Viewing the Ancestors: Perceptions of the Anaasází, Mokwic, and Hisatsinom

Viewing the Ancestors: Perceptions of the Anaasází, Mokwic, and Hisatsinom

by Robert S. McPherson

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The Anaasází people left behind marvelous structures, the ruins of which are preserved at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly. But what do we know about these people, and how do they relate to Native nations living in the Southwest today? Archaeologists have long studied the American Southwest, but as historian Robert McPherson shows in


The Anaasází people left behind marvelous structures, the ruins of which are preserved at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly. But what do we know about these people, and how do they relate to Native nations living in the Southwest today? Archaeologists have long studied the American Southwest, but as historian Robert McPherson shows in Viewing the Ancestors, their findings may not tell the whole story. McPherson maintains that combining archaeology with knowledge derived from the oral traditions of the Navajo, Ute, Paiute, and Hopi peoples yields a more complete history.

McPherson’s approach to oral tradition reveals evidence that, contrary to the archaeological consensus that these groups did not coexist, the Navajos interacted with their Anaasází neighbors. In addition to examining archaeological literature, McPherson has studied traditional teachings and interviewed Native people to obtain accounts of their history and of the relations between the Anaasází and Athapaskan ancestors of today’s Hopi, Pueblo, and Navajo peoples.

Oral history, McPherson points out, tells why things happened. For example, archaeological findings indicate that the Hopi are descended from the Anaasází, but Hopi oral tradition better explains why the ancient Puebloans may have left the Four Corners region: the drought that may have driven the Anaasází away was a symptom of what had gone wrong within the society—a point that few archaeologists could derive from what is found in the ground.

An important text for non-Native scholars as well as Native people committed to retaining traditional knowledge, Viewing the Ancestors exemplifies collaboration between the sciences and oral traditions rather than a contest between the two.

Editorial Reviews

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“In Viewing the Ancestors, Robert McPherson takes on a formidable assignment: ‘To give the Navajo and other Native American tribes’ oral traditions a new look,’ as he phrases it.  McPherson travels to Anaasází country and re-examines Navajo and Hopi teachings concerning this locale. He gives his subject the kind of attention and respect it deserves, ultimately revealing the power of place and the significance of stories.”—Peter Iverson, author of Diné: A History of the Navajos

Viewing the Ancestors makes an impassioned plea for recognizing oral traditions as vital sources of historical insights, alongside evidence from archaeology, linguistics, and written documents. This is a fascinating, must-read book for scholars and those interested in Native American cultural history in the American Southwest.”— William D. Lipe, coauthor of The Architecture of Social Integration in Prehistoric Pueblos

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University of Oklahoma Press
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New Directions in Native American Studies Series , #9
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Viewing the Ancestors

Perceptions of the Anaasází, Mokwic, and Hisatsinom

By Robert S. McPherson


Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4569-3


Identifying the Anaasází

Physical Proof, Evaluating Tradition

The primary focus of this study is to present how the Navajos and other nonpuebloan groups perceive the Anaasází. This beginning chapter, however, discusses the archaeological understanding of who these prehistoric people were, reviews how social scientists have defined cultural change over a two-thousand-year period, and examines the strengths and weaknesses of this approach when placed next to the oral tradition. This analysis is particularly important because it highlights inconsistencies in the present understanding of events affecting both the Anaasází and other groups of Native Americans, suggesting a shift in thinking about a much-studied topic. Who, then, were the Anaasází, when did they arrive in the Four Corners area, how did they live, and why did they depart? Some of these same questions need to be asked of other Indian groups, too, along with what evidence exists that defines their presence and activities.

