Mesa Verde, Part 3: The Great Drought

This is Part 3 of a 7-part series about Mesa Verde National Park. To read the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

The Great Drought

After migrants from Chaco Canyon swelled the population, Mesa Verde once again became the center of Ancestral Puebloan culture. In fact, it was in its heyday. And beginning around 1200 AD, architecture underwent a revolution. Someone got the crazy idea of building pueblos into the sides of the cliffs that arose from the steep canyons of Mesa Verde. And with all the new people that had moved into the area, there was plenty of labor available to do the job.

A portion of Cliff Palace. This is the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde, and probably required many years and many hands to build.

This is when the great cliff dwellings were constructed, that are hailed today as among the world’s greatest archaeological treasures. For about 81 years, from 1200 to 1281, the area saw the rise of such marvels as Cliff Palace, Long House, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House. Altogether, more than 600 cliff dwellings were constructed between the canyon floors and rimrock of Mesa Verde.

Spruce Tree House. It was named after a Douglas Fir tree that was mistaken for a spruce tree. Those who discovered it had to climb down the tree to access it.

But then disaster struck. But not suddenly, for it had been creeping up on the Mesa Verdeans for decades. They had some warning. The drought that drove the Chacoans to Mesa Verde, spread north and began affecting the green table lands of these highland farmers. It was bearable at first, manifesting as below-normal rainfall. But it dragged on for 69 years, until about 1270.

Then the area was hit by extremely cold temperatures. This was followed by a severe dry period that affected most of North America, from 1276 to 1299. This is referred to by historians as the Great Drought.

Evidence indicates that famine was widespread throughout the continent during the Great Drought. As mass starvation ensued, clans and tribes from coast to coast turned against each other and fought violently for food. This brought the downfall of several civilizations in North America, including the Mississippian culture of the Mississippi valley.

And the Ancestral Puebloans at Mesa Verde were not exempt from the famine and chaos. Civic leaders had held onto power by distributing food during times of drought. But this drought was so severe, they couldn’t keep up with the desperate hunger that surrounded them. Political instability resulted. Clans from various pueblos and cliff dwellings began to fight each other for food. People were murdered, villages were burned, and in at least one case, an entire village was massacred.

Some of the individual dwellings found at Long House cliff dwelling.

It wasn’t all civil war, though. Invaders from other tribes attacked also. Skeletal remains of many Ancestral Puebloans show signs of death from stone axes, scalpings, and dismemberment, that was probably inflicted by enemy tribes. Remains also show signs of cannibalism, which may have been practiced by all hungry people, whether enemy or friend.

The violence peaked between 1275 and 1285, and during that time a mass exodus took place. Archaeological evidence indicates that during this brief, ten-year span, nearly all Mesa Verdeans evacuated the area. The Pueboloan communities in the surrounding area were also abandoned during this same period. And so, this grand civilization that had thrived for nearly 700 years, suddenly collapsed and ceased to exist.

Long House cliff dwelling is the second largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde. This wide-angle shot only captures a fraction of it.

The Ancestral Puebloans fled hastily, leaving behind household goods, including pottery, cooking utensils, tools, and clothing. Many headed for the Rio Grande region, while some found refuge in the Rio Chama region and the Pajarito Plateau, near present-day Santa Fe, New Mexico. But others went west, to the Little Colorado River region, settling in present-day Western New Mexico and Eastern Arizona. In these new lands they found warmer temperatures, better farming conditions, plentiful timber, and herds of bison.

So it appears that while their civilization at Mesa Verde collapsed, it reemerged in new areas. These Puebloans built structures similar to their ancestors. Great pueblos comprised of sandstone and adobe arose all over the lands we now call New Mexico and Arizona.

The Puebloans thrived in their new villages for several hundred years, until they were discovered by the Coronado Expedition in 1540. But they were a tough and hardy tribe. They wouldn’t take any shit from him. They made war on Coronado and drove him out.

However they were finally conquered by the Spanish around the year 1600. But they proved difficult to rule. They revolted in 1680 and drove the Spanish out of New Mexico, and held them off for 12 years, before being reconquered. This was called the Pueblo Revolt, and it was the first revolt led by a Native American group to successfully expel colonists for a considerable number of years.

Today, the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans can be found in various pueblos in the American Southwest, including the Acoma, Zuni, Jemez, and Laguna Pueblos. The homes they live in strongly resemble those of their ancestors, constructed from stone and adobe. They even observe religious celebrations in round-shaped kivas, just like their ancestors did, at Mesa Verde.

A kiva (foreground) and other structures at Far View Sites, atop Mesa Verde. Kivas were used for religious ceremonies and as social gathering places. They had a roof with an opening at the top. Entry was made by climbing down a ladder from the roof opening.

So it seems that in a sense, they were never conquered, and their civilization has never died. That’s because the Puebloans have continued on with their way of life through Spanish occupation, Mexican revolution, American conquest, American civil war, and onward, right into modern times.

I think modern-day Puebloans can feel proud. Their civilization has endured and remained impregnable. In fact, it seems to be just as enduring and impregnable as the cliff dwellings of their ancestors, who lived at Mesa Verde.

Come on back in a few days, when we’ll explore my theory as to why the cliff dwellings were constructed.

A kiva atop Wetherill Mesa, above and near Long House cliff dwelling. This is called a “keyhole” kiva, due to the slot at one end. Many other kivas, such as the one in the background, were completely round, with no slot. Nobody knows the purpose of the slot, although I suspect it provides an exalted place for someone of great importance to sit, similar to a throne.


Categories: Travel

35 replies »

  1. A tragic story, but impressive that the Puebloneans kept going and weren’t totally destroyed.
    But I am pretty confident that even if I was starving I would not resort to cannibalism!
    Will be back to learn more. I am guessing they constructed the cliff dwellings because they needed a place to live? ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Perhaps a bit of a lesson about the fragility of civilizations built upon complex and necessarily cooperative infrastructures.

    Regarding the changing climate, I was just reading something about the ancient, Lake Lahontan, which was still around when humans arrived in the area. We take for granted that things exist as they do, whether or human-made or natural… for now.

    Liked by 2 people

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