It is a common misconception that the Anasazi of the Four Corners region
mysteriously "up and disappeared" at the end of the 13th century. While it is
somewhat of a mystery why these people completely abandoned the region
almost simultaneously, it is fairly clear that a mass migration occurred. The
Anasazi who lived primarily in the drainage of the San Juan River moved southeast
into the drainage of the Rio Grande. Here they continued to flourish for
hundreds of years.
One of the early Rio Grande settlements was in Frijoles Canyon in the mountainous region
of northern New Mexico. The area was once volcanic, and the soft lava and ash
eroded into many steep and well-watered "finger" canyons, ideal for human
habitation. Large structures such as the massive Tyuoni Ruin shown top and right
started going up about 1300. The D-shaped structure which has 300 first floor
rooms and may have been three stories high is not unlike the great houses
built in Chaco Canyon hundreds of years before.
Life revolved around the interior plaza: the rooms opened to the inside, and there was only one narrow
passageway from the plaza to the outside. Note the large kiva (ceremonial
chamber) in the foreground adjacent to the path. It is believed that household
units occupied "apartments" which were a row of rooms aligned horizontally
along the central axis, that is, like a spoke on a bicycle wheel.
Farming was productive here given the volcanic soil and plentiful moisture.
Also, game was plentiful in the nearby Jemez Mountains. The canyon was abandoned
in the early 1500's probably due to environmental changes.
The unusual erosion of the volcanic rock ("tuff") allowed for diverse
structures within the canyon. A huge cliff "based" dwelling known as Long
House was built along the wall of Frijoles Canyon. Shown left, the pueblo may
have had over 300 rooms in five separate sections. Note the many holes in
the very soft canyon walls. The small holes were used for wooden support beams.
The larger holes are small caves gouged out by the inhabitants, possibly for
The many natural caves in the area frequently contain small structures or
elaborate pictographs possibly ceremonial in nature. The photo below right
is the large, ceremonial kiva within the Tyuoni Pueblo (shown at top).
There is even a religious shrine, known as the "Stone Lion Shrine" which is used even
today by local Indians. It consists of two crouching lions carved into a volcanic
boulder. The mountain lion has significance to hunters in the Pueblo religion.
The shrine is several miles from the main sites and is accessible by trail.
The monument offers many miles of hiking trails to ruins and sites far in the
backcountry. Unlike many cultural parks, backpacking is permitted. This offers
opportunities to experience some sites in a remote and natural setting and to
get a feel for what it was like to live here.
Below, an example of northern New Mexico autumn foliage.