Southwest Road Trip: Ancestral People of Mesa Verde

We commonly know them as Anasazi, a Navajo name that is interpreted as ancient enemy, considered disrespectful by the 26 tribes who descended from these ancient peoples. This includes the Hopi, the Acoma, the peoples of Taos Pueblo, and all who live along the Little Colorado and Rio Grande rivers. These descendants of the people who lived in Mesa Verde for 700 years want the original inhabitants of Mesa Verde, Colorado, be known as the Ancestral Puebloans.

Why did the ancestors abandon the site in 1200 CE? Most experts think it was because of drought and perhaps threats from more aggressive tribal groups. The mesa was no long able to sustain the thousands who now lived there. Only in the last 100 years of their inhabiting Mesa Verde, did the ancient ones build elaborate living structures, kivas, and food storage areas in the cliff crevices along the canyons below the mesa. The most impressive is Cliff Palace.

We know them as cliff dwellers, but for hundreds of years they lived on the mesa plateau, first building round pit houses, shallow dug outs of earth, then constructing more complex, larger quarters with straight walls supported by pine or juniper logs and plastered with adobe mud. The hunter gatherers became sedentary agricultural farmers, growing The Three Sisters — corn, beans, squash.

Corn is as important here as it is in Mexico. Corn was first hybridized from teoscinte down the road from where I live in Teotitlan del Valle, likely as many as 8,000 years ago. The kernels made their way north via trade routes. Native corn is as abundant and important here in the Southwest United States as it is in Mexico. Symbols of rain, fertility, abundance, frogs, snakes, are common to both regions.

Sister Barbara and I were there for two full days at the Far View Lodge operated by a contractor for the National Park Service. We signed up for a private tour and our guide, a retired veterinarian from nearby Cortez, Colorado, gave us a thorough explanation and showed us the important sites during the four-hours we were with him. Both of us have back pain and we decided not to climb up and down steep ladders to get into the magnificent Cliff Palace, which Mesa Verde is known for. We opted for the long view instead.

As the round pit houses were abandoned in favor of more substantial structures, these became ceremonial and religious places that we know today as kivas. The kiva is an essential part of Puebloan culture, and as we see the the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde with their multi-storied, multi-room complex of living and social gathering places, we note how the round kiva structure is incorporated into the architecture. We saw contemporary round houses on Navajo land as we traveled from Mesa Verde to Canyon de Chelly.

The kiva reminds me of the temescal sweat lodges of Oaxaca. In my village, many of the homes have their own temescals. These are square, shallow, womb-like structures that you crawl into on hands-and-knees. A wood fire heats rocks. Water is poured on the rocks to create steam. This is a purification ritual. The kiva is different though similar. It will hold many people who enter it via a ladder from the top, and is used for life-cycle rituals and prayers.

Our guide Marty tells us that the ancients came out of Asia later as the ice age was receding and settled in Arizona and New Mexico. At the height of its civilization, 5,000 people lived here. Extended family, multi-generations called clans, shared one living space. They wove baskets lined with pitch that they used for cooking and storage.

Archeologists have found 1200 alcoves on the cliffs. Sixty of these were inhabited and the rest were used for food storage. The ancients used a sling/spear apparatus called an atlatl (Aztec word), to hunt bear, deer, elk, big horn sheep, mountain lions, lynx, rabbit, squirrels, turkeys — a native to the area.

To stay warm in the cold, snowy winters, the women wove blankets and capes using a cotton, turkey feathers, animal and human hair. They developed the bow and arrow around 850 CE as they created the more elaborate straight-walled houses on the mesa surface.

Kiva construction lines up with the North Star. Inside the kiva is a drum pit, a fire pit, and impressions in the earth to hold round baskets and later clay pots. Drums, plus flutes made from juniper and pinion wood were part of the kiva ceremonies. There is a hole called a Sipapu that symbolizes the creation story. The ancients believed that they emerged through this hole in the earth, coming up through the glaciers, through endless space, into the worlds of ice, water and air, to be greeted by Grandmother Spider Woman.

Upon death, the Ancient Puebloans were buried in the fetal position facing east — Father Sky. And, they were born facing east to accept the blessings of Father Sky. This is a practice that continues today in traditional communities.

When asked by a Hopi elder, why the Ancestral Puebloans left Mesa Verde, his reply was, Because it was time!

Archeological site at Far View reminds me of archeological sites at Yagul, Lambityeco, and Dainzu in the Oaxaca valley, just beginning restoration. I first visited Yagul in 2006, when it looked like this!

We are now in Chinle, Arizona, getting ready to tour Canyon de Chelly, rich in Ancient Puebloan history, and the epicenter of Navajo-Dine culture, where U.S. Army troops starved out the Navajo and forced them into the Long Walk. More to come! We go next to Chaco Canyon, and I’ll be writing about The Last Trading Posts of the Southwest.

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