In the overall scheme of things, the Native American ruins at Mesa Verde aren’t all that old. The largest structures – those that were built around 1200 to 1300 AD – are relatively “new” when compared to what one might see in Asia, the Middle East, or Europe. But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be impressed. At roughly the same time that the Roman Empire was dissolving and Europe was descending into the darkness of the Middle Ages, the people of southwestern North America were reaching a cultural apex. In the high arid deserts of what is now Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, the people that we now refer to as the Ancient Puebloans (or the Anasazi) were constructing relatively sophisticated 3 and 4 story high living spaces. While they still hunted, they were also farmers and traders.
Life, however, was not easy. “Old” people were generally no more than 30 to 40 years of age. Infant mortality was somewhere around 50%. If you include children that died before the age of 5 the mortality rate goes much higher.
Interestingly, it was a matriarchal society. When a man and woman married, the man moved into the woman’s home. He became part of her clan. And that meant that he might have to learn a slightly different language. There was no universal language – each clan had essentially developed their own verbal communication.
As is the case with other southwestern sites, most housing structures were built within natural alcoves, providing protection from the elements and from attack by potential enemies. The structures shown here – part of the complex known as Cliff Palace – were painstakingly built at an elevation of about 8,500 feet. It’s no wonder that these ruins weren’t found until the late 19th century. They aren’t exactly out in the open. You have to wonder, by the way, how many people were injured (or died) while trying to carry water or food or fuel up and down these cliffs. Today, there are metal stairs visitors use to get to Cliff Palace (under the watchful guidance of a park ranger). Even so, I’d hate to try carrying a heavy load of wood down to the level of these buildings. But they had no metal stairs. They probably used ropes. Handmade ropes. I would guess that something as simple as a broken foot or leg might be a death sentence.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the Anasazi seem to have disappeared from places like Mesa Verde in the early 1300’s. While no one knows what happened for sure, it was at least partially the result of a decades long drought. There is some evidence that other groups arrived at Mesa Verde about this time, probably trying to find food and water. Eventually, they all were forced to leave. As far as anyone knows, they never came back.