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.


Mesa Verde, Part 1: Mysterious Mesa Verde

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.

Four Corners Monument is owned and operated by Indian tribes. Here, idiots like me have traveled for many miles, so that we can stand in four states at once, while having our picture taken. Which is what that crouching tourist in the middle is doing. The Indians charge 8 bucks a head to get in. I suppose this is the modern-day experience of being scalped.

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.

Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling. This is one of around 600 cliff dwellings found at Mesa Verde National Park.

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.

Long House cliff dwelling. Aptly named, as it was abandoned a long time ago, along with all the other cliff dwellings.

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.

Sculpture at the Mesa Verde National Park Visitors Center. It depicts an Ancestral Puebloan climbing on a crag, while toting a basket of corn on his back. Corn was the main crop of these Indians, which enabled them to support large enough populations to build their cliff dwellings and other pueblos.


A Plethora of Pillows

We recently went on a road trip, which I will be posting about in a few days. But first I have a gripe to get off my chest.

On our road trip, we rented hotel rooms and a cabin. The hotel room was typical. It sported a couple of middlebrow paintings on the walls, a TV, mini-fridge, desk, chair, and two queen-size beds. And on both queen-size beds was something that was also typical. They each had four pillows.

Who needs four pillows?!

Who the hell needs four pillows on a bed?

My wife always gets the bed next to the air conditioner. I hate air conditioning, and have bad memories of shivering all night while she snored in comfort. So we’ve worked it out where I always get the bed that’s furthest away from the a/c.

I was exhausted from a long drive, and tried to lay down on my assigned bed. But I couldn’t, because of all the damned pillows that were in the way. So I spread them out on the surface of the bed and tried to lay over the top of them, assuming that this was some sort of decadent luxury that hotels were promoting. But no matter how I arranged those beastly pillows, I couldn’t find a comfortable platform. Instead it felt lumpy, and the pillows contorted my back into stressful positions.

Finally I gave up and pulled three of these torture devices off the bed and dumped them on the floor. But pillows take up a lot of floor space, and can be a dangerous trip hazard. I had to be careful after my post-peripatetic nap, to keep the soft-pawed monsters from grabbing my ankles, sending me to the floor, and perhaps dragging me under the bed. As has happened in some nightmares.

Fortunately, I only had to deal with those pillow monsters for one night. The next day, we arrived at our short-term rental cabin. I figured that now we would be roughing it, away from the inutile annoyances of modern amenities, such as pillows.

But as I stumbled through the front door on dog-tired feet, my visions of austerity were shattered. I was greeted by a main room equipped with a love seat and futon. And on this furniture poised the menacing, square-shaped, puffy forms of a half-dozen scatter cushions.

“Never mind, I’ll just lay on the bed,” I murmured to myself. But in the bedroom, atop our queen-size bed, I was accosted by an artful arrangement of no less than eight fancy, colorful pillows. I stared aghast at those damnable, fluffy gremlins, and they seemed to gaze right back at me, taunting me with muffled, sinister laughter.

They had me over a barrel. My wife, you see, loves pillows. I was taking a chance when I rounded up those feathery imps and 86’d them to the futon in the main room. Would she object? No, thank God. Even she, of the fairer and softer sex, appreciated what a pain-in-the-ass a plethora of pillows presents.

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