Exploring ancient American Indian culture

The once prosperous settlement at Mesa Verde, with a population of several thousands, was abandoned by 1300s.

On a cold snowy day in December 1888, two cowboys herding their cattle in the woods at the rim of the Mesa Verde Canyon, were in for a surprise. As they emerged from the woods, they looked across the deep canyon and saw within the opposite rim, a stunning, incredulous sight that they later described as “a magnificent city”. What they had seen were the ruins of a multistoried structure, built on the cliffs, under the natural ceiling of a deep oval alcove in the mountains. News of their ‘discovery’ soon spread, and excavation of ‘Cliff Palace’, as the site was named, was started.

It was a similar sense of awe and excitement that we too felt as we stood atop the gigantic plateau and gazed across the deep canyon at the ruins of Cliff Palace on the opposite rim, when we visited Mesa Verde last summer.

Mesa Verde, Spanish for ‘Green Table’, is a Plateau in southwestern United States, falling within the State of Colorado. It is part of a series of magnificent geological structures in the same area, such as the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado Plateau.

Pictorial representation of life in a Kiva. (Photo: K R Suresh Kumar)Pictorial representation of life in a Kiva. (Photo: K R Suresh Kumar)

What is special about Mesa Verde, however, is that it is the site of some well-preserved ancient American Indian ruins. During the period 600-1300 CE, the evolving, formerly nomadic, archaic Ancestral Pueblo people, chose this place for their home and it was here that they carried on the routine of their lives. Mesa Verde ruins provide a historical record of these ancient American Indians. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived and flourished here, evolving from being nomadic, thence, to being known as ‘Basketmakers’, and on to leading a more settled way of life. Farming replaced hunting and gathering as their main livelihood. These ancient people initially lived in semi-underground pit-houses called ‘Kiva’. The Kiva were structured to invariably have a small ‘sipapu’ or depression in one corner on the floor, symbolising the point of entry of their ancestors into this world. Clusters of these small kivas formed villages which were usually built on mesa tops (plateaus).

Culturally, the Ancestral Puebloans seem to have subscribed to matrilineal ancestry. They also appear to have been worshippers of the sun and at Mesa Verde, they had a temple dedicated to the Sun God, where the first rays of the sun fall during the winter solstice.

The transition of the lifestyle of the Ancestral Pueblos from a hunting- gathering one to an agricultural one, led to their using surprisingly efficient methods of irrigation; the semi-arid climate of the area made it all the more necessary. These people also known as the Anasazi made use of large reservoirs, structured with masonry work, diversion ditches and channels, to store water for domestic and agricultural use. Check dams and stone terraces also seem to have been used to prevent erosion and to grow water-efficient crops such as corn, beans and squash with minimal irrigation or rainfall.

No longer involved in the time-consuming practice of following the herds for sustenance, these ancient people, developed skills in crafting pottery, weaving decorative textiles, building elaborate kivas for ceremonial occasions and gatherings, and carving their homes in the rocky sides of the mesas. They learned the use of the bow and arrow, in place of the primitive ‘Atlatl’, a spear thrower. They also made use of the ‘Mano’ and ‘Matate’ which closely resemble the Tamilian, ‘Ammi Kal’! Some well-preserved examples of their craft can be seen at the on-site Museum in Mesa Verde.

Eventually, these Anasazi Indians, began building elaborate stone communities in the naturally sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. The multi-storied dwellings were built for protection from raiding tribes, as the inhabitants could retract access ladders in case of an attack and the alcoves kept them protected from wind and weather. The largest and best known of the ruins is the Cliff Palace, which had more than 200 rooms and was probably inhabited by two to three hundred people at a time. Balcony House and Spruce Tree House are other large, multi-family dwellings at Mesa Verde.

The once prosperous settlement at Mesa Verde, with a population of several thousands, was abandoned by 1300s. Twenty-four years of low rainfall and drought, and raids by hostile tribes wiped out the Anasazi Indians who lived there, and those who were left, migrated south towards New Mexico and Arizona.

Today however, these ruins at Mesa Verde are a very important part of Modern Pueblo peoples’ cultural identity and are a part of their strong spiritual connection to the Mesa Verde region. Some Modern Pueblos periodically travel back to the region for religious purposes and to visit their ancestors, who they believe still dwell in the ancient sites.

The site was first excavated in the late 1800’s and the Mesa Verde National Park was established by the United States Government in 1906 to preserve and understand the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people. The Pueblo ruins at Mesa Verde attract visitors from all over the world.

- (The author is a travel writer )

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