Most scientists don’t like to admit it, but luck counts too – and archaeology is no exception. Take the case of the spectacular cliff-dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park.
On a cold December day in 1888, cowboys Richard Wetherill, Charles Mason, and their Ute guide Acowitz were rounding up stray cattle in the deep wilderness of Southwestern Colorado. Historical records make no mention of locating strays, but what these lucky cowpokes did find was one of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan* archaeological sites in the United States. And visitors still enjoy their good fortune today.
The Four Corners area, where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona meet, is well known for archaeological sites of indigenous cultures. Viewed on a map ruins seem to be everywhere, but until you get behind the wheel and make the miles in this big country, you might not realize how scattered and time consuming they are to reach. But, if you only have time for a one-stop, see-it-all trip, Mesa Verde National Park with its 5,000 archeological sites, cliff dwellings, and petroglyphs is the place to go.
Mesa Verde’s three large cliff dwellings can only be visited on ranger-guided tours. (Unfortunately the park has temporarily suspended these tours.) We snagged reservations on the Cliff Palace Tour, which proved what all travelers know already: there’s nothing like being there. Photos just don’t do the place justice.
To gain a true appreciation of the scale of the alcove village and how well it utilizes the available space it helps to be standing in the shelter of the ominous-looking overhang and peering up. After living in pit houses lashed by Mother Nature for six centuries, the protective setting must have felt like heaven to the Puebloans.
Colorado’s desert climate has been kind to Mesa Verde, and given its state of preservation, it’s one of the premier sites for curious tourists as well as research scientists who are still unraveling some of the mysteries left behind in the ruins.
Anyone who has spent time outdoors will take one look at the cozy, alcove rooms and kivas tucked under the rock overhang and marvel at the site’s obvious appeal. It provided shelter, a source of water, and the protection of community. In a harsh, unpredictable environment, the location seems the perfect solution.
But for all its elegant simplicity and function, this ruin highlights one of the biggest mysteries in the history of the culture. The indigenous people lived at Mesa Verde for 700 years, and in this time they spent the first six centuries living in simple pit houses tending their crops on the top of the mesa. Then, in the early 1200s, in what seems a quantum leap forward in building skill, they ducked under the sheltering protection of the ledge, and began constructing and occupying the multi-story cliff dwellings that we see today.
But then comes the mystery: over the next 75-100 years the people abandoned their new homes and left the area … never to return.
The Ancient Puebloans had no writing system, as evidenced by their petroglyphs, so we’ll never know exactly why this civilization just vanished. Archaeologists still debate the causes, but one issue on which all agree is that the US Southwest is now, and has always been, a fragile and marginal environment for agriculture. And when extended droughts were added to the mix, the land could no longer support the growing population, and starving survivors abandoned their homes to seek food and shelter elsewhere.
Throughout human history harsh, unforgiving climate and challenging geography have forced cultures to be clever and adaptable to survive. Sometimes it worked, but often it didn’t. The indigenous people of Mesa Verde and the Four Corners Area succeeded for seven centuries, and these fascinating ruins provide a glimpse into how they did it.
James & Terri
*In recent years there has been some debate over what the indigenous cultures of the Four Corners region should be called. Early researchers grouped them under the umbrella term “Anasazi” – a Navajo word meaning “ancient enemies,” which is considered offensive. More recently, the phrase “Native American” has been used, but modern descendants of these ancient groups maintain that their cultures were centuries-old before the Spanish discovered, and named America. In some circles this is a hot-button issue so because their ancestors lived in pueblos, the more acceptable term “Ancestral Puebloans” was adopted.