Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
Completely off-the-beaten path, Mesa Verde National Park provides more than natural beauty: real insights into the lives of the Puebloan people, early inhabitants of America. This great cultural significance combined to the exceptionally well-preserved ruins makes Mesa Verde one of the highlights of any trip to the West.
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In 1888, local ranchers chasing lost cattle in a snowstorm stumbled upon Cliff Palace, a Puebloan village of the 13th century. Blending in with the sandstone of the alcove sheltering it, the village was extremely well preserved: it had never been lost nor forgotten, it was just unknown to the new settlers. Local Indian tribes thought of it as a sacred location not to be visited. As soon as the new settlers discovered it, Cliff Palace and other Puebloan settlements became at risk of looting: President Theodore Roosevelt created the Mesa Verde National Park in order to protect and research these evidences of the past of America.
After crossing the Bering Straight from Asia about 15,000 years ago, America’s first inhabitants survived as hunters and gatherers. About 1,600 years ago some of them settled in the alcoves of the Mesa Verde area following game to these high plateaus. Between 550 and 750 Pueblo people began building permanent semi-subterranean houses known as pit-houses on the plateaus near their fields of squash, corn, and beans. Providing an almost constant year-round temperature inside, these houses allowed them to stay cool during the hot summers and warm during the cold winters. The central fire was paramount to the family life and a roof vent would ensure people were not smoked inside. After these small villages, cities emerged and buildings with hundreds of rooms and four to five stories were erected. Pottery crafting developed making food processing more efficient and meals more nourishing. Bows and arrows replaced ancient hunting techniques making it more accurate and successful, contributing to a better quality of life. Weaving yucca fibers was an important craft as well as farming which took place thanks to spring water on top of the mesas. Between 750 and 1,100 trade started to be developed.
The climax of the Puebloan development in the Mesa Verde area was between 1,100 and 1,300. Cliff dwellings like the Spruce Tree House made of poles, bark, mud, and mud mortar were built around open courtyards where daily activities took place. Circular rooms beneath the courtyards – kivas – were used for ceremonial or social functions.
In 1276, a severe 24-year drought started. It led to soil depletion, lack of timber resources, and migration of game. The Mesa Verde area was abandoned around 1,300 when Puebloans moved south to Arizona and New Mexico in search for better lands.
Today their traditional villages are a true gem to explore and an absolute off the beaten path highlight in the West of the USA.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.