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.

Where to stay in LA: an area by area guide

Where to stay in LA: an area by area guide

Few regions of the world have been as idealized and mythologized as California – and yet it seldom fails to live up to the hype. The glamour, surf beaches and…

22 Jun 2017 • Rough Guides Editors insert_drive_file Article
The 15 most spectacular sights in Southwest USA

The 15 most spectacular sights in Southwest USA

A vast expanse of stunning desert scenery, the Southwest is arguably the USA’s most spectacular region. For splendour and sheer scale, the landscape consisten…

06 Jun 2017 • Rough Guides Editors insert_drive_file Article
The most beautiful places in the USA – as voted by you

The most beautiful places in the USA – as voted by you

We asked our Facebook and Twitter followers to vote for the most beautiful locations in the USA. Now the results are in. This gallery showcases the top ten most…

31 May 2017 • Lottie Gross camera_alt Gallery
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