"It all started 35000 years ago," says our ranger, Stirling Burnet, in a heavy South Western drawl, "but I wasn't here then so don't take my word for it! Archaeologists say so." Mesa Verde is famous for the complex cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi (now referred to as the Ancestral Pueblo) people of America. When folks think of the United States, they often think of it as a New World but sadly overlook the rich, cultural heritage of the Native Americans who were there long before the settlers arrived from Europe. Ever since I have seen photographic images of the iconic Pueblo structures, I have wanted to travel to this part of the world to explore and discover the history further and I am so glad that I had the opportunity to do this!
Mesa Verde National Park is the largest archaeological preserve in the USA and the only one devoted to the work of humans. It is situated in Southwestern Colorado and the name comes from the Spanish words: "mesa" which means table and "verde" which is green. This descriptive name is very appropriate as it looks like a huge, flat, green table from afar. The Colorado basin is flat as a pancake because it was the bottom of an ocean - but Mesa Verde towers above the surrounding desert like a fully laid table on a beach.
Our first trip of the day was to a place called the Long House led by the charismatic ranger, Stirling Burnet, who has been working in the National Park for over 28 years. Access to most of the Ancestral Pueblo settlements is only via ranger-guided tours - so as to protect the buildings and prevent accidental damage and/or vandalism. These tours fill up fast but are a great way to learn about and develop an appreciation for the rich history and traditions of this ancient culture.
There were probably people in the area for thousands of years - leading a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence but the Ancestral Puebloans started construction around 500AD and left/migrated around 1300AD. As pastoral and agricultural settlers, they would have found that the red soil on the Mesa Verde is very rich and productive as long as you put stuff back in. Half the annual precipitation comes in snowfall in the winter and half in summer thunder showers. During the 1100's they received a lot of precipitation and the population increased dramatically. There were 5000 people living in the confines of the park - but 50-70000 living in the valleys around the Mesa. In 1276, there was the start of a long drought until 1299. All the trees were cut down, they utilised the resources and the corn cobs reduced in size dramatically. The population could not be sustained and the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned their settlements and probably migrated elsewhere. Ultimately, people left because of starvation. There has never been any source of running water, such as a spring, in Mesa Verde, so the crops, animals and people would have relied on the rain.
I have to say, at this point, that our ranger was quite Post-Modern in his outlook of all the different archaeological theories that have come and gone over the past few decades. As very little was left in the ruins, due to looting, vandalism, and the ravages of time in this harsh environment - various theories have been proposed by the academics that have studied the area. As Stirling quipped rather cynically, "If we don't know what it's for, then we just say it's 'ceremonial'".
The Kachina Cult started - worshipping effigies of spirits (represented by dolls) in the 1200's. As the construction methods advanced, the houses were replaced by kivas where they would do their ceremonies. This was a matrilineal and matriarchal culture and, unlike recent the usual patriarchal system, everything went to the youngest daughter. Somewhere along the line (probably with the Spanish Conquest), this changed to patriarchal culture. At the present day, the Hopi, Laguna and Akama still practice matriarchy. People believed they came from the Underworld or Third World into our world (the 4th World). In this world it is our job to become better and enter a higher state of consciousness. The ranger believed that these pueblos were foremost for ceremonial purposes, living, and storage.
There are 120 rooms in the Long Dwelling and only some with fireplaces. Now there are theories that the people that lived here were probably transient because it gets really cold in the winters due to damp conditions of some the caves. The shelf above the dwellings were probably used as storage but we can't be 100% sure because everything was taken by people who discovered the ruins. A kiva was probably used for sleeping in. There's a roof and logs were laid around in a circle noting the 6 directions - leaving an opening over the fire pit so the smoke can come out. The 6 directions for the Ancestral Puebloans were North, South, East, West, Up and Down! Fresh air comes in and creates a convection current on both sides which circulates the heat and takes the smoke out. Quite a nifty piece of technology!
The Penn State University came here with a load of grad students - they drew every single block in the ruins to scale and overlaid them onto digital photos and discovered new rooms and areas. They discovered that 21 clans had this territory - they were farmers and lived on the Mesa tops growing corn, squash and other vegetables. Present day Hopi culture is very similar in terms of the crops they grow and their dwellings and cultural traditions.
At some point during the tour, I saw a Jerusalem Beetle struggling in the dust of the ruins (looks like a giant albino ant). It made me think of what a harsh terrain this must be for all forms of life and how living things must adapt to their surroundings in order to survive. The fight or flight response is a very strong primitive impulse and would have driven people, in the end, to seek greener pastures.
After the tour ended, we took the complimentary shuttle to the Pithouse - the 1st primitive settlements in the area. The entire surroundings are scarred by the burnt dead trees which jut out of the parched earth like fibrous skeletons. It is a very eery landscape and we didn't stay very long as there is no shade from the burning midday sun.
We drove over 25 miles to get to the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, which holds a small but informative collection of artefacts and some outdated miniature dioramas depicting the daily tasks of Ancestral Puebloans. In addition, there was also some information on the geological and flora/fauna of the area. Common trees in the area incl: the Quaking Aspen, Douglas Fir, Colorado Pinyon Pine, Ponderosa Pine and Utah Juniper. It was fascinating to discover the foods which originated from the American Indian people, incl: pineapples, strawberries, tomatoes, potatoes, artichokes, avocados, corn and squash, beans, sunflowers seeds, cashews, pecans and black walnuts. The yucca plant was one of the most valuable plants for Indians living in the Southwest. It could be used to make ropes, mats, baskets and even for food and medicine!
From the museum, it was a short but challenging walk down (and then, of course, up again) to the Spruce Tree House - another set of cliff dwellings. This is one of the few cliff dwellings you are allowed to access without a guide, although rangers are available onsite for questions. This site is in a deep ravine and partially hidden by ancient forest. The desert atmosphere was enhanced by the groups of turkey vultures soaring above the cliffs and perching on dead tree branches high up above the valley floor to survey their territory.
"Alot of the things we wanna know, we don't", started the character of George Jurdstrun, dressed in 1930's apparel and accessories, who led the twilight tour of the Cliff Palace (limited to 20 people and run according to themes). Tonight, the theme was the work of the Civilian Corp Conservation - part of the WPA social scheme set up by Roosevelt to create jobs for young people in the 1930's. Young men travelled from across the country to places like Mesa Verde to build footpaths, lay the roads, construct buildings and build fences. George told us the story if a man, such as himself, who helped build the area and got paid $30/month (which was alot in those days). The National Parks wouldn't be what they are today were it not for the hard groundwork laid by these men. Alot of local Navajo men also work on reconstruction work in the cliff dwellings in the park as they are good stone-masons.
We sat on the stairs and listened to some funny personal stories whilst watching the sunset colours change the cliff walls into a fiery orange and then, as the shadows came, a cool sand colour. It turned out that our guide was a ranger, by the name of Scott Cortemeyer, who left us with these parting words: "The Ancestral Puebloans would have left their homes with a sense of hope, purpose and direction and, if there is anything that I can impart on you today is that you should also lead your lives with hope, purpose and a sense of direction". And with those parting words, he led us up the narrow stairs carved into the rocks and up 3 sets of ladders to the top where we were able to catch the last fading shards of light for our journey back to camp.