The mystery of Mesa Verde

Story by Linda DuVal Photos by Rick DuVal

MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo. – The story of Mesa Verde so intrigues visitors that few walk away without having pondered its mysteries: Why did the people who lived here build their homes in the cliff-side alcoves, and why did they suddenly disappear?

There are many theories, from the mundane to the dramatic. And those theories have evolved over the years.

Perhaps the ancestral Puebloan people (sometimes called Anasazi) moved from the mesa top to carve new homes out of the cliff sides because they were protecting themselves from an enemy. Perhaps they sought the shelter of the cliffs from winter’s cold and summer’s heat (the cliff dwellings are warmer in winter, and cooler than the mesa top in summer). And perhaps, after a lengthy drought, people moved off the top in order to cultivate every usable inch of land. Perhaps they were afraid of the fires that occasionally explode on the mesa tops.

“It’s not totally a mystery. We know quite a lot about these people,” says Linda Martin, who was for 36 years a supervisory ranger at the park. 

Cliff Palace Kiva.Over the years, Martin has heard all the theories, and has her favorites. “When they moved down into the alcoves in the late 1190s and early 1200s, there had been a short but widespread and drastic drought,” she says. That supports the theory that they moved to create more space for growing corn, beans and squash.

“But not all of them moved down,” she says. “Any time there is a shortage of food and water, it creates strife among people. In every society, there is some violence, especially with that kind of stress.”

Neighbors may have turned on each other, some moving into the alcoves for protection or just separation. There are, however, no significant signs that major warfare happened here, and of the 400 or 500 burial sites, few of the occupants show signs of violent death.

As to why the residents left, it may not have been caused by a catastrophic event, as some have theorized.

“This was a center for trade. These people knew what was going on in the rest of the world,” Martin says. “Human nature being what it is, maybe they just got curious and decided to go check it out. To see if there was a better opportunity, or a better life, somewhere else.”

She suspects, from what is known about the ancestral Puebloan culture, that they were religious and superstitious. Perhaps they thought the drought was the gods telling them it was time to move on. Or maybe the reasons for leaving were subtler yet. 

“Sometimes I think we don’t consider the basic tendency of human nature to explore – not everyone who came to America from Europe came because of a potato famine or religious persecution. Some just came seeking a new opportunity, a different way of life, a change.” 

Cliff Palace exit.What makes Mesa Verde unique is not just the fact that its inhabitants planned, engineered and constructed these amazing cliff dwellings, but that they managed to live in this inconvenient place (climbing up the cliffs to tend crops, down to the streams to fetch water) for hundreds of years. And, if current thought – that the Hopis (among other area tribes) are direct descendants of the Puebloan people – that they moved to an even more inhospitable climate, and thrived there. 

Most national parks are devoted to the glories of nature; this one was the first devoted to the ingenuity of people when it was established more than a century ago, in 1906. 

Both man and nature have battered it.

Mesa Verde has been the site of numerous fires, the largest major event being the combined damage of the Birch Fire and Pony Fire of 2000, which burned 20,000 acres of century-old pinons, junipers and scrub oaks on the mesa top. In fact, fire had become a regular visitor in recent drought years in the Four Corners area. More than half of its 52,000 acres have burned in the past decade. But though many trees are gone, wildflowers have proliferated in their absence. 

Mesa Verde (which means “green table” in Spanish) reigns as one of the world’s premier archeological sites – is, in fact a World Heritage Site – and lay mostly untouched, except by forces of nature, from the time it was abandoned, around 1300 A.D., until it was “rediscovered” by Anglos in the late 1800s. 

In 1888 rancher Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charlie Mason, were out looking for stray cattle when they happened upon what is now calle Cliff d Palace. Probably stunned and likely intrigued, they continued to explore and found Spruce Tree House that afternoon and Square Tower House the next day. 

Entrance to Spruce Tree House Kiva.The discovery attracted the interest of Swedish scientist Gustav Nordenskiold, who came and painstakingly examined the ruins, photographed them in their pristine state, and wrote the book that still remains the definitive work on the site, “The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde.”

Wetherill chronicled archeological treasures found at the site and, unfortunately, sold many of them.

What is surmised, or known, is that at its peak the cliff dwellings were constructed from the late 1100s into the early 1200s and occupied until about 1300. It’s known they were skilled builders, adept pottery-makers and successful farmers. They even raised turkeys in pens.

Tours of the amazing ruins, which still seem to echo with the voices of the former inhabitants, are packed in summer, and well attended in spring and fall. The sometimes steep trails that wend down from the mesa top to the alcoves are cakewalks compared with the daily wall-scaling feats required of the people who lived here.

Countless visitors claim to feel the presence of the ancient people who lived here, Martin says. She feels the mystique of the place herself. 

Ladder to Balcony House.“Of all the unexplained things, why they left still is the one that intrigues me most,” she confesses. “I wish I had a time machine to go back and see what really happened.”

If you go: 

Park hours:  Chapin Mesa is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily over the winter (it closes at 6:30 p.m. April-October). Far View Visitor Center is closed over the winter, but the Chapin Mesa Museum is open year round.

Admission:  $10 per car in winter; $15 in summer. Tickets to Balcony House, Cliff Palace and Long House are $3.

Cautions:  The mesa tops out at about 8,000 feet in altitude, so take it easy when you hike down to the ruins and back up. For the best experience, get there early in the day and get your tickets to the most popular tours (required because only so many people are allowed in each group).  Many of the sights in the park are self-guided. Wear a hat and sunscreen, even if it’s cloudy (seldom), and be sure to have water with you. This is not a good destination for people who have difficulty walking.

More info: Visit www.nps.gov/meve, or for room reservations at the Far View Lodge or Morefield Campground, tours and general park information, call 800-449-2288. For other information, call park headquarters at 970-529-4465.

Linda DuVal is a freelance travel writer in Colorado Springs

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