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Ancient Peoples of New Mexico

By Robert Torrez

New Mexico's history began long before the first Europeans set foot in the Americas. In fact, New Mexico's unique environment, which contains six of the world's seven life zones, first attracted human beings and then persuaded them to remain in this area over 12,000 years ago. The earliest prehistoric residents are known as Clovis Man, named after a distinctive projectile point found near present day Clovis in eastern New Mexico.

These ancient peoples are believed to have emigrated across the Bering Strait from Siberia many thousands of years ago as they followed migrations of now extinct mammoth, bison, and early ancestors of the camel and horse. When the most recent ice age retreated north, these nomadic hunters remained in the Southwest and began to adapt to a greater dependence on plant foods for their survival. Prehistoric sites such as those found at Folsum in northern New Mexico, Sandia Cave along the Rio Grande, and Burnett Cave west of Carlsbad all document the precarious nature of early human life in this region.

During the early centuries of the Christian era, three principal agricultural cultures—the Anasazi, Mogollon, and Hohokam—developed in the Southwest. All of these peoples cultivated and nurtured plants, especially corn, beans, and squash which had been introduced from Mexico at an earlier period.

The Hohokam are ancestors of the tribes that currently live in present day southern Arizona. The other two cultures, however, are of particular importance to New Mexico. The Anasazi inhabited much of northwest New Mexico, southwest Colorado, southeast Utah, and northeast Arizona—the region we now call The Four Corners. They left us the magnificent ruins at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Aztec, and Frijoles Canyon as examples of their extraordinary cultural achievements.

The Mogollon were located along much of the Arizona/New Mexico border. The Mimbres culture, a branch of the Mogollon, produced some of the finest examples of prehistoric pottery ever made. The principal legacy of the Anasazi and Mogollon, however, comes from their role as ancestors of the Indian groups which the Spanish called the Pueblos.

By 400 A.D., most of the population in what is now western New Mexico had begun to settle into villages located along cultivated river drainages. In addition to hunting and gathering of wild food stuffs to supplement their diets, these peoples also began to develop distinctive styles of baskets and pottery.

After 500 A.D., settlements within the western two thirds of the state became more densely populated. Housing became more complex, with construction of towns consisting of hundreds of rooms along with specialized ceremonial structures known as kivas. Regional differences in architecture and ceramics became more pronounced as reliance on agriculture intensified and elaborate trade networks developed throughout the southwest.

Then, quite suddenly, vast areas of New Mexico were abandoned. Between 1100 and 1300, many apparently prosperous and elaborate pueblos, such as Chaco Canyon, were deserted. The reasons for this calamity are not yet fully understood, but it is generally believed that a prolonged drought during the thirteenth century along with other population pressures on the environment were significant factors.

The peoples who abandoned these ancient sites relocated along the Rio Grande and its tributaries, as well as to the Acoma and Zuni regions of western New Mexico. Only the Hopi persisted in their ancestral Anasazi homeland, where they continue to farm a region which has no permanent rivers.

It was these consolidated agricultural communities that the Spanish conquistadores encountered when they extended their search for the golden cities of Cibola to the region of the New World we now know as New Mexico. However, these villages, which the Spanish called Pueblos, were not the only Indian societies they found in the region.

Less than a century before the Spanish arrived in New Mexico, several groups of Southern Athapaskan peoples had begun the process of establishing themselves along the periphery of the Rio Grande Valley and its tributaries. These bison-hunting nomads began their migrations from west central Canada about 1000 years ago and are the ancestors of New Mexico's Navajo and Apachean-speaking tribes.

Shortly after the Spanish arrived in New Mexico, the Navajo established themselves principally to the northwest of the Rio Grande, while the Jicarilla Apache were located mostly in northeast New Mexico. Their Western Apache brethren, the Chiricahua and Mescalero, migrated farther west and south into eastern Arizona and southwest New Mexico.

When Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his expedition ventured into New Mexico in 1540, they did not find gold or much other mineral wealth. Instead, they continued the process of encounter and mutual discovery begun by Columbus less than fifty years before. At Zuni and Acoma and along the Rio Grande and its tributaries, the Spanish encountered people who lived in multi storied cities and cultivated the land. Further into the interior of this vast unknown frontier, they encountered nomadic societies which followed the migration of immense herds of strange cattle like beasts with enormous humps.

We can only imagine what these indigenous peoples thought of the white-skinned men who rode astride unfamiliar creatures wearing uncomfortable-looking clothes that reflected the sun, these aggressive and often rude men who carried weapons made of steel and who persisted in looking for cities where a bright yellow metal could be found. It must have been a frightening, yet wonderful encounter. Little did either of these two diverse cultures know that their worlds would never be the same.