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<H1>Mesa Verde Country: On the Trail of the Ancients</H1>

Some of American's most intriguing mysteries surround the Anasazi culture of Mesa Verde. Modern Anthropology is uncovering many secrets about these ancient people including the fact that they are the ancestors of the modern day Pueblo tribes, thus the name has been changed. Today, they are called Ancient Puebloans. Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning "Ancient People" or "Ancient Enemy" and offensive to the Pueblo tribes.

I recently had an unbelievable trip learning many secrets about these ancient Native Americans. We visited not only Mesa Verde National Park, which may be the heart of the story but not the complete story, but many other sites. Our anthropologist/guide, Jim Colleran, told us there are many thousands of sites. Many on private property. In Montezuma County Colorado alone there are over 20.000 sites.

Cortez Cultural Center

We began our explorations with a trip to the . It's housed in a 1909 building that was originally the E. R. Lamb Mercantile. The center provides a good insight into Native American and old west history. Every night except Sunday they offer either old west historical or Native American presentations. The night we visited, there was a skilled Lakota dancer and storyteller, named Samuel Kills In Sight.

Lakota dancer, Samuel Killls in Sight, at Cortez Cultural Center in Muntezuma county Colorado 
Samuel Kills In Sight preforming a ceremonial dance

He told us how his people get their names based on something they or a ancestor does, His should have been "Kills Inside" but got changed due to faulty translation. He got it from his grandfather who, along with another brave, raided a fort while his tribe was at war with the U.S. government. His grandfather rode in to the fort first and killed the soldiers inside. The other brave came out with a herd of cavalry horses, all branded with "U.S." That brave became famous as "American Horse."

Cortea Cultural Center interior 
Cortez Cultural Center is a great resource in understanding Native Americans' way of life.

The center has art and artifacts to help understand life "way back in the day." The exterior outside of the building is painted to look like a cliff dwelling. It made me long to see the real thing.

Cortez Cultural Center cliff dwelling painting on exterior wall 
Realistic artwork on the side of Cortez Cultural Center

Mesa Verde National Park

Next morning we went to visit the real thing, Mesa Verde National Park. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so you know it will be spectacular. The timing has to be right when you take this trip. Although the park is open year round, many of the sites are only do-able April to October due to weather conditions.

<h2>road into Mesa Verde National Park</h2>
It's a long drive from the park visitor center  into the park but scenery is gorgeous

Besides the many ancient ruins you can visit, the park also has a top-notch museum. Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum offers a lot of artifacts as well as dioramas depicting Ancestral Puebloan life and a chronology of Ancestral Puebloan culture. There is a interesting film shown that acquaints you with the park. It is open year round.

Another good way to acquaint yourself with the park is to take the "700 Years Tour." It really last four hours but gets the name because it visits the sites in chronological order beginning with the earliest pit houses dated to about 600AD and ending with a tour of Cliff Palace, one of the latest sites

700 Years Tour bus at Mesa Verde National Park
Our 700 Years Tour bus

The pit house ruins are partially outdoors and some under a modern shelter to protect them.  Not much is left but remnants of the walls Still anthropologists learned a lot based on the remnants left behind and timber used in the building. A new science of dating by tree rings called Dendrochronology lets anthropologist know to the year and sometimes to the season when a tree was felled and used in building ancient homes.

pit houses at Mesa Verde National Park
Remnants of earliest type of pit houses

Pit houses were simple. Just a round hold dug in the earth, surrounded with stone walls a few feet high. The interior was separated into two rooms, one main room for most everyday activities and a smaller room for storage or perhaps private times. They were covered with an elaborately interwoven series of timbers laid crisscross and covered with clay for a roof. Entry was by way of a ladder from the roof. There was a section used as a kitchen with a firepit dug into the ground. Cooking at this period was done by dropping searing hot stones from the fire into baskets to cook food. Simple grinding utensils were found for grinding corn. Manos, smooth hand-held stones, were used to grind the grains against a metate, a large stone with a slight depression in it.

 Pit house at Mesa Verde National Park
Typical pit house with large room towards the front and smaller back room

In the earlier years, the Ancestral Puebloans were hunters and gathers before the pit house era and skeletons found from that early period, called "Basketmaker Culture," showed only normal tooth problems. Pit house people on through later cliff dwellers' skeletons showed sever tooth problems and missing teeth. Anthropologists determined that the corn grinding methods were to blame. The stones used to grind also left small grains of rock in the cornmeal causing tooth damage.

Manos and metates  in pit house at Mesa Verde National Park
Close up of manos and metates used for grinding grain

At this time they were evolving from the use of just baskets to pottery, allowing for more secure storage of their food and better cooking methods. Their hunting weapons earlier only atlatl, at this period they included bows and arrows.  

Kivas seem to have developed from the pit houses. They have a similar structure, the hole in the earth and the same roof covering. They were used for more for ceremonial purposes. We saw many different versions but all had certain similarities.  The fire pit was centrally located, and there was a ventilation sort of stone chimney.  A flat slab was set in front of the vent to divert the smoke. We get a glimpse of the Ancestral Puebloans religion here. All their kivas had small holes in the floor called a sipapu. They believed these sipapus represented the place where their ancestors and the first people emerged from Middle Earth.

Kiva  at Mesa Verde National Park
A typical kiva design. The chimney vent is off the left edge with a stone to dirvert the smoke.
Square pillars once held timbers to support the roof and note the sipapu behind the firepit.

