Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 26, 2012

Colorado: Halls of the Ancient Ones

I’m recounting our recent trip to Colorado in two phases. We’ve reached the turning point at which we conclude our review of the first section: the “built environment,” and proceed to look at the stunning natural landscape of Colorado. This third installment is genuinely transitional, because we’ll visit one place that is both one of the world’s prehistoric architectural wonders, set in (and deeply influenced by) a memorable, rugged landscape: Mesa Verde (click on photos for larger images).

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon9784 (640x480)

Mesa Verde is in the southwestern part of Colorado — the Four Corners Region. “Mesa” indicates it’s a “table” of high land, cut by numerous canyons, and the elevation ranges from 6,000 to 8,500 feet. Its semi-arid climate seems to us like a harsh environment in which to live.

It’s endlessly picturesque. From its elevation, visitors look northward to the mountains of central Colorado, and southward into New Mexico. Even on the moderately hazy day we were there, we could see distant Shiprock to the southwest, 35 miles away on the high plains of New Mexico. Humans have occupied the extensive mesa top, its canyons and juniper forests, for hundreds of generations. About 1400 years ago, they began the transition from hunting and gathering to subsistence farming. They also began, as settled humans must, building. Initially, they adopted an approach that’s seen in various versions all over the globe: pit houses: excavated pits covered by timber roofs. With some variation, they occupied iterations of this architecture for hundreds of years, and then began building “pueblo” style architecture of stone on the mesas. CLICK HERE for more information about these settlements. In about 1100, they altered their communal life and adapted ingeniously to incorporate their settlements into a feature prevalent in the landscape: overhanging cliffs, undercut by erosion. If you enlarge that photo above by clicking on it, and look carefully in the shadow of the cliff at the top left, you’ll see a large cliff dwelling. Here’s a closer look:

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon9790 (640x480)

These resourceful, successful people are commonly referred to as the Anasazi, from a Navaho word meaning “ancient ones.” Today, they’re more correctly referred to as “Ancestral Puebloans,” to reflect the fact that they were the progenitors of many current southwestern natives. Contemporary Puebloan tribes still occupy towns that derive their architecture from the forms the Anasazi evolved nearly a thousand years ago. This culture of communal architecture and farming was evolving over a wide area in what’s now Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. There were large populations not only on Mesa Verde, but in many other centers that require many visits to the Southwest even to sample. 35 miles south of Mesa Verde in a straight line is the massive complex in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, comprising numerous large stone-and-timber communes. This photo shows a sample: Casa Rinconada in the foreground, Pueblo Bonito at the base of the cliff, and another ruin on the far horizon (along an Anasazi road that led to Mesa Verde):

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2964 (640x625)

Mesa Verde is vast. The National Park covers 81 square miles. There are 5,000 archaeological sites — 600 of them cliff dwellings, and extensive canyons, pinon forest, high grassland. It easily consumes a day to see the highlights, and it would take several days of hiking and exploring to see the place even moderately well. When you go, take your hiking shoes and get off onto some of the trails in the canyons and along the mesa. Expect some up and down walking to get to the actual dwellings. You need a ticket for the ranger-led tours of the dwellings, which you can secure at the visitor’s center. Less mobile visitors can see significant numbers of the sites and views on a driving tour of the park. Here are some modern humans investigating the past:

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace Brad Nixon 9801 (640x480)

Remember that despite the fact that you’re walking on the National Park Service’s excellent trails, it’s still high, arid country, not friendly to clueless wanderers who forget to bring water, dress appropriately or cover their delicate skins with sunscreen.

Thanks to preserved basketry, pottery, sculpture and the presence of items from far away places, there’s a great body of knowledge about how the Anasazi lived, farmed and built, and how they conducted trade among themselves and with other cultures. With all that, they’re a mystery to us. They left no writing that we have found. We don’t know anything substantial about their culture, other than what can be inferred from their artifacts. Most mysteriously of all, some time just before or around 1300, they abandoned their large centers in Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and elsewhere, and faded into the desert air, insofar as being a recognizable culture is concerned. Researchers conclude that persistent drought, always a threat, reached a critical point and shattered the fragile interdependencies on water for irrigation and subsistence of game, making it impossible to sustain their large, settled communities. Because they left no written record, and no descendants who can tell the tale, the ways in which they scattered and persisted to become the contemporary people of the Southwest can’t be reconstructed. All human societies make legends, myths and tales of their origins and history, passed orally from one generation to the next. Certainly the Anasazi did, too, but they didn’t survive long enough to be written down. Are those Anasazi legends incorporated in the tales told by the Hopi, the Pueblo tribes, the Utes, and their kin? There remain only their walls of stone in the silent canyons, under the western sky.

Mesa Verde Navajo Canyon Brad Nixon 9772 (640x480)

To read my article about the buildings in Chaco Canyon, CLICK HERE. HERE is the National Park Service’s website for Mesa Verde, and HERE is the one for Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2017



  1. Thanks Brad – those ruins are pretty impressive – seeing them reminds me of the awe I felt when I first caught sight of Petra (


    • Mark, that would indeed be a fantastic place to see. I’ve never been to that part of the world. Thanks.


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