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The Old Look of “New” Mexico (Part Two)


“The silence is so profound that one can almost hear the sands of time shifting.”

Katherine Ware

The quote above by Katherine Ware, curator of photography at the New Mexico Museum of Art, was in reference to the images of the Black Place in a book by Walter W. Nelson. However, it also pertains to ruins of the state’s earliest communities.

So when did the forming of communities begin in New Mexico? And who were the state’s first immigrants, so to speak? In this time of immigrant anxiety, it seems a relevant question.

Archaeologists seem to have concluded that the earliest humans to populate the continent migrated here from Siberia, coming across a land bridge that appeared when the ocean sank in the area of Alaska. The oldest evidence of their descendants’ arrival in New Mexico is in Clovis in the eastern part of the state. Here the artifacts of hunters were found among bison bones dated between 11,630 to 11,040 years ago. For the next chapter of our story, we shift west.


The hunting-gathering era among early residents of the state continued until about 1,000 BC when maize was discovered and prompted an interest in agriculture–and settling. The ancestors of the pueblo people, known as the Anasazi, began to congregate in the northwestern part of the state. (To put 1000 BC into perspective, a calendar of world history identifies this as the time when King David supposedly brought the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments to Jerusalem. At the same time, the use of iron began in Greece, and the Chinese began to use it to create tools and weapons.)

Over the next 2,000 years or so, the Anasazi continued to hunt and gather, but they also began to cultivate squash and beans as well as maize. (These crops became known as “the three sisters.”) In addition, they started to construct dwellings, sometimes in the caves created by volcanic eruptions. In about AD 700, Chaco Canyon became a gathering place.

The allure and the dynamic of this mysterious community is unknown, but it became a “power center.” By AD 900, the people were building compact masonry pueblos. By AD 1030, construction had reportedly reached a “frenzied pace.” By AD 1115, scores of outlying communities had developed. Archaeologists estimate that there were eventually a few thousand people living in Chaco Canyon, with more thousands visiting to trade and attend ceremonial events. And then something happened.

Chaco Canyon

This is known as the “Chaco phenomenon.” We assume that it started with a prolonged drought, possibly lasting as long as 14 years. People may have become malnourished and unwell, lost faith in their religion and leadership, and become competitive and combative. They began to bleed off in various directions, never to return. By AD 1140, the story of Chaco Canyon had come to an end.

A visit there inspires admiration for the Anasazi’s architectural and construction skills and for the complex and thriving community they organized. A walk around in the silence also reminds the visitor, “Things happen.”


Map of Salinas Pueblos

This was also the case with the Salinas Pueblos. Beginning in about AD 600, and 100 years or so before people began to congregate in Chaco Canyon, they gathered in the areas that would be known as Abó, Quarai, and Gran Quivira. They were established in a V-shaped pattern about 100 miles and more south of Santa Fe. A primary resource was salt laid down by a large brackish body of water in the last Ice Age.

The early dwellings were pit homes covered with pole and mud frames, but they evolved into complexes with stone and adobe shared walls. The people learned how to cultivate the three sisters while they continued to hunt rabbits, deer, antelope, and bison. They also learned how to create cloth and blankets from cotton and yucca fiber.

Gradually the pueblos turned into trading centers where salt was an important commodity as well as crops, dried meat, cloth, and blankets. The pueblos thrived, and it is estimated that the population eventually rose to about 10,000. And then again, something happened.

This time, Spaniards were the immigrants. They came searching for gold under Francisco Coronado, and when they couldn’t find it, the Crown decided to send Juan de Oñate to establish a permanent colony here. This was in 1598, and it was the beginning of the end for the Salinas Pueblos.

I have visited the ruins a number of times, and in the silence, as in Ware’s quote, “one can almost hear the sands of time shifting.” I can also imagine the quiet sounds of a community in which people were busy with chores from morning until night.

Quarai Ruins

The missions are so huge that it is hard to imagine how the Franciscan priests suddenly appeared with the authority to command their construction. Of course, it must have derived from the armed Spaniards on horseback at their side. Life would never be the same for the pueblo people.

Their spirituality was banished and Catholicism imposed. The demands of constructing the missions took them from hunting and their crops. The Spaniards came bringing cattle, goats, sheep, fruit trees, grapes and the like but also diseases against which the pueblo people had no resistance.

And then Spain established through its governor the encomienda system of exacting tribute from the people, supposedly in return for education and protection. It was all burdensome, but the final elements of a perfect storm were drought and attacks by raiding Apaches. In the 1670s, the people of the Salinas Valley began to abandon their homes, moving west and south toward El Paso–again, never to return.

Whenever I visit one of these ruins, the piles of stones that were once a part of sturdy walls, missions, and dwellings capture my attention. Tons of these were used to construct the pueblos, but now they are mostly gone, and I wonder what happened to them. In the years before the ruins became protected national monuments, did people gather them up and use them to create new construction?

The potential re-use of the materials is a reminder of the ability to learn from experience, error, and history. The search for gold, as in greed, continues. So does the drive to conquer through military might and/or religion. But no matter how smart and powerful we become, the will of the Earth itself–as Native Americans always knew–is sovereign.

The opportunity to visit these sites and just think about their significance is New Mexico’s gift to those who would like to be agents of change for the better. And as I write this, I realize that I really need to make up a bucket list for further exploration of the wealth of geological and historic learning experiences the state provides.

In my next post, the context will shift to old New Mexico in transition. In the meantime, readers may want to consider adding one or two of these sites to your own bucket list:

Abó, Aztec Ruins near Bloomfield, Bandelier National Monument, Chaco Canon, Gila Cliff Dwellings, Gran Quivira, Jemez National Historic Landmark, Pecos National Historic Park, Quarai, Salmon Ruins

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