People have lived in the San Juan River basin for thousands of years.
The Ancestral Puebloans (also known as the Anasazi) were the first humans to establish permanent communities in San Juan country, building small pit houses at first, then larger, multi-room cliff dwellings, and in some locations multi-story great houses. By 1300 A.D., the Ancestral Puebloans had vanished from the area, and the Navajo (Diné), Paiute, and Ute people moved in some years later.
Archeologists believe the first permanent settlements in the area now known as Bluff were established around 650 A.D. See Bluff’s Deep History to learn more. Due to the dry climate, remoteness, and protection afforded by cave-like recesses in canyon walls, the areas in and around Bluff contain hundreds of archeological sites, many of them quite well preserved.
It’s easy to fall under the spell of canyon country and become a “Southwest Geek”. These folks return year after year, most often in the spring and fall, drawn by the beauty of the red rocks and the lure of a a ruin and rock art ramble.
Easily accessible sites such as River House Ruin, Butler Wash Ruin, Mule Canyon Ruin and Edge of the Cedars Ruin are maintained by a government entity and have been stabilized. Many other ruins and rock art panels are accessible via a short hike.
Hiking the area with a knowledgeable guide is highly recommended (See Guides and Outfitters). Many area guides have spent decades hiking the canyons and are able enrich your experience by answering archeology questions and detailing subtle features missed by most laypeople. Guidebooks are available for those who want to go it alone.
Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloan?
You may have heard the ancient Indians of this area referred to as Anasazi, a term adopted by archeologists. Anasazi is the Anglicized form of a Navajo word and is loosely translated as “ancient ancestor” or even “ancient enemy.”
Use of the term Anasazi is controversial among modern day Puebloan Indians of Arizona and New Mexico who still live in adobe and stone villages and are considered to be descendants of the ancient ones. Ancestral Puebloan is the newer term now used to refer to the ancient ancestors of contemporary Puebloan Indians.
Extensive Archeological Record in the Immediate Bluff Area
In the immediate Bluff area, archeologists have excavated a Basketmaker site, an 8 acre Pueblo I site, and the Pueblo III Bluff Great House. Rock art from as early as the Archaic period can be viewed at the Sand Island petroglyph panel approximately 4 miles outside of Bluff on the San Juan River.
Archeologists believe a mammoth engraving from 11,000 – 13,000 years ago may be on a petroglyph panel on the San Juan River within a few miles of Bluff. And, a PaleoIndian, Clovis site has been documented at a site less than 12 miles from Bluff.