At least from the time of Jesus, and for possibly 1,500 years before, the Ancient Ones occupied a huge chunk of mostly arid and barren real estate in the Four Corners Area of the American Southwest where four modern states – Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah – join at one point. Many 19th century archaeologists believed that the Ancient Ones disappeared after they abandoned major cities like Mesa Verde and Chaco near the end of the 13th century. Now, we know that they didn’t just vanish into thin air, but migrated to the Río Grande Valley, Hopi, Zuni, Acoma and other pueblos in Arizona and New Mexico. (See the SW Cultures Map). In fact, modern scientists have extended the historical timeline of the Ancestral Puebloans to at least 1700 and, often, right up to the present to encompass the modern Puebloan descendants of the Ancient Ones.
Scattered throughout the immense area once occupied by the Cliff Dwellers are hundreds of thousands of sites, ranging from caves and individual campsites in the open to multi-story adobe pueblos and magnificent cliff-side stone cities. Most of the major sites are within the boundaries of national or state parks and monuments. On the following pages we deal mostly with such major sites since they are generally more accessible and better maintained.
The area of primary Cliff Dweller occupation, as shown on the SW Cultures Map, overlaps with areas occupied by other ancient Southwest cultures, including the Mogollon, Hohokam and Hakataya. In the following pages we focus on the purer, non-overlapping part of the Ancestral Puebloans territory, bounded on the south by a line running roughly from Flagstaff, Arizona, to a point about 50 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Modern archaeologists break this area of Ancestral Puebloan cultural influence into six distinct districts or regions: Chaco, Northern San Juan, Kayenta, Virgin Kayenta, Cíbola and Río Grande. (See the Ancient Sites map).
The Chaco Region is located in the northwest corner of New Mexico and centered on Chaco Canyon, the area of probably the highest level of societal and cultural development of all the Ancestral Puebloan regions. (See the Chaco Region Map).
Included in the Chaco Region are the following major Cliff Dweller sites:
- Aztec Ruins National Monument, near Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield, New Mexico
- Chaco Culture National Historic Park (including Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl), south of Farmington, New Mexico
- El Malpais National Monument, south of Grants, New Mexico
Northern San Juan (Mesa Verde) Region
The Northern San Juan Region, sometimes called the Mesa Verde Region, occupies the southwestern corner of Colorado and the southeastern corner of Utah. (See the Northern San Juan Region Map). Included in this region are America’s best-known Ancestral Puebloan ruins at Mesa Verde.
Included in or near the Northern San Juan Region are Ancestral Puebloan sites at:
- Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah
- Canyonlands National Park, near Moab, Utah
- Cedar Mesa Area, near Blanding, Utah
- Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, near Chimney Rock, Colorado
- Dominguez and Escalante Pueblos, at the BLM Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores, Colorado
- Edge of the Cedars State Park, near Blanding, Utah
- Grand Gulch Primitive Area, near Blanding, Utah
- Hovenweep National Monument, near Blanding, Utah
- Lowry Pueblo Ruins, near Pleasant View, Colorado
- Mesa Verde National Park, near Cortez, Colorado
- Natural Bridges National Monument, near Blanding, Utah
- Newspaper Rock State Monument, near Monticello, Utah
- Three Kiva Pueblo, near Moab, Utah
- Ute Mountain Tribal Park, near Cortez, Colorado
- Yellow Jacket Pueblo Ruins, near Pleasantville, Colorado
- Yucca House National Monument, near Cortez, Colorado
Largest of the Cliff Dweller regions, Kayenta spreads across northern Arizona into southern Utah and northwestern Colorado. Some researchers identify the western part of the Kayenta Region as the Virgin Kayenta. The Virgin subregion stretches from the midpoint on the Utah-Arizona border west to a point about 40 or 50 miles into Nevada. Bounded by the Grand Canyon on the south, the area is named for the Virgin River, which originates in southwestern Utah and joins the Colorado River in Nevada. (See the Virgin Kayenta Region Map and the Kayenta Region Map).
Included in or near the Kayenta Region are Cliff Dweller sites at:
- Canyon De Chelly National Monument, near Grants, New Mexico
- Capitol Reef National Park, near Torrey, Utah
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, near Ticaboo, Utah
- Holol’ovi Ruins State Park, near Winslow, Arizona
- Navajo National Monument (including Betatakin, Keet Seel and Inscription House), near Kayenta, Arizona
- Petrified Forest National Park, near Holbrook, Arizona
Straddling the Arizona-Utah state border at a point in line with Winslow, Arizona, on the west and Albuquerque, New Mexico, on the east, Cíbola is by far the smallest of the Ancestral Puebloan regions. Centered on the existing Zuni Indian Reservation, it includes El Morro National Monument, which contains the remains of Ancient Ones culture. (See the Cíbola Region Map).
Included in the Cíbola Region are:
- El Morro National Monument and Inscription Rock, east of Zuni, New Mexico
- Ruins in and around the Zuni Pueblo and Indian Reservation, including Hawikuh, Halona (now Zuni) and Heshotauthla
Río Grande Region
Seventy to eighty miles wide and straddling the river for which it is named, the Río Grande Region lies entirely in New Mexico. It reaches from a point about 25 miles south of the Colorado border to a point about 50 miles south of Albuquerque. (See the Río Grande Region Map) With the exception of Hopi, Zuni, Acoma and Laguna, it encompasses the majority of the present day homes of Puebloan descendants, including the 14 Río Grande pueblos.
Though ancient Southwestern peoples occupied the region for millennia, most of the major Cliff Dweller sites in this region are newer than those in other regions. Among the major sites are:
- Bandelier National Monument, near Los Alamos
- Coronado State Monument, near Bernalillo
- Pecos National Historical Park, near Santa Fe
- Petroglyph National Monument, near Albuquerque
- Puye Cliff Dwellings, near Española
- Salinas Pueblo Missions, near Mountainair