Navajo Home Navajo History Navajo Maps Southwest Archaeology Links
The following text is an excerpt from:
Navajo National Monument:
A Place and Its People
An Administrative History
Hal K. Rothman - 1991
     The history of human habitation in the Colorado Plateau and Navajo National Monument area dates back as much as 10,000 years. At that time, nomadic hunters stalked game in the region. Little solid evidence for extensive habitation before 8,000 B.C. exists, but in the following 500 years, proto-Anasazi groups began to spread from their core areas to the region. From the evidence offered by a site near Navajo Mountain called Dust Devil Cave dated roughly 6,000 B.C., archeologists believe that the people of the region lived in small bands, practiced a hunting and gathering regimen, and had only rudimentary technologies. They moved about seasonally, following game and the maturation of edible plants and harvesting them as they became ripe. These people lived in temporary brush shelters or lean-tos, moving frequently and leaving their abodes behind.
     This expansion put people in the vicinity of Navajo National Monument. Evidence from Dust Devil Cave suggests that proto-Anasazi Archaic people lived near the monument in this period, but as yet there are no discoveries of this vintage within the boundaries of Navajo National Monument. Yet that proximity suggests a central position for the region in the life of prehistoric peoples.
     This transient nomadic lifestyle persisted for more than 5,000 years, until the domestication of maize. By 500 B.C., the cultivated grain played an important role in the life of prehistoric people. Over the subsequent 1,000 years, the product increased in its significance to the people of the area, becoming a staple of regional diet. As a result, the way people there lived was gradually transformed.
     During this extended period, the people of the region--labeled Basketmaker II by archeologists--remained a small, highly mobile population that used a diverse resource base to survive. Wild and early domesticated plants such as flint corn and squash were staples. Their structures were slab-lined and subterranean, located in caves or shelters. These Basketmaker II groups had material goods such as baskets, weapons, clothing, textiles, and other similar items. To make such goods, they used a wide range of materials.
     Mobility was a critical feature of life for Basketmaker II groups. Movement sustained them both by providing a variety of food sources and by allowing interaction with other groups. They moved in small groups that occasionally met with larger ones for trade, social interaction, and marriage as dictated by the rules of their culture. The widespread distribution of their sites reveals that Basketmaker II people were not yet completely sedentary, but were moving in that direction.
     At this stage, archeological evidence suggests that the beginning of a religious and decision-making structure had already developed. Shamanistic cults existed within these societies, and artistic figures seem to indicate a ceremonial structure as well. The various groups were increasingly linked into larger-scale decision-making entities, adding cohesiveness to the structure of their society.
     By 500 [A.D.], most of the people in northeastern Arizona lived much of the year in one or two places. The nomadic hunting and gathering life was becoming a memory as people began to live in semi-permanent villages. The growing importance of cultivation played a major role in this transformation. As they became agricultural people, this culture group no longer needed to move from place to place in search of food. The moves they made were seasonal rather than cyclic, from a summer homestead to a winter one and back again. These Basketmaker III people were far more rooted to place than their predecessors. Movement became directed at systematic resource use rather than for reasons of exchange and kinship.
     A larger population, changes in climatic regimes, and more sophisticated organizational strategies all supported the changes. Architecture became more sophisticated, enabling the establishment of villages. Pithouse structures, roofed with a four-post support system, became common. These structures included ventilation shafts, hearths, living areas, and room for food storage. Surrounding pithouses were work and activity areas, storage facilities, and other features.
     Systematic agriculture also made a wider range of foods, including more domesticated plants, available. Beans, varieties of squash, corn, and cotton were typical. Amaranth and piņon, both wild resources, were also staples. Basketmaker III people may have kept domesticated turkeys and they hunted rabbits, some small rodents, deer, and antelope. Sedentary living offered a more broad and certain supply of food than did nomadic life.
