If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Native American culture of the Southwest

AP.USH:
GEO (Theme)
,
KC‑1.1.I.A (KC)
,
Unit 1: Learning Objective B
The Ancestral Pueblo people lived in the southwestern region of the modern United States; they constructed elaborate buildings and began the American farming tradition.

Overview

  • Many distinct Native American groups populated the southwest region of the current United States, starting in about 7000 BCE.
  • The Ancestral Pueblos—the Anasazi, Mogollon, and Hohokam—began farming in the region as early as 2000 BCE, producing an abundance of corn. Navajos and Apaches primarily hunted and gathered in the area.
  • These groups deserted the area around 1300 CE, probably due to crop failures; European colonists encountered people partially descended from the Ancestral Pueblos in the mid-1500s.

Geographic and temporal setting: the Pueblo desert

The Southwest region, expanding through present-day Arizona and New Mexico and into Colorado, Texas, Utah, and Mexico, was home to a variety of indigenous groups and cultural practices pre-colonization. In this region dwelled several groups we collectively call the Pueblo. The Spanish first gave them this name, which means “town” or “village,” because they lived in towns or villages of permanent stone-and-mud buildings with thatched roofs. The three main groups of the Pueblo people were the Mogollon, Hohokam, and Anasazi.
Anasazis, sometimes called the Ancestral Pueblos, resided in the Four Corners region (where the states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona meet today); the Mogollon lived mostly in southwestern New Mexico; the Hohokam dominated the desert of southern Arizona.
Historians estimate that these three groups reigned over the region from approximately 200-1500 CE, and either dissolved or evolved into the Pueblos, whom the Spanish encountered during colonization and who still reside in modern New Mexico. They have also transformed into the Zuni and Hopi tribes. The Apache and Navajo tribes arrived in the Pueblo region around 1200 CE from the Pacific Northwest and remained distinct from the Pueblo people living in the region.
Map of territory showing areas where Ancestral Pueblos, Hohokams, and Mogollon peoples lived.
Map of southwestern Ancestral Pueblo area. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Common food practices: introduction of agriculture

Historians credit Anasazis, Mogollons, and Hohokams as the first farmers in America. Corn, the first crop the Ancestral Pueblos cultivated, permeates many creation stories of the Pueblo people. The Ancestral Pueblos regarded the harvest of corn not only as a nutritional necessity but as a spiritual gift. Although agriculture seemed to represent the society’s advancement, the Ancestral Pueblos had a much healthier diet when they hunted and gathered, as opposed to the limited diversity in a diet dominated by corn.
In the arid climate of the Southwest, Ancestral Pueblos developed complex irrigation systems, which maintained crops even in the hot sun. By 800 CE, Hohokams had created one of the largest irrigation systems to date, stretching through most of what we call Arizona today. This new irrigation system allowed the Pueblos to begin planting beans and squash in addition to corn.
Photograph of a Hohokam canal today.
An ancient Hohokam canal, used for irrigation. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
These elaborate systems enabled agriculture to flourish, which allowed new forms of production and societal development. Women began to make ceramic pots to hold the surplus of corn, squash, and beans, and large vessels to grind the corn. They also wove baskets with which to collect the harvest.
Although agriculture boomed in the region, Navajos and Apaches arrived from the Pacific Northwest in about 1200 CE and retained the dominant food practice of their home region, hunting and gathering.

Societal organization: villages and pueblos

Agriculture dictated the way the Ancestral Pueblo people lived. With surplus food and stability, they became more sedentary, living in stone and adobe houses. Equivalent to massive present-day apartment complexes, these buildings had multiple stories, each with multiple rooms. The Ancestral Pueblos, regarded as highly developed for their time, tended to live in larger towns with thousands of people and intricate dwellings.
Chaco Canyon, a center for the Anasazi people, was a trade hub and home to over twelve thousand people. The Chacoans, a branch of the Anasazi people living in the canyon, created over four hundred miles of roads that connected the town to other villages in the region. The Chacoans mostly traded away turquoise, traveling west for seashells from California, south for exotic birds from Central America, and north for minerals and ores from the Rocky Mountains.
Pueblo Bonito, a famous archaeological site, in Chaco Canyon. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Navajos and Apaches were more nomadic as they continued to hunt and gather. Since they were always on the move, their homes were much less permanent than pueblos. For instance, Navajos fashioned their iconic eastward-facing round houses, known as hogans, out of materials like mud and bark.
A traditional Navajo hogan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Social and religious norms: the spirit of the crop