As pointed out in the introduction, archaeology is a constantly shifting field of study that challenges itself with new understandings. Just how fluid this field can become is seen by a recent study that questions even how Native Americans entered into the New World, reconsidering the traditional hypothesis of hunters and gatherers moving across eastern Siberia on the thousand-mile-wide land bridge created in the vicinity of the Bering Straits (Beringia) up until ten thousand to twelve thousand years ago. Some archaeologists have challenged this conventional wisdom by pointing out that the pressure-flaked knives and spear points (Clovis) found throughout the United States do not resemble those found in Alaska and other areas where this migration was supposed to have taken place. The study does not deny that some Indians came across in that area but argues that there is a case to be made for questioning whether all did, particularly because the blades commonly found throughout the Americas seem much more closely allied with the Solutrean stone tool tradition associated with France and Spain during the same time period—more than twenty thousand years ago. A recent article in Newsweek quotes the Journal of Field Archaeology as saying, "We can no longer assume that we know the timing of early human migrations to the New World, any more than their frequency, their points of origin, or their modes of traversing land and sea.... We must now look at the archaeological record without prejudice." Smithsonian Science chimes in with "[t]hrough archaeological evidence, they [the authors] turn the long-held theory of the origins of New World populations on its head." While this is not to advocate for a particular thesis, it does illustrate how archaeology can shift from a well-accepted belief to something very different. This is not a weakness but a reality in a scientific world that encourages new ideas to be examined.

Even the names of this time period and later ones have changed. The term "prehistory," meaning a time before writing was available, as opposed to "history"—a written record—is no longer fully acceptable. In deference to oral traditions, rock art, winter counts, and other ways of recording and remembering past events, terms such as "deep history" or "distant past" or "oral history" now replace the distinction between written events and those recalled in other ways. For ease of description here, however, "prehistory" will be used to define the Native American cultures pre-Euro-American or Anglo-American contact and "history" to denote them postcontact.

Closer to home, archaeologists have accumulated a vast store of data and information about the Anaasází, a group of people who have been excavated and studied since the last quarter of the nineteenth century. As more information is accumulated through scientific and nonscientific means, a greater appreciation and understanding of these people has also developed. What follows is a brief, general survey of the different eras of Anaasází material culture in the northern San Juan region of the Four Corners area. In other geographical areas, time frames and cultural expressions may differ. What is found here is not meant to be comprehensive or specific, especially because the term "Anaasází" does not differentiate between various family, clan, or regional groups, which were much more likely in keeping with how the ancestral puebloan peoples thought of themselves. This composite picture is provided for a base understanding of one group under discussion.

Native American deep history extends back long before the Anaasází to a time when there was no horticulture, only highly mobile hunting and gathering groups, sometimes with a notable focus on big game hunting of megafauna such as mastodons, mammoths, camelids, and other now-extinct animals. Because these people rarely utilized dry alcoves for shelter, all that exists of these cultures to help archaeologists understand them is their stone tools, everything else having deteriorated beyond recognition. As the climate became warmer and drier following the end of the Pleistocene (Ice Age) epoch, the Archaic period began with a general shift in material culture that adapted to hunting smaller game and gathering plant materials in a changed environment. Because these Native Americans made much more use of dry alcoves, not only tools of stone but also woven baskets, blankets, cordage, and rock art have survived. For six thousand years, this way of life persisted, although given its length of time, relatively little exists of its material culture and only its rock art gives much of a hint of how they viewed their nonmaterial world.


Next enter the Anaasází, starting approximately 1000 B.C. Archaeologists still use the Pecos Classification system devised by Alfred Kidder and others at the Pecos Conference in 1927. The system is subdivided into two major categories—Basketmaker (Early and Late) and Pueblo (Periods I, II, III, IV, and V). Because of the difficulty of distinguishing between the Archaic hunter-gatherers and the first phase of Anaasází development during the Basketmaker I period, the latter is considered transitional between the two cultural expressions, and so only Basketmaker II, or Early Basketmaker, is discussed. This is instructive because it is the same issue with Navajo and Numic-speaking peoples—how does one prove that they were even in the area when depending on material remains that are not distinctively identified with that group?

The relationship between the Late Archaic and Early Basketmaker groups is unclear, with some archaeologists dating the start of Anaasází culture earlier than 1000 B.C. By that date the single most important element differentiating these two cultures was present—corn (which would serve as the basis for the entire Anaasází cultural tradition). In the Four Corners area, where the scarcity of water, plant, and animal resources results in a harsh ecosystem and reduced carrying capacity of the land, the effects of corn providing a staple source of food were significant. Slowly the culture of the hunting and gathering population gave way to a sedentary lifestyle dependent on crops, leading to more easily identifiable material remains.

