Mesa Verde – Indigenous peoples cliff dwellings

After the exhausting driving up (and down) four mountain passes (described in Carsten’s previous blog) we finally arrived at Mesa Verde National Park.

Mesa Verde means “Green Table” in Spanish and it is easy to see why it was so named.  Throughout the eons, the winds have blown the top of the mountain flat; with a little good will, it looks like a table.

Mesa Verde – The Green Table

After 4 miles of winding road, we are only halfway up the mesa and come to our first viewpoint – the lookout over the Mancos valley.

Pueblo means village in Spanish.  Indians that do not live a nomadic life, but rather establish themselves in permanent villages are known as Pueblo Indians.   Mesa Verde was populated by the Pueblo Indians for nearly 700 years.  In the 1200’s almost 35,000 Pueblos lived here across several hundred villages.  35,000 is the same number of inhabitants as my childhood city in Denmark – Aabenraa.

The first Pueblos arrived in 550 AD on the southern part of Mesa Verde’s plateau where there was lots of sunshine, rain and run-off from melting snow in the spring.  The ground here was fertile and the Indians could raise corn, beans and squash.  The mesa also abounded with rabbits, squirrels and deer that they hunted.

It is still a mystery why the Pueblos suddenly, within the space of two generations, left the mesa and migrated further south to Arizona and New Mexico.  We do know that at the time they migrated, this region had been experiencing almost 300 years of drought, resulting in poor crops.  But the Indians had survived droughts before.  Perhaps the earth was exhausted after 700 years of agriculture and this combined with the drought caused a collapse of the agriculture.  In the Hopi Indians oral history, the story is told that they fled in all haste from the “Great Evil”.  The oral history, unfortunately, doesn’t explain what the “Great Evil” was.

Hereafter the Mesa stood empty until the first settlers and homesteaders arrived in the 1880’s.  They ascended the mountain using the same paths that the Indians had laid and found the remains of the old Indians houses built into the cliff hollows.  In 1906, the Federal Government enclosed the area in a National Park in order to preserve these ruins and testaments to a culture that had disappeared.

It is these ancient habitats that Carsten and I have come to see.  If you want to go inside one of the habitations, you need to buy a ticket and be accompanied by a Ranger.  Unfortunately all the tickets are sold out at least 3 weeks in advance so there is no way we can do this.  We will simply have to admire them from a distance.

Before we reach the cliff dwellings, we stop at the Fire Tower plateau.  On a clear day, you can see four states from here: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.  The Fire tower standing here is still in use.  During the fire season, rangers man the tower 24 hours per day and keep a watch for fires.  The fire season is June, July and August.  They scan the horizon, 360 degrees, every 15 minutes.

From the bottom of the Mancos valley to the cliff dwellings is almost 30 miles.  With all our stops, it has taken us a couple of hours to get here.

Mesa flat burned trees (forest fire)

First, a little geological history.  Approximately 90 million years ago, the Rockies, and Mesa Verde, were under water.  This inland portion of the US was a huge, though relatively shallow sea.  Somewhere around 65 million years, the continental plates collided and raised up the landscape that now fascinate us.  Many years of erosion formed Mesa Verde.  The top is covered with a meter thick layer of red silt deposited by millions of years of sandstorms.

So much for geology, now to Indian history (the Anasazi). 

The first Pueblo Indians arrived around 550 AD and built pit-houses on top of the plateau and amongst the cliffs.  A pit-house is partially underground.  The builders dug a square hole 9 x9 feet and 3-4 feet deep and erected poles in each of the 4 corners.  The corner posts carried the roof construction, which consisted smaller poles covered with branches and finally topped with a mixture of clay/mud/leaves, which, when dry, became watertight.  Today we know this clay mixture as adobe.  The Pueblos were not metalworkers.  Their tools were formed from stone, bone and wood.  Stone axes were used to cut trees and form the 30-odd poles needed for a pit-house. 

A ventilation hole was left open in the middle of the roof to allow the smoke from the interior fire to escape.  Typically, a small hole was dug alongside the pit house with a tunnel from the vertical hole into the home.  This was a “suction hole”, allowing fresh air to come into the house when a fire was lit.  The hole in the roof also served as the doorway (a ladder was erected there).

Building a pit-house was a major undertaking (considering that only stone-age tools were available).  So was maintenance.  Typically the roof needed major repairs after the spring rains and run-off, after 20 years of so, the wooden support poles would have rotted and need replacement.

In the middle of the 8th century, the Pueblos began to build above ground, still using adobe but now formed into bricks.  Around 1000 AD they discarded the adobe and began forming bricks from sandstone and building houses in 1-2 stories.

They continued build underground.  Now the pit-houses became round and deeper; with a flat roof and were no longer used for dwellings.  They became what we now know as kivas and were used for religious ceremonies or other vital meetings.  Kivas are still found in the 21 Pueblos that exist in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.  Most are “common kivas”, meaning they are in the center of the Pueblo and used as a gathering place for the tribe, although some houses have their own kiva.

From 1150-1300 AD the Pueblos built and lived in the cliff dwellings we now call Mesa Verde.  The cliff dwellings were built into the alcoves and semi-caves on the cliff wall while in front of the dwellings; they built kivas and other common structures.  The Pueblos now began to organize their villages, each village having a “town council”.  They became clan oriented; clan membership was inherited through the mother.  According to Hopi legend, each clan had its own acreage for agriculture and its own kiva.

As we drive through Mesa Verde, we see some of these well-preserved ruins.

The Cliff Palace consisted of 150 rooms.  Perhaps it was a village consisting of more than one clan or perhaps it was an administrative center.  The cliff dwellings were reached by paths that ran along the cliffs, ladders or hand and footholds that were hacked into the cliff wall.

Spruce Tree House was built in 1270 (dated via tree rings).  This impressive site boasts 120 room, 8 kivas and is the third largest habitation in the park.  It is thought this was the home of 19 families totaling 80-90 members.  Some of the doorways are shaped like “Ts”.  No one knows why, perhaps it has a religious significance.

Square Tower House was smaller, “only” 60 rooms and 8 kivas.  The house has been built on unstable ground and this, combined with parts of the cliff wall collapsing has damaged the house.  Until 5 years ago, tourists were allowed to wander through this house, but it is now closed to the public.  The Pueblos were constantly maintaining these cliff dwellings and so is the current owner, the federal government.  This house has been repaired and renovated every decade since the 1930’s.  Despite this, over 90% is still authentic.

Sun Temple is a D-shaped building. The other dwellings here are all C-shaped.  Sun Temple had, in all probability, a different function than a dwelling.  Almost certainly it was a built for either social or religious purposes.

Mesa Verde has been a most interesting visit for us, especially for me.  Carsten and I will be spending Christmas with my brother-in-law, Carl, who lives next door to San Juan Pueblo.  I’m hoping he can arrange for me to visit and climb down into a kiva there.  That would be a Christmas present to remember.

Tomorrow morning we’ll leave and drive into Utah to visit Canyonlands National Park.

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