Before Mesa Verde

Uncovering the beginnings of the great Pueblo culture of the American Southwest.

The depopulation of the Mesa Verde region of North America in the late thirteenth century A.D. is an iconic event in world prehistory, and understanding the causes and consequences of this large-scale migration has understandably been a focus of archaeological research in the region. An unfortunate consequence of this focus on the late thirteenth century A.D., however, is a surprisingly unclear understanding of how Mesa Verde Pueblo society formed in the first place.

Where did the population of the Mesa Verde region come from? How many people settled in the region and what role did population growth play in the formation of their society? How did they create communities? What was their impact on the environment?

In 2011, the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center is embarking on a new research project to examine early Pueblo community development in the Mesa Verde region. Titled the Basketmaker Communities Project: Early Pueblo Society in the Mesa Verde Region, this new study will shed light on a pivotal, but underinvestigated and poorly understood, time in Pueblo history: the Basketmaker III period (A.D. 500–750). Crow Canyon invites the public to join its staff of researchers in the field and lab to contribute to the Center’s understanding of this important and critical period in Pueblo Indian history.

Pueblo Origins

Long before the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park were built, early Pueblo people were establishing a foothold throughout the Mesa Verde region. (As defined here, the Mesa Verde archaeological region of the American Southwest is an area of just under 10,000 square miles bounded by the Colorado, Piedra, and San Juan rivers.) The time was the Basketmaker III period, which archaeologists date from about A.D. 500 to 750.

This period saw rapid population growth in the Mesa Verde region. Archaeologists believe this growth was largely the result of immigration. Earlier Pueblo peoples had lived mostly along the eastern and western edges of the Mesa Verde region and adjacent areas outside the region. But starting in the sixth century, they apparently began moving into the central Mesa Verde region in large numbers, bringing with them a fully agricultural way of life.

The population boom ushered in an era of great technological advances and social change. Domesticated beans, pottery, and the bow and arrow were all introduced during this time. Farming became increasingly important, with people relying more and more on domesticated crops, especially corn. For most of the period, the climate was very favorable for agriculture, with few droughts, which may have encouraged immigration from adjacent regions with less-favorable conditions.

But the population boom probably brought its own share of problems, too. It is likely that the people moving in from the east and the west spoke different languages, and archaeologists have found evidence of conflict between them during the preceding Basketmaker II period. At this crucial time, it would have been important for people to develop ways to live together.

How did they do it? Archaeologists look at where and how people settled on the landscape for the answer. Most people in the Mesa Verde region during this time lived in small, scattered farmsteads that were home to one, two, or three households, each with its own pithouse and outdoor storage facilities. As the population grew, clusters of these farmsteads began to appear, forming early communities.


Basket made by Basketmaker Pueblo people in Mesa Verde (A.D. 450-750). National Park Service. Public Domain.


Basketmaker III Communities

With the formation of early communities, something else happened–something enormously important to Basketmaker and all future Pueblo societies. For the very first time, the people of the Mesa Verde region began building large, public structures called “great kivas.” These structures appear to have served as the focal points of their communities, providing a place where residents could participate in community-wide ceremonies and other important events.

Archaeologists think that having a special place where everyone in the community could gather might have eased tensions and promoted social unity. If so, it was a strategy that served the Pueblo people reasonably well for the next 700 years, until the hardship and strife of the mid-thirteenth century led to large-scale migrations from the region.

An example of a great kiva at the site of Chetro Keti in Chaco Canyon (New Mexico, U.S.). National Park Service. Public Domain.


Crow Canyon’s Basketmaker Communities Project

Crow Canyon’s Basketmaker Communities Project is a three-year investigation of the largest Basketmaker III community known in the central Mesa Verde region. The centerpiece of the project is the Dillard site, a ceremonial center that dates from the seventh century A.D., and includes a great kiva.

The Dillard site was first recorded in 1991 by Woods Canyon Archaeological Consultants (WCAC) as part of an archaeological survey for the development of a private residential community known as Indian Camp Ranch. The survey revealed the presence of several pithouses, as well as a much larger structure that subsequent WCAC test excavations revealed to be one of the oldest public buildings in the Mesa Verde region: a great kiva approximately 10 meters in diameter and 1 meter deep.

