Mesa Verde National Park - The cliff-hanging dwellings of a vanished culture (31 May)
Interesting Facts about Mesa Verde National Park
“THE FALLING SNOWFLAKES, sprinkling the piñons, gave it a special kind of solemnity. It was more like sculpture than anything else,” said novelist Willa Cather of the extraordinary sandstone cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde.
This national park sits on part of a plateau that rises 8,530 feet (2,600 m) above the Montezuma Valley, in the high desert country of present-day southwest Colorado. Centuries before the Europeans discovered America, the ancestral Puebloans (formerly called the Anasazi) moved from living on top of the mesa down into alcoves in the canyon walls, beneath overhanging cliffs. Here they built multistoried cliff houses and apartments; sophisticated structures with efficient ventilation systems and round semisubterranean chambers called kivas where they are thought to have worshipped. They cultivated maize, squash, and beans on top of the mesa. And mysteriously, by A.D. 1300, they had abandoned their cliff villages altogether.
During an 1888 snowstorm, cowboys searching for lost cows stumbled upon traces of a remarkably preserved ruin filled with stone tools, beautifully patterned pottery, and other artifacts. They gathered objects in the hopes of selling them to a museum and sought government protection for the ruins, which was initially denied. Finally, in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the legislation that would create Mesa Verde National Park, the first park to preserve human works in addition to natural landscape. The Mesa Verde people left behind more than 600 cliff dwellings scattered over 52,074 acres (21,072 ha); an additional 4,300 archaeological sites have been discovered as well. To see several of the dwellings, visitors climb ladders and scramble through tunnels on guided tours. More than 100 people lived in the 150 rooms of Cliff Palace, North America’s largest cliff dwelling, constructed of natural sandstone, wooden beams, and soil-water-and-ash mortar. Balcony House, with 40 rooms, kivas, and plazas, is a beautifully preserved midsize dwelling. Archaeologists believe bright reds, yellows, pinks, browns, and whites once plastered the walls of the cliff dwellings, and some of their ceilings are still charred with wood smoke.
The ancestral Puebloans called Mesa Verde home for more than 700 years, from A.D. 550 to 1300, and they seem to have only built and resided in the cliff dwellings for the last 75 to 100 years. It’s not entirely clear why they finally left the plateau altogether—possibilities include warfare, drought, depletion of their resources, and village spats. But the Mesa Verde people left behind one of America’s premier archaeological wonders and abundant evidence of their ancient society, from which modern Pueblo tribes are believed to have descended.