Mysteries of Mesa Verde National Park

Ancient ruins in southern Colorado tell the story of an ancestral people

The Mesa Verde ruins are a window to the past. Photo by Jack Bohannan.
The Mesa Verde ruins are a window to the past. Photo by Jack Bohannan.

Squash, corn and beans – the three sisters – were staples of the people’s diet. These plants are not native to the region. Grant explains that seeds were traded from elsewhere, possibly in exchange for intellectual property.

The Mesa Verdeans were crafty technicians of stone, plant fiber and animal hide. Though renowned for their basket making, the people developed the craft of pottery during the same period that seeds were introduced to the region.

The 12th century marks the beginning of the grand architecture for which Mesa Verde National Park is so well known. The people found that the cliffs protected them from the elements, wild animals and the threat of attack in the event of warfare.

If attacked by neighboring tribes, the structure could prevent access because the ladders on the bottom floor of the dwellings could simply be removed. Similar to European castles, the people could easily defend themselves from above.

The dwellings were a more comfortable living space too. Because they were recessed into the cliff face they provided protection from the south sun inside the cooler stone. The temperature of the rooms built into the cliff can be 10-20 degrees cooler than atop the mesa.

Square Tower House ruins in Navajo Canyon, Mesa Verde, Colorado. Photo by Jack Bohannan.
Square Tower House ruins in Navajo Canyon, Mesa Verde, Colorado. Photo by Jack Bohannan.

Next, we visit Square Tower House. Grant begins with mention of Navajo Canyon, and as we step out in the viewing area, everyone thinks that its dramatic expanse is the only thing warranting the stop. It’s a moment before we realize the incredible ruins below and to our right.

Square Tower House is my favorite ruin because of its central edifice. The blocks are so straight and powerfully upright that the tower completes the rounded, sloping cliff by contrast. Ancient lichen marks toward the tower make me wonder if it was designed for water collection.

No one truly knows the reason for the people’s departure just 100 short years after the major construction efforts that resulted in the cliff dwellings. A drought occurred during that period, hampering farming, and the social instability that came along with the disrupted food supply may have contributed too. Some archeologists believe that over population of the community may have left it more vulnerable to the shortages a drought causes. The people fractured into groups that migrated south, eventually becoming the Hopi and Pueblo Indians.

We pass a sign that reads, “Don’t feed the horses.” Grant explains there are indeed feral horses here, and they are indeed dangerous. Mesa Verde has had trouble with these animals, as well as stray cattle which have trampled some of the ruin sites. All the same, I’d love to see one of these horses up close.

Grant grew up riding horses on the mesa top, searching for relics and avoiding snakes. It’s remarkable that he’s spent his whole life in the area. His people have history here too, and farmed the area just as the Natives did. When Grant tells us he used to sell bags of pottery shards for twenty five cents, our driver chimes in on the conversation, making note of what is, and what is not, legal. Fortunately, most of Grant’s “archeological work” happened on private farmland.

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