The American Indian archaeological record is one of the richest in the world. There are tens of thousands of American Indian sites in the Southwest alone, where the dry climate has preserved a remarkable range of evidence.
Choose from the list or click on the map of archaeological locations to learn about a few of these ancient settlements and cultural sites.
Located in a desert region, Canyonlands National Park contains a maze of deep canyons and many unusual features carved by wind and water, including spires, pinnacles, and arches; surrounding mesas rise more than 7,800 ft (2,377 m). Cataract Canyon, through which the raging waters of the Colorado and Green rivers flow, contains one of the world's largest exposures of red sandstone. Island in the Sky, a plateau overlooking the junction of the Green and Colorado rivers, has walls that drop in giant steps 2,200 ft (671 m) to the canyon floor. Upheaval Dome, pushed upward by the pressure of surrounding rock on underground salt deposits, contains a crater 1 mi (1.6 km) wide and 1,500 ft (457 m) deep. Also found in the park are many Native American petroglyphs drawn on rocks c.1,000 years ago. Bighorn sheep, mule deer, and beaver live in the park.
Navajo National Monument preserves three of the most intact cliff dwellings of the Anasazi. The monument is high on the Shonto Plateau, overlooking the Tsegi Canyon system in the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona.
Tuzigoot is an ancient village or pueblo built by a culture known as the Sinagua. The pueblo consisted of 110 rooms, including two- and three-story structures. The first buildings were built around A.D. 1000. The Sinagua were agriculturalists with trade connections that spanned hundreds of miles. The people left the area around 1400. The site is currently comprised of 42 acres.
Nestled into a limestone recess high above the flood plain of Beaver Creek in the Verde Valley, this site was named by early settlers who believed it had been built by the Aztecs. Early settlers to the area assumed that the imposing structure was associated with the Aztec emperor Montezuma, but the castle was abandoned almost a century before Montezuma was born. The five-story, 20-room cliff dwelling served as a "high-rise apartment building" for prehistoric Sinagua Indians over 600 years ago. With heightened concern over vandalism of fragile southwestern prehistoric sites, Montezuma Castle became a major factor in the nation's historic preservation movement with its proclamation as a national monument. The Castle was described in the December 1906 establishment proclamation as "of the greatest ethnological and scientific interest."
For over a thousand years, prehistoric farmers inhabited much of the present-day state of Arizona. When the first Europeans arrived, all that remained of this ancient culture were the ruins of villages, irrigation canals, and various artifacts. Among these ruins is the Casa Grande, or "Big House," one of the largest and most mysterious prehistoric structures ever built in North America. Casa Grande Ruins, the nation's first archeological preserve, protects the Casa Grande and other archeological sites within its boundaries.
The area contains the ruins of several hundred prehistoric Native American villages, most of them built A.D. 350—1300. The spectacular cliff dwellings include Mummy Cave, with a three-story tower house. Artifacts have been found, and there are numerous pictographs in rock shelters and on cliff faces. The earliest people living in the region were the Basket Makers, predecessors of the Pueblo. The Navajo came to the canyon c.1700 and it became their chief stronghold. In 1805 a Spanish expedition fought the Navajo in a rock shelter (dubbed Massacre Cave) in Canyon del Muerto (site of a prehistoric burial ground). In 1864 a U.S. cavalry force under Kit Carson engaged the Navajo in Canyon de Chelly.
Hovenweep National Monument protects five prehistoric, Puebloan-era villages spread over a 20-mile expanse of mesa tops and canyons along the Utah-Colorado border. The multi-story towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders lead visitors to marvel at the skill and motivation of their builders.
Mesa Verde ("Green Table"), the most notable and best-preserved cliff dwellings and relics in the United States, covers four archaeological periods. From approximately A.D. 600 through A.D. 1300 people lived and flourished in communities throughout the area, eventually building elaborate stone villages in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Today most people call these sheltered villages "cliff dwellings." The cliff dwellings represent the last 75 to 100 years of occupation at Mesa Verde. In the late 1200s within the span of one or two generations, they left their homes and moved away. Twenty-four Native American tribes in the southwest have an ancestral affiliation with the sites at Mesa Verde.
