The Mesa Verde Tour - Monday June 26
The guide service listed us as part of their bus tour.
We didn't stay inside the bus. That was my worry, at first, when I saw the description. But we weren't supposed to stay put and gaze out the windows. The vehicle was simply the means by which the tour company conveyed us from one archaeological site to another. They did so with a fun and knowledgeable guide in charge. She accompanied us in the hiking sections of every site except for the Cliff Palace.
The Cliff Palace is run by the national park service. Their guides are the only ones permitted to lead groups there.
We got off the bus at the first site to see it was an excavation of a kiva. It was pretty huge. Although kivas generally were meeting places, not dwellings, there are signs that people lived at least for months in some of them. You can tell it would be no problem, physically. Kivas can be big.
One of the most interesting parts of kivas are no longer visible, though. Kiva roofs were woven with small logs. (Small trees were all that were available in the area. There are no sources for large timbers. Materials dictated the style.) The interleave of the logs made them look like upside-down baskets. In fact, the kivas got finished like water-jug baskets, too. In order to make the roofs shed rain, the builders coated the timbers with pinetar and clay to make a smooth surface. Likely enough, they painted some of their kivas, too. All of the buildings in the Cliff Palace, for instance, were plastered and painted. Some of the paint has survived in the dry environment.
Another fascinating feature is the ventilation systems. Each kiva had to let the outside surface air circulate underground. Since so much of the kiva was underground and airtight, the vents were essential.
Inside the homes of the Mesa Verde sites, archaeologists have found seashells from California, turquoise from New Mexico, cotton from various other nearby regions, plus flints, obsidian, or pottery pieces that had to arrive through trade. Among the Puebloan people who populated Mesa Verde, it's apparent that the men traditionally were the weavers. Women were potters. Perhaps everyone farmed together.
Maybe the Puebloans didn't know about scurvy but they seemed to have picked up on something about the need for vitamins. Pine tree needles contain vitamin C. Juniper and Pinon pines grow on the mesas. The Puelboans figured out that tea from pine needles was a good thing. That's what they drank.
In addition, they made pinon sap ointment.
Pinon/pinyon/piñon nuts are pine nuts. They're healthy for everyone, of course, and a great source of fat and protein. However, on the mesas in Colorado, Piñon pines only go to seed once every four to seven years. That's not reliable enough to make them a steady food source. In fact, to keep them around, the locals figured out methods of preserving them, albeit imperfectly. Preservation techniques may be how they developed the ointments, which are useful as medicine but conceivably could have started as a useful food supplement, a paste to be used a bit like butter.
The locals made heavy use of most of the local plants. The wove yucca fibers. They dried pine tree bark to make fire starter. They used shreds of bark as bedding and other types of bark, like juniper, as insulation. Apparently, some shredded bark absorbs water so well, they used it in place of diapers.
They even made use of the center of the juniper berry. That is the source of the 'ghost bead' used in their necklaces.
They had no way of making gin, though. Apparently, someone on every tour asks.
It's not everywhere. In fact, it hardly exists on the tops of mesas. The mesa residents had to search for it in surprising places. As geologists would note, there are some rocks that are porous to liquids. Sandstone in particular absorbs water like a sponge - the stuff just seeps through and keeps going, falling meters and meters down through the rock until it finds something to stop it. The mesas are mostly sandstone, so rain hits the surface and disappears into it unless it hits a layer where it has to stop. That's where the granite, shale, and other types of non-permeable minerals come in. They block the descent of recent rainfalls. Above them, then, in the columns of sandstone, underground pools form. They are a dependable part of the water table.
If you can't drill through extensive layers of rock, though, how do you find the water? The was the puzzle the natives figured out. The answer lay in the edges of rock formations. At the edges of the cliffs, the entire water process may be revealed. Layers of sandstone meet plates of shale and then, because they are at the edge of the cliff, the water seeps out at that spot.
Puebloans found these 'seep' springs. Using them as steady source of water, they were able to live on top of the mesas. They practiced dry farming techniques there. They ate prickly pear and yucca fruit, imported squash and beans, and plucked juniper berries. They mashed yucca roots and used them as soap and as dried powder for anti-inflammatory poultices. From similar plants, they formed rope and wove baskets. They made the baskets water tight with pinetar.
Mesa Verde Cliff Palace
Our park ranger was not as well versed in local history as our bus tour guide. He pointed us to the Cliff Palace official pamphlet for information. He repeated some of it, including how the mesa inhabitants grew crops. The variety of corn they used grew to about knee height by harvest. The cobs were six to eight inches long, no more, and often less when water was scarce.
Surprisingly, the Cliff Palace wasn't inhabited for long. Puebloans did most of the construction between 1260 and 1280. Even as they finished, they started abandoning it. Still, the structure is impressive and deeper than it looks. It is about ninety feet deep. The rearmost layers of structure can’t be seen.
"I do have something to share that's not in the pamphlet," the guide said as we neared the end of the tour.
We stood in a group next to the southmost kiva.
"You may have noticed how different some of the buildings are," he continued. "Like each is its own domain. Well, I gave a tour here a couple years ago and afterwards, a man separated from it. He told me he was a Zuni. He said the archaeologist explanation that no one knows why the Cliff Palace was abandoned is bullshit. He says the Zuni have an oral history about this place.
"The Cliff Palace was a sort of university. It started as a school where the Puebloans would come to learn about weaving or pottery or medicine or other things. But then the rulers of Cliff Palace started to form a new religion, too. In their religion, the Cliff Palace dwellers were at the top. Everyone else was lower. Most Zuni were supposed to be their servants. That disgusted the Zuni people. They left. And the Cliff Palace kept telling the Zuni families they were lower caste. And they kept leaving. Finally, the Cliff Palace had no servants. Even the rulers of the Cliff Palace had to leave because no one would stay to work for them, not even to learn from them."
I thought it was interesting and actually pretty heartening how the people left because they wouldn’t agree to be lower people in a hierarchy. There wasn't time in the tour to discuss it, though.
On the walls of the Cliff Palace, I noticed a form of plaster. I asked about it and the guide said, yes, all of the walls had once been plastered and probably painted. The structure would have been plastered every year as a form of maintenance. There's evidence on most buildings that someone refinished the walls each winter until the last season of the Cliff Palace, when the final inhabitants abandoned the area.