoise ingots from mines hundreds of miles away, to be ground into fine beads and pendants — which may have served as a form of money with a fixed exchange rate.
Chaco was no longer an outpost on the fringes. In a mere 200 years, it had blossomed into a prosperous center of regional trade, with a thriving population of skilled craftsmen and bureaucrats — as well as a lower class of manual laborers to build its great houses and canals.
In 1100 CE, however, disaster struck the people of Chaco Canyon.
A devastating drought swept across the San Juan basin, drying up Chaco’s canals and parching its fields of maize. But in stark contrast to the collapse at Snaketown, Arizona, we find no sign of rioting or looting in Chaco Canyon. People simply began to pack up and leave, in a calm, orderly manner; taking whatever valuables they could carry, and leaving the rest behind.
But the collapse of Chaco Canyon wasn’t the end of this civilization — not by a long shot.
Just a few days’ journey to the northeast, the Verde River snaked across the plateau of southern Colorado. On that river’s banks lived a people whom the wealthy merchants of Chaco Canyon greatly admired.
These Mesa Verde people had begun experimenting with stronger mud-brick masonry construction as early as the 700s — centuries before anyone else in the region — pioneering the very style of architecture for which their cousins in Chaco Canyon would later become famous.
The merchants of Chaco Canyon looked up to their Mesa Verde relatives not only as innovators, but also as paragons of classical taste. A perfect case in point is the sipapu: a small hole in the floor of a house, symbolizing the tunnel through mankind’s ancestors first emerged into the world.
People in Mesa Verde always made sure their houses always contained a sipapu. Their merchant cousins in Chaco Canyon, on the other hand, stopped including sipapus in their houses — until the late 1100s, when wealthy Chaco Canyon merchants began to add them to their floors again; perhaps as a sort of neoclassical revival.
In short, no matter how wealthy and influential Chaco Canyon’s merchant princes became, they always maintained a deep respect for their relatives in Mesa Verde. As Chaco Canyon grew and prospered, the villages of Mesa Verde continued to influence Chaco Canyon’s art, architecture and ideology.
So of course, when the economy at Chaco Canyon collapsed, thousands of craftsmen and laborers headed straight for Mesa Verde, looking for work.
And work they did — building houses, dredging canals, harvesting maize, baking mud bricks, and laying wide new roads across the wilderness. Those laborers weren’t alone, either. With them came traders and priests, hauling all the jewelry, feathers, shells, furs and turquoise they could carry.
The Mesa Verde people took full advantage of their newfound wealth. Before long, the riverplain had become a thriving trade hub in its own right, drawing caravans of turquoise and other treasures from all across the Southwest.
By the early 1300s, Mesa Verde had become a far greater metropolis than Chaco Canyon ever was.
More that 22,000 people lived in the area, and more arrived every year. In a massive rockshelter, expert architects constructed an enormous structure known today as Cliff Palace — a masterwork of interconnected towers, walls, multi-story houses, storerooms, and ritual spaces.
This town was no haphazard construction, but a carefully planned project involving the entire community. The masonry alone required hundreds of specialists working in synchrony, coordinating their brickmaking and bricklaying according to seasonal fluctuations in rainfall and climate. The massive logs used to construct the roofs had to be hauled from miles away — as did the great stones used in the foundations.
Cliff Palace was a masterpiece not only of logistics, but also of engineering.
The houses’ walls and windows were designed to release heat in the summer and retain it in the winter, keeping the interiors at a comfortable temperature year-round. The storehouses were sealed tightly to keep out moisture. Floors and ceilings were constructed so solidly that some are still intact, a thousand years later.
And like every great cultural flowering, the golden age of Mesa Verde gave birth not only to brilliant architecture and engineering, but also to spectacular works of art. A large population of full-time artisans crafted intricately painted pottery, elegant statues, and a region-spanning array of rock carvings and cliffside murals — many of which can still be seen today.
But the Mesa Verde people’s most memorable contribution to art may be the famous katsinas (sometimes spelled kachinas) — supernatural beings who personify elements, locations and other aspects of the material world.
People at Mesa Verde were painting katsina designs as early as the 1300s — long before anyone else.
While it’s not entirely clear what these designs meant to the people at Mesa Verde, some hints come from the Hopi and Zuni people of New Mexico, who still dwell in the same style of mud-brick houses built at Mesa Verde — and still worship katsinas as supernatural beings.
At ceremonial celebrations throughout the year, Hopi and Zuni dancers impersonate the katsinas, checking in on people in their villages, and promising good fortune for the months to come. Small wooden carvings of katsinas are also given to children, to help them learn each katsina‘s name and attributes in preparation for the ceremonies.
Hopi and Zuni traditions also give us clues about more intangible aspects of ancient Mesa Verde’s culture.
