Colorado's Mesa Verde

Colorado's mesa verde mystery of the ancient ones

Colorado holds an ancient mystery. The trail is cold and 700 years old. Archae-ologists are the detectives. Some of the clues remain inscrutable, but others give us a glimpse of a civilization that flourished for 700 years in the southwest corner of Colorado and then vanished.

To follow that cold trail, I traveled to Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, fully expecting stunning scenery to go with the mystery. But then I walked around a little outcropping in Mesa Verde National Park and saw my first cliff dwelling, Cliff Palace. Astonished, I stopped dead in my tracks. Here, improbably, was a beautiful city built into rugged cliffs in the middle of nowhere, looking remarkably like a 20th-century cityscape fading into the hollow of the same-color cliff.

I had plenty of company in my quest. About 800,000 visitors a year travel from all over the world to see Mesa Verde National Park. Because of its "outstanding archaeological remains and importance in preserving the global heritage of mankind," it was named a World Heritage Site in 1978 by UNESCO-the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

Doing our part to reach the 800,000 number were six other travel writers and me. We'd all been to plenty of scenic, historic places, but this was way out of the ordinary, and somehow disquieting. "I feel like I'm in a time warp," said one, and I knew what she meant.

This particular time warp isn't limited to Mesa Verde. The Four Corners area-where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet at a single point-has pockets of abandoned cliff dwellings and ancient pueblos all over. Next to Mesa Verde is the Ute Mountain Tribal Park with its own cliff dwellings. At the tribal park, Boyd Lopez, brother of our guide, told me, perhaps teasing, that he never came to the area of the cliff dwellings in the park except on business. "Strange things happen here," he said. "Something could push you, and you'd never see anything."

Why the Anasazi began building in inaccessible cliff cavities in the 1200s is anyone's guess. Maybe they wanted to leave the land on top of the mesa free for farming, or they wanted to keep rain and snow off the mud that sheathed and grouted their buildings. Defense against enemies is another obvious reason to build there. In fact, a battle site dated about 1250 was recently discovered in nearby Crow Canyon. Archaeologist Doug Bowman, director of Colorado University's museum and cultural park in nearby Cortez, backs this up by saying the local Ute tribe has a story of an ancient battle, but there's no hard evidence the Utes were here then. Whatever the reasons, they built thousands of cliff dwellings throughout the Four Corners area. Though many have been ransacked for artifacts, only a few have been cleared of rubble, stabilized and studied by archaeologists. They come in all sizes, from "cities" like Cliff Palace to tiny storage caches tucked into crannies in remote cliffs.

In Mesa Verde National Park, there are five you can tour and 11 other major ruins you can see from park roads. Touring the open ones is fascinating. You can look into rooms and guess at daily life there 700 years ago or climb down a ladder into a circular kiva-dim, quiet and cool, with a stone bench around the edge. Kivas were religious spaces and probably social centers. You can examine the construction close up and think about how long it took to chip a sandstone rock into a beautifully finished building block and admire the way the Anasazi fitted their buildings to the hollow of the cliff.

The doorways, a foot or two off the floor, seem strange until you think about them. If you were accustomed to having an entrance in the roof-the only way you could get into a pit house or an early pueblo-it wouldn't seem odd to have one high on a wall, and if you were raising small children and lived in the side of the cliff, you'd want to keep the little ones from running out the door by themselves. You'd also want to keep the domesticated turkeys and dogs outside, I imagine.

How on earth-or rather, off of it-they carried burdens up or down to their houses is another problem. Baskets that could be strapped onto the back have been found (the Anasazi were great basketmakers from earliest times), and the people made ladders and carved handholds and toeholds into the rock face. These are only big enough for the tips of the fingers and toes; agility was crucial if you were to be a cliff dweller.

Who were these nimble builders? Doug Bowman says a better name for the Anasazi is "Northern San Juan Pueblo People." Because of similarities in their art, building styles and kivas, many think the Anasazi are ancestors of the Hopi and other Pueblo Native Americans of the Southwest.

The trash dumped down the cliffs in front of the dwellings offers clues to daily Anasazi life. They wore sandals made of yucca leaves and fibers, wove belts from dog and human hair and used blankets woven of yucca fibers with turkey feathers worked in for softness and warmth. They grew beans, corn and squash and hunted with atlatls and bows and arrows. The atlatl-and-spear combination was great for hunting big game, but the advent of the bow and arrow increased accuracy and ability to hit small prey. The bow and arrow was the only device to come from the north-from Russia across the ancient land bridge that is now Bering Strait.

All other influences on Anasazi culture came from the south, including beans and corn.

Mesa Verde and its canyons were on trade routes extending over the Southwest and down into Mexico. Mesa Verdians had jewelry made of shells from the Pacific, they had "foreign" turquoise, and some of their pottery was made from nonlocal clays and decorated with designs from far-distant tribes.

