The Ancient Ones I: Mesa Verde   Leave a comment

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde is the largest such site in the National Park.

You can’t visit the Four Corners region of the southwestern U.S. without your attention being drawn to the area’s American Indian history.  This history goes back over 10,000 years, but possibly the most fascinating chapter took place between about 700 and 1300 A.D.  The people who lived during this time period were farmers and builders, hunters and astronomers, travelers and artists.  They are the ancestors of today’s Hopi, Zuni and a few other small tribes, and so are called Ancestral Puebloans.

The interior of an ancient Puebloan cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

 

Their more common name is Anasazi, which does have a nice ring to it.  But this is a Navajo word loosely translated as ancient foreigner, or enemy.  The Navajo, when they migrated into this area from the north about 1500 A.D., found the abandoned pueblos but did not loot or even much disturb them.  They were cautious about entering the realm of dead spirits.  Also, the modern-day Puebloans and Navajo do not generally get along, it’s sad to say.  So the name Anasazi is inappropriate for both of the above reasons.

The Mesa Verde cliff dwelling Spruce Tree House basks in October sunshine.

I had been seeing the rock art of Fremont people to the north, but my first real archaeological destination on this trip was Mesa Verde.  A national park in southwestern Colorado between the towns of Cortez and Durango,  Mesa Verde is a high, forested plateau cut by rugged sandstone canyons.  It is here where some of the most well-preserved of the ancient ones’ pueblos are found.  The most spectacular sites are the cliff dwellings. but these are not the only sites at Mesa Verde.  They first lived atop the plateau, close to where they grew their crops of corn, beans and squash.  I visited a couple of these sites first, and I’m glad I did.

 

Take the Far View Sites, for example, just off the road near its highest point.  Since people come here to see the cliff dwellings, you will find few other visitors.  Here you’ll be able to closely examine the ancient pueblos at your leisure.  They used stone axes and other (non-metal) tools to precisely shape sandstone blocks.  Then, using a sandy mortar, these skilled masons built multi-room, multi-story houses, cylindrical (watch or signaling) towers, kivas and even a reservoir.  I’ll explain kivas in detail in the next post, but for now just think of them as sacred gathering places, maybe similar to churches.

 

By the 13th century, the people started moving their dwellings into the canyons.  Many are perched along improbable cliff faces.  Definitely visit Balcony House while you’re here.  Like Cliff Palace, it requires taking a ranger-led tour (stop at the visitor center to buy the $3 tickets).  You will certainly gain a respect for their mountain goat-like agility as you climb a 40-foot ladder up to the human aerie that was part home, part community center for these amazing people.

The Ancestral Puebloans’ construction of the easily defended cliff dwellings marked the beginning of the end, at least for their lives in the Four Corners region.  For reasons that are still uncertain, the Ancestral Puebloans migrated south towards the Rio Grande, fragmenting into the several tribes that make up the modern Puebloan people of New Mexico and Arizona.  Some of the dwellings were abandoned on short notice, with pots, tools, even precious works of art, were left strewn about the stone rooms.

One of the bigger factors contributing to their leaving was overuse of resources such as timber, soil and water.  Drought, a changing society, and other unknown pressures were likely causes as well.  But their overuse of environmental resources surely sticks out as a precautionary tale for our supposedly more advanced time.

In the Pacific Northwest, while leading science-oriented educational camps for native kids, I was lucky enough to share campfires with local tribal folks, drumming and singing under the stars.  Very special it certainly was.  But with respect to the dwellings and sacred places of the Ancient Ones in the Four Corners region, I am torn between the desire to respect them (i.e. leave them alone) and to experience them on a more intimate level.  To be in the company of a Hopi or Zuni elder, descending into an ancient but smoking kiva, undergoing purification, learning of these things from the source; that would get me going.  So, although I can’t recommend that you skip these archaeological treasures, I think coming into honest contact with the modern Puebloans, at any level, would beat a conventional trip to Mesa Verde National Park any day.

A forked horn buck mule deer wanders the forest atop MesaVerde in Colorado.

In 2010 my uncle and I visited Canyon de Chelly, traveling through the canyon on horseback and camping for two nights in the canyon.  We were accompanied by a young Navajo guide.  This, of course, was very cool (especially when we galloped after a wild stallion!).  One of the things that has stuck with me since then: I promised the young Navajo that someday I would visit Chaco Canyon (he insisted that I do so in fact).  So my next post will be about keeping that promise.

On Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, a recent fire has left huge areas of burned trees.

 

 

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