Kivas of the Ancestral Puebloans of the American Southwest

Smaller kiva at Chaco Culture NHP

There are many excellent parks in the American Southwest that preserve a series of ancient Native American ruins. These sites are in a range of places, from remote parts of the desert, inside a gap in a cliff face, and in the mountains. Most of the sites were settled and lived in by the Ancient Puebloans, relatives of the people of the modern-day pueblos, such as the Hopi, Zuni and Jemez. Many of these sites share obvious similarities, but one of the most striking to me are the kivas.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

Kivas were central and sacred to the lives of the clans who built them. Some of the earliest kivas discovered have been above ground, but the majority are located underground. The round, dug-out kivas seen in the above picture of the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park are quite common. They are lacking the roof, which was made of wood with a square entrance way on top, which also allowed the smoke from ceremonial fires to exit the kiva.

Great Kiva, Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Kivas also ranged in size. The above Great Kiva from Chaco Culure National Historic Park, is an example of one of the largest kivas known. It was likely the central point for village life- a place where most of the religious ceremonies would take place.

Pecos NHP

Most kivas, however, were places of personal, or small group worship, such as the ones seen in the picture from Mesa Verde, or the picture shown above from Pecos National Historic Park. 

Outside the reconstructed Kiva at Aztec Ruins NHP

A reconstructed kiva is the highlight of any visit to Aztec Ruins National Monument. The name ‘Aztec Ruins’ is misleading, since the site was never populated by the Aztecs, instead, it was given the name because the first people to discover the site incorrectly attributed the ruins to the Aztecs.
Even this well-done reconstruction comes with some caveats, the most important one being no modern scientist has ever witnessed the people who built them actually use them, since the ancient Puebloans had moved on almost 400 years before the first Europeans descended on the Southwest. 

Still, the uses of kivas has been a widely studied subject, both by archaeologists and anthropologists. For me personally, I thought the reconstructed kiva has a ‘spiritual’ feel to it, especially the way the light entered the kiva. I though it was very similar to the lighting in many of the world’s great churches and cathedrals. 

Seeing kivas up close today gives visitors to these parks a unique perspective into the lives of the inhabitants of these villages, even though they were last used for religious purposes hundreds of years ago. 

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