Taos Pueblo: Evoking the Story of Ancestral Puebloans for 1000 Years
North and South America had their own civilizations which flourished in pre-Columbian times. The western hemisphere’s population before the 15th century is estimated at about 100 million people. Unfortunately, most of these cultures have been lost or irreversibly altered by interaction with Western European culture. There is one case, however, that comes close - Taos Pueblo, the oldest continuously inhabited Puebloan settlement. Although it has some alterations, this site in New Mexico remains relatively unchanged since the days of the Ancestral Puebloans, still retaining native architectural styles and religious traditions.
Traditional architecture at Taos Pueblo. (Teresa Griego/Taos Pueblo)
Early History of Taos Pueblo
Taos Pueblo was first settled at some point in the 13th or 14th century, when the Ancestral Puebloans began to migrate into the area from the north in response to a drought that began about 1130 AD. This drought led to the abandonment of sites like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. The already marginal and arid climate of the region was rendered even more inhospitable by the drought and those locations were unable to sustain the relatively large population centers which had previously existed in the region.
The Ancestral Puebloans left the cliff towns of Mesa Verde and the quasi-urban center and pilgrimage site of Chaco Canyon to live in dispersed villages and hamlets or pueblos. The Pueblo peoples were in this mode of living when the Spaniards first encountered Taos Pueblo around 1541.
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South Pueblo, Taos Indian Pueblo. New Mexico. (Public Domain)
In 1610, Santa Fe was made the territorial capital of Spanish New Mexico, and the Taos Pueblo officially came under Spanish rule. Spanish missionaries had already begun the process of evangelizing the natives. The earliest church was built in the pueblo around 1600. Catholicism remains strong in the pueblo today and a modern Catholic church, San Geronimo Catholic Church, replaced the earlier church.
Front view of entrance, "Church, Taos Pueblo National Historic Landmark, New Mexico, 1942". (Public Domain)
Taos Pueblo’s Traditional Religion and Architecture
Although Catholicism is strong, native Puebloan religious traditions have survived. The inhabitants of Taos Pueblo consider the nearby Blue Lake sacred and the source of all life. Blue Lake is also economically important as one of the few permanent water sources in the area. The people of Taos Pueblo also consider the nearby Taos Mountain to be sacred and they still make ceremonial visits to its summit.
Ceremonial Kivas, Taos Pueblo, in a pre-1923 postcard. (Public Domain)
The architecture of Taos Pueblo is also very traditional. There are some modern doors and windows, but for the most part the pueblo has not changed in 1000 years. As late as 1900, the lower rooms and interior of the pueblos were still accessed using ladders that could be retracted as protection against invaders.
The use of ladders is still seen in Taos Pueblo. (Melissa Hall/Taos Pueblo)
The local population has done much to preserve their cultural heritage and the traditional character of the pueblo. For example, electrical grids and water pipes are not allowed in the interior part of the pueblo enclosed by walls, since this would upset the traditional construction. Possibly because of this, some inhabitants also have homes outside of the pueblo. Nonetheless, the pueblo continues to thrive as a remnant the indigenous peoples of New Mexico’s ancestral ways.
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Another Important Site Built by Ancestral Puebloans
Before the building of the Taos Pueblo, the Ancestral Puebloans were constructing irrigation canals and astronomically aligned monuments, for which they would later become famous. Chaco Canyon is one such example of this emerging social complexity, which makes the Ancestral Puebloans and their descendants who built towns such as Taos Pueblo interesting for the development of civilization in North America.
Archaeological evidence shows that Chaco Canyon was a site of ritual feasting. At the center of many Ancestral Puebloan settlements were “great houses” which appear to have religious significance. Each of these great houses was connected by ritual paths - all of which led to Chaco Canyon. Archaeologists who study this site believe it was the home for a ritual elite who exerted enough influence over the population to allow for the construction of monumental sites such as the Chaco complex, which is aligned with sun rise and set on the spring and autumn equinoxes. This would have taken a lot of time and studying by the Chacoan priests.
A digital model of ancient Pueblo Bonito (Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, United States) before it was abandoned. (Public Domain)
This all shows that the culture of the Ancestral Puebloans was advanced and perhaps on the verge of becoming a true civilization on par with ancient Egypt or the Mesoamerican cultures further south (which we know had notable influence on the cultures of the American Southwest.) The desert civilization did not come to full bloom, however, and it collapsed after severe droughts in the 12th and 13th centuries. The culture nonetheless lives on in one form at Taos Pueblo.
Historical photo of Taos Pueblo. (Taos Pueblo)
Top Image: Taos Pueblo. New Mexico, USA. Source: Elisa.rolle/CC BY SA 3.0
By Caleb Strom
“Taos Pueblo.” World Heritage List (UNESCO). Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/492
Woosley, Anne I. Taos Archeology. Vol. 13. Fort Bergwin Research Center, Southern Methodist
“Pueblo De Taos” (2010). National Geographic. Available at: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/world-heritage/pueblo-de-taos/
“History.” Taos Pueblo: over 1000 Years of Tradition. Available at: http://taospueblo.com/history/
“Taos Blue Lake.” Indigenous Religious Traditions. Available at: http://sites.coloradocollege.edu/indigenoustraditions/sacred-lands/taos-blue-lake/