Mesa Verde, the rugged mesa country 40 miles northwest. This second group remodeled buildings and completed others begun earlier, largely retaining the original building plans, but using masonry techniques and building styles characteristic of Mesa Verde. They, like their predecessors, used the area for a few generations and moved on, leaving behind well preserved structures that tell of their lives in this region. Today many Southwestern Indians are their descendants, maintaining strong cultural and spiritual ties to this site.
It is the river that makes this land hospitable. Rising in the San Juan Mountains to the north, the Animas flows year round across the plains of northwestern New Mexico. Near Aztec it runs through a slender Valley lush with cottonwoods and willows. Farmers have long made a good living raising crops In the valley’s fertile bottomlands.
The earliest farmers were ancestors to many Southwestern Indians today. For many years archeologists called the ancient people of the Colorado Plateau "Anasazi," a word originating with the Navajo language. Today, Pueblo people prefer the term "Ancestral Pueblo” to describe their ancestors.
Long before they began living on this site, scores of their stone pueblos, large and small, dotted the drainages and terraces of the lower valley. Sometime late in the 11th century, a group began constructing a large community on rising ground overlooking the river. This community consisted of several great houses, tri-walled kivas, small residential pueblos, earthworks, roads, and great kivas.
By 1111, the people began collecting wood from distant sources to build the largest great house on the site, now known as the West Ruin. They erected most of the building within a decade. This structure resembled the great houses built at Chaco half a century earlier. It consisted of about 400 interconnected rooms on three levels and numerous kivas, including a great kiva in the plaza used for community-wide ceremonies. The massive walls consisted of a core of unshaped stones and mud mortar sandwiched between dressed sandstone exteriors.
The settlement prospered for several decades as an administrative, trade, and ceremonial center. But by 1160 activity diminished as the Chacoan social and economic system waned. An extended drought that set in about 1130 may have contributed to the decline.
About 1200 the area saw renewed activity. People resumed the building effort begun almost a century earlier. While they left some structures unused, they remodeled others by adding new rooms, sealing doorways, altering kivas, and repairing masonry and roofs. Nearby they constructed another great house - now known as the East Ruin - on the foundation laid out by the earlier builders. They carried on Mesa Verde ways In pottery and tufts and traded their wares over wide area.
The site continued as a community center for perhaps a century before the population of the area again began to decline. By 1300 the people had moved from Aztec as well as the entire San Juan Basin. Why the people left Is not clear. This was a time of population shifts in the Southwest. Perhaps It was drought, perhaps depletion of resources. Whatever it was, they made their way southeast to the better watered country of the Rio Grande and south and west into Arizona, where their descendants, the Pueblo Indians, live today. They have not forgotten the site, however. Many Southwestern tribes maintain deep spiritual and cultural ties to the area through their tribal migration stories and clan histories. They continue to visit and care for the site, paying respect to their ancestors and a place they consider sacred.