This is Part 1 of a 7-part series about Mesa Verde National Park. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!
Mysterious Mesa Verde
We once called them the Anasazi, but that’s no longer politically correct. Anasazi is a Navajo word for “ancient enemies.” But it refers to the ancestors of the Puebloan tribe, and modern-day Puebloans sometimes take umbrage at this term. They prefer “Ancestral Puebloan,” instead. Like most politically correct terms, it sounds awkward and has more syllables than the “offensive” term, but what the hell, I’ll play along.
The Ancestral Puebloans were unicorns, in a sense. They were unique from most Native Americans, in that they were far more advanced in their ways, and in the civilization they had established.
There’s much we’ve figured out about them, but much more remains a mystery. And the things we don’t know have left a lot to speculation and imagination. My wife and I decided to visit the old stomping grounds of this mysterious people, and discover what we could imagine about them.
So about a month ago, we headed for Mesa Verde National Park. This park is located in the Four Corners region of the USA. Four Corners is a unique piece of geography, as it contains the only spot in the United States where four states share a common border. These are the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. And in this region, the Ancestral Puebloans thrived for about 700 years.
At Mancos, Colorado, we met up with my brother and sister-in-law, and settled in for nearly a week of visiting with each other, interlarded with excursions to old Indian ruins.
Mesa Verde means “Green Table,” in Spanish. It’s a series of 7,000-foot to 8,000-foot high, south-sloping mesas in Southwestern Colorado, that extend like fingers toward the New Mexico border. Between the fingers of these green mesas are deep canyons, with alcoves carved out of the canyon walls, that form deep cave-like grottoes. Within hundreds of these grottoes are the phenomena that has made Mesa Verde National Park famous. Here, the Ancestral Puebloans built massive communities out of sandstone and adobe.
They’re called cliff dwellings. They are about 800 years old, and are still mostly standing, in remarkably good condition. Atop the mesas many other ruins can be found, built by the same people, out of stone and adobe. But they’re not as well-preserved as the cliff dwellings, due to their greater exposure to the elements. Also, they tend to be much older.
It’s easy to figure out why dwellings were built on top of the mesas. It’s similar to the reason why the chicken crossed the road. The Ancestral Puebloans, like any other people, needed shelter. But nobody knows why they built cliff dwellings. The cliff dwellings are the most recent additions to the ancient dwellings at Mesa Verde, having been erected between about 1200 and 1281 AD.
But by 1285 AD, all of the cliff dwellings were mysteriously abandoned.
I’ve read and heard several reasons for building the cliff dwellings. Some say that overpopulation forced the people out of prime real estate on the mesa tops, that was needed for farming. Others say that living on the side of a cliff was needed for defensive purposes, against enemies. And some argue that it was more comfortable living cliffside, as it tended to be warmer in the winter while cooler in the summer.
I’m glad we have all these competing theories, because it gives me license to use my imagination and come up with my own theory. Which I’ll be sharing with you later. But to come up with any theory, it’s helpful to understand how people arrived at Mesa Verde in the first place. We’ll explore that mystery in the next post.