Saturday, September 27, 2014

Mesa Verde National Park

We really enjoy visiting Native American sites in the southwest and have been to many different ruins, but Mesa Verde is the most spectacular of them all. The ruins are very well-preserved and the National Park service does a good job of controlling the crowds to minimize damage and allow for good views.

The site is located at the top of a large table-top mountain (mesa). The Ancestral Pueblo people noticed that the soil at the top was much more conducive to farming and decided to move there around the year 700.  

The top of the mesa is green (verde) 
The Ancestral Pueblo people were good farmers and engineers, and around 1190 they decided to move off the top of the mesa and build structures within caves under rock overhangs. Nobody knows for sure why they did this, but these new dwellings were highly defensible and it might be that the original people wanted to defend their position from incoming visitors. This location also allowed them to build elaborate irrigation systems which helped combat the changing dryer climate. 

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde
The largest of these dwellings is called Cliff Palace, an apartment complex where about 54 privileged families lived. This is an elaborate structure with kivas and multi-story structures. You must take a ranger-guided tour to visit this site, and we took the last tour (5 pm) which provided good light and fewer people. 

Notice the kivas (round subterranean structures) used for religious and family gatherings

Cliff Palace has a prime location facing south (warmer in winter) and in a very defensible position. Here is a picture which shows how the tours operate. You can get up close and the ranger provides interesting commentary.

Tour at Cliff Palace

Well-engineered 3-story building
The people who lived here used to be referred to as "Anasazi". This term is not preferred by the current Pueblo people because it is actually a derogatory Navajo term which means "Ancient Enemy". We now refer to these people as "Ancestral Puebloans".  It took a lot of effort to change all the signs and there are still many places in the southwest where you will see the "Anasazi" term.

We also visited Spruce house, another outstanding example of a cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde. Here one of the kivas has been reconstructed with a roof as it would have originally looked. 

Spruce House where you can visit a reconstructed kiva
Unfortunately, some of the cliff dwellings including the right side of Cliff Palace are deteriorating due to rain water undermining the foundation. The ranger estimated that within 5 years there will need to be extensive reconstruction. This will have to be supervised by current Pueblo people because there are many cemeteries around and underneath the structure. I would recommend visiting Mesa Verde soon as they may have to close parts of the park to undertake this large project.

I will leave you with the famous mystery of the Ancestral Pueblo people. In the late 1200's they left these elaborate structures and moved elsewhere. This happened simultaneously in many locations around the southwest. Nobody knows for sure why the people left, but it's likely due to drought conditions and increased population. 

Mesa Verde National Park is amazing - go there. 

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