Few visitors to the Southwest are prepared for the awesome scale and beauty of the desert cities and cliff palaces left by the Ancestral Puebloans, as seen all over the high plateaus of the “Four Corners” region, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah now meet.

Although the earliest humans reached the Southwest around 10,000 BC, the Ancestral Puebloans first appeared as the Basketmakers, near the San Juan River, two thousand years ago. Named for their woven sandals and bowls, they lived in pits in the earth, roofed with logs and mud. Over time, the Ancestral Puebloans adopted an increasingly settled lifestyle, becoming expert farmers and potters. Their first freestanding houses on the plains were followed by multistoreyed pueblos, in which hundreds of families lived in complexes of contiguous “apartments”. The astonishing cliff dwellings, perched on precarious ledges high above remote canyons, which they began to build around 1100 AD, were the first Ancestral Puebloan settlements to show signs of defensive fortifications. Competition for scarce resources became even fiercer toward the end of the thirteenth century and it’s thought that warfare and even cannibalism played a role in their ultimate dispersal. Moving eastward, they joined forces with other displaced groups in a coming-together that eventually produced the modern Pueblo Indians. Hence the recent change of name, away from “Anasazi”, a Navajo word meaning “ancient enemies”, in favour of “Ancestral Puebloan”.

Among the most significant Ancestral Puebloan sites are:
Mesa Verde
Magnificent cliff palaces, high in the canyons of Colorado.
Bandelier National Monument
Large riverside pueblos and cave-like homes hollowed from volcanic rock.
Chaco Canyon
The largest and most sophisticated freestanding pueblos, far out in the desert.
Canyon de Chelly
Superbly dramatic cliff dwellings in a glowing sandstone canyon now owned and farmed by the Navajo.
Hovenweep
Enigmatic towers poised above a canyon.
Wupatki
Several small pueblo communities near the edge of the Painted Desert, built by assorted groups after an eleventh-century volcanic eruption.
Walnut Canyon
Numerous homes set into the canyon walls above lush Walnut Creek, just east of Flagstaff.
Betatakin
Canyon-side community set in a vast rocky alcove in Navajo National Monument; visible from afar, or close-up on guided hikes.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

USA features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

Total eclipse of the heart (of America): where to see the 2017 solar eclipse

Total eclipse of the heart (of America): where to see the 2017 solar eclipse

Most visitors who trek through the vast interior of the USA are in search of natural wonders on the ground. But on August 21, 2017, they’ll be in search of a…

24 Nov 2016 • AnneLise Sorensen insert_drive_file Article
A Las Vegas survival guide: the dos and don’ts of Sin City

A Las Vegas survival guide: the dos and don’ts of Sin City

Few destinations can match the unbridled hedonism of Las Vegas. Nevada’s pulsating desert city, a tangle of neon-lit casinos and roaring freeways, is one of t…

16 Nov 2016 • Eleanor Aldridge insert_drive_file Article
The dos and don'ts of Thanksgiving travel

The dos and don'ts of Thanksgiving travel

The only thing more challenging than an interminable turkey meal with a squabbling family? Getting there in the first place. Thanksgiving may kick off the mo…

11 Nov 2016 • AnneLise Sorensen insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month