Solving the mysteries of Mesa Verde, the USA's largest archaeological site

In south-west Colorado lies the largest archaeological preserve in the USA, a series of vast cliff dwellings whose residents ‘vanished’ overnight. But was the answer to their disappearance in plain sight?

Words & Photographs George Kipouros

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The hairspine cactus (or plains pricklypear) is indigenous to the Mesa Verde plains and North America in general, and was often used by Native Americans as a medicinal plant

The hairspine cactus (or plains pricklypear) is indigenous to the Mesa Verde plains and North America in general, and was often used by Native Americans as a medicinal plant

Alex Prime, interpretive tour guide at Aramark Mesa Verde, points to a kiva in Coyote Village

Alex Prime, interpretive tour guide at Aramark Mesa Verde, points to a kiva in Coyote Village

You'll find friendly lizard in Mesa Verde National Park

You'll find friendly lizard in Mesa Verde National Park

"This is North America’s Machu Picchu, except it is far less well known around the world,” beamed Liz, our hotel concierge in Durango, Colorado, as she described how to find the scenic route that leads to Mesa Verde National Park. The ruins we were headed to are in fact centuries older than the more famous Inca citadel, but we would soon discover that the two locations share a similarly extraordinary setting, as well as an air of mystique around their creation stories.

Mesa Verde means ‘Green Table’ in Spanish, defined by a people who were pioneers in misnaming geographical phenomena. The site is actually a cuesta (a ridge with a slight incline), only this one is made up of many smaller flat-topped hills (mesas) that are scattered between the canyons. In reality, it is even more impressive than its name suggests.

Yet we were not here just for the magnificence of Mother Nature. In 1906, Mesa Verde became the first US national park that was protected not only for its natural beauty, but for its cultural significance. Normally, such sites are given ‘national monument’ status, but the landscapes unfolding before us were certainly worthy of their designation. For visitors, it’s like suddenly stumbling across a lost city inside the Grand Canyon.

After driving uphill for over 45 minutes, we were greeted at the park’s entrance by Eric Sainio, Mesa Verde’s supervisory ranger. Eric was eager to woo us with Mesa Verde’s pièce de résistance, the ‘Cliff Palace’, otherwise known as the most expansive site of ancient cliff dwellings in North America.

“It will be a great introduction to this place, its people and its history,” assured Eric as we walked from the car park towards the edge of a mesa. The short hike between the car and the site included rock staircases and treacherous cliffside pathways, and it proved a fascinating, if vertigo-inducing, journey, leaving me breathless, not least due to the elevation of over 2,000m.

Mesa Verde's rock staircases and treacherous cliffside pathways make it essential you always travel with a guide

Mesa Verde's rock staircases and treacherous cliffside pathways make it essential you always travel with a guide

These perilous pathways are one of the reasons why visitors must be accompanied by a park ranger when visiting a cliff-dwelling site, and booking well in advance is essential for popular spots like the Cliff Palace. Approaching it was like walking through Petra’s Al Siq Canyon and catching your first view of the Treasury. The final reveal at the end of the path was truly magical, and in timing our visit for the start of the golden hour, it meant that the whole place was bathed in a beautiful light, the ruins shining in hues of orange, red and yellow.
In front of us lay North America’s largest cliff dwelling, sheltered in an alcove on the side of the mesa and opening out onto spectacular views of the canyon below.

“The majority of this site dates from the 11th and 12th centuries,” explained Eric as he guided us among the impressively restored multi-storey edifices. “We know with certainty that this was not a palace, but early European visitors could only attribute such architectural magnificence to a palatial residence.”

Out of some 600 cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde NP, 75% have no more than five rooms, yet the gigantic Cliff Palace contains 150

Out of some 600 cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde NP, 75% have no more than five rooms, yet the gigantic Cliff Palace contains 150

Modern archaeological research shows that this dwelling site was an important centre for the ancient community that lived here, known as the Ancestral Pueblo people. Its 150 rooms are spread across multi-storey edifices, including 21 kivas, circular rooms that are usually underground and covered by a roof of timber and soil. These rooms are common throughout the park and the broader region.

“The kivas had both ceremonial and spiritual significance, and were at the heart of both family and community,” explained Eric. Indeed, the conditions for life here were, despite the inaccessibility of the location, very good. “We knew that the people were thriving because they had corn supplies stored for up to three years,” he continued.

A spiral petroglyph at Pipe Shrine House

A spiral petroglyph at Pipe Shrine House

Dabbing the sweat from my brow, I asked why they would build their homes in such a precarious location. Eric’s answer put another spin on the notion entirely: “This was a sheltered and protected setting, rather than precarious,” he countered, going on to explain how the local people made the most of the unique geographical characteristics. For example, the Cliff’s Palace’s southern positioning meant a longer growing season with more days of sunshine, while the buildings were well protected from seasonal rains.

“There’s a lot of soil that you get to capture. You can also capture more of the monsoonal rainwater,” added Eric as he demonstrated the well-sheltered storage areas.

Mesa Verde’s generally arid climate supports a rich ecosystem of more than 1,000 species of flora and fauna. In our first few hours in the park, we had seen wild turkeys, vultures, a hawk, ravens and glimpsed a nesting pair of golden eagles. I was particularly impressed by the local yellow-headed collard lizard, whose bold colours and unexpectedly friendly nature proved endlessly entertaining.

Ancient corn and Ancestral Pueblo pottery from the 10th century AD

Ancient corn and Ancestral Pueblo pottery from the 10th century AD

As we concluded our visit to the palace, Eric rattled off a few more statistics, explaining that there are over 5,000 archaeological sites in Mesa Verde. Gearing up for a long day ahead, I gently fanned my forehead at the thought of it, only for him to add that just 600 of them are cliff sites, and only three of those are currently open to the public.

The park’s spectacular cliff dwellings were in fact the very last ones to have been built here, I learned. “The earliest ruins are at the top of the mesa, where most of the community lived for many centuries before descending the cliff,” Eric explained as we ended our visit by heading back topside.

Intrigued, I resolved to find out more, so the following day I joined guide Alex Prime for a cyclical drive around the earlier ‘Far View’ sites. These lie at the top of the mesa, and Alex began our visit by telling me how the earliest settlements of Mesa Verde are sometimes bypassed by visitors, who tend to head to the more spectacular cliffside sites. Yet, despite the less dramatic setting, there is plenty here to help understand the story of the people that made this vast cuesta home.

Gazing across the mesa to the Cliff Palace, whose ‘rediscovery’ in the late 1800s meant centuries of deterioration caused by dripping water, wildlife and the elements could be halted

Gazing across the mesa to the Cliff Palace, whose ‘rediscovery’ in the late 1800s meant centuries of deterioration caused by dripping water, wildlife and the elements could be halted

Excavated in the 1970s and is in a great state of preservation, even though it dates from around 900 AD. Among the five kivas found here, one giant specimen stood out. Alex explained that it may have belonged to a large clan, as each kiva would represent a different group, or family lineage.

“These were matrilineal societies, and the women had a key role to play in the community,” she elaborated.

From the viewpoint on the Mesa Top Loop, near Coyote Village, it was easier to appreciate the grandeur of the landscape. Below us lay the spectacular Navajo Canyon, which resembled a greener version of the Grand Canyon crossed with Australia’s Blue Mountains. Scattered on the cliffsides of the mesas, we spotted myriad alcoves hiding dwellings of varying sizes. Sites including the Cliff Palace, Long House and Balcony House came into focus. From this perspective they looked almost impossible to reach, let alone build, perhaps giving one more hint as to why the people here slowly drifted down the cliffsides.

