The Ancestral Pueblo Homes of Bandelier

Trip Start Apr 30, 2010
Trip End Sep 05, 2010

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Flag of United States  , New Mexico
Monday, May 10, 2010

After our tour of Santa Fe, we headed Northwest to visit Bandelier National Monument. Bandelier holds some of the most incredible displays of Ancestral Pueblan dwellings. The Ancestral Puebloans built unfathomable 'apartments' into the towering walls of the Frijoles Canyon cliffs – some of the housing units were several stories tall, and multiple extended families would live in the adjoining apartments. We arrived late in the day, so we didn’t have too much time, but we were able to walk around the Main Loop for about2.5 miles and see some significant sites.

The location that is now called Bandelier National Monument dates back about 10,000 years. Initially, the first people who inhabited the area were more nomadic but gradually settled and became more sedentary. These people, the Ancestral Pueblo, descendants of those first hunters and gatherers have occupied not only the Frijoles Canyon but various sites around the Four Corners region (where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet). Indeed, the modern Pueblo still live in these areas.

The earliest homes were "pit houses", built partly underground. Gradually, the homes and household tools became more permanent. Houses were above ground, built first with adobe and later stone plastered with mud. Pottery replaced baskets as more sturdy and practical for a permanent home use. Homes became villages, and when populations in the Pajarito Plateau (area around the Bandelier) peaked in the 1300s, some villages or Pueblos, contained as many as 1000 or 1500 rooms – though a more average size was around 150 to 500 rooms.

As we walked along the trail, we saw a typical example of one such community, the Tyuonyi village ruins. Tyuonyi is one of the few such villages that has been excavated for viewing, most are left untouched in respect of the Pueblo ancestors. In the Tyuonyi, we could see a “kiva”, an underground structure that was the centre of the community, important for religious ceremonies as well as education and community decision-making. The kiva would have had a hard-plastered mud roof (which would have needed to support the weight of people walking overhead) with an entrance hole and ladder to enter inside. The main entrance would have let out smoke from fires inside, while ventilation holes allowed fresh air to circulate in.

Not far from the village are the cave dwellings – and these are absolutely mind-blowing, carved right out of the cliffs that tower over the canyon. The whole Bandelier site is set in the Pajarito (“little bird”) Plateau, 400 square miles in area and created by two enormous eruptions of the Jemez Volcano a million years ago. The volcano (14 miles away!) spewed enough volcanic material to coat the entire Pajarito area with ash up to a thousand feet thick. As it hardened over many years, it turned into a crumbly rock called “tuff” – which became prime building material for the Ancestral Pueblo people.

The cliff dwellings are hand carved multi-storied caves, and they really stir your imagination when you see them. The Puebloans would have used stone tools to chip away at the tuff, enlarging naturally occurring holes in the cliff to create larger, interconnecting chambers. Extended families would live together in these apartments which would have space for storage, for sleeping as well as its own kiva. Some of the dwellings have ladders, and you are allowed to climb up and inside of them, but given the sensitive nature of the tuff, most are off limits except to your zoom lens.


Matt and I both made the multi-ladder, 140 foot climb into Alcove House and explored the caves a bit – they remind you of your dream fort as a kid, and it’s amazing to imagine that these were really people’s homes. Bandelier was a great experience! We also enjoyed the winding drive out of the park towards Jemez Springs - many elk and deer grazing on the side of the road, and a gorgeous sunset in the mountains.

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