Farming Has a Long History in the West


The mysterious cliff dwellings in the American southwest are fascinating places. They are historical registers that teach us just a little of ancient times, of people who were farming here long before Columbus.  The people who lived here are the true founders of American agriculture.

Montezuma’s Castle, south of Flagstaff AZ

Some of these dwellings are very remote. A few, however, are much easier to visit. The place we call Montezuma’s Castle, and Tuzigoot nearby, are both just off the freeway between Phoenix and Flagstaff. It’s not remote, but it is fascinating nonetheless.

We don’t know much about these early Americans. Even their names are our creation, not theirs. What little information we have about them is teased out of the history seen in the rocks and cliff houses. Hundreds of miles of early irrigation canals still remain from their time; and dozens of well-packed roads attests to the importance of trade between the communities.

These traces of the past have led to a lot of conclusions and inferences about these people. Our conclusions may or may not be right – they are subject to revision. We used to call these people the Anasazi. Now we have other names, but we still don’t know what they called themselves.


We do believe that they were cautious people, living in well-protected homes in cliff faces and on mountain tops. Getting to and from work was a major chore. They had to climb down a precariously placed ladder and hike down just to get water or to hunt or work their fields. Their main crop was corn but they also grew squash and beans.

Ancient dwelling (800 years old) at Wupatki, Arizona
Ancient dwelling (800 years old) at Wupatki, Arizona,

The Anasazi sun-dried their vegetables to preserve them. some were stone-ground, using a metate. Seeds were parched in hot coals and ground into meal. Pine nuts were ground into a paste. Corn was ground to make corn meal. these foods were stored in large pits, often sealed in baskets or pottery, the remains of which we can still find.

These people seem to have vanished. Some people think maybe there was a long and deadly drought, or perhaps a brutal war that caused these cliff dwellers to abandon their mountain homes and scatter to unknown territory. Some of the local indigenous tribes believe the people that some still call Anasazi have not disappeared at all; they are the forebears of the people in the pueblo communities still found in the southwest. We just don’t know. It’s part of the mystery of the southwest.


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