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Something to get straight from the very start – there never was a tribe of Indians called the ‘Anasazi’. The name derives from a Navajo word, loosely translated as ‘ancient enemy’, first used by archaeologists looking for a common name to identify people living in the ‘Four Corners’ area where New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Arizona meet.
Modern pueblo Indians living in Arizona and New Mexico are descended from the ‘Anasazi’ and they make pilgrimages to ancestral sites and maintain an oral history that includes these places, but as the title is considered to be pejorative it is nowadays usual to refer to these ancient inhabitants as the ‘Ancestral Pueblo Peoples’.
Artefact evidence shows that people successfully lived and farmed these mesa areas from around 10,000 BCE, with gradual evolution from nomadic hunting and gathering into a relatively static and agrarian lifestyle, and that their houses and other buildings evolved in a similar way, from isolated and semi-subterranean ‘pit-houses’ into small villages of interconnected houses and store-rooms able to shelter an entire clan or extended family.
From circa 1100 to 1300 CE, the area saw an intriguing final phase of development. Between these dates, the people began moving their dwellings from the river valleys and the tops of the mesas into the shallow caves and massive overhangs that abound in the sandstone strata of this region.
After almost 1,000 years, archaeologists are unclear why this transition took place, but as the new cliff-dwellings offered significant environmental and security advantages over the previous above-ground structures, then it is probable that a combination of climatic and social change was the principal motivation for a very significant investment of time and effort in building these well-crafted and extensive settlements.
Then, quite suddenly (on an archaeological time scale), the record of occupation of the cliff-dwellings comes to an end. Over a relatively short period, the sites are abandoned and the people move elsewhere, leaving behind valuable objects and possessions, thereby posing the most commonly asked Mesa Verde questions: “why did they leave, and where did they go”.
Archaeological opinions differ about the exact reasons for the abandonment of the sites, but it seems that the people were driven out by long-term climate change, with increased aridity, shortened frost-free growing seasons and gradual exhaustion of the available arable land by over-cropping.
Examination of tree-ring growth patterns shows that cycles of persistent drought and very low temperatures occurred several times during this period, and this, perhaps compounded by internal socio-political strife, deforestation and other environmental problems, probably caused final abandonment.
What is certain are the final destinations of those involved in this diaspora; the people moved in a south-westerly direction, down to lower altitudes and into the territories of friendly tribes, where their descendants became fully assimilated into the pueblo people of the present day
After abandonment, the dust of centuries settled on the ruins and the cliff-dwellings became ‘lost cities’ – relatively unknown to European settlers, although two doughty Franciscan Friars had confirmed the presence of significant Indian ruins in the area during their epic 1776 exploration and mapping expedition of the interior West.
Apart from these revelations, the sites remained untouched and were revered by local tribes as holy places until 1888, when the area was accidentally re-discovered by two cowboys named Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, together with a Ute Indian named Acowitz.
At the time, the discovery was sensational, because the European settlers that had taken the land away from the indigenous people(s) didn’t want to acknowledge hard evidence that the country really belonged to someone else, or that people capable of building such structures had been there first. They also had an eye for a quick buck, because the early treatment of the re-discovered sites was shameful. Wetherill and his cronies, together with local people, allegedly excavated the whole area looking for artefacts to sell to the tourists who flocked to the area when the discoveries were publicised.
On a happier note, the whole area was made into a National Park in 1906 and the sites are now carefully preserved, with the modern pueblo peoples having strong representation on the committees governing archaeological digs and the display of materials. The photos are from a couple of trips that we made to Mesa Verde from Durango, Colorado. Click the images to enlarge.
Typical high country mesa, very hot in summer, very cold in winter
Large settlements, but only occupied for about 100 years
Viewed from above, one of several large settlements
The circular ‘Kivas’ can be clearly seen
The settlement was a maze of buildings and interconnecting tunnels
The remains of two ‘Kivas’, pits in the ground that were central to Anasazi culture
Log roof beams and floor joists have survived well in the very dry desert climate
The quality of masonry was good, although additions and extensions were not ‘toothed’ onto the original construction
Originally, the Anasazi cultivated their crops on top of the mesa
Every bit of space was used
Huge stone overhangs with ‘desert varnish’ stains (manganese metal oxides)
Square Tower House
Look for evidence of steps cut into the rock, left of centre and up a bit
General view, top of Kiva ladders protruding
Looking down into the Kiva
Nightfall – Lookout Mesa guards the valley