The 1991 survey also revealed that the Dillard site is surrounded by a cluster of more than 120 pithouses dating to the same time period as the Dillard site. The majority of these pithouses have not been obscured by later ancestral Pueblo sites or modern buildings. Thus, the sites Crow Canyon will investigate during the Basketmaker Communities Project are part of the most extensive and best-preserved cluster of Basketmaker III remains in the central Mesa Verde region.


Archaeologists conducting surveys in the Dillard site area. Courtesy Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.


During the three years of fieldwork that are planned for the Basketmaker Communities Project (2011–2013), Crow Canyon will continue its long-term research into community development in the central Mesa Verde region. Two of the most basic questions we hope to answer through our investigations are: When did communities first form in the region; and, what was the nature of the community that surrounded and included the Dillard site?

Specifically, the Center’s research will focus on several important questions:

  • Where did the people who settled in the Mesa Verde region during the Basketmaker III period come from?
  • How much of the rapid expansion of settlement in the Mesa Verde region during the Basketmaker III period was due to immigration? How much was due to in situ population growth?
  • How did ancestral Pueblo people make the transition from a foraging society organized around kinship to an agricultural society organized around community institutions?
  • What was the nature of Basketmaker III communities in the Mesa Verde region, and how do those early communities compare with communities that developed later during the Pueblo I, II, and III periods?
  • Does the extensive cluster of pithouses surrounding the Dillard site reflect occupation by a large number of families over a short period of time or a small number of families over a long period of time?
  • Does variation in pithouse size and elaboration reflect variation in social ranking, household size, or household activities?

Crow Canyon’s excavations will include excavations at the Basketmaker III great kiva known as the Dillard Site and at 8 to 12 smaller Basketmaker III habitation sites spread across Indian Camp Ranch. Excavations at the Dillard site will involve: re-exposing and further documenting a test trench that was excavated through the great kiva in 1991; excavating a stratified random sample of the artifact scatter associated with the great kiva; and excavating several judgmentally selected units within the great kiva.

Many Basketmaker III habitations have been fully excavated over the years, but previous excavations have not emphasized the recovery of comparable data across sites in a settlement cluster, and have not applied statistical sampling techniques that would allow one to estimate the total amount and relative frequencies of artifact types deposited at Basketmaker III habitations. These shortcomings have made it difficult to study Basketmaker III community organization. To remedy this situation, Crow Canyon will be investigating Basketmaker III habitations in the settlement cluster surrounding the Dillard Site, following a consistent sampling strategy.


Archaeologist taking measurements in the Dillard site area.  Courtesy Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.


Public Participation in the Basketmaker Communities Project

The public is encouraged to make a lasting contribution to the understanding of the Basketmaker III period by joining the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center for an archaeology program. At Crow Canyon, adults, families, educators, and students will have the opportunity to work side-by-side with Crow Canyon archaeologists and educators in the field and lab, investigating this pivotal time in Pueblo history.


For more information on the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and its archaeology programs for the public, visit or call 800.422.8975.


Top Cover Photo: Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA. Photo courtesy Tobias at Wikimedia Commons.

Shirley Powell

Dr. Shirley Powell is currently the Vice President of Programs at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. She obtained her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, San Diego, and her master’s and Ph.D. from Arizona State University—all in anthropology. Between 1978 and 1987 she served as principal investigator and director of the Black Mesa Archaeological Project—one of the largest and longest-running archaeological projects conducted in the United States. She was also a professor in the department of anthropology at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, and a resident scholar at the School of American Research, Santa Fe. She has held positions as principal investigator, director, consultant, or coordinator for several archaeological firms and projects. She has authored, coauthored, or edited numerous books, technical reports, chapters in technical reports, and book reviews and has presented at 30 regional and national professional meetings.

In the public service arena, she has served as the development and administration manager for the Montezuma Land Conservancy in Montezuma County, Colorado, and has been both mayor and a planning and zoning commission board member for the town of Dolores, Colorado.