Not only did they have active trade, the Anasazi were a vast, thriving culture, with as many or more people in the area than today's population. It's hard to imagine a people flourishing in this arid, sparsely vegetated landscape, but the Anasazi had topography on their side. Mesa Verde, literally "green table," is a huge, elevated plain cut by canyons and tilted toward the south. Its high elevation helped it snag rain clouds, and the southward tilt soaked up more sun and warmth and gave it a longer growing season. Water was still scarce, but the people were clever and built little dams to trap runoff, and their corn was drought-resistant. Beginning in the 1200s, they put enormous amounts of work into building their cliff dwellings, lived in them a generation or so, and then left. Did the legendary battle with the Utes drive them off? Did their crops fail?

The Anasazi managed to survive several major droughts. There was another long drought from 1276-1300. But it was no worse than others they'd weathered, so we're still unsure why they left in the late 1200s in such numbers that by 1300, they were all gone. Perhaps the population had grown so large it couldn't survive the last drought's cutback in food production. Another theory has to do with religion. The beliefs of the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest is centered on balance-between men and women, nature and humans and in all things. The very success of the Anasazi culture and their increasing population may have upset the balance, so that people became afraid and fled. The last groups of dwellings they built had many more religion-centered kivas than earlier ones.

Recently discovered evidence of possible mass, ritualistic killing might support the idea of religious hysteria; perhaps the victims strayed too far from the straight and narrow, and others, fearing they might meet the same fate, or afraid of contamination from the ideas of the wayward ones, left.

Archaeologists have studied Mesa Verde for nearly a century, and they still aren't sure. Some ruins are deliberately left alone, awaiting the day scientists come up with new interpretive tools. Excavation is hard on the ruins, too; all that tumble-down rubble helps support what hasn't tumbled yet.

Prospectors may have been the first non-Native Americans to see many of the cliff dwellings, but they were interested in precious metals, not sandstone ruins. Photographer William Henry Jackson, recording mining activities for the Photographic Division of the U.S. Geological and Geographic Survey of the Territories in 1874, was led to Two Story Cliff House in Mancos Canyon by a miner named Moss. They clambered up to it in the evening, and Jackson later remembered "from this height we had a glorious view over the surrounding canyon walls, while far below our campfire glimmered in the deepening shadows like a far away little red star."

In the mid 1880s, writer Virginia McClurg came to research prehistoric cities of the Southwest for the New York Graphic. She and a companion explored several cliff dwellings, and she launched a crusade to preserve them.

The exploration of cliff dwellings didn't really get going until December 1888 when local rancher Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law came upon the ruins of Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House and Square Tower House in the space of two days. Wetherill was hooked and spent much of his life excavating ruins and gathering artifacts.

He was joined for a few months by Gustaf Nordenskiöld whose buggy pulled up to the Wetherill house in 1890. Nordenskiöld, a Swede, had heard of Indian dwellings from a friend in Denver and came to investigate. He quickly got into the swing of exploring and collecting artifacts. At the time, there were no laws against removal of artifacts, although eyebrows were raised when he shipped a bunch of them to Sweden. Nordenskiöld had a scientific education and led Wetherill to record where each artifact was found. And most of them were sold to museums.

You can still find bits of pottery near the ruins. The Anasazi had simple grayware, coiled and corrugated grayware and beautiful black and white pieces with designs and figures. At Castle Rock, the trailhead of Sand Canyon, I saw bits of corrugated and black and white pottery on the path, exposed by recent rainfall. In the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, Ute guide Buddy Lopez led us up a roadside path to examine some petroglyphs (designs chiseled into rock). Along the way was a huge, flat-topped boulder nearly covered with pottery shards left there by visitors who couldn't bear to leave them where they found them, as they should have, but knew enough not to carry them off.

Wetherill and others, on the other hand, carried off whole pots and baskets. The Anasazi left so many items behind that archaeologists wonder if they left their houses in a hurry. While Wetherill searched the ruins for artifacts, Virginia McClurg was still working to protect the cliff dwellings. She teamed up with another woman, Lucy Peabody, who knew her way around political Washington. The women achieved success on June 29, 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill creating Mesa Verde National Park. It was the first park set aside to preserve the works of man.

No sooner was the park officially opened then visitors came to see the sights-on horseback in a pack train. It took three days to make the round trip from the little town of Mancos. The first horse-drawn wagon to clatter into the park traveled as far as park headquarters on the brand-new entrance road in 1913, and a year later the first automobiles-six of them-to attempt the trek made the round trip from Mancos in just one day. They and all the cars that followed had to negotiate the park's infamous Knife Edge Road-narrow, with harrowing dropoffs-until a tunnel was completed in 1957. Now motoring is much easier.

