Mesa Verde National Park: A Mystery Unsolved

Name: Mesa Verde National Park.
Location: In southwestern Colorado, very close to the border with New Mexico.
Area: 51,892 acres.

Mesa Verde National Park



December 18, 1888. The cowboys Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, while searching for lost cattle through the canyons and mesas of the Mancos River, discovered accidentally a series of Indian ruins very well preserved. The cowboys, knowing from other sources the presence of Indian remains in this part of the country, are completely aware of the importance of their discovery.

The megalithic metropolises discovered in Mesa Verde, the lost capital of the Anasazi Indians, would be soon visited for archeologists from different parts of North America, even from Europe, who collect all kinds of tools. The inhabitants of the area don't lag behind this, invading the ruins to the search of worthy treasures and finding instead pots and casseroles sold just for a few coins.


Virginia Donaghe and Lucy Peabody alarm about the plunder that is being done and they propose a rigorous protection of the zone. Their words are useless at first, but after 12 years of permanent struggle, president Theodore Roosevelt proceeds in 1906 with the Declaration of the Mesa Verde National Park Designation Act, a space which encloses the main ruin sectors of the Anasazi Indians.

Moorlands and Mesas

Perhaps, experts should find the reasons of such late discoveries in the orography of Mesa Verde. Accessing the area from the north, the park lies over some moorlands situated 8,530 feet above sea level, which suffer from cruel climate conditions: very dry, hot summers along with long winters subjected to powerful frosts and regular snows. The moorlands, scarcely productive and covered by shrubs and bushes, are broken by vertiginous cliffs, with slopes over 1,970 feet, which makes this land difficult to be accessed. The delineated spaces by the different canyons are called "mesa" (in Spanish this means "table"). But orographic and climate reasons are not enough: the buildings and archeological remains of the Anasazi Indians are located at medium height in the cliffs, hidden by several rocky ledges.

The archeologists call the primitive inhabitants of Mesa Verde, "basketmakers" recognized by their extraordinary skills in esparto works. These primitive communities lived in underground houses grouped in emerging prehistoric cities. They occupied the highlands, raising domestic animals and growing crops. They were mainly agricultural, well-structured sedentary societies.

In the mid 8th century, the basketmakers evolved towards a new kind of elevated housing. The houses' structure was composed by a series of vertical consoles, reinforced by other transversal consoles, which were later covered by mud walls. The houses were supported by other ones, forming long curved lines that could remind us of our duplex houses. Frequently, they excavated rooms in the ground in front of the rows of houses, a type of religious chamber, precursor to the so-called "kiwas".

The Anasazi Classical Period

Since the first millennium, the stone houses of different floors started to substitute the old mud buildings. Some of them are composed of 3 different floors, with more than 50 rooms and an astonishing architectonic perfection. The buildings had shared yards, where researchers have found underground rooms, "kiwas", used for religious and social purposes. We are in the Anasazi Classical Period -a time fraction of this Indian people-, which constitutes the golden age of the American desert civilization.

Two centuries later, the Anasazi translated their houses to ledges in the cliffs of Mesa Verde, clearing higher areas. This new location required regular displacements to the moorland, where the agricultural lands were found. Also, hunting in the open became more difficult. There are not enough data to justify this change in location, until now, very disadvantageous. Perhaps, the Anasazi started a war against other Indians and they were seeking for safe shelter in the mesa walls, practically impenetrable.

The described displacement starts a new construction cycle in rock. The developed buildings show very clearly the architectonic sophistication levels achieved by the Anasazis.

In Mesa Verde exist up to 4 different housing clusters, besides other minor ruins. The most popular buildings are the cliff dwellings, consistent constructions of two or three floors. Among them, we can highlight the Balcony House, a cluster of two floored houses that is located in a vast adobe patio. Walking through the second floor, one can find a narrow corridor that kept the houses communicated. In the sector that overlooks the abysm, a small wall protected the inhabitants from accidental deadly falls. In fact, the bottom of the cliff was under 650 feet, so death was guaranteed. Some houses are plastered, while others continue to offer white and red paintings. The people got the water from a nearby spring that surges from the bottom of the cavern and fills up an artificial tank excavated in the rocks.

Another important reference from the Classical Period is the Long House, which lies in Wetherill Mesa and was erected in the second half of the 13th century. The House matched its name, as it is composed of 50 rooms along 300 feet of the canyon wall. The city has over 21 "kiwas", the largest proportion of these chambers per house in the entire Mesa Verde.

An Unveiled Mystery

The life of the Mesa Verde cliffs didn't last too long. From the autumn of 1299 to the spring of 1300, these landscapes were abandoned by the Anasazi, leaving behind untouched constructions and a lot of belongings in houses and public places, like they were supposed to return immediately. However, this comeback was never done and the mystery of this sudden flight has not been cleared up yet.

There are different theories though. Besides weird theories about aliens and other classic elements of fictional movies, one of them points out to a war between the Anasazi and a nomadic people which occupied their agricultural lands, forcing them to look for food outside. When coming back, they found their houses had been occupied by hostile forces and they were forced to leave their lands. This exposed theory seems to make sense, but it lacks an evidence base and it doesn't explain the lack of vestiges from these new inhabitants.

Other theory tells us that a very harsh drought forced the Indians to look for more favorable lands. In fact, the period between 1276 and 1299 was an extremely dry period in the area. But, the area had suffered multiple droughts before, and it had not been abandoned. Also, this kind of fast flight does not correspond to a very premeditated decision. Finally, a third explanation suggests the scourge of a sudden virulent epidemic that, having provoked a high mortality rate in a short period of time, made the survivors escape from the Mesa Verde as fast as they could. Like in the first case, this could be a reasonable explanation, but there are no proofs that support this idea.

As you can see, hypothesis are not missing. Perhaps, all of them have something of truth and it was due to different causes. One can also think that there is an important missing part of the jigsaw that would join all theories together. Anyway, Mesa Verde continues to jealously hide its mystery, which no archeological expedition has been able to solved yet.

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