Humans roamed the Southwest as early as 12,000 BCE. Remnants of the Clovis and Folsom peoples who lived in the region around 8000 BCE have been found at kill sites in New Mexico. These peoples hunted the mammoth and ancient bison. Over the two millennia from 6000 BCE to 4000 BCE, the region’s climate changed and the people, and the animals on which they depended, disappeared. Around 3000 BCE, a desert archaic culture emerged. They were the beneficiaries of maize production that moved north out of Mesoamerica in the second century BCE. These ancient peoples gradually evolved into a more sedentary culture, the Mogollon, which was well established by 300 BCE. The Mogollon were the first in the region to cultivate corn, beans and squash in a systematic manner. To do so, they constructed the first irrigation canals. The Mogollon split into two traditions, the Cochise in the south who would evolve into the Hohokam culture, and the O’Shara tradition that would become the Ancestral Puebloans of the Four Corners region of the Colorado plateau. Drought and soil depletion brought an end to both societies and they dispersed into smaller units and moved nearer to more stable sources of water. This migration to the south formed the pueblos that we know today.
From 1250 to 1540, the typical existence for indigenous peoples in the Southwest consisted of the migration of small groups who would establish villages, work the land until the soil was depleted, then abandon the sites, and restart again in other locations. At the beginning of the 16th century, there were nearly 80,000 Pueblo Indians residing in approximately 134 villages throughout New Mexico and eastern Arizona. While these villages were separate, autonomous entities, a Pueblo culture had emerged with several common characteristics.
At the beginning of the 16th century, the pueblos of the Southwest were comprised of religion-based societies centered on ceremonial activity in the kivas, and supported through gift-giving practices between senior members and junior members. Relations between the sexes were balanced. Men and women had their own forms of wealth and power and their own spheres of action. Societies were matrilineal. Everything associated with home life was the province of women, from caring for children to building and repairing homes, and planting and harvesting crops. Men derived their power from participation in the religious activities of the kiva. In addition men were responsible for “outside” activities, those beyond the realm of the household. Men hunted, went to war, wove cotton into cloth, and maintained peace in the village. Dissention and discord, which divided the village and threatened the existence of everyone, was to be avoided. Above all, harmony was the goal.
Seven languages belonging to four different language groups were spoken in the region. None of the languages was understandable by another. Each village maintained its own administrative officials and governed its own affairs. There was no confederation of pueblos. “Communal” referred to the society within each village, not to the larger, regional congregation of villages. At the beginning of the 16th century, well established, productive, culturally mature, autonomous, indigenous villages predominated. They existed side-by-side, yet separately. After 1500, the entry of two new groups changed those relationships forever.