Apr 16 - Mesa Verde National Park

  • Explored Mesa Verde National Park
  • Toad Miles Today: 70
  • Total Toad Miles Spring12:  450
  • Tonight's camp:  Sundance RV Park, Cortez, CO
  • Weather: morning low 31  afternoon high 60; Mostly sunny and cooler... especially at the higher elevation of the Park
  • Notables: 1. Impressed by the building expertise, the creativity, and the advanced nature of this early Puebloan culture that blossomed almost a thousand years ago.      2. Wondering and pondering about the ways of the Ancients as reported by their current descendants... the lack of the concept of ownership... living in the "now" but wrapped in their verbal history, with minimal thought or concern about the future.   3. It all reminds me that while we may think we have the answers to life's most important questions... we probably don't.
  • Link to photo album for today.


So much has been written about the Ancient Puebloans (also referred to as Anasazi) that I won't attempt another version. Instead, let me try to touch on some of the thoughts and questions we had while enjoying Mesa Verde today.

But first, an overview.  From where they came, no one really knows. There is evidence that they were descendants of the early humans that crossed the land-bridge from Asia into Alaska during the last ice age. Supporting that is the fact some descendants of these early Puebloans (I don't remember if it's Hopi, Navajo, Ute, or some other...) can communicate, in their native language, with Inuit Natives in Alaska, indicating a common source to their two languages.. But there is no definitive proof of their origin. In any case, early ancestors of these people settled in the 4 Corners area about 4,000 years ago, as the climate warmed and made survival possible. Initially they built crude shelters, pithouses, in the broad valleys where they gathered food and other materials that made life possible for them. They began cultivating corn and squash to supplement their diet. Called the Basketmakers by archaeologists, they were particularly skilled at weaving baskets.

The Pueblo culture grew from the Basketmakers are really got it's start about 1300 years ago as the climate warmed even more and made survival at higher elevations possible. They lived on the same mesa tops where they gathered the wood and plants they needed, and grew the corn, squash, and beans they ate. Dwellings were still rather crude, but were becoming progressively better.

Over the years their building style evolved to sturdier and more sophisticated structures. They learned to use adobe and stone... eventually becoming skilled at masonry construction. Multiple family dwellings became common with additional rooms added as needed. Often the structures were built in a curved or almost round fashion, surrounding a central communal or ceremonial room known as a kiva. There was no master plan for these structures... they were organic, evolving according to needs and the whim of those doing the construction. But their ability to work with stone and mortar grew over time and toward the end of their time in the Mesa Verde area, the craftsmanship had reached a high level... even by today's standards.

For some unknown reason, the Ancient Puebloans moved from the mesa tops to the rock alcoves of the cliffs... the sides of the mesa. Here they built stone structures that housed a hundred people or more in a single alcove. Most of the cliff dwelling work took place between 1200 and 1300... a short period for these folks who had already been here for 600 years. And they built with vigor... just inside the boundaries of the National Park, there are over 600 cliff dwellings documented with many more in the surrounding area outside the Park.

The population of this area was greater then than it is today... as many as 30,000 people in this relatively small corner of the world. They were hunter-gatherers, farmed the mesa tops, and made a community in this corner of the world for 700 years. But by the year 1300, they were mostly gone. They didn't just vanish, but migrated south and west, and assimilated into other groups and tribes including the Hopi, Navajo, Ute, Zuni, and a dozen or more others.

We can only guess as to why they left. It may have been extended drought. They may have exhausted the supply of wood, which they used for building and for heat. Crops may have failed from disease or drought. Living in larger groups, was disease or friction between groups or families a factor?  Like most large change it was probably a combination of factors, and took place over a longer period of time than we believe.

During our day in the Park, we saw three of the large signature cliff houses, Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House. All three of these are down on the end of Chapin Mesa. A second area of the Park, on Wetherill Mesa, doesn't open until later in May.

When viewing the sides of other mesas across the canyons it is common to find cliff dwellings scattered here and there... a lot of them. As mentioned earlier, there are more than 600 of them inside the Park.

It's necessary to buy a ticket for a tour (50 people max) of Cliff Palace, and the hike to it from the mesa top involves a hundred feet of elevation change accomplished with the aid of narrow stone steps (courtesy of the CCC during the depression) and stout wooden ladders. But once to the dwelling we were treated to a close-up encounter with the Ancients through the remains of their community. While there has been some restoration of the ruin, large areas remain intact and original.

Spruce Tree House is a dwelling that can be walked to and toured at your own pace... no ticket required. And while Balcony House was not open yet this time of year for tours, we did hike out to a point on the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail to get a next-best look at the place.

Why did they feel the need to move into the cliffs after having lived for 600 years or more on top the mesas? Was the climate changing? Was it for defensive reasons... was there strife between groups or families? Was it a fad driven by the human trait to differentiate themselves from others? Once some did it, was it a "keep up with the Jones'" thing? You wake up one morning and everyone is driving a mini-van; you wake up another morning and everyone is driving an SUV? Here too, we'll never know.

Is there something that happens when people group themselves in higher density living arrangements that exposes problems and issues that never had to be dealt with before?

It occurred to both Dar and I that as we drive through the dying small communities of the rural USA that we might be witnessing a similar population movement, driven in this case by economics and opportunity.  Are the ghost towns of our civilization really any different than the cliff dwellings?

Is there something that happens inside people once survival is more or less taken care of?  Do we get soft, unwilling to work as hard?  Do we naturally begin to place more importance on the self, the individual, as opposed to the community, the group? Do these changes sow their own seeds of change?

Slightly Better than Most