Another Mesa top site I found amazing for its detail after all this time was Far View complex, built around 900AD and used until 1300AD when the area was abandoned.  There were about 50 villages and hundreds of people in this small area. Far View House, Pipe Shrine House, Coyote Village, Far View Reservoir, Megalithic House, and Far View Tower are all accessible via a short trial off the min park road.

Far View House  at Mesa Verde National Park
Far View House is a great example of the pueblo style built on top the mesas.

One petroglyph inscribed on the south side of Pipe Shrine House intrigued me. It's a spiral carved onto a stone on the top row in the center of the wall. It's placed where it would be easily seen and must have been important to these people.  It is one of the most common symbolc seen in petroglyphs universally. Anthropologist, Jim Colleran, told us it is believed to be a religious symbol referring to the Ancestral Puebloan belief that the first people emerged from the earth and spiraled out forming the different peoples of the earth.

Engraved spiral art work at Mesa Verde National Park
This spiral carving is found in many cultures.

Sun Temple is another interesting mesa ruin. It's built in a "D" shape and scientists believe it was an astrological observatory and temple dedicated to worship of the moon. Our 700 Years Tour guide, Paul, explained how the sun lined up at exactly a specific place during the Winter Solstice. Also there is a specific alignment of the sun with Cliff Palace just across Fewkes Canyon.

Passage in Sun Temple  at Mesa Verde National Park
The sun aligns directly down this passageway at Sun Temple on certain days.

Cliff Palace is one of two sites in the park you need to put on the top of your list if time is limited. Do not miss this treasure no matter what! Seen from across the canyon, it looks like a miniature castle. On a ranger guided tour lasting about an hour, you climb 120 steps cut into the cliff side and climb five, 8 to10 foot ladders for a 100 foot cliff climb. Total walking distance is about 1/4-mile round-trip. It's worth the effort when you step into its fairy tale interior. Up close, it's no longer miniature, it's massive.

Cliff Palace  at Mesa Verde National Park
Note the five kivas to the front of Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace has 150 rooms and 23 kivas. The tower stands about four stories almost reaching the overhanging cliff roof. The "city" was divided into two separate clans. Important because Ancestral Puebloans were forbidden to marry in their own clan. Anthropologists believe that in its heyday, it had a population of approximately 100 people.  It was constructed between1190 AD and 1260AD. By 1300AD Cliff Palace was abandoned.

Upper part of Cliff Palace  at Mesa Verde National Park
Some of Cliff Palace dwellings look like the residents just left a few days ago.

The other gem you should not miss if you are physically able is Balcony House. It's a strenuous trek. You must first descend the rugged steps leading 100 feet down into the canyon. Then you climb the 32-foot entrance ladder hanging from the almost vertical cliff wall. Once inside you are faced with a narrow tunnel and passageway. It's worth every drop of sweat you shed.  This 40-room, two-story masonry dwelling place is much more intimate than Cliff Palace.

Ladder leading to Balcony House  at Mesa Verde National Park
The 33 foot climb into the Balcony House is best done not looking back.

Like modern condo dwellers, view must have been important to these folks. The second floor of the north plaza is connected by a balcony so they could have stepped out of their homes and looked down 600 feet into Soda Canyon. They could also have gone to visit other second floor neighbors by way of the balcony rather than having to go down to the grounds floor and climb a ladder to the second.

 Balcony House  at Mesa Verde National Park
Note the balconys on the second floor dwellings.

The twin side by side kivas tell how important religion and ceremony was to these people. As in all the cliff dwellings, the doors are tiny and ones entering public places like the kivas, were keyhole shaped. Men of that time were about 5'4" to 5'6" and women around 5'1 or 5'2".

Woman emerging from small passageway  Balcony House  at Mesa Verde National Park
The passageway the Ancestral Puebloans built make it easy to stop an enemy trying to get in.

Shadows of a sad ending are still visible at Balcony House. Your exit, which was originally the entrance, is by way of a narrow passageway and a climb down a steep cliff wall. (There are ladders there today.) In the later construction there is a narrow, 12-foot-long tunnel that must be crawled through. These would have been very effective in restricting entry in case of an enemy attack. By 1300AD Balcony House was also abandoned.

 Ladder leading back to the mesa from Balcony House  at Mesa Verde National Park
The modern day exit was originally the Ancestral Puebloan's entrance minus the ladder.
Glad I didn't look down as I was climbing back to the mesa top.

This was once a great mystery and still boggles the mind. Rangers told us that the reasons were multiple ones. A drought that lasted for about 20 years occurred. Ancestral Puebloans were dry farmers meaning the depended on seasonal rains and snowfall for watering crops.  By now, the increased population had pretty much hunted out the nearby area and cut most of the trees needed for firewood.  Other factors related to this loss of food supply and an increased population created strife among a formerly peace loving people. No evidence of outside invaders was found. With little food, firewood and with the possibility of attack by other clans, there was little choice. Ancient Puebloans took what they could carry and left everything else behind. They moved south to where there were rivers, more game and untouched land. Remember these people had no horses or pack animals. They domesticated turkeys and dogs. They had no wheels so when they left there was no easy way to take their processions.

Mesa Verde National Park is a treasure that can't be seen in just one day but there is so much more to the story of the Ancestral Puebloans in Colorado. It can't all be told in one story. Check in for "the rest of the story" next issue (Oct. 1, 2016).

For more info:




Highlights from Mesa Verde Country: On the Trail of the Ancients:  Part 2

Next issue learn about Hovenweep National Monument, Cajun ruins in the midst of the Navajo Nation, Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, Anasazi Heritage Center, A modern Navajo trading post and other sites.




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