Aztec Ruins National Monument preserves structures and artifacts of ancestral Pueblo people from the 1100s through the 1200s. People associated with Chaco Canyon to the south built and used the structures; people related to the Mesa Verde region to the north used the site in the 1200s.
Chaco Canyon was a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture between A.D. 850 and 1250. It was a hub of ceremony, trade, and administration for the prehistoric Four Corners area. Chaco is remarkable for its monumental public and ceremonial buildings and its distinctive architecture. To construct the buildings, along with the associated Chacoan roads, ramps, dams, and mounds, required a great deal of skillful planning, designing, resource gathering, and construction. The Chacoan people combined pre-planned architectural designs, astronomical alignments, geometry, landscaping, and engineering to create an ancient urban center of spectacular public architecture. The Chacoan cultural sites are part of the sacred homeland of Pueblo Indian peoples of New Mexico, the Hopi Indians of Arizona, and the Navajo Indians of the Southwest.
Petroglyph National Monument stretches 17 miles along Albuquerque's West Mesa, a volcanic basalt escarpment that dominates the city's western horizon. It includes hundreds of archaeological sites and an estimated 25,000 images carved by native peoples and early Spanish settlers. Many of the images are recognizable as animals, people, brands, and crosses; others are more complex, their meaning possibly understood only by the carver.
The Clovis Complex, an archaeological find near Colvis, NM, has provided the unearthing of ancient spearhead remnants.
The artifacts found at the Folsom site, including chipped flint points known as Folsom points and a variety of other stone tools, were found in association with the remains of large mammals, particularly extinct varieties of bison. The remains have been found to date between 9000 B.C. and 8000 B.C. and to occur throughout the Central Plains of North America from Montana to Texas. Like Clovis points, Folsom points show a distinct lengthwise groove (known as fluting) on each face which served to enhance the hafting to spear shafts. Folsom groups were the first known to practice a cooperative type of hunting described as the "surround kill" method, though most hunting seems to have been performed either by lone individuals or small groups.
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site preserves historic and archaeological remnants of the culture and agricultural lifestyle of the Northern Plains Indians. More than 50 archaeological sites over 1,758 acres suggest a possible 8,000-year span of inhabitation, ending with five centuries of Hidatsa earth-lodge village occupation.
Prehistoric mounds are common from the plains of the Midwest to the Atlantic seaboard, but only in this area was there a culture that regularly constructed mounds in the shape of mammals, birds, or reptiles. The monument contains 2,526 acres with 195 mounds, of which 31 are effigies. The others are conical, linear, and compound. Eastern Woodland Indians built mounds from about 500 B.C. until the early European contact period.
The Cahokia Mounds are the largest group of mounds north of Mexico. Monks' Mound, a rectangular, flat-topped earthwork, 100 ft (30.5 m) high with a 17-acre (6.9-hectare) base, is named for Trappist monks who settled there in the early 19th century. The people who constructed the mounds were village dwellers who lived in a fertile river-bottom area; their culture flourished from c.1300 to c.1700.
Located in northeastern Louisiana, Poverty Point National Monument commemorates a culture that thrived during the first and second millennia B.C. This site contains some of the largest prehistoric earthworks in North America.
From about 200 B.C. to A.D. 500, the Ohio River Valley was a focal point of the prehistoric Hopewell culture. The term "Hopewell" describes a broad network of beliefs and practices among different American Indian groups over eastern North America. The culture is characterized by the construction of enclosures made of earthen walls, often built in geometric patterns, and mounds of various shapes. Visible remnants of Hopewell culture are concentrated in the Scioto River valley near present-day Chillicothe, Ohio. Many of these sites were built to a monumental scale, with earthen walls up to 12 feet high outlining geometric figures more than 1,000 feet across.
This group of prehistoric Native American earthworks 60 ft (18 m) high are located near the Etowah River. The 54 acre site includes 7 mounds, borrow pits, a plaza, portions of the original village, and a museum.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2005, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.