Early Basketmaker life began to flourish as the people developed shallow pit houses, circular storage pits, skillfully crafted baskets and sandals, feather and fur robes, and a greatly expanded tool kit, much of which was stored in the rock overhangs of the canyon floors or amid the juniper and piñon groves of the lands above. By 500 B.C., Basket-maker II groups were heavily dependent on maize. The lifestyle of these people still reflected a partial orientation to the hunter-gatherer tradition in that the people seasonally moved to various sites to harvest their foods, returning at times to care for their crops. They continued to use the atlatl for hunting and foraged for wild plants as a supplement to their main diet of corn and squash. Bell-shaped underground chambers and shallow slab-lined storage cists located in protected rock alcoves held not only food supplies but also the Anaasází dead, some of whom met a violent death.

The Late Basketmaker period started around A.D. 450 and is distinguished from the earlier phase by the introduction of pottery and the use of larger, more elaborate pit houses with internal storage facilities and antechambers located to the south or east of the main room. These houses may be found alone, in small clusters, or in groups of a dozen or more dwellings. Another significant addition to the growing Anaasází culture was the introduction of beans to the larder. While corn served as the main food staple because of its ability to be stored, beans and squash added nutritional variety, constituting a complete diet. Garden plots were maintained through dry farming techniques utilizing runoff, with some crops planted on the moister floodplains of a river or nurtured by pot irrigation with water carried in jars to the plants. For over a thousand years this agricultural system supported a generally expanding Anaasází population base.

Other innovations that entered into the Late Basketmaker period were the appearance of pottery—gray utility and black-on-white painted ware—and the introduction of the bow and arrow to replace the atlatl. Arrowheads supplanted dart points as one of the primary stone implements, facilitating the hunting of small and medium-sized game. Another innovation, occurring by A.D. 700, was the use of wooden stockade fences around some residential sites, presumably for protection. Rock art persisted through all phases of Anaasází culture, each one having its own unique characteristics.

By A.D. 750 the Anaasází had reached the next stage of development, that of Pueblo I. As the name suggests, there were some significant changes in their dwellings, though elements from earlier phases persisted. For instance, they had begun to build their homes above ground in connected, rectangular blocks of rooms, using rocks and jacal (a framework of woven saplings and sticks packed with mud) and some stone and adobe masonry for construction materials. One or more deep pit houses have been found in each of the building clusters and may have served a ceremonial function. These rooms were equipped with a ventilator shaft that brought in fresh air, deflected around an upright stone placed between the shaft and the fire pit and then evacuated by the entryway in the roof, a technique used by the Anaasází for the remainder of their stay in the Four Corners region. Generally, Pueblo I communities were located along major drainages or on mesa uplands at elevations of 5,500 feet or more. Evidence of prolonged drought and a warming trend suggests that the Anaasází moved to areas where the growing season and water were adequate for this new climate regime.

The Pueblo II period started circa A.D. 900 and lasted for the next 150 years. During this period, a change in climate provided more-dependable precipitation, higher water tables that affected springs and seeps, and temperatures conducive to agriculture. The Anaasází reacted by moving from a pattern of clustering population in strategic locations to a far-ranging decentralization. Satellite work-and-living sites fanned out from the larger population bases. At no previous time had there been as many people spread over so much of the land.

An apparent link that unified different areas is evidenced by a new phenomenon—clearly constructed roads with associated specialized building sites. The most dramatic examples of road activity are found in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Several of the Anaasází's roads converge on "great houses" (multistory room blocks) and great kivas—large, semi-subterranean ceremonial chambers—whose roofs were supported by pillars and spanned by long-beam construction. Unlike the smaller kivas found with most habitation sites, great kivas had a specialized ritual function not totally understood by Native Americans and researchers today. These structures were located where significant concentrations of people lived and worshipped, with satellite communities on the periphery.

