Settling Mesa Verde
Settling Mesa Verde took a long time. The first humans arrived in the area around 9500 BC. They were nomadic, hunting large, bizarre animals, such as the glyptodont, which resembled a giant armadillo. They’d remain for awhile, then leave, following the big game. But over time, some stuck around and confined their wanderings to the local area.
Climate change is nothing new. It’s been going on since planet Earth began spinning. And around 10,000 years ago, the climate changed in the Mesa Verde area, becoming warmer and drier. Some of the Indians in the area adjusted to this by gradually moving to the mesa tops, where the climate was cooler and wetter.
And for the next 5,000 years, the warming climate continued to drive Indians to the mesa tops. There, they got sophisticated. They began living in semi-permanent rock shelters. They developed arts and crafts. And they began trading for exotic goods from as far away as the Pacific coast. Later, they painted petroglyphs on rocks and learned how to build houses out of wood and mud.
There were some botanists among them, who experimented with growing plants, and some of these plants eventually became domestic crops. Then around 1000 BC, they traded for a strange new miracle plant from the south, called “maize” or “corn.” This high-calorie, easy-to-store grain revolutionized their society.
With corn, they were able to transform their economy into one based on sustained agriculture, and were able to remain settled down in one place for longer periods of time. This led to a gradual abandonment of their nomadic lifestyle of hunting and gathering.
But they carried on in a semi-nomadic way until around the year 650 AD. That’s when the first year-round settlements were built. These villages weren’t very large. Hell, they only had about one to three residences on them. They were more like hole-in-the-wall towns. But they were permanent, which was a breakthrough for the Ancestral Puebloans. As long as the crops held out, residents could stay in one place until the day they died. In fact, sometimes generation upon generation of one family would remain in one spot.
Then came beans, squash, and new varieties of corn. And this enabled settlements to expand, sometimes to more than a hundred people in one town. In fact, the overall population of the area exploded to several thousand souls, as more and more villages rose from the fertile soils of Mesa Verde.
What really helped them was their ability to store food. They first learned how to store grains and other food for one year, in pithouses, dug into the ground. They also lived in these pithouses, sharing living space with their stored food. But by around 750 AD, some wise guy got the bright idea of building above-ground houses out of sandstone, held together with adobe mortar. This freed up room to store more food below ground, and expanded storage capacity to a two-year supply.
That made a big difference in their ability to survive famine, and this helped their population to increase further. By 860 AD there were about 8,000 people living in the Mesa Verde area. This included not only the mesas themselves, but also the surrounding areas of the San Juan Valley of Southwestern Colorado, and Southeastern Utah.
Around this time, Mesa Verde was so popular, it became the cultural center of the Puebloan people. But then drought and famine hit, and drove much of the population away. They fled to the Chaco Canyon area of New Mexico, about 80 miles south.
By 950 AD, Chaco Canyon became the dominant cultural center. But by 1050 AD, the climate changed again, and rainfalls increased over Mesa Verde, while decreasing at Chaco Canyon. People began moving north again, until the cultural center shifted to Aztec, which is between Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. Aztec, New Mexico is also where I worked as a radio disc jockey for several years, back in the 1980s.
About 800 years before I began riding the airwaves of Aztec, around the year 1180, the Chacoan system collapsed from a severe drought. Meanwhile, precipitation was plentiful for those living to the north, at Mesa Verde. Because of this, a great migration took place.
Soon Mesa Verdeans found themselves overwhelmed by immigrants from Chaco Canyon. Small villages of 100 to 200 hundred citizens found their pueblos expanding much larger, to accommodate 600 to 800 hungry people. By 1200 AD, approximately 22,000 people lived in the Mesa Verde area, and by 1260 AD the population had swelled to about 35,000. Amazingly, that is greater than the current-day population, now surviving in the area.
How did the Mesa Verdeans cope with such a population explosion? We’ll find out in a few days, in the next post.