Approaching some of the ruins on foot looks daunting, but aside from a few twisted ankles every year, the throngs of visitors negotiate the paths and ladders with ease, except me, in one case. At the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, my group had to wait on the edge of a vast canyon (it looked bottomless to me) for another group to come out. Guide Buddy Lopez stood on this big, smooth rock overhanging the (bottomless) canyon, then took another step even closer to the edge. The fear of heights I'd managed to ignore so far welled up in me and got a stranglehold on all my vital organs. We waited a while longer, with Buddy still out on the edge, and I decided to skip this part of the trip. Sometimes you just have to take care of the little kid in yourself.

My cowardice gave me the unexpected opportunity to explore the top of the mesa, venture down toward (not to) the edge at different points and watch a tiny lizard go about its business. And I got to meet Boyd Lopez, who confirmed my fear with his talk of "strange things" happening here. Boyd played a part in an adventure our group had later that day. The Ute Mountain Tribal Park is vast, and all its roads are gravel. Our van had already blown a tire on that gravel, so we were traveling on one of those absurd little "pretend" spare tires and several prayers. Buddy was ahead of us in his own vehicle, trailing a cloud of dust and nearly out of the tribal park, when the spare quit pretending and blew. There we were, seven mostly middle-aged women, a van with only three tires, and dusk coming on. Buddy's cloud of dust died down up ahead and we were alone.

As we advanced our seven different ideas of what to do next, everybody talking and nobody listening, who should pull up behind us but our friend Boyd, coming to the rescue with his cellular phone. Next to appear in the distance was a shiny little red pickup. Aha! Transportation! We leaned out all available windows and hollered and waved down the pickup. The two young Navajo gentlemen in the pickup were willing to take us to the Ute Mountain Casino and modern civilization, so we piled into the back and road off into the sunset (except it was the other direction), shouting to each other over the dusty wind and feeling like teenagers, but hardly looking the part. This was our introduction to the casino, small, friendly, and with all the expected computerized sounds and blinking lights of one-armed bandits plus a restaurant. Having already gambled on a spare tire and lost, we saved the casino for another day and caught a ride back to our motel in Cortez on the casino shuttle.

The driver, a Navajo woman named Sarah Billy, was stuck with a load of inquisitive journalists who began plying her with questions about "skin walkers." I'm not very clear on this, but these are some of the things she said: "Anybody can learn to be a skin walker. They can go places fast and used to fly-overseas and back in less than a day. If a skin walker walks on your grave, your leg will ache. Skin walkers wear a lot of jewelry and paint up their faces. If you recognize a skin walker, he will die. If they're shot; they can't say anything or it will kill them." More mystery. Sarah's people and the Lopez brothers', the Navajos and Utes, are now the dominant Native American cultures in the land of the Anasazi. Whether or not the Utes were here doing battle with the Anasazi in 1250, we're pretty sure they were here about 1450. The white man's relentless land grabs finally pushed the Utes into what is now the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation that wraps around the southern part of Mesa Verde National Park and extends westward into Utah. When Mesa Verde was made a national park, it was discovered that some of the major ruins were part of Ute land, so the Utes and the federal government swapped part of the reservation for Ute Mountain-"The Sleeping Ute"-revered by the tribe.

Navajos live in Cortez because it's one of the few towns of any size near Navajo reservation lands in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. They like Cortez for its job opportunities and schools, though education on the reservation extends through junior college.

Utes and Navajos, wary of the spirits of those who came before, tend to avoid the ruins, although Buddy Lopez and others conduct guided tours to their own park's cliff dwellings and other ruins.

I think I understand their reluctance. There is a feeling that these places still belong to the Anasazi, not to us. I'm from the wrong century; and my pale European ancestry makes me an interloper in the land of the ancient ones. Maybe I was gullible to believe what Boyd Lopez told me about "strange things," but at that time, in the land of the Anasazi, I half believed him.

Ritual Murder Mystery

Doug Bowman, archaeologist and director of Colorado University's CU Center in Cortez, shared some chilling recent discoveries with us. Of the 50,000 or so known Anasazi sites in the Four Corners area, there are about two dozen with mystifying scenes of brutal killing. This didn't happen in battle, and it apparently wasn't outsiders who did it. Piled in kivas or rooms just off of kivas are heaps of broken bones of men, women and children.

The condition of the bones tells us the people were murdered with a blunt instrument, then chopped into small pieces. All the flesh was removed from the bones, and then every single bone was broken. According to some Native American traditions, breaking the bones releases evil spirits. What manner of evil spirit could have inspired such killing and total mutilation? These murder scenes are all dated to the 13th century, the time the Anasazi were leaving. Perhaps they're a clue to why they left, if we could only understand it.


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