National Geographic : 1964 Feb
His trained hands removed the soil placed there so long ago, and a small bundle came to light. It was a baby girl; with her lay a mum mified turkey (page 172). Some 700 years ago the baby died. Her mother tenderly wrapped her in a feather blanket that had taken many hours of work. Gently she buried her in the dirt floor of a back room and placed the turkey beside her, perhaps as food for the journey into the here after. Then the mother returned, mourning, to the incessant toil of life. Centuries passed; forces of nature beyond her comprehension drove the woman's peo ple from their dwellings in the cliffs. Where the baby lay it was dry; perhaps a little drifting snow reached in, a sprinkle of hard-driven rain, nothing more. The small brown body dried out. In time a wall crum bled and the roof fell. For hundreds of years the silence of the abandoned building was broken only by the raven's hoarse call, the coyote's song. Then came a new race of men to dig among the long-forgotten ruins. Clues Reveal Life of the "Old Ones" Many such eloquent clues to a life long gone have confronted us as we surveyed, dug, sifted, and restored the fascinating ruins of Wetherill Mesa. Today, our digging com pleted, we know much about the vanished people of Mesa Verde. And what we don't know about them we hope to find in the great mass of still-uncorrelated data that we have gathered. Such finds as the infant and the turkey have helped us along the way. The child's blanket, for example, shows us how the Indians made their textiles. The tiny body shows the burial position, flexed as in the womb, the same as that used by other early peoples of the Southwest. The turkey testifies to hopes and beliefs as well as to animal husbandry. So we learn of the Anasazi, the "Old Ones," as our Navajo workers call the mesa dwellers. Each clue we have unearthed leads toward the solution of the final mystery, a mystery that permeates Mesa Verde's stunted forest, the rough canyons that gouge it, and above all, the wonderfully preserved dwellings in the great overhangs of sandstone. Why did the Anasazi abandon these awe some towns in the cliffs? Shortly after the baby died, by the year 1300 or thereabouts, these great pueblos were deserted. Juniper smoke hung no more in the valleys in the cool mornings; men went 162 no more to the fields; the turkeys ran wild. No longer did the chants of the people, the shaking rattles and stamping feet implore the gods for rain. After a thousand years of developing culture, it was all over. Why? Earliest Anasazi Lived by Hunting Let us review briefly what we already know of these people. First, they were Ameri can Indians; their descendants must still live in New Mexico and Arizona, their past en veloped in the haze of time.* Our MesaVerdeans reached this region only a couple of centuries after Christ. At first, they must have lived by hunting and gather ing wild food. We call them Basket Makers, for their skill in fashioning basketry. Their homes were half-underground pit houses. By A.D. 500 or 600 they had begun build ing larger pit homes, and corn, beans, and squash were firmly established as the great triad of Indian agriculture. They had learned to make primitive pottery; sherds of it litter the old dwelling sites on the mesatop. By 700 to 800, the Anasazi had stopped living in pit houses. Instead they built above ground homes of stone and adobe, with wood beams. These they often constructed side by side, in curving lines, rather like the row houses of cities today. Another few centuries rolled by. In Eu rope, William of Normandy sailed the Chan nel to conquer England. Leif Ericson's long ships touched North America. To the south, the great Maya empire waxed-and began to wane. Art and philosophy burgeoned in Asia. On the mesa, men did as their fathers did -or as they thought they did. Few indeed must have recognized change. But it was there: Agriculture, building methods, and pottery all changed-sometimes for the bet ter, sometimes not-or so it seems to us today. Mesa Dwellers Retreat to the Cliffs So we come to the 1100's and the 1200's. The mesa culture had steadily advanced. Stone-and-adobe masonry was finely con structed, with blocks shaped to corners and curved walls. Handsome pottery, painted black on a white ground, had evolved. The turkey was domesticated. Even soil-conser vation practices were in use. The mesatop was heavily populated (pages 192-3). Then, for some reason, the people re * See in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC "Ancient Cliff Dwell ers of Mesa Verde," by Don Watson, September, 1948; and "Indian Tribes of Pueblo Land," by Matthew W. Stirling, November, 1940.