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
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.
|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
|Cortez Cultural Center is a
great resource in understanding Native Americans' way of
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.
|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
|It's a long drive from the park
visitor center into the park but scenery is
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
|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.
|Remnants of earliest type of pit
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.
|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
|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
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
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
represented the place where their ancestors and the first people
emerged from Middle Earth.
|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
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
|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.
|This spiral carving is found in
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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|Note the balconys on the second
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”.
|The passageway the Ancestral
Puebloans built make it easy to stop an enemy trying to
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
|The modern day exit was
originally the Ancestral Puebloan's entrance minus the
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).
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.
American Roads and
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