Zion National Park

Zion National Park
Zion National Park (Jeremy Woodhouse/Photodisc/Getty)

The earliest evidence of people living in what is now Zion National Park dates back to the Archaic period. These people occupied the area from about 7,000 to 2,500 years ago. The area was next inhabited by the prehistoric people of the Virgin Anasazi Pueblo culture until about A.D. 1150. Archaeologists believe that the Southern Paiutes were the last group of American Indians in Zion from approximately A.D. 1100 until the time of European pioneer settlement, which in this area, began in the 1860s. Descendants of each of these three cultural groups still live in the area today.

Remnants of each of these prehistoric and historic settlement periods have been found throughout the park. With your help, these resources will remain intact and available for future generations to enjoy and learn from.

The Paleoindians
No one knows for certain when people first came to North America, but most scholars agree that bands of inhabitants were well established throughout the Americas and in our region about 11,000 years ago. These people, known as Paleoindians, were nomadic or seminomadic hunters and gatherers. At first, they hunted large animals called megafauna (woolly mammoths, camels, elk)—some of which are extinct today due to dramatic climate changes.

As the megafauna became extinct, the people developed what is known as the Archaic Lifeway. The Archaic groups developed a sophisticated knowledge of the land and its resources, and turned to hunting smaller game and gathering wild plant foods. We know little of their mental or spiritual life, but their material culture was very basic. The Archaic Lifeway enabled people to live fairly comfortably in a harsh environment for thousands of years. They were most likely the first visitors to Zion.

The Anasazi
About 2,000 years ago on the Colorado Plateau, from Zion to the Four Corners region, the Archaic Lifeway began to change and develop dramatically, giving rise to the Anasazi culture. This culture was comprised of many people who, though they may have spoken different languages, followed a common lifeway—one that gradually became very different from that of the Archaic peoples.

Though the Anasazi continued to rely heavily on wild foods, they were the first in this region to experiment with agriculture, eventually growing large, irrigated crops of corn, squash, and later, beans. This introduction of agriculture led to many other changes in their lives. No longer bound to a migratory life in search of wild foods, and needing to stay home to tend their crops, the Anasazi began to build more permanent housing. Over the years, their architecture became increasingly complex, from small villages of circular, one-room "pit houses" to large communities of above-ground, multi-storied, stone and masonry complexes. These include many of the "cliff dwellings" known throughout the Four Corners region today.

Their material life changed in other ways, as well. With their possessions no longer limited to what they could carry from place to place, they became excellent potters and makers of fine basketry. Art and religion reached new heights and levels of complexity, as agriculture supported not only larger populations and the division of labor, but also provided more free time to pursue such creative endeavors.

The area that is now Zion National Park is on the extreme west-northwestern fringes of Anasazi territory. Living in an outlying area as they were, away from the major trade and cultural centers of their time, the Anasazi of Zion did not leave behind evidence of extravagant communities, great kivas (religious structures), or large-scale agriculture, at least compared to the Anasazi of the central Four Corners region. Nevertheless, some living structures, food storage cists and granaries, rock art, and other materials (tools, pottery, basketry, clothing) have been found in and around Zion, as evidence of their time here.

The Anasazi left Zion around the year A.D. 1200 and were gone from the entire Four Corners region completely a century later. Many theories exist as to their fate, but it is most likely a combination of environmental and social factors that influenced their move away from the area. Drought, soil loss, overpopulation, the consequent overharvest of wild game and plant resources (including timber, which they used for housing construction and fuel), and perhaps competition from or aggression by neighbors could all have been contributors. In any case, it is generally accepted that the Anasazi dispersed southward to the mountainous areas of what is now central Arizona and New Mexico. Today they are considered part of the ancestral heritage of the Hopi, Zuni, and other Pueblo cultures of the upper Rio Grande.

The Paiute
Following the Anasazi departure, there was not a gap in human occupation here, as the Southern Paiutes moved into this area at about the same time. The Southern Paiute language and lifeway consisted of a dozen or so distinct and separate bands, each of which had a respected territory or area in which they camped, hunted, and gathered seeds. These territories extended from the deserts of California and southern Nevada across Utah and northern Arizona to Colorado. The group most associated with Zion and vicinity is the Kaibab band, whose headquarters today are across the street from nearby Pipe Spring National Monument.

The Paiutes' traditional way of life was a seminomadic one in which wild plants provided the principal source of food. To a lesser extent, the Paiutes also hunted wild animals—deer, antelope, elk, bighorn sheep, and rabbits—and grew a few modest crops of corn, squash, and amaranth. They spent the winters and springs in the lower elevations, where the weather was milder and the wild seeds and fruit first ripened each year, and moved in the summers and falls to the higher elevations, where it was cooler and they could harvest one of the chief staples of their diet, the pinyon pine nut.

Winter, unlike the rest of the year, was a time of little work for the Paiutes, as food was scarce. They subsisted largely on what they had gathered and stored earlier in the year. It was also the one time of year when they would congregate in larger groups, socialize, get married, dance, play games, and tell stories.

Material possessions were few, by our standards, and what the Paiutes did possess was usually either portable or temporary in nature. The Paiutes are famous, however, for their fine basketry, for the hunting nets they used to trap rabbits and other small animals, and for the robes they wove from the pelts of these animals.

Euroamerican Arrival
The Southern Paiutes of Zion and vicinity maintained their traditional way of life for many centuries, and were one of the last native groups to be seriously threatened by the arrival of European peoples on the continent. The reason for this is simple geography: The rugged canyon terrain of this area protected the Paiutes for a long time from the westward expansion of the United States. In the late 1840s, however, the California gold rush and the arrival of Brigham Young and his Mormon followers brought about tremendous change within a very short time. By the 1860s, over a dozen Anglo settlements had been established in this area.

With the Euroamericans came cattle, devastating diseases, and an attitude of "Manifest Destiny" that resulted in the monopolization of scarce water and land resources. Within a single generation the abundant game became scarce because of overhunting, and the native grasses and flowering plants, once so abundant in this area, were destroyed by overgrazing. Paiute populations also suffered from new diseases such as measles, mumps, malaria, cholera, smallpox, and tuberculosis. Some communities lost an estimated 75 percent of their populations to starvation and disease during the time of drastic change. Their traditional culture was further altered by outside attempts to convert the Paiute to new religious beliefs.

Forced to adopt a new lifestyle as a matter of survival, the Southern Paiutes remained in the area, doing domestic chores in Anglo households and working as ranch hands and mine workers. In the early 1900s, some Paiute reservations and colonies were established and, with the return of some of the area's natural resources to the Paiute people, the road back to independence and self-sufficiency began. The Southern Paiutes persevered, and today live in a culture mixed with old ways and new. They remain a vital cultural element of this area.

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