Construction of smaller sites also underwent change. Homes were built primarily above ground with stone masonry, while rock-and-mud storage granaries perched high in cliff recesses. Underground chambers, first introduced in Basketmaker times and used for living space, served both as places for domestic activities and as kivas with religious and social functions, often with one associated with each household. A typical structure followed the Mesa Verde pattern of a rounded chamber with a shaft-deflector–fire-pit configuration, a small hole (sipapu/sipapuni) representing a place of emergence from the worlds below, and a three-foot-high bench that encircled most of the room. Upon this bench stood three-foot-high pilasters that supported a cribbed roof through which a ladder extended to the world above.

By the Pueblo III phase, the Chaco phenomenon had ended and Mesa Verde had become a bustling epicenter, spreading its construction and pottery characteristics over a large area of the northern Anaasází domain between 1150 and 1300. The dramatic cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde offer a good picture of buildings and lifestyle during this era. The general pattern of events is characterized as a shrinking or gathering of dispersed communities into a series of larger villages in more-defensible areas. Large communal plazas, tower clusters around springs at the head of canyons, evidence of decreased regional trade relations, and the introduction of the kachina cult prevalent during the historic period among the pueblo peoples are all indications that Anaasází society was undergoing change.

Archaeologists argue about what caused these cultural shifts and the subsequent abandonment of the San Juan drainage area by the Anaasází. Some people attribute the changes to environmental factors such as prolonged drought, cooler temperatures, arroyo cutting, and depleted soils. Others in the past suggested that nomadic hunters and gatherers—precursors to the historic Ute, Paiute, and Navajo people—invaded the area, although no concrete proof exists to suggest large-scale warfare with outside invaders. No single explanation satisfactorily answers all of the questions, but by 1300 the Anaasází had left the San Juan drainage on a series of migrations that eventually took them to their historic, present homes along the Rio Grande (Eastern Pueblos) and to the areas where the Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi villages (Western Pueblos) now stand. There they continued to evolve through the Pueblo IV and Pueblo V periods of the Pecos Classification system. Pueblo IV (1350–1600) was characterized by large pueblos built around a common plaza, the rapid expansion of the kachina cult, and a realignment of hierarchical government, while the Pueblo V phase includes the entrance of the Spanish through to events of today.


This cursory overview of over two thousand years of prehistory and history is based on the archaeological record of the material culture left behind. What of other migrating hunter-gatherer groups such as the Numic-speaking Utes and Paiutes or the Athabascan-speaking Navajos and Apaches as they entered the Southwest? Since none of these people left clearly identifiable material remains, their early presence is disputed by archaeologists, frustrated by scant physical evidence. Historic linguistics, with its imprecise techniques such as glottochronology and theoretical supposition, provides some assistance. With both language groups, the tendency has recently been to support an earlier entrance, pushing back the time for potential interaction with the Anaasází, something to be discussed shortly.

The long-held conventional wisdom of archaeologists concerned with the Numic people suggests the possibility of many "waves" of migration. Most scholars agree that the initial starting point for this divisive splitting up was in the area of Death Valley in southern California. Approximately three thousand to five thousand years ago, members of the large Uto-Aztecan language family started to subdivide into nine smaller groups. Numic speakers composed one of these divisions, which includes today's Utes and Paiutes. Fanning out from southern California, they moved in a northeasterly direction but remained on the edge of the Great Basin until about one thousand years ago, when they entered rapidly into this area, then onto the Colorado Plateau. Linguist Sydney Lamb believes that "since the three branches of Numic [Paiute, Ute, and Chemehuevi] were already distinct, this great spread must have been undertaken independently by each of the three groups. The separation in all of them, however, may have taken place at roughly the same time." Their language became increasingly diversified as groups split from each other, another linguist suggesting that the Utes separated from the Southern Paiutes four hundred years ago as they settled in the Four Corners region.


Excerpted from Viewing the Ancestors by Robert S. McPherson. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert S. McPherson is Professor of History at Utah State University–Eastern, Blanding Campus. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books on Navajo history and the history of the Southwest, including Under the Eagle: Samuel Holiday, Navajo Code Talker (with Samuel Holiday) and Viewing the Ancestors: Perceptions of the Anaasází, Mokwic, and Hisatsinom.

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