Many centuries before the dawn of the Christian Era, roving bands of Old World hunters were already crossing the icebound waters of Bering Strait to the uninhabited North American continent. Some of these early groups undoubtedly reached the Southwest, for, in such localities as Folsom, New Mexico, Gypsum Cave, Nevada, and the Lindenmeier site in Colorado, their chipped points and other artifacts have been found in association with the bones of prehistoric bison, camels, sloths, mastodons, and other animals. These early comers did not possess a highly developed culture. They knew the arts of stone chipping and fire making and, possibly, used spears propelled by the atlatl (a notched stick used to increase the velocity of a hurled spear), employed bone awls for piercing and sewing skins, and owned domesticated dogs. They had no pottery or agriculture; nor did they, as far as is known, have any form of permanent habitation other than natural caves.
The earlier inhabitants of Utah were probably a group comparable in most respects with those whose artifacts are found in other parts of the Southwest. So far little information concerning them has come to light. Caves along the shore line of Great Salt Lake's predecessor, Lake Bonneville, have yielded objects the antiquity of which extends back several thousand years, although they were not necessarily left by the first human inhabitants of Utah. Flint points, knives, bone awls, and flint scrapers attest the presence of primitive hunters.
About the time of Christ, the inhabitants of the San Juan, Paria, Virgin, and Kanab river valleys began to raise corn. This marked the beginning of the long development of a culture known as the Anasazi (Navaho, the Ancients), which was distributed over northern Arizona and New Mexico, southwestern Colorado, southern Utah and Nevada, and southeastern California. The earlier phase of the Anasazi is called Basketmaker and the later Pueblo, which developed without a break into the period of the modern Pueblo peoples of Arizona and New Mexico.
The development of agriculture imposed a semi-sedentary mode of existence upon the people who practiced it. From this period of their history comes the first accurate knowledge of the dwellers of southern Utah and other parts of the San Juan basin. Permanent houses seem not yet to have come into use, but excavated in the floors of caves are found slab-lined bins, sometimes with a superstructure of pole and adobe construction. These apparently served as storage places for grain and occasionally as burial places for the dead. These people made coiled baskets, twined woven bags, ropes, woven sandals and robes, game snares, and long nets for catching small animals. The men probably wore small loin cloths while the women wore short apron-like skirts. Weapons were curved clubs, stone knives, and spears propelled by atlatls. The bow was unknown. Agriculture was carried on with wooden digging sticks. Pottery, in the form of crude, unfired, undecorated vessels reinforced with cedar bast (strong woody fiber obtained from tree bark), was attempted. This period was characterized by a rather simple culture. Although the Basketmakers understood agriculture, they still depended to a large extent upon wild vegetable foods and products of the chase. Virtually nothing is known of the inhabitants of central and northern Utah who were contemporaneous with the Basketmaker people.
As time passed the people of the Southwest improved their mode of life. The storage cists (used especially for sacred utensils) were enlarged and improved until they took the form of semi-subterranean dwelling places. These pit houses and slab houses, as they are called, were constructed in excavations from one to five feet in depth. Sometimes four posts were set up at some distance inside the pit and their tops connected by horizontal beams. Slanting walls of pole and adobe construction connected the beams with the periphery of the pit. The flat roof of the same construction was provided with a smoke hole which, in some houses, also served as an entrance. The completed dwelling, having perhaps also a side entrance, must have looked somewhat like a small mound of earth. In other types of house the roof was a simple cone of pole and adobe construction with the base extending to the edge of the pit. The other important development in this period, designated as Basketmaker III or as Modified Basketmaker, was in the ceramic arts. These were improved with the invention of fired pottery sometimes painted with crude black designs on a gray background.