A couple of years ago when I was working on a book entitled, “Mysteries and Legends of Nevada,” I compiled a list of some of the most enduring and unexplained stories about the Silver State.
Naturally one of those mysteries was what ever happened to the Anasazi — among the earliest inhabitants in Nevada — who just seemed to disappear from the southeastern part of the state about 800 years ago.
At the peak of their civilization, which is thought to have been 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, thousands of Anasazi — although no one is quite sure what they actually called themselves—lived along the banks of the Virgin and Muddy rivers in Southern Nevada.
The Anasazi were so sophisticated that they developed permanent settlements, including the Pueblo villages built in cliffs throughout Arizona and Colorado, learned how to cultivate a variety of crops and mined minerals such as salt.
About 800 years ago, however, the Anasazi mysteriously departed from their northernmost villages, including those in Nevada. Scholar David Roberts has written in National Geographic magazine that the Anasazi abandoned every site northwest of a diagonal line drawn between Flagstaff, Arizona, and Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
Roberts hypothesizes that a combination of factors contributed to the Anasazi retreat, including the rise of a new religion—an early version of the Pueblo Indians’ kachina beliefs.
Roberts believes that the Anasazi of places like Nevada were drawn south from their homeland to the pueblos of New Mexico by the kachina religion, which encouraged communal living—particularly attractive in the harsh Southwest where drought and famine were common.
Today, their descendents are believed to be the members of the various Pueblo tribes in New Mexico and Colorado.
In Nevada, a number of petroglyph sites are the primary reminders of the Anasazi period. In several places throughout the state, such as the Valley of Fire and Rainbow Canyon in Southern Nevada, you can find the rock writing that appears to be the Anasazi’s only written language.
Although the writings, which are carved in stone, have never been translated, some archaeologists speculate that they may have related to either hunting rituals or have had religious significance.
One of the best places to learn more about the Anasazi is the Lost City Museum, which is located in the small town of Overton, at the north end of Lake Mead.
The main part of the museum is housed in a sun-dried, adobe brick building that was erected in 1935 by the National Park Service to exhibit artifacts discovered in Nevada. The museum was turned over to the state of Nevada in 1953 and expanded in 1973 and 1981.
The last expansion, called the Faye Perkins Wing, was built atop an actual Pueblo foundation that was excavated in 1935. This archaeological site has been reconstructed in such as way as to depict the way archaeologists work at a historic location.
The name, Lost City, was coined in the 1930s by the media, which was fascinated by the discovery of a forgotten prehistoric Indian community. Archaeologist M.R. Harrington, who supervised the initial excavation in 1924, however, named the site “Pueblo Grande de Nevada,” because of its great size.
Many of the artifacts in the museum were collected during excavations of the area in the 1920s and 1930s. Since then, additional excavations on the banks of the lake have yielded additional information and materials.
The Lost City site has provided valuable information about the Anasazi’s transition from a nomadic desert tribe, before the time of Christ, to a more sophisticated society that built permanent settlements and planted crops.
Displays in the museum illustrate the history of the Anasazi. For instance, the earliest residents, called the “Basketmakers,” generally lived in open areas or natural shelters and created fine woven baskets from the local willows and yucca plants. Their diet consisted of plants and hunted game, like deer and rabbits, brought down with the use of an atlatl.
Later, during the Late Basketmaker period, the people began using a bow and arrow, planting crops and building pithouses in the valley.
That was followed by the Pueblo period, during which the people began living in above ground buildings with underground storage units. It was during this time, that the Indians began producing painted pottery and developed a social structure, religious practices, trade and crude writing.
On the museum grounds, you can find several Pueblo-type structures, made of wattle and daub, which have been reconstructed on the original foundations. There is also a replica of a pithouse, which was a covered underground dwelling.
Exhibits display hundreds of arrowheads, baskets, atlatl (or throwing spears), skins and pottery. Additionally, one wing of the museum includes a re-creation of an ancient Anasazi village site.
In addition to displays about the Anasazi, the museum also contains exhibits detailing the earliest white settlers in the area, starting with Mormon farmers, who began cultivating the area in the 1860s.
The Lost City Museum is located on State Route 169 in Overton, about 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas. The museum is open Thursday through Sunday from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. For more information, call 702-397-2193 or go to http://museums.nevadaculture.org.
Richard Moreno has a passion for Nevada, its towns and people.