Archaeological Resources

Archeological Resources at Grand Canyon

The oldest human artifacts found are nearly 12,000 years old and date to the Paleo-Indian period. There has been continuous use and occupation of the park since that time.
  • The park has recorded over 4,300 archeological resources with an intensive survey of over 5% of the park area.
  • The park's 11 Traditionally Associated Tribes and historic ethnic groups view management of archeological resources as preservation of their heritage.
  • Archeological remains from the following culture groups are found in Grand Canyon National Park: Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Basketmaker, Ancestral Puebloan (Kayenta and Virgin branches), Cohonina, Cerbat, Pai, Southern Paiute, Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, and Euro-American

Prehistory of Grand Canyon

The earliest known period of occupation, the Paleoindian period, began at approximately 11,500 Before Present (B.P.) and lasted approximately 3,000 years to the end of the last ice age. During this occupation, small, mobile bands of people hunted megafauna such as mountain goats, ground sloth, and bison; and gathered wild plants. Paleoindian sites are extremely rare in the Southwest; one known site has been found within the Grand Canyon.

Around 9,000 years B.P. environmental changes led to the expansion of differing environmental zones across the Southwest. During this environmental expansion, Paleoindians adapted to new environments and developed new subsistence strategies. The descendants of the Paleoindians, known as the Archaic, hunted smaller game and moved seasonally across the landscape to procure seasonal resources across vast territories. Tool kits included atlatls for dart throwing and chipped stone tools and groundstone tools such as metates and manos for plant processing. Archaic sites generally consist of temporary camps, rock art panels, caves, rock shelters, hearths or fire pits, grinding and processing tools, projectile points, flake debitage, animal and plant remains. Archaic sites have been identified throughout Grand Canyon (Fairley et al. 1994).

Experimentation with horticultural subsistence began in the Southwest around 3500 B.P. with the appearance of maize agriculture. Horticultural subsistence strategies still relied heavily on hunting and gathering local resources, though maize, beans, and squash were planted in locations where seasonal flooding allowed for the germination and growth of cultivated plants. With the adoption of a more sedentary lifestyle, storage cists and granaries were used to store surplus supplies and pottery appeared by A.D. 500. The gradual shift to village life is referred to as the Formative Period, lasting from A.D. 500 to 1540 (Neal et al. 1999).

During the Formative Period, the semi-sedentary occupants of Grand Canyon began producing baskets, sandals, and storage features such as slab-lined cists and granaries. This tradition first appears in the Southwest around A.D. 1. The period, often viewed as a transition to agriculture, marks the beginning of horticultural subsistence strategies. Initially, dwellings appeared as shelters in overhangs and caves. By A.D. 500, circular pithouses appear in small aggregates, suggesting the beginning of village life. Pottery appears at this time, often graywares with black painted designs. In eastern Grand Canyon, these occupations have been associated with Cohonina peoples (Schwartz 1969).

The appearance of ceramic vessels, both jars and bowls, seems to be associated with an increase in sedentary lifeways and the development of habitation structures. These structures began with semi-subterranean pithouses and shifted to above ground masonry room blocks or pueblos. The bow and arrow replaced the atlatl, and the geographic region of resource procurement expanded.

A more stable subsistence strategy of combined agriculture and hunting and gathering allowed for the continued aggregation of individuals into small villages or hamlets. Ceramic technology and design styles became more elaborate and new technologies developed, including the use of cotton for textiles. Surface storage rooms developed into above ground habitation structures and later, contiguous pueblos in some locales. By A.D. 900 along the river corridor, Puebloan peoples were cultivating maize, evidenced by the presence of corn pollen on living floors (Schwartz 1969). Both Tusayan Gray Ware and Tusayan White Ware ceramics increased in eastern Grand Canyon, signaling the expansion of the Kayenta Branch from the southeast.

During the later portion of the 10th century, masonry surface pueblos and semi-subterranean kivas appeared. Population growth was gradual, with the addition of single rooms to existing structures that resulted in linear pueblos of two to seven contiguous rooms. Ceramics continued to be dominated by Kayenta wares, with a gradual increase in ceramics from their northern neighbors, the Virgin Branch.

While ceramic styles remained relatively stable, after A. D. 1100 an abrupt change in architecture occurred in eastern Grand Canyon. Habitation structures became more interspersed with storage rooms and bins, fire pits, and increased use of outdoor activity areas (Schwartz 1969). Pottery distributions continued to increase in Virgin Branch styles. Habitation appears to have moved to higher terraces, perhaps to fully exploit regions adjacent to water sources for increased fertile agricultural productivity. According to Schwartz (1969), it appears that rather than population influxes from different indigenous groups, trade connections with the north were more fully developed in conjunction with localized ceramic traditions.

It is believed that by A.D. 1300, semi-nomadic, non-puebloan peoples also occupied the river corridor of Grand Canyon. These Pai and Paiute hunter-gatherers had a stable subsistence economy based on combined agriculture and hunting and gathering, supplemented by trade. Dispersed settlements included wickiup rings, rock shelters, extensive roasting complexes that included ceramics and abundant flake stone tools and debitage. It is also believed that these hunter-gatherers made use of perishables such as baskets, mats, sandals, and twine. These ancestors of the present day Hualapai and Havasupai continued to seasonally utilized both the rim and river corridor until interdiction by the U. S. Government.