These southwestern peoples believed that farming was a more reliable way to ensure their society’s sustenance than hunting and gathering. But that hypothesis proved false in the face of natural disaster. A persistent drought, lasting from about 1130-1180 CE, decimated Anasazis' crops, while a major flood in 1358 destroyed the Hohokam irrigation system.
These disasters led the Ancestral Pueblos to hold spiritual ceremonies, praying to their gods for a bountiful harvest and good weather. They would pray to natural entities, like plants and animals, for agricultural, hunting, and personal success. These religious ceremonies brought together lots of people to create larger religious communities than social units like the family.
The extended family lived and worked together, both women and men participating in the agricultural processes. Since the Pueblos did less hunting, men helped with farming. In addition to farm labor, women raised children and performed household tasks, while male heads of households would participate in an informal council to make community, or band, decisions.
A kiva, shown above, was a room constructed for religious rituals, used by both Ancestral and modern Pueblos. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Ultimately, most of the Ancestral Pueblos fled the area, probably due to drought. The Spanish encountered a hodgepodge of remaining descendants of the Ancestral Pueblos in the mid-1550s, whom they named the Pueblos.

What do you think?

How did the introduction of agriculture affect the religious practices of the ancient southwestern Native Americans?
How did the Ancestral Pueblos urbanize the southwest region? How did that compare to the Native Americans in the northeast region?
Do you think the Ancestral Pueblos should have continued hunting and gathering for their main source of nourishment? Why or why not?

Want to join the conversation?

  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Joshua
    Where these people actually Indian?
    (57 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • starky tree style avatar for user inkyelixir
      Not exactly. They are called 'Indian' due to Columbus misnaming them, but really they are the true Native Americans, however they are often called "American Indian" as many prefer. They did migrate from Asia, though, over the Bering strait, but they are not really Indian.
      (5 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Angelina Bertoni Holmes
    So columbus thought that he was going to india thats why he called them indians?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user lblacconiere415
    Above, the reading states: The Spanish encountered a hodgepodge of remaining descendants of the Ancestral Pueblos in the mid- 1550s who then became commonly remembered as the Pueblos.

    How do we know what the Spanish actually encountered? What is this conclusion based off of? Also, do we have any idea what these tribes/people called themselves?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The logbooks of sponsored expeditions kept by Spanish explorers are in the archives. The letters written home and the memoirs of some of those explorers and colonists are also available for historians to read. I assume that the historians who put together the reading consulted some of these. You could always check out their footnotes.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Isaiah Hall
    Is corn , squash , beans the three sisther .
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • starky seed style avatar for user Quan Xu
    Is there any difference btw the irrigation system of Ancestral Pueblos and other ancient civilizations, say Egypt or China?
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Denise Andrews
    what if it rained on a Hogan would the mud sink inn.
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin tree style avatar for user leon.chang
      Most likely not, given that the mud had already been mostly baked dry by the sun. I don't know if you've ever seen or made mud bricks, but those do get rather hard after drying out in the sun. If it were to rain, the structure itself would mostly stay intact. However, should it start raining, some of the mud could possibly regain a more liquid state and perhaps be lost, but it could relatively easily be repaired after it stopped raining.
      (2 votes)
  • stelly orange style avatar for user Camryn S
    When you say the Ancestral Pueblos in this article, are you referring to the people of the Anasazi group? Or are you using this term to describe the Anasazi, Mogollon, and Hohokam groups? For instance, when you say "The Ancestral Pueblos regarded the harvest of corn not only as a nutritional necessity but as a spiritual gift", do you mean the Anasazi or the people of all 3 groups?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Victor Sindato
    Did the ancestral pueblos start holding religious practices after the calamities or did they have them even before?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user madison.primrose
    why did some of the indians move and others didnt
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Starla Wang
    is there a particular set of gods that they worship/
    like the greek and roman gods?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user