Colorado Cliff Dwellings of Mesa Verde

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The alcove pueblos of Mesa Verde: once home, now empty. Even after a century of archaeological and anthropological digging, there are still many questions

 By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones   

“FOR A PUEBLOAN PERSON, everything you do, see and breathe is spiritual,” begins guide Mike Petrose. “Not that we’re the same, but the energy that built us is the same.”

Petrose has the daunting task of interpreting the ruins of the Puebloan people at Mesa Verde National Park. It’s a whirlwind tour of seven centuries of history told through the evolution of architecture at the archaeological site. We have four hours.

Mesa Verde is the only U.S. national park that is based primarily on human activity rather than natural features. The park protects the remains of thousands of cliff dwellings, pithouses, kivas (traditional ceremonial rooms) and stone structures, all built 2,600 metres atop the flat-topped mesa in southwest Colorado.

It takes a while to sink in, for us to wrap our imaginations around it: it’s so remote from our own experience and so vast in scale. Thousands of people lived in these dwellings – embedded into the sides of cliffs at Mesa Verde, built on the very edge of nowhere. The more we learn about them, it seems the more they appear to have figured out what they needed to live, perhaps even thrive, in this brutally challenging environment.

“Drought is the norm here,” says Petrose. “It means sub-standard moisture – but it was enough for early varieties of corn, beans and squash to grow using dry farming techniques that depend on rainfall. The vegetation was mostly edible and useful. Plants like the broadleaf yucca were like a Wal-Mart to the native people. Every bit of cordage – from string to twine to sewing thread – came from that one plant.”

THERE ARE STILL MANY QUESTIONS, even after a century of archaeological and anthropological digging.

Why did they migrate to where the geography is harsh and unforgiving, dry and exposed to the elements, teetering on the cliff face, hard to get into and hard to get out of? Why did they suddenly leave generations later after putting so much ingenuity and labour into these elaborate homes and ceremonial kivas? Was it conflict with other peoples? Was it a change in trading patterns – patterns that extended all the way to Mesoamerica? Was it a quarter-century of drought that dried out the vegetation? Was it some combination of all these or perhaps the belief that their spiritual creators had other plans for them?

Petrose tackles one of the most common misconceptions. “The ancestral Puebloans never vanished. We know where they are – they moved. We find them along the Rio Grande and on the Hopi lands right square in the middle of the Navajo Nation.”

Most of what we know today comes from two primary sources: oral traditions among the successor peoples along the Rio Grande, scattered across the Colorado Plateau and down into southern New Mexico and Arizona, and extensive and ongoing scientific investigation based on architecture, pottery and historical analysis of leftover materials.

Somehow, between gathering food, water, tending animals and children, they hand-built brick and mud dwellings in the cliff face, filled these with articles of clothing and thousands of hand-crafted baskets and clay pots – bringing the clay from great distances to use for storage of food and water. They domesticated dogs and turkeys – whose feathers they used for clothing – and did everything, including transporting water, by hand. They achieved this all without beasts of burden, the horse or the wheel.

Late in the afternoon we carefully step down the stairs to the imposing ruins at Cliff Palace; at one time it had 150 rooms and 23 kivas and is the largest excavated cliff dwelling in the northwestern hemisphere. The sun is dropping low in the sky, and the sandstone turns to a honey gold.

“Think about it,” muses our guide. “They were here for a long time – 750 years. That’s twice as long as the United States has been a country.”

It is indeed a long time. And for travellers who enjoy a good puzzle, delving into unanswered questions while immersed in an authentic setting, Mesa Verde is your place.


Tips for visiting Mesa Verde:

  • The word pueblo means village in Spanish. The term Puebloan describes a village-style living arrangement. In the Southwest more than 20 pueblos trace their ancestors to the ancient centres at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. These tribes include the Hopi, Zuni and Tohono O’odham.
  • At this elevation, there is about 20 per cent less oxygen than at sea level. Take it slow, stop and rest, or you’ll be huffing and puffing climbing the stairs and ladders.
  • Mesa Verde is at a moderately high altitude. Learn the signs of altitude sickness.
  • The 700 Years Tour takes four hours and is offered twice a day. The guides use architecture to illustrate the changes in Puebloan society across more than seven centuries. Reservations recommended.
  • Wear good walking shoes, slather on the sunscreen and drink plenty of water.
  • Camping at the park’s Morefield Campground is a fantastic experience. Be prepared to share the surroundings with mule deer, raccoons, black bear and the occasional bobcat and elk.


Who’s writing

Our journey continues. Travel and exploration have become a lifestyle. Taking her expertise (travel writing) and his experience (as a professional musician, teacher and freelance writer), stirring it together and seeing what happens. Add a camper van (a 20-foot Leisure Travel Class B, for those who need the specs), an easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and a chance to escape the never-ending winter of 2013/14. We’ve got a file full of maps and a GPS nicknamed “Hal” that sometimes toys with us (we prefer the maps).