Imagine a set of cliffs, overhangs, and caves hidden deep in the heart of Colorado. On first glance they’re dark, dusty, and desolate, but look again! You’ll see prominent signs of ancient but well preserved life. In fact, you might even see Cliff Palace: A huge apartment building nestled in an overhang. This is Mesa Verde: An ancient Puebloan city.
I remember my first sighting of freestanding brick-and-mortar Puebloan ruins. I had seen Mesa Verde 2 days previously, but New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon is another whole thing. I imagined what it must have been like for the gang of cowboys who stumbled upon this great Puebloan treasure. On a hike that brought me above the ruins, I looked down on the ancient city and thought of this old Washington D.C., and what it must have been like all those years ago when it hummed with life and great colorful lines of people poured in.
The ancient Puebloans are not what I think of when I think Indian. I think tepees, animal hides, and moving to follow the herds. Not permanant buildings and Roman-esk roads. This old southwestern tribe is sure to surprise you.
There are many old ruins of the early Indian cities. Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Bandelier to name just a few. There are even several cities that claim to be the oldest continually inhabited cities in North America. Acoma (also known as Sky City) is the oldest, while Toas is a little younger. There are various building styles, too.
At Mesa Verde all of the houses are made of large stones and set in alcoves in the cliffs.
In Chaco Canyon the hotel-style homes are built with stone, and are, in some places, at least 4 stories high.
Bandeleir’s unique pueblos are the most apartment-like yet. They’re chiseled into the rocky mountain side, more like man-made caves than anything else. If you go on a tour now, there are ladders to get up into the rooms, but I imagine the Puebloans at Bandelier used Moki Steps: little holes carved into stone that make it easier to climb.
Many people who think of Indians as primitive would be surprised to hear about all this, but even more amazed at what I’m about to say.
If you stand above the crumbling city in Chaco Canyon and look out over the land, you’ll see well-worn lines that are the preserved remains of a network of roads lading in and out of the old Puebloan capital. These roads brought merchants and visitors in, and led local voyagers out. See, we can assume that either Aztecs came in, or Puebloans journeyed south to see them. We get this idea because their designs and building style suggest Aztec influence. There is also an interesting myth that we’ll talk about later. Right now, I want to focus on the trade.
The Puebloans had birds. Strangely enough, these birds were parrots and macaws. The only explanation for these uncommon pets, since they certainly don’t live in the wild in New Mexico, is that the Puebloans had contact with people in a tropical country. How is this possible? The ancient New Mexican Indians were not primitive people. Their roads were long and led to many far-away lands. It is not at all unbelievable that they could meet with people in southern Mexico who had tropical animals.
Speaking of surprising, I promised a Puebloan myth. The Indians around here have a story that Montezuma was from Pecos. He moved to Mexico, they say, and rose power. It’s interesting that they have such a story and makes one wonder if it’s based in truth. There are some ruins that some say were an early Aztec temple, but experts insist it was not. Still, it makes you wonder what the basis for this claim is. Another mystery is the living places of the Puebloans. Why did they go where they did, stay where they did, and leave when they did? We can never be sure. My guess would be that something in their beliefs led them to do what they did, but we can’t know.
The final thing I wish to share is perhaps the most unsettling. Of all the people who lived in Chaco Canyon, only three skeletons have been found. Where did the Chacoans bury their dead? No idea. There are guesses, of course. Maybe visitors carried bodies out to lay them to rest elsewhere. Maybe there’s a cave or a pit somewhere full of bones and we just haven’t found it yet. It makes one wonder. Only three skeletons have been found.
Featured image: Chaco Canyon. Photo Credit: Me, or Gordon, or Mom. Photo Editing: Me.