About 1,400 years ago, long before Europeans explored North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region – where today Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet – chose what is now called Mesa Verde for their home. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late A.D. 1200s, in the span of a generation or two, they disappeared.
Today on America’s National Parks, Mesa Verde, a spectacular reminder of this ancient culture – and so much more.
While Europe was trudging through the Middle Ages, blissfully unaware of the New World, Indigenous Americans were living and thriving, but we know strikingly little about them. Archeologists have called these people Anasazi, from a Navajo word sometimes translated as “the ancient ones” or “ancient enemies.” We now call them the Ancestral Pueblo people, reflecting their modern descendants.
History of Mesa Verde and the Ancestral Pueblo People:
The first people settled in Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) about A.D. 550. They are known as Basketmakers for their skill at the craft. Formerly nomadic, they were beginning to lead a more settled way of life. Farming replaced hunting and gathering as their main livelihood.
They lived in pithouses clustered into small villages usually built on mesa tops but sometimes in cliff recesses. They learned to make pottery and acquired the bow and arrow, a more efficient weapon for hunting than the spear. These were fairly prosperous times for the Basketmakers, and their population multiplied. About A.D. 750 they began building houses above ground, with upright walls made of poles and mud. They built the houses one against another in long, curving rows, often with a pithouse or two in front. Pithouses would later evolve into ceremonial kivas.) From here on, we know them as Pueblo people, a Spanish word meaning “village dwellers.”
By A.D. 1000 the people of Mesa Verde had advanced from pole-and-adobe construction to skillful stone masonry. Walls of thick, double-coursed stone often rose two or three stories high and were joined together into units of 50 rooms or more. Pottery also changed, from simple designs on a dull gray background to black drawings on a white background. Farming accounted for more of their diet than before, and much of the mesa-top land was cleared for agriculture. Between A.D. 1100 and A.D. 1300, the population may have reached several thousand, mostly concentrated in compact villages of many rooms, often with the kivas built inside the enclosing walls rather than out in the open.
Basket artifacts show evidence of decline in quality during this time, possibly because widespread use of pottery meant less attention to the craft. And people began to move back into the cliff alcoves that sheltered their ancestors centuries before. Why? We don’t know. Perhaps it was for defense; perhaps it was for religious reasons; perhaps alcoves offered better protection from the elements. Whatever the reason, it gave rise to the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is most famous.
Ever since local cowboys first reported the cliff dwellings in the 1880s, archeologists have sought to understand these people’s lives. But despite decades of excavation, analysis, classification, and comparison, scientific knowledge remains sketchy. We will never know the whole story: they left no written records and much that was important in their lives has perished. Yet for all their silence, these structures speak with a certain eloquence. They tell of a people adept at building, artistic in their crafts, and skillful at making a living from a difficult land.
The structures are evidence of a society that, over centuries, accumulated skills and traditions and passed them on from generation to generation. Their accomplishments in community living and the arts rank among the finest expressions of human culture in North America. Using nature to advantage, they built their dwellings beneath the overhanging cliffs. Their basic construction material was sandstone that they shaped into rectangular blocks about the size of a loaf of bread. The mortar between the blocks was a mix of mud and water. Rooms averaged about six feet by eight feet, space enough for two or three persons. Isolated rooms in the rear and on the upper levels were generally used for storing crops.
Underground kivas were built in front of the rooms. The kiva roofs created open courtyards where many daily routines took place. Fires built in summer were mainly for cooking. In winter, when the alcove rooms were damp and uncomfortable, fires probably burned throughout the village. Smoke-blackened walls and ceilings, visible today, are reminders of the biting cold these people lived with for several months each year. T
They spent much of their time getting food, even in the best years. They were farmers, but they supplemented their crops of beans, corn, and squash by gathering wild plants and hunting deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other game.
Fortunately for us, they tossed their trash close by the cliff dwellings. Scraps of food, broken pottery, and tools—anything not wanted—went down the slope in front of their homes. Much of what we know about daily life here comes from these garbage heaps.
The turkey was important in their economy—providing food, feathers used in weaving, and bones used for tools. Several generations probably lived together as a household. Each family occupied several rooms and built additional rooms as the family grew. Several related families constituted a clan.
Ancestral Pueblo people did not have metal but used materials available from their environment. They made tools for grinding, cutting, pounding, chopping, perforating, scraping, polishing, and weaving from stone, bone, and wood. They used digging sticks for farming, stone axes for clearing land, bows, and arrows for hunting, and sharp-edged stones for cutting. They ground corn on stone slabs and made wooden spindles for weaving. They fashioned awls for sewing and scrapers for working animal hides from bone. They usually made their stone tools from stream cobbles rather than the soft, cliff sandstone.
Mesa Verde’s economy was more complex than you might suppose. Even in a small farming community, some individuals undoubtedly had more skill than others at weaving, leatherworking or making pottery, arrow points, jewelry, baskets, sandals, or other specialized articles. Their efficiency gave them a surplus, which they shared or traded with neighbors. This exchange went on between communities, too. Seashells from the Pacific coast and turquoise, pottery, and cotton from the south made their way to Mesa Verde. They were passed along from village to village or carried by traders on foot over far-flung networks of trails.
Ancestral Pueblo people lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. By about A.D. 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted. Several theories offer reasons for their migration. We know that the last quarter of the A.D. 1200s saw drought and crop failures—but these people had survived earlier droughts. Maybe after hundreds of years of intensive use the land and its resources—soils, forests, and animals—were depleted. Perhaps there were social and political problems, and the people simply looked for new opportunities elsewhere.
When the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde left, they traveled south into New Mexico and Arizona, settling among their kin who were already there. Whatever may have happened, some of today’s Pueblo people, and maybe other tribes, are descendants of the Ancestral Pueblo people of Mesa Verde.
Visiting Mesa Verde National Park:
Today, Mesa Verde National Park preserves several of these historic cliff dwellings, and usually, you can take ranger-led tours through several of them. Tours that often require you to climb rustic ladders. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a wonderful experience. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings can only be viewed from overlooks and trails. But it’s still well worth it to go. As with most National Parks that are known for one thing – there’s actually a lot more to Mesa Verde. The scenic drive is stunning, guiding you to several vast overlooks for glorious vistas and sunsets. And the hiking trails are fantastic. We particularly recommend the Petroglyph Point trail, which requires a mild bit of rock scrambling. The views along the way are incredible, and you get to be up close and personal with historic petroglyphs, a striking reminder of the people who once walked these lands.
If you can’t make it to the park, or if you want an augmented experience, Mesa Verde has done a wonderful job of putting together virtual exploration tools. On the Mesa Verde website, you can find a virtual visitor center, with cliff dwelling tours and other experiences built-in.
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