The Pueblo III Migrations

Why did the Pueblo Indians who migrated from the Mesa Verde region in the late A.D. 1200s move to different places?

We will never know for sure. But it's possible that, when the Pueblo people left the Mesa Verde region and migrated to destinations in Arizona and New Mexico, they were returning to different ancestral homelands, the memories of which had been kept alive through their oral histories.

Language may be the key to understanding what happened, but we have to go all the way back to Archaic and Basketmaker II times to unravel the clues.

Remember, some Archaic peoples had migrated into the area from Arizona; others were already living throughout the Colorado Plateau, including places in northern New Mexico. Archaeologists think that by 500 B.C. these two groups of Archaic peoples, who probably spoke different languages, gave rise to the Western and Eastern Basketmaker II peoples, who also likely spoke different languages.

During the Basketmaker III period, the eastern and western groups came together in the central Mesa Verde region. For the next 700 years, until the late Pueblo III period, it appears that the various Pueblo peoples of the Mesa Verde region lived together relatively successfully. But things began to change during the mid-1200s. Archaeological evidence suggests that population growth, climate change, and food shortages may have led to increased social strife, which in turn probably contributed to the Pueblo migration from the area. We know the Pueblo people left the Mesa Verde region by the late 1200s, migrating to the northern Rio Grande valley in north-central New Mexico, to areas in west-central New Mexico near the Arizona border, and to northern Arizona.

Today, the Pueblo Indians who live in these areas share "Pueblo" architecture and other cultural traits, but they speak several different languages: Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, Keres, Hopi, and Zuñi. These multiple languages might be evidence of diverse ancient origins, and, indeed, the various Pueblo groups today view themselves as distinct peoples. Yet, significantly, many have oral histories that describe their ancestral ties to the Mesa Verde region.

Could it be that, during the 1,800 years that Pueblo peoples lived in the Mesa Verde region, they maintained their sense of distinctiveness, including their different languages and their ties to different ancestral homelands in Arizona and New Mexico—ties that dated from the Archaic period? If so, the migration of Pueblo peoples from the region during the late Pueblo III period might be interpreted as a return to those ancient homelands, distant but never forgotten.