New Mexico: Bandelier National Monument

Reconstructed in 1920, the Talus House is a  traditional Ancestral Pueblo home.
Reconstructed in 1920, the Talus House is a traditional Ancestral Pueblo home.

Courtesy of the National Park Service through Bandelier National Monument's Flickr

In 1880, anthropologist Adolph F.A. Bandelier traveled to New Mexico to study and trace the traditions and history of the region’s indigenous peoples. During his visit, he lived and worked among numerous American Indian communities, including the Cochiti Pueblo. Here, Bandelier met Jose Montoya who, along with other Cochiti Pueblo Indians, took him to New Mexico’s Pajarito Plateau to show him the Cochiti Pueblo people’s ancestral lands. Amazed by the distinctive cave-room architecture on the base of Frijoles Canyon, Bandelier centered his studies on the archeological sites of Pajarito Plateau--a region he believed offered great insight into what Ancestral Pueblo life was like in pre-colonial times. His work became the foundation for southwestern archeology, and highlighted the importance of preserving the Pueblo peoples’ ancestral homes. Named in his honor, Bandelier National Monument continues to protect the dwellings and homeland of the Ancestral Pueblo, whose traditions and history are a fundamental part of Pueblo culture today.  

Initially, the ancestors of the present day Pueblo Indians were nomadic hunters and gatherers who traveled across canyons according to the migration patterns of the region’s wildlife. By the end of the 12th century, the Ancestral Pueblo began to settle in and around the Frijoles Canyon of New Mexico’s Pajarito Plateau, where they lived for approximately 400 years. During this time, their nomadic lifestyle changed, transforming their hunting and gathering society into one of the most advanced farming communities of the American Southwest.

Although farming in the desert proved challenging, the Ancestral Pueblo Indians developed different agricultural techniques that allowed them to grow the crops that helped sustain their community. Known as dry farming, this practice consisted of using pumice, a volcanic rock that could absorb liquids and release them over time. The pumice acted as a sponge, which allowed the Ancestral Pueblo to conserve water and keep the soil moist in the arid climate of New Mexico. With the help of pumice, other tools, and additional water conserving techniques such as terracing and check dams, they successfully grew corn, beans, and squash in their community in what is today Bandelier National Monument.

Known to the Pueblo Indians as the “three sisters,” these staple crops were ideal for dry farming since corn can tolerate the sun and protect other low growing crops that need shade from the sun in order to thrive. Maize, beans, and squash were easy to farm in the desert and fulfilled many of the natives’ nutritional needs by providing a good source of protein. Although the Ancestral Pueblo depended on agriculture to sustain their community, they continued to hunt deer, rabbits, and birds to complement their diet. Instead of moving their community according to the migration patterns of their food as they had done earlier, they brought the animals and plants they hunted and gathered during their outings back to their villages.

The Ancestral Pueblo also had other animals in the Bandelier community such as domesticated dogs, which served as companions; and turkeys, which they valued for their feathers. A skilled people, they ingeniously wove turkey feathers with twisted yucca fibers to make warm blankets for the winter and cultivated cotton to make their clothes. They were also skilled in pottery making, which continues to be one of the most important elements of the Pueblo culture today. The Ancestral Pueblo made pottery that served for cooking, storing, serving, and carrying water or food; the pottery also served as a means for artistic expression. Members of the Pueblo culture are still known for painting pottery with elaborate designs.

Recognized for the unique design of their homes, the Ancestral Pueblo used volcanic tuff, a soft rock they could easily break into blocks to build their homes and Kivas (subterranean structures used for religious ceremonies) on the ground floor of the Frijoles Canyon. They also lived in cavates, which were rooms the people carved along the base of the canyon wall. Still visible today, these dwellings highlight the architectural skills of the Ancestral Pueblo and demonstrate how they evolved from being a nomadic people into the settled community at Bandelier.

The community residing on the present site of Bandelier was not the only Pueblo community living on the Pajarito Plateau. By 1325, as the numbers in their population increased, the Ancestral Pueblo began expanding beyond Frijoles Canyon. Across the Pajarito Plateau, a network of foot trails linked numerous Pueblo villages, allowing the Ancestral Pueblo to trade goods, participate in religious rituals, and meet for social gatherings with their neighboring kin. They also used the trails of the Pajarito Plateau to reach hunting grounds and other regions where they could gather resources to sustain their communities.

As the population increased, the Ancestral Pueblo began exhausting their resources, and by the beginning of the 1500s, they left the Pajarito Plateau to join the six thriving communities of the nearby Rio Grande. Still present today, the Rio Grande Pueblos of Cochiti, San Idelfonso, Santo Domingo, Santa Clara, San Felipe, and Zuni are home to the descendants of the Ancestral Pueblo Indians. Together, these six communities continue to have strong ties to Bandelier, practicing old traditions, and working closely with National Park Service staff to ensure that their ancestral lands and culture are preserved.

At Bandelier National Monument today, tourists may begin their visit by walking on the Main Loop Trail, which goes from the visitor center to the excavated dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo at the base of Frijoles Canyon. Ladders allow visitors to climb into the cavates. The Main Loop Trail passes through the different sites, including the Big Kiva, Tyuonyi, Talus House, and Long House. Hiking, camping, backpacking, and picnicking are all activities visitors can enjoy in Bandelier.

Bandelier National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 15 Entrance Road in Los Alamos, NM. Click for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The visitor center is open from 9:00am to 5:30pm during the spring and fall, 9:00am to 4:30pm during the winter, and 8:00am to 6:00pm in the summer. The park and visitor center are open daily, except on Christmas and New Year’s Day. All park trails are open for recreation from dawn to dusk. There is an admission fee. For more information, visit the National Park Service Bandelier National Monument website or call 505-672-3861.

Two structures at Bandelier National Monument have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey: the Kiva and Ceremonial Cave. Bandelier National Monument is also featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary. Visit the National Park Service Virtual Museum Exhibit on Bandelier National Monument Museum Collections and the National Park Service Teaching with Museum Collections lesson plan on Bandelier National Monument.

Last updated: August 8, 2017