Category: Travel

Mesa Verde, Part 4: My Theory

This is Part 4 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!

My Theory

I’ve noted that there are many theories about why the cliff dwellings were built at Mesa Verde. One of the most popular is that these dwellings were something like forts, built for protection from enemies.

When I was on a tour of the Long House cliff dwelling, a park ranger asked us for our theories. Having done my homework, and feeling smug, I quickly responded that cliff dwellings were built because they were easy to protect from attack. He then quickly retorted that I was probably wrong, because they were also easy to lay siege upon, and starve the residents out. I then quickly thought, What a smartass this park ranger is.

My brother observing a presentation by a park ranger at Long House cliff dwelling.

But the more I reflected on it, the more I realized how right he was. The popular theory might still be an accurate theory, but it does have that fatal flaw of the siege. But it’s only one theory. There are many others. And given this surfeit of theories, I decided that nobody really knows, so everyone has license to come up with their own. Therefore, what follows is my theory of why the Ancestral Puebloans built cliff dwellings.

House of Many Windows, in Mesa Verde’s Cliff Canyon. You have to study the photo carefully to spot it. It’s halfway down the sheer cliff. My theory as to how this crazy cliff dwelling was constructed involves the discovery of supernatural powers of levitation by the Ancestral Puebloans. There are several other smaller cliff dwellings like this, that line the canyon walls, nearby.

During the 13th century, the Mesa Verde area experienced a population explosion such as had never been seen before or since in this area. In fact, even today the population is less than the 35,000 it swelled to, some 800 years ago.

History has shown that the inevitable result of a growing population, is the advancement of civilization. Society becomes more complex. People specialize more and more, in various trades. And hierarchies of political leadership develop.

The cliff dwellings were located below the mesa tops, but above the canyon floors. Given the low angle of the sun during the winter, and the way heat convects upward from canyon floors, the cliff dwellings were about 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the mesa tops, during the cold months.

But given the high angle of the sun during the summer, and the shielding cliff above, the cliff dwellings were cooler than the mesa tops during the warm months. Also, the roof of the alcove above them protected them from falling rain and snow. And the sides of the alcove protected them from harsh winds. This made the cliff dwellings comfortable places to live.

Long House. Cliff dwellings allowed more sun in the winter, and less in the summer.

But they were inconvenient places to live, given that crops were grown on the mesa tops. In order to go to work in the fields, a farmer would have a long commute to his job. And all by hand and foot, climbing ladders and hiking trails. So it was impractical for the farmers to live in the cliff dwellings. Instead, they were the ones who lived in the stone and adobe villages on the mesa tops, close to their crops.

So who did live in the cliff dwellings?

My guess is that it was those who did not work in the fields. Instead, they were a privileged class, exempt from such hard labor. They were at the top of the political and social hierarchy. They were royal families, in a sense. The ruling elite. They enjoyed the comforts of their cliff dwellings, while taxing the farmers above them for a percentage of their harvested corn, beans, squash, and other crops.

According to my theory, those who lived and worked the fields on top of the mesas, such as at this pueblo in Mesa Verde’s Far View Sites, were lower-class schlubs. They paid taxes to the ruling class who lived in the comfortable cliff dwellings, and continually held on by a thread to their rulers’ lofty promises of better times to come.

This is the way it seems to have been in every civilization that has ever formed, over the course of human history. So why not also at Mesa Verde? I believe the Ancestral Puebloans were no exception to human nature. They, too, had their ruling class, that performed far less manual labor than the working class, and that enjoyed comforts and privileges that the working class could only envy.

Or at least, that’s my theory.

The cliff dwellings were abandoned around 1285. But they were eventually rediscovered. In the next post, we’ll cover what happened to them at the time of rediscovery.

Spruce Tree House. Notice how deep under the rock this cliff dwelling extends? I’ll bet the wealthiest of Puebloan nobility lived in the deepest recesses, far from the falling rain and other elements encountered at the outer edge.

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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.

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Mesa Verde, Part 2: Settling Mesa Verde

This is Part 2 of a 7-part series about Mesa Verde National Park. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

Settling Mesa Verde

Paleo Indians hunting a glyptodont, in the Mesa Verde region. Perhaps this painting provides a clue as to why the glyptodont became extinct.

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.

Petroglyphs at Step House, on Weatherill Mesa.

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.

Coyote Village is one of the many ancient villages found at Mesa Verde. That’s my brother inspecting a kiva, which was a place for religious ceremonies and social gatherings.

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.

The foundations of early pit houses. These are some of the oldest structures found at Mesa Verde, and are more than a thousand years old.

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.

Looking north from Point Lookout, which is a high prominence at Mesa Verde National Park. The area below was much more populated in the year 1260 AD, than it is now.

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