There is evidence that Native Americans have inhabited New Mexico for over 2,500 years. Early ancestral Indians lived for centuries as hunter-gatherers throughout the Southwest. About 1,500 years ago some of these groups, commonly referred to today as the Anasazi, began practicing agriculture and established permanent settlements, which are now known as pueblos.
Other groups, like the ancestors of the Navajo and Apache, continued their nomadic lifestyles. For some New Mexican tribes, this way of life continued until well into the 19th century. But that’s not the whole story. Explore the rich history of New Mexico's Native American culture by visiting these monuments.
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Stretching along the Animas River and situated on a high plateau in the foothill of the Rocky Mountains near Aztec, NM is the Aztec Ruins National Monument. Still considered sacred by many Southwestern tribes, the site provides visitors an intimate opportunity to explore the ancient Puebloan “great house” known as West Ruin. A self-guided, half-mile walk weaves through rooms built centuries ago. Discover skillful stone masonry, remarkably well-preserved wood roofing and original mortar in some walls. At the trail's end, visitors enter the Great Kiva, a large semi-subterranean structure that was the central social and religious site of this ancient complex. Now reconstructed, Aztec Ruins' Great Kiva is the oldest and largest building of its kind.
Bandelier National Monument
Los Alamos, NM
Hundreds of Anasazi cliff houses and pueblo-style dwellings lay scattered across the Pajarito Plateau of northern New Mexico near Los Alamos, NM. 70 miles of trails provide access to these ancient archaeological sites, including the cliff dwellings and Tyuonyi village of Frijoles Canyon. Tsankawi, a separate section of the monument 11 miles north of the main entrance, protects an unexcavated archaeological site, cave dwellings, and many petroglyphs. Sightseeing, trail hiking, backpacking, bird watching, camping, and picnicking areas are available. Bandelier has a long human history and links to the modern Pueblos. At Bandelier, evidence of the Ancestral Pueblo people can be found in the dwellings, artifacts and the continuing culture of the modern pueblos. Self-guided and ranger-led tours are available. Backcountry hiking permits can be obtained at the Visitor Center.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Located nearby Nageezi, NM, Chaco Canyon was an important Anasazi cultural center from about 900 through 1130 A.D. About 30 ancient masonry buildings, containing hundreds of rooms each, attest to Chaco's importance. Some structures are thought to serve as astronomical observatories or calendars. Archaeologists discovered jewelry made from Mexican and Californian materials in ancient trash heaps. Large well-constructed roadways thought to be built for pilgrims, subjects, or traders, lead from sites 50 miles away to the center of Chaco Canyon. In a very real sense, all roads lead to Chaco.
While we appreciate most national parks for their present beauty, we appreciate Chaco for its past. It is an environmentally harsh place — hot and dry in the summer, cold and dry in the winter — nearly a desert. Though there is substantial evidence that the Anasazi farmed here, they had to use many dry farming techniques to support themselves. Some archaeologists question whether Chaco Canyon supported itself, or whether outside farming sites sent supplemental food.
There is no written record of the Chacoans. Most of what we know about them relies on inference and circumstantial evidence. Almost everything about Chaco is shrouded in mystery. Its structures are huge and its former importance is clear, but we know little about it. Archaeology and speculation rule here. Chaco is a park for the mind.
El Morro National Monument
A reliable waterhole hidden at its base made El Morro, also known as Inscription Rock, a popular campsite. Beginning in the late 1500s, Spanish, and later, Americans passed by El Morro. While they rested in its shade and drank from the pool, many carved their signatures, dates and messages. Before the Spanish, ancestral Puebloans who lived on top of the bluff more than 700 years ago inscribed petroglyphs. Today, El Morro National Monument protects over 2,000 inscriptions and petroglyphs, as well as ancestral Puebloan ruins.
Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument
Silver City, NM
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument offers a glimpse of the homes and lives of the people of the Mogollon culture who lived in the Gila Wilderness from the 1280s through the early 1300s. The surroundings probably look today very much like they did when the cliff dwellings were inhabited. The monument is surrounded by the Gila National Forest and lies at the edge of the Gila Wilderness, the nation's first designated wilderness area. This designation means that roads or other evidence of human presence will not alter the wilderness character of the area. Hiking in the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness areas is a popular activity in the area. There are also several popular hot springs nearby. The closest, Lightfeather, is a twenty-minute walk from the Visitor Center. The most popular is Jordan, a 6- or 8-mile hike from the Visitor Center, depending upon the trailhead used.
Petroglyph National Monument
Petroglyph National Monument protects a variety of cultural and natural resources including volcanoes, archeological sites and an estimated 20,000 carved images. Many of the images are recognizable as animals, people, brands and crosses; others are more complex. These images are inseparable from the cultural landscape, the spirits of the people who created, and who appreciate them. The United States Park Service and the City of Albuquerque jointly manage the fascinating ancient Indian rock drawings, called petroglyphs, preserved in this monument. Call Friends of the Albuquerque Petroglyphs for a park status update.
Three Rivers Petroglyph Site
The Three Rivers Petroglyphs Site is one of the few locations in the Southwest set aside solely because of its rock art. It is also one of the few sites giving visitors such direct access to petroglyphs with over 20,000 petroglyphs dating from 900 AD to 1400 AD. The number and concentration of petroglyphs here make it one of the largest and most interesting petroglyph sites in the Desert Southwest. Petroglyphs at Three Rivers were created by Jornada Mogollon people between about 900 and 1400 AD. A short interpretative trail 200 yards south of the petroglyphs leads to the remains of the Mogollon village, whose inhabitants were likely responsible for the petroglyphs. The site, which was partially excavated in 1976, was occupied for about 400 years. Foundations of three types of prehistoric buildings can be seen here.
Village of the Great Kivas
Zuni Pueblo, NM
Village of the Great Kivas is one of the main archeological sites illustrating the development of Zuni culture, along with Yellow House, Kechipbowa and Hawihuh. Village of the Great Kivas is prized for its impressive array of petroglyphs and pictographs. This site is listed on the State Register of Cultural Properties and the National Register of Historic Places. A kiva is a room used by modern Puebloans for religious rituals, many of them associated with the kachina belief system. Among the modern Hopi and most other Pueblo peoples, kivas are square-walled, aboveground and used for spiritual ceremonies.
As cultural changes occurred, particularly during the Pueblo III period between 1150 and 1300, kivas continued to have a prominent place in the community. Kiva architecture became more elaborate, with tower kivas and great kivas incorporating specialized floor features. In some larger communities, it was normal to find one kiva for each five or six rooms used as residences. Kiva destruction, primarily by burning, has been seen as a strong archaeological indicator of conflict and warfare among people of the Southwest during this period.