Arizona: Navajo National Monument

Betatakin Cliff Dwellings with grinding stone
Betatakin Cliff Dwellings with grinding stones in the foreground at Navajo National Monument.

Courtesy of rscottjones on Flickr

The Hopi, San Juan Southern Paiute, Zuni, and Navajo Indians all trace their ancestors to Navajo National Monument. Called the Ancestral Pueblo, these ancient people constructed Betatakin, Keet Seel, and Inscription House--the three major cliff dwellings located within the park. The Ancestral Puebloans occupied these pueblos for a relatively short time, leaving behind very few clues as to why they left, but considerable evidence about how they lived.

Though the first residents of the Colorado Plateau in Arizona arrived approximately 10,000 years ago, these first peoples were primarily nomadic. Starting around 6000 BC, however, the population of the area grew, and by 500 BC, the cultivation of crops began, as did the organized practice of religion. Agriculture reshaped living patterns and foodways as these early peoples began to settle in fixed places longer. While they were still comparatively mobile, they tended agricultural crops, which required that they reside at least part of the year in one area, often living in caves.

Archeologists believe that approximately a thousand years later, in 500 AD, residents of the region still shifted residences seasonally, alternating primarily between two locations based on the food or water resources at each location. To house increasingly fixed populations, the design and layout of dwellings became more sophisticated. Communities formed as the Ancestral Puebloans constructed groups of buildings together. Population growth around 900 AD caused small, distinct, regional groups to break off from larger communities. One of these breakaway groups was the Kayenta Anasazi, the ancestral Hopi.

Developing a settled, sedentary agricultural life using the farming of corn and other crops to supplement their diets throughout the year, the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned the need to travel constantly to hunt for food. With growing success at producing a surplus of drought-resistant crops and an expanding trade network, the communities in the area grew and established the cliff dwellings visible today. By 1100 AD, however, it was difficult to sustain this growth. In the early 1200s, settlement within the park declined because the land could no longer support the population, possibly because of drought. While most of the pueblos at Navajo National Monument show great architectural sophistication in comparison to the pithouses from earlier settlement groups, they also represent the waning years for the settlement as a whole.

Visitors to the park can hike to two Ancestral Puebloan villages from the 1200s, Betatakin and Keet Seel, where it is possible to get a sense of what life in the American Southwest was like more than 700 years ago. Visitors will also be albe to enter the ruins to experience them firsthand.

The pueblos the Ancestral Puebloans constructed generally had three types of spaces--living, storage, and ceremonial. The ceremonial spaces are usually called kivas. Villages were most often of the plaza, courtyard, or pithouse variety. Plaza sites had a long central room surrounded by residential or storage areas with other rooms present but opposite an open plaza. Villages of the plaza type mixed the building traditions of a number of cultures together reflecting the variety of cultural influences in the region. Courtyard sites, which had no standard form, often used interior open courtyards between rooms as kivas. Defensive walls fortified these settlements, protecting the somewhat loosely knit groups of inhabitants. Pithouse villages were often built close to the land used for farming and were quite spread out. One reason for the variability in construction patterns was the challenging environment of the canyon. Water was then, as it is now, a precious commodity; prolonged or unexpected drought led to crop failures that could cause family groups to migrate away from even the most established communities in search of better land or resources.

Called Talastima by the Hopi, Betatakin was a village built after 1250 AD. Though there is evidence that previous groups had lived in the cave at Betatakin, the Ancestral Pueblo rebuilt existing structures rather than reusing them. The pueblo at Betatakin has about 135 rooms and relatively few kivas, which is surprising given that Ancestral Puebloan dwellings usually had ceremonial spaces. Also located at a previously occupied site, Keet Seel dates from between 900 and 1170 AD and most likely took the form of a courtyard settlement. The pueblo at Keet Seel had 154 rooms with spaces for storage, living, and worship. When visiting Betatakin or Keet Seel, note how the physical geography required that each pueblo be fit to the site. The shape of each cave determines the presence of courtyard or plaza sites, for example.

Betatakin and Keet Seel were not occupied for long periods. The village at Betatakin was used only between 1250 and 1300, while the larger pueblo village at Keet Seel was largely abandoned around 1300 AD. Beyond the caves that shelter these two villages are smaller Ancestral Pueblo buildings and sites. Perhaps a climactic change, like the drought mentioned above, caused this area to become uninhabitable or perhaps strained personal relations drove the Ancestral Pueblo away to be absorbed into other groups in the Southwest. Before leaving, they constructed the impressive pueblo villages visible today and left behind finely crafted pottery and other artifacts. In addition to intricately decorated pottery frequently decorated with geometric patterns, the Ancestral Pueblo also created textiles with similar patterns. After the abandonment of the area, the canyon was empty until roughly 1400-1500 AD when the Navajo arrived just about the same time as the Spanish explorers.

The Hopi have deep ties to the area, and the Navajo reservation surrounds the pueblos. The lands of Navajo National Monument are equally important to the San Juan Southern Paiute and Zuni. The San Juan Southern Paiute, neighbors to the Navajo and Hopi, have used the land as a hunting ground and to grow food. Zuni tradition recognizes the caves and canyons of Navajo National Monument as having been part of the Zuni migration to the Grand Canyon. The area is important to the cultural identity of a number of peoples.

Navajo National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located at the end of State Highway 564 in Shonto, AZ. Click here for National Register of Historic Places registration file: text and photos. The park and visitor center are open daily, with seasonal hours. For more information, visit the National Park Service Navaho National Monument website or call 928-672-2700.

Keet Seel has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. All three of the main cliff dwellings at Navajo National Monument are featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary.