Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

September 24, 2005 - Mesa Verde.

The drawings in Sego Canyon were evidence of human presence over 4000 years. People actually lived at Mesa Verde, though. You’ve probably seen the photos of the cliff dwellings, and heard that the Anasazi suddenly disappeared and no one knows why. The cliff dwellings are indeed astonishing. The whole way of life is astonishing in its difference from how we live, the closeness that must have characterized those communities, and the complexity of their social structure. But the overall picture is, of course, much richer than just houses wedged in cracks in the cliffs and a group of people who disappeared.

Mesa Verde means “green table,” or “green plateau.” It is, in fact, a long sloping plateau, seven thousand feet at one end and above eighty five hundred at the other. Way before people moved into multi-story houses in the cliff cracks, they lived on top of the plateau. Archaeologists have done a nice job of tracking the changes in their homes over time. The Park Service has done as lovely a job showing us the progression, on a quiet drive from one home to the next along the top of the mesa. It’s a bit uncanny, to see so clearly how the conditions of a group of people evolved over time, as they settled in and became more established in their place. And then how they lost that comfort and quickly moved on, leaving behind the material traces that we use to understand them.

The earliest houses were pits in the ground. The fire was in the middle of the pit, which was covered with a roof to protect against the elements. A hole in the roof gave access to the space. A chamber to the side provided storage for food and wood. A stone slab helped channel air flow, so smoke from the fire went out the roof hole. But still, it must have been cold, dark, smoky, and crowded in those little homes. Or in the summer, hot, dark, smoky, and crowded. Of course we have no idea how many people lived in a single pit; probably an extended family, though. None of the independent, self-sufficient existence of modern society. Digging a pit was hard work, and you couldn’t have your own, just to get away from your relatives. Besides, you’d need to collect food and fuel, and you probably didn’t want to have to do that on your own either. And when you got old, it was probably nice to have your children and their spouses to feed you and keep you warm if you couldn’t do it yourself. And they had you to mind the grandkids as they went out to find or cultivate the food and fuel. Hopefully the grandkids were nice, and they loved you because you took care of them and were sweet to them. Better to put up with the family squabbles and crowding, I guess. Or the only way to survive.

That early pithouse on Mesa Verde dated to the sixth or seventh century. By the eighth century, people began experimenting with structures built on top of the ground. At the same time the pits got deeper, and they developed more sophisticated ways to funnel the smoke out and keep the air clean. Some of the pit spaces came to be used for ceremonial purposes, and some people went to live in above-ground rooms, which were built in village clusters. Why? What changed? Better access to building material? Invention of new technology? Increasingly sophisticated cultural system in which ceremonial spaces became necessary? I dunno.

The people stayed on Mesa Verde, but rebuilt their homes and designed increasingly complex ones over the centuries. A series of villages were built on the same site, the first with adobe and post walls, but the second and third with increasingly sturdy masonry. The later villages included round towers whose purpose the archaeologists don’t know, and the round below-ground rooms called kivas that characterize both the later cliff dwellings and current Pueblo homes. By the thirteenth century the mesa top villages were complex and sophisticated, with kivas connected to the towers via tunnels, and more extensive dwelling structures.

Perugia, Italy
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA
Al Mahwit, Yemen

But at the same time, some people left the mesa top to construct villages within cracks in the cliff faces. Why? I don’t think anyone knows for sure, though some guesses are easy – defense, shelter, perhaps access to consistent water supply from streams trickling within the rocks. It’s the cliff dwellings that have attracted attention and that led to the creation of Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. They are beautiful, in the same way that the hill towns of Yemen or Italy are beautiful; crowded clusters of stone towers, windows popping this way and that, narrow paths winding from one spot to another. At sunset or sunrise, depending on their orientation, the stones glow in a rosy light. Vultures circle and roost in the canyons, scraggly trees cling to the cliff faces at odd angles. Like the hill towns, access to the cliff dwellings is tricky; tiny niches cut in the rock served as ladders to go up to the mesa or down to the valley. For the benefit of tourists, sturdy ladders with strong handrails have been attached to the cliffs, but the thirteenth century residents had no need of such aids. Like villagers I’ve seen in Malawi, their balance was much better than ours. Perhaps also like the Malawian villagers, they might have climbed down to their homes with pots of grain or loads of wood balanced on their heads? I don’t know, that’s just speculation on my part. Don’t quote me.

You can only visit the cliff dwellings on an organized walk accompanied by a park ranger; I guess that’s how they prevent vandalism, make sure everyone’s able to handle the steep ladders, and make a little money to help keep up the park. The leader of my walk was a delight. She talked about the culture of the residents, and got a couple of shy teen-aged girls to grind corn, as they would have done had they lived there seven hundred years ago. She talked about the clans, and the complex social structure of the people of that time. Her talk reminded me that I had read a novel about the same culture. Called “The Delight Makers,” it is apparently a rather realistic depiction of life at the time, based on the best knowledge of archaeologists and anthropologists. Or at least the best knowledge in the late 19th century, when it was written. It was interesting to see this place and realize that the culture portrayed in that story flourished here, or in a place that looked like this. Its copyright has expired, so you can find it on the web, by clicking here or here, or perhaps in other places as well. It’s by a Swiss archaeologist named Adolf Bandelier. He was a dedicated supporter of the protection of cultural monuments, so in due course one of named after him, Bandelier National Monument. I didn’t get there, though.

The Mesa Verde cliff dwellings were abandoned only a few generations after they were built. For some time, this was considered a great mystery; where had these people disappeared to, and why? Had they been wiped out? Decimated by disease? Killed off?

In due course, however, it appears that the anthropologists and archaeologists working on the remnants got together with the Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona, and realized that the Pueblo peoples were the descendents of the cliff dwellers. The cliff dwellers had been called Anasazi, but now they are referred to as ancestral Puebloans, considered a more appropriate name. And more amusingly, the Puebloans easily explained the purposes of some of the cliff dwelling features, because they are still in use. As I read a Puebloan quoted somewhere, “if they’d only asked us, we could have just told them what this is all for!” (Well, I paraphrase. But you get the idea.)

Imagine knowing that your great-great-great grandparents many generations back had lived in those amazing structures! That those buildings, now protected in a national park, were actually your family home. And that even further back, the towers and kivas and even older pits were also your family homes. It gives me the shivers, and it’s not even my ancestry!

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All text and photos of Mesa Verde on this site © Joy E. Hecht. Drawings of the pit dwellings © Mesa Verde Museum Association. (It was getting on to evening when I got to the pit dwellings, so I couldn't take photos. To tell you the truth, though, they didn't look like much without the drawings.) Photo of Yemen by Jorge Tutor. Photo of Italy from the website of Tatiana Murzin.