A hummingbird whirred by in the silence, jarring me back to the present. I was standing at an infrequently-visited ruin at Mesa Verde National Park, trying to wrap my head around the living conditions here in this cliff dwelling 800 years ago. Birth, work, ritual, play, cooking, dancing, death… everything we do, they did. Only they did it in an alcove high above the canyon floor, with little to work with but their marvelous resourcefulness.
I pondered the walls, their builders’ skills varying from ‘passable’ to ‘highly aesthetic’ with perfect corners and edge decoration. The seep spring in the rear of the alcove was ingeniously directed toward small cuplets carved in the sandstone floor, making collection easier. Grinding stations were conveniently placed where the women could watch their children play while socializing with “the girls” as they prepared grains and seeds. Each clan had its own ceremonial subterranean kiva for rituals and worship, with innovative HVAC elements supplying it. Sketchy toeholds and handholds were cleverly carved right into the cliff walls, enabling ascents and descents that would dizzy us today
Their building boom (i.e., multi-story masonry cliff dwellings of the 12th century) lasted only about a hundred years; then they moved southward to New Mexico and Arizona, abandoning the architectural wonders. Why did the garbage middens have fewer animal bones in the top layers? Why did the last rooms added to the pueblo use far less timber? The likely culprit was that their intensive land use had made trees and game animals scarce, too scarce to support a population dependent on the land for everything.
My 28 hours among the archeological sites of Mesa Verde gives me pause to consider what we are doing to our own world.