     During this era, Basketmaker III people began to inhabit the area that would become Navajo National Monument. Subsurface dwellings at Turkey Cave date from this era, and Inscription House may contain similar sites. Yet occupation of the monument area was not yet systematic or widespread.
     By 700 A.D., major changes in the way the people of northeastern Arizona lived were again underway. These mirrored a similar evolution elsewhere in the Southwest. Increasing populations, growing village size, social integration, and more complicated and complex agricultural systems typified this era. Populations spread geographically south of the San Juan River into the Tsegi drainage and on Black Mesa west to Red Lake. Called Pueblo I by archeologists, this phase had levels of technology and the kinds of structures that were common throughout the Southwest. Much above-ground building of masonry storerooms, generally attached to existing pithouses, was typical of the era.
     Within the boundaries of the monument, there is significant evidence of habitation during the Pueblo I phase. Turkey Cave shows remains of this vintage, while Inscription House and Keet Seel may also contain similar evidence. The people of the monument area were clearly Anasazi, but the localized subcultures that characterized later periods had not yet developed.
     After 900 A.D., the uniform population typical of the previous 200 years became more diverse. Smaller, regionally distinct communities began to appear, characterized by three- to five-room Pueblos. The cultural subgroup that came to live in vicinity of the monument had been labeled the Kayenta Anasazi. Village sizes differed as they spread over a larger area. Experiments in the utilization of new environments and resources were common. Extensive agricultural systems and complex trade networks also typified the time period. Trade goods and ceramic technologies proliferated as the forms, size, and variety of pottery and the range of domestic household goods greatly expanded. Surprisingly, the monument area has less evidence of this phase than the times before or after.
     During the 1100s A. D., populations again began to grow after a decline at the end of the Pueblo II phase. As a result, greater experimentation characterized this era. In agriculture and storage, new techniques were introduced as a way to offset the impact of a declining physical environment, increasing population, and loss of some trade partners. A large area northwest of Navajo National Monument was abandoned, as its people retreated toward what is now the monument. This increase in population density spurred technological advance, but placed great strain on the natural resource base of the Pueblo III communities.
     The Tsegi Phase in the 13th century was the pinnacle of Pueblo III civilization. Tsegi phase occupation centered in the area surrounding the monument, with settlements ranging in size from small villages to large communities containing more than one hundred rooms. Even more intense agriculture characterized this phase, with terracing and irrigation common. Yet the level of technology could do little to offset growing population and an increasingly used-up environment. The subsequent decline was swift. The combination of growing population, declining environment, and organizational crisis was too much for the communities, and gradually they pulled back to the south and east, founding new communities in the drainages of major rivers.
     The major ruins in the monument date from the Tsegi Phase, and as such present in detail one moment in the prehistoric past. They show a moment of consolidation between 1250 and 1300 A.D., sustained by the level of technological sophistication previously reached and the ability to work the land to provide subsistence and surplus. Most of the construction within the monument and in the surrounding area occurred in this brief period. Where there were suitable rock shelters, scores of dwellings were constructed. But the last tree-rings in cut timbers date to 1286 A.D., strongly suggesting that both Keet Seel and Betatakin were abandoned soon after.
     The departure of the Kayenta Anasazi most likely had many interrelated causes. A combination of a less bountiful environment and changes in the social structure of the communities played major roles. Geologic and dendrochronological evidence indicates the beginning of an episode of arroyo cutting, which would have destroyed much of the limited agricultural land in the region. An extended drought may have been a causative factor as well. To the people of Tsegi Canyon area, life there seemed tenuous. The agriculture that sustained them ceased to be dependable, and the Kayenta Anasazi appear to have chosen to relocate to places with more stable sources of water. After 1,300 A.D., the Tsegi Canyon area was abandoned until a new group of people settled in the region.
Excerpt and map from:
Navajo National Monument: A Place and Its People
An Administrative History

Hal K. Rothman - 1991
National Park Service
Division of History
Southwest Cultural Resources Center
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Professional Papers No. 40