National Geographic : 1948 Sep
AncientCliff Dwellers ofMesa Verde BY DON WATSON Park Naturalist, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado Illustrations byNATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Photographer Willard R.Culver ON A SNOWYday inDecember, 1888, two cowboysrode across avast snow covered mesainthe far southwestern corner of Colorado.On all sides lay awilder ness of jumbled canyons and flat-topped hills, mostly unexplored by white men. This was of littleimportance tothe cow boys: they were searching for cattle. Friendly Ute Indians allowedthem towinter their herds in the great MancosCanyon tothesouth, and the cattle sometimesscattered across the mesa tops. Recovering them was no easy task. The cattle soon became as wild asdeer, and some times their owners were forced toshoot them and pack them outtoavoid atotal loss. As the men searched for cattle, they also searched for something else-something they felt sure did not exist. It seemed impossible that here inthis track less wilderness wasalarge town-built ina cave! But Acowitz,aneighborly Ute, had in sisted that somewhere tothe north, inone of the numerous canyons, was the "biggest of all" cliff villages. His description sounded utterly fantastic; themen knew hewas merely spinning a yarn fortheir benefit. Still, as they rode along the canyons they always watched the cliffs "just incase." True, houses weretobefound inthe caves. The cowboys had seen anumber ofthem. In the small stone rooms, built under overhanging cliffs, the men had come upon bits ofpottery, corncobs, and a fewstone tools. Itwas evi dent that at some time Indians had lived there. But Acowitz's storyof agreat cave containing a large town seemed unbelievable. Silently the two men rode across the mesa, forcing their way through the thick snow covered forest. Thecow tracks they followed led them always tothe north. At last the trees thinned out and rock ledges began to click under their horses' feet asthey emerged on a barren rockypoint atthe edge of a canyon. A SilentCity ofStone Suddenly RichardWetherill, who was lead ing, jerked his horsetoastop. "Charlie, look atthat!" hecried, pointing across the canyon. As Charles Masonjoined his companion his eyes, too, went widewith amazement. There across the canyon was the "biggest of all"- asilent stone city almost completely sheltered by anenormous cave (pages 374-5). From end toend the cave was filled with stone houses. Some were piled story upon story, rising even tothearched cave roof. More than anything else, itreminded them of apalace or castle built inacave, and itwas this impression that caused them later toname itCliff Palace (pages 355, 357). Acowitz was right. More than half acentury of search has proved that Cliff Palace isthe biggest of all cliff dwellings inthe Mesa Verde. As Wetherill and Mason sat staring there on their horses, the swirling snowflakes hid some ofthe ruins; rubble and bushes concealed others. One large ruin on the opposite canyon rim was completely covered with ahigh mound of earth. But, inall, ten ruins lay cold and silent within range of vision. Cliff Palace Housed 400 Indians Ifthe two cowboys could have stood inthe same spot some two and half centuries before Columbus discovered America, they would have seen avastly different panorama. Then each village was alive. Each hummed with activity asitsbrown-skinned occupants went about their daily tasks. InCliff Palace atleast four hundred Indians made their homes. The other near-by villages were smaller, but probably seven or eight hun dred Indians lived inthe vicinity. Their high cave homes protected them from their enemies and the elements. Crops from their mesa-top fields filled their bins with corn, beans, and squash that carried them safely through the long winter months. Inthe courts and on the terraced housetops the women bent over their cooking fires. Wisps of smoke drifted up the cliff faces and disappeared into the flake-filled sky. Pots ofbroth and stew bubbled over the coals, and bread baked onflat stone griddles. Aged men and women toasted their arthritic bones around the fires and talked ofbygone days when "things were better." Inthe mealing rooms the young women and girls plied their grinding stones, reducing the brightly colored corn toprecious meal. The constant rasping ofthestones was made bear able only by the melodious notes ofthe grind ing songs (page 376).