Eric leads the way on the hike to the Cliff Palace

Eric leads the way on the hike to the Cliff Palace

“The defensive element must have been a key one,” exclaimed Alex, while clarifying that there is no actual agreement within the scientific community as to the reason why the communities moved from the top of the mesa to the canyon alcoves below. Indeed, there is so much about this site that is shrouded in mystery, not least why the people here chose to leave towards the end of the 13th century, when the Cliff Palace was abandoned. I asked Alex if war was the reason that they disappeared, eager to understand more about how this majestic civilisation ended.

“Perhaps social upheaval had a role to play in this, but there were certainly many other factors. While the archaeological community has yet to come up with definite answers, the change in the climatic conditions, including an extensive drought affecting crops, may well have also contributed to the communities moving on. But you need to understand that the ‘vanishing people’ of Mesa Verde is the biggest myth of them all,” she concluded mysteriously.

Eager to shed some more light on this, later that day I met up with Cecilia Shields, director of Mesa Verde and the only Native American head of a national park in the US. The first question on my mind was what really happened to Mesa Verde’s ancient people, and where did they go?

“The evidence is not fully conclusive, but we can make an informed guess,” said Cecilia. “Through dendrochronology we know that in the 1200s there was a massive drought in the area that put pressure on the people living here. And because everyone here is ultimately a farmer, they must be able to grow enough food to feed their family for an entire year.”

Diminishing resources coupled with social upheaval are, for many scientists, the main reasons that led to the complete depopulation of the once-bustling Mesa Verde region. But just as Cecilia finished explaining, I once more stumbled into the trap of concluding that the people of Mesa Verde had “vanished”.

“We are fighting more than a century’s worth of ‘mystery’,” countered Cecilia with a sigh of mock-exasperation. “It is a 
disappearance that never was, as we know exactly where Mesa Verde’s people went and where their descendants still are.”
As she walked me to the on-site museum, Cecilia showed me a map of the area and explained that there are several communities that are tied to the Ancestral Pueblo people, who are named after the settlements in which they lived.

“There are 21 pueblos in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas that trace their ancestry back to the people here,” she told me. Several of these are listed as some of the oldest continually inhabited towns in the US, dating back nearly 1,000 years. Cecilia is even a member of a pueblo community herself, having grown up in Picuris, New Mexico – one of the communities descended from Mesa Verde – and I was eager to hear more about her connections to the site beyond her role as park director.

Mesa Verde park director Cecilia Shields stands in front of the now off-limits Spruce House

Mesa Verde park director Cecilia Shields stands in front of the now off-limits Spruce House

“Our people remember to remember. We know where we came from and can retrace our steps. People still come here for pilgrimages and religious practices, and many of the traditions found here continue in our communities. Knowledge of this place was never lost and never forgotten,” she affirmed proudly.

We walked towards a viewing point that overlooked Spruce House. This was previously one of the most accessible cliff-dwelling sites, but it has been closed to the public since 2015 after major cracks were discovered in its alcove.

“Some descending tribes would want Spruce House to be allowed to collapse altogether, along with its alcove,” explained Cecilia. “There is the idea that all material goods should be allowed to return to nature once their cycle is complete. They should be allowed to finish their circle… But the counter-argument to this is that these are unique places where our people can appreciate how our ancestors lived, so there is a strong educational element too.”

Cecilia drew my attention to Spruce House’s kivas to prove her point. “Our modern-day kivas in the pueblo communities have exactly the same function as they did back then,” she continued, adding that the structures are still built underground to almost the exact same design. “Going on the idea of migration, we believe that the kiva itself represents the origin story of starting from below and coming up into this world. It’s a circular story; the circle of life. I am not protecting this site just for my children, but for the many future generations to come. Our people were here, and we will always be here, alongside our culture, traditions, dances, songs and languages,” she concluded as we drove towards the park exit.

The monolith at the entrance to Ute Mountain Tribal Park is known locally as Chimney Rock (1,662m) because of its shape

The monolith at the entrance to Ute Mountain Tribal Park is known locally as Chimney Rock (1,662m) because of its shape

My next stop was beyond the park’s remit yet still connected to the Mesa Verde people and culture. We were headed to the nearby Native American reservation of the Southern Ute, who are not a community descended from the Ancestral Pueblo people, but do manage a vast area of land that once included all of Mesa Verde until the creation of the park.

