Mesa Verde National Park
Visitors from around the world flock to see the famous cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park, the amazing stone cities at Chaco Canyon and hundreds of other Anasazi sites scattered throughout the Four Corners area. One of two major groups of prehistoric peoples inhabiting the San Juan Skyway region, the Anasazi farmed in southwestern Colorado for more than thirteen centuries, from just before the birth of Christ until A.D. 1300. Left behind from this period were tens of thousands of villages, hamlets, towers, ceremonial kivas and other memorable structures built of stone, adobe and wood, many of which remain virtually intact, protected in sandstone canyons in the Four Corners region.
A perfect setting for visitors to discover the prehistoric world of the Anasazi, the Four Corners is a region of marvelous environmental and topographic diversity, from the vividly green San Juan Mountains to the sandy Navajo desert, and the miles of mesas in between carved by sheer walls of sandstone canyons. Because Anasazi farmers needed long growing seasons, most of the diverse beauty of historic sites to be seen along the San Juan Skyway lie at lower elevations between Durango and Dolores, south of the San Juan National Forest.
Visitors to Mesa Verde can be grateful for the immense amount of work done by many archaeologists to track and document various periods in which Anasazi culture developed. The first residents of Mesa Verde were the Basketmakers, semi nomadic hunters that lived outside the current boundaries of the park. Later Basketmakers, who lived between A.D. 750 and 1100, inhabited mesa tops. By about A.D. 900 the Anasazi were living in masonry villages and creating very distinctive pottery. In this period Pueblo Indian culture evolved. Pueblo I and Pueblo II people developed a more complex architecture than earlier Native Americans.
Later, during the so-called “golden age” of the Anasazi (A.D. 1100 – 1300), many of them built and lived in mud-brick and stone apartment houses in the hollows of cliffs. During this period (Pueblo II and III) the Anasazi splintered into different and distinctive groups, each with its own unique masonry, pottery and other cultural items. The Anasazi produced beautifully made ceramic bowls, pitchers, ritual jars, cooking and water-storage vessels, During this period the population and size of villages grew dramatically along with the number of rooms, kivas and other structures. Trading centers, ritual centers, and processing centers for raw materials emerged along with extensive and sophisticated irrigation- and water-control systems. Intensive farming supported thriving population centers and towns. Many of these larger Anasazi communities have yet to be excavated. A very elaborate and complex Anasazi society evolved and flourished. Much remains to be learned about the Anasazi.
The story of the Anasazi in southwestern Colorado becomes even more complex and fascinating because they become part of, or perhaps significantly influenced by, the Chaco people and their culture. Scores of villages with the traits of Chaco Culture were constructed throughout the Four Corners. A network of archaeological sites in northwestern New Mexico preserves key elements of the Chaco Culture, including Chaco Culture National Historical Park and associated sites at Aztec Ruins National Monument and several other additional protected archaeological areas. Thus any visits to the Mesa Verde area needs to be informed by associated development of the Chacoan society that reached its height between the early 11th and 12th centuries.
Sites preserved in the region’s historical parks are remarkable for their monumental public and ceremonial buildings and distinctive multi-story “great houses.” These sites also were linked by an elaborate system of carefully engineered and constructed roads, many of which can still be traced. When viewing the remarkable, highly organized, large-scale structures in Mesa Verde and other historical parks in the region, bear in mind that they also illustrate the extraordinary complexity of a Chacoan regional system and social structure that evolved over more than four centuries. The great size and unusual features of ceremonial kivas suggest that complex religious ceremonies also were significant in their lives.
In the midst of early thirteenth century development, the very latest period of Anasazi culture, troubles set in. Many Anasazi moved into sandstone caves or overhangs where they built large villages, presumably for defensive purposes. These are the well-known and intriguing cliff dwellings that fascinate visitors. During the end of the Pueblo III Period, the Anasazi began to abandon southwestern Colorado, moving south to settle along the Rio Grande River and its tributaries. A severe drought (between A.D. 1276-1299) contributed significantly to the Anasazi moving south where, it is believed, Pueblo Indians originated. However, much is not known about the exodus during this period.
Visitors need to know that much of the reasons for Anasazi movements to today’s Arizona and New Mexico remain a puzzling mystery even for archeologists that have flocked to the region for decades. All that we know from the location of Anasazi villages in the cliffs suggests that they sought protection and that their society was experiencing disruption and distress from some sources, perhaps within their own society. The Anasazi did not simply disappear mysteriously. They migrated to today’s New Mexico and Arizona. The Pueblo Indians along the Rio Grande and the Hopi in northeastern Arizona include some descendants of the Anasazi.
As another dimension of the San Juan Skyway experience, visitors should remember that people lived in its beautiful mountains, mesas and canyons for more than 8000 years before other humans arrived. In fact a visit to Mesa Verde National Park should include visits to other Anasazi sites in the vicinity of the Skyway as part of the adventuresome experience. To the west and southwest of Mesa Verde National Park, visit Ute Mountain Indian Reservation and the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. To the west of Cortez, visit the Crow Canyon Archeological Center and further west the Hovenweep National Monument. Near Durango, visit the Falls Creek Archeological Park and, to the east, Chimney Rock Archeological Park. And be sure to visit the Anasazi Heritage Center located just 3 mile west of Dolores. The museum includes a hands-on discovery area, an Anasazi pithouse and a nature trail that leads to some ancient ruins and an observation tower with good views of area.