In addition to indigenous populations, Europeans also traversed the Grand Canyon. The historic period includes visitation by Spanish Missionaries, mining and tourism entrepreneurs, and more recently, hydroelectric power exploration and production.

The prehistory of the river corridor in Grand Canyon closely follows the sequences of regional occupation and abandonment generally agreed upon by southwestern archaeologists. Localized variation in habitation, construction, and ceramic technologies are to be expected. No doubt the inhabitants of Grand Canyon were influenced by the same climatic changes that occurred across the entire southwest. Archaeologists also assume that population expansion along the river corridor itself was a direct result of population growth along the rims of the Grand Canyon. Because there are only a limited number of entrance and exit points into Grand Canyon, a majority of the sites recorded at permanent water sources and along access routes consist of multiple occupations through time.

Two split-twig figurines made from willow branches bent into the shape of game animals (left - deer and right sheep)

Split-Twig Figurines

  • Some of the most fascinating artifacts found here in the Grand Canyon are split-twig figurines.
  • Each one is made from a single twig, often willow, split down the middle, and then carefully folded into animal shapes.
  • These figurines date from 2,000 to 4,000 years ago and were found in remote caves.
Often they are in the shape of deer or bighorn sheep, sometimes with horns or antlers. Occasionally, they are pierced with another stick, resembling a spear, or are stuffed with artiodactyl dung. Split-twig figurines have been found in dry caves in the Great Basin and on the Colorado Plateau, and were first recognized in the Grand Canyon in 1933.

--While their exact function remains a mystery, recent research suggests that split-twig ----figurines were totems associated with the Late Archaic hunting and gathering culture. Their occurrence in remote, relatively inaccessible uninhabited caves indicates that these figurines were not toys. They are usually found under rock cairns, indicating careful placement.

You may view some of these amazing and ancient figurines at the Tusayan Museum along Desert View Drive (Hwy 64) 3 miles (5 km) west of Desert View.

Archeology Virtual Tour Console

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Grand Canyon Archaeology Virtual Tour

Discover ancient places within the Grand Canyon where people lived long ago.

What did the archaeologists find during the first major excavation to occur along the Colorado River corridor in nearly 40 years? Interactive 360° photos, show archaeologists at work, along with their tools, such as shovels, trowels, screens and buckets.
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Discover ancient places within Grand Canyon where people lived long ago. What did the archeologists find during theses major excavations along the Colorado River ?


Related Information

Grand Canyon National Park Archeological Resources

The River Monitoring Program
generates data regarding the effects of Dam operations on historic properties, identifies ongoing impacts to historic properties within the APE [Area of Potential Effect], and develops and implements remedial measures for treating historic properties subject to damage.
Archeological Excavations at 9 Sites along the Colorado River Corridor
Between 2007 and 2009, the National Park Service, in cooperation with the Museum of Northern Arizona, undertook the first major archeological excavations along the river in Grand Canyon National Park in 40 years.
Archeologists Make Exciting Discoveries Along the Colorado River
In October, 2007, archeologists excavated a habitation site along the Colorado River. The fascinating artifacts they found provide insight into the lives of people who once made the Grand Canyon their home.

Canyon Sketches Vol 03 - May 2008
Archeologists Excavate Kiva by the Colorado River
Archeologists excavated nine archeological sites along the Colorado River because they are being impacted by severe erosion. In April and May 2008, crews discovered a complete kiva during the excavation of one of these sites.

Canyon Sketches Vol 09 - March 2009
Archeologists Excavate Two Sites Along the Colorado River.
In fall 2008, archeologists excavated two archeological sites during a three-year project along the Colorado River corridor in Grand Canyon. One of the excavated sites has evidence of as many as six different human occupations over a time span of 3,500 years.

The Vanishing Treasures Program
Grand Canyon National Park is one of 45 National Park Service areas that participate in the Vanishing Treasures Program. The goal of the Vanishing Treasures program is the conservation of architectural remains through research, documentation, and preservation treatment.

Canyon Sketches Vol 04 – June 2008
Vanishing Treasures Archeologists Stabilize Transept Ruin (North Rim)
In late June 2008, archeologists from Grand Canyon National Park’s Division of Science and Resource Management cleaned and stabilized Transept Ruin, a two-room ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) ruin on the North Rim.

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2 minutes, 46 seconds

Located three miles west of Desert View, Tusayan Ruin provides a look into the lives of the ancestral Puebloan people who called Grand Canyon "home" 800 years ago.

Prehistoric granaries along the Colorado River
Grand Canyon's Associated Tribes

Learn more about Grand Canyon' associated tribes on Arizona State University's Nature, Culture, and History at Grand Canyon website.

A stone building.
Visit the Tusayan Ruins and Museum

Visit the 800-year-old ancestral Puebloan site and learn about the people who called this place home.

Last updated: July 30, 2020

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Grand Canyon, AZ 86023



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