While just a half-hour drive away, the landscape here is surprisingly different to Mesa Verde. This is closer to the otherworldly expanses of the American West – real Wile E Coyote and Road Runner territory.

Here we met Beverly Yazzie, an experienced Southern Ute guide who would be taking us on a day visit across the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. The only way to visit this area is through a guided tour, and it is home to a significant number of Ancestral Pueblo ruins.

We started the drive up to Makers Canyon with Beverly narrating her life story and that of the park itself. The Ute are a nomadic people who roamed all the way up to Utah, Idaho and Wyoming.

“We lived in the mountains as well as in the flats. We were hunters and gathers but never farmers,” said Beverly as she highlighted some of the differences between the Southern Ute and Ancestral Pueblo people. “We believe our people coexisted here with them for a time, and now we are back here again… Mesa Verde was Ute Territory, and the US government took it away from us. But at least they didn’t build it up!”

It was back in the early 1970s that the Southern Ute community started running tours of the area, offering an alternative to those of Mesa Verde NP and providing a source of revenue for the community.

My experience was certainly very different to my time in the park. We started with a visit to what Beverly described as “the biggest kiva in the area”, known as The Great Kiva. Indeed, it was larger than anything I had seen in Mesa Verde, yet its roof was still fully covered. “The tribe does not want anything excavated,” she reminded me.

Beverly Yazzie points up to one of the petroglyphs left behind by the Ancestral Pueblo people in Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Beverly Yazzie points up to one of the petroglyphs left behind by the Ancestral Pueblo people in Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Beverly then pointed to the ground, urging me to look harder. “You will see a lot more if you look carefully,” she advised as we stepped on thousands of decorated fragments belonging to Ancestral Pueblo pottery. Some of the pieces were large and ornate enough to be displayed in a museum, but that is not how the Southern Ute want them to be seen.

“We don’t put the pieces in a museum because this is where they belong, within nature, within their home,” said Beverly.
We visited multiple petroglyph sites, many dating back to the 8th century AD. They were in a remarkably good state of preservation. “The arid climate helps,” said Beverly as she continued to recover beautiful pieces of pottery, promptly showing them to me before returning them just as swiftly to the ground.

This was unlike any other ancient site I’ve experienced in my life; it had been fully discovered by humans but barely touched. The highlight was also yet to come, as we ventured 45 minutes off road, driving along an unpaved and barely visible path that splashed across parts of the San Marcos River.

There was no reception, and no map either. Instead, we simply relied on Beverly, whose unique way of orienteering involved using the landscape. While I was convinced that we were lost, I was happily proved wrong when we finally arrived at the isolated Porcupine House, deep in an alcove canyon off a cliff. This site is so well concealed that you could be standing metres from it and still miss the opening.

The ‘Ute Lady and Sun’ pictograph in Ute Mountain Tribal Park

The ‘Ute Lady and Sun’ pictograph in Ute Mountain Tribal Park

The wild vegetation here has not been removed, and nor has the site been restored. Nonetheless, it looked to be in an excellent state of preservation. This was as impressive as any of the sites in Mesa Verde, and yet it was completely devoid of visitors.

A giant, perilous-looking ladder marked the beginning of a path that took us to the cliff dwelling from the top of the mesa.

“They wanted to make their homes hidden from view and inaccessible so that they would be safe,” Beverly told me. I replied that this had not really been highlighted in the National Park Service narrative. “Well, we all have different takes when it comes to history, don’t we?” she smiled, seemingly amused.
“You see, we always knew about this place. My grandmother and her ancestors knew of it, and my children and grandchildren will know of it. The spirits of our ancestors still live here. Its story, just like its people, will never really vanish,” said Beverly after we emerged from the dwelling and started our drive back to the park entrance. With her words ringing in my ears, I finally realised there was no mystery here, just the continuation of a long tale; one that I too would now never forget.