For example, Hopi and Zuni music stand out among all other styles of traditional North American music — particularly in their complex song structure, which often features four or more musical phrases, call-and-response rhythms, and a wide range of scale tones and melodic contours.
While it’s impossible to know exactly how music at Mesa Verde sounded, the fact that Hopi and Zuni music share these distinctive traits — and in fact, share them with the music of many related Southwestern peoples — does seem to point back to a common ancestral music tradition; likely a very ancient one.
With that in mind, try closing your eyes as you listen to this Hopi buffalo dance, and imagine yourself at a seasonal katsina dance at the cliffs of Mesa Verde, 700 years ago.
Mesa Verde’s golden age lasted more than 200 years — but like every golden age, it could not last forever. In the mid-1300s, another wave of drought swept across the Southwest, devastating farms and drying up canals throughout Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
Down in Arizona, the great Hohokam cities of Snaketown and Pueblo Grande collapsed into riot and anarchy. In New Mexico, the Mogollon people were forced to abandon their walled settlements and farms. And in Colorado, Mesa Verde’s artisans traders, bureaucrats and architects packed whatever they could carry, and headed out for the villages.
By 1400 CE, the Southwest’s mighty highland cities were no more than empty, silent ruins.
The wind whistled through their cracked palace walls, as their towers and storehouses crumbled to dust in the swirling desert sand — as if the last thousand years had been no more than a dream, now quickly fading from memory.
With the collapse of the Southwest’s great urban centers, a new group of outsiders swept into New Mexico and Colorado: Navajos from the Pacific Northwest, Utes and Shoshones from California. In this post-apocalyptic wilderness, bands of nomadic hunters warred among the ruins — sometimes resorting to cannibalism.
But the Navajos and Shoshones, in their turn, would soon be ousted by yet another group of newcomers: Spanish conquistadores, who arrived in the region in the 1540s — a mere 150 years after the collapse of Mesa Verde’s civilization, and scarcely 100 years after the arrival of the Navajos.
This new Southwest was — yet again — almost unrecognizably changed from that of a few centuries earlier. Instead of sprawling farms and towering cities, the Spanish found only small mud-brick villages inhabited by poor Hopi and Zuni farmers, squatting in the shadows of abandoned cliffside towers.
The conquistadores called these local people “pueblo” — “villagers” — and that’s the name that stuck.
Today, people of the region are still called Puebloan peoples, and the people of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde are officially known as Ancestral Puebloans — although modern Hopi people call their city-building ancestors Hisatsinom, “ancient people.”
When the Spanish conquistadores showed up, however, it was the Navajos, not the Hopis, who seemed to be in charge — so it was the Navajos who got to tell the Spanish about the ancient people who’d constructed the great ruins.
“Those people were Anaasází,” explained the Navajos: “Enemies of our ancestors.”
To this day, the builders of Mesa Verde are often called “the Anasazi,” as if that was the name of their tribe or nation — and not a derogatory term in an unrelated language, conceived by people who arrived in the region after Mesa Verde’s demise.
The Hopis, Zunis and other Puebloan people would have to wait several more centuries before anthropologists recognized them for who they truly are: cultural and linguistic (and possibly genetic) descendants of the people who built the Southwest’s mighty ancient citadels.
In fact, linguists now recognize one Puebloan language, Keresan, as a direct descendant of the language spoken at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.*
Of course, Puebloan peoples never needed academic confirmation of their ancient pedigree. In towns and villages throughout the Southwest, they still sing the old songs and recite the old stories of their civilization’s golden age — the time before Navajos or Shoshones or European invaders, when their land belonged to them alone.
Meanwhile, millions of tourists flock to the Colorado Plateau every year, to gaze in awe at the ruins of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, to stare at the ancient rock carvings, to visit museums of painted pottery and sculpture, to purchase small katsina figurines to decorate their houses — perhaps even to attend a Hopi or Zuni dance ceremony.
Do those tourists recognize Colorado’s ancient cities for what they truly were — not fluke experiments in settled living, but outposts of a civilization that flourished for more than a thousand years? When they purchase katsina figurines, do they recognize them not as quaint “traditional crafts,” but as tributes to an illustrious age of classical art and architecture?
And when modern residents of Southwest pass by ruins in the desert, do they recognize that they stand in the footprints of an empire?
Perhaps not. But as for the Hopi, the Zuni and other Puebloan peoples — they know exactly who they are, and where they come from.
* Intriguing sidenote: the Zuni language is not Puebloan — it’s a language isolate, which means it has no known connection with any other language, Pueblo or otherwise; and it probably dates back at least 7,000 years. In other words, Zuni is the lone survivor of a whole family of languages that vanished in the mists of prehistory.