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Tracing the USA’s lost civilisations

Of all the aboriginal tribes in North America, most settled on a nomadic lifestyles and only a few tribes built permanent housing. The tribes of the famed Six Nations Confederacy in the Great Lakes region built long houses, most of which have since decayed or been destroyed by fire.

The area known as the ‘Four Corners’ in the American Southwest is full of wondrous places; lush forests, raging rivers, desert scrubland, and some of the most spectacular archaeological sites in all of North America. The name ‘Four Corners’ comes from the geographic location where the corners of four states (Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado) meet exactly.

It is there that an incredibly advanced culture resided, building stone structures to rival their cousins far to the south, the Aztecs, the  Mayans, and the Incas. People who have heard of them might know of them as the Anasazi, but this name is a misnomer. Anasazi means ‘Ancient Enemy’ in the tongue of the Navaho tribe, who now live on the land where most of these ruins are. A more proper term, given by their direct descendants, the Puebloan tribe, is the Ancestral Puebloans. The name is also where we get the name for their wonderful settlements, pueblos.

Mesa Verde

Their influence spread throughout the Southwest, for hundreds of kilometers in every direction, from just north of the Grand Canyon almost all the way to Phoenix, AZ, and from as far west as Flagstaff, AZ all the way east to Albuquerque, NM. These are simply the ruins that have been discovered.

Mesa Verde National Park was one of the very first national parks created in the United States of America and the first site in the USA designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site by the United Nations. It is a wonderful place for people who enjoy hiking, camping, adventure, archeology, and architecture.

The various sites throughout Mesa Verde are an interesting mix of original structures and re-constructed buildings and kivas. Walking through the different archeological sites, one can’t help but wonder what life was like here in Mesa Verde. The reconstruction and life-like models give us an idea of how they lived. At one of the many sites in Mesa Verde, Spruce Tree House, you can descend into a restored kiva. Based on archeological evidence and the ceremonies performed today by the Puebloan people, it is believed that kivas were where the Puebloans held religious ceremonies and consulted shaman. There a fire was lit and smoke would quickly fill the room.

As one descends down the ladder into the dark room, one starts thinking what is down there. After descending only 15 or so feet, you are in a cramped room sheathed in darkness. The room is cool, at least 5 degrees cooler than outside. Along the walls are seats carved out of the rock. In the center, is a fire pit, where the shaman would build a fire and try to divine what his attendants could look forward to during the coming year. 


At the spectacular Cliff Palace, one can look up into one of the towers and see a multi-colored petroglyph that is still intact. The tour for this spectacular site is about an hour long and involves about 100 feet of climbing up ladders. One of the buildings is almost five stories tall! At the Balcony House site, one climbs up 32 feet to reach an entrance. Then you crawl on your hands and knees through a narrow tunnel (less than 4 feet wide) to view the site. A little hard on the knees, but trust me, it’s worth the effort!

From excavations and research, it is known that the major structures in Mesa Verde, like the Cliff Palace and Balcony House, was a center of commerce and perhaps even religion, with few permanent inhabitants. Most Puebloans instead lived on top of the mesa, growing grains, such as corn and wheat. The mesa inhabitants did however make daily trips into the canyons and valleys to collect water and hunt small game animals.

Despite dozens of amazing archeological sites scattered throughout Mesa Verde, every time there is a forest fire in the National Park, dozens of new sites are found, from homes to kivas to farming sites.

During its heyday, Mesa Verde and the surrounding area is believed to have been home to almost 50,000 inhabitants. By way of comparison, London of the same time had only about 30,000 people.

There are many theories about why the Puebloans abandoned Mesa Verde, but the current line of thought is one of ecological erosion. As the Puebla society grew, and more and more people came to call it home, eventually, the area became unable to support them. In essence, they outstripped their natural resources. It is known that in the last years of their inhabitants of Mesa Verde, a seven year long drought occurred, which must have been a factor in abandoning the area.

Whatever happened to the Ancestral Peubloans, they left behind amazing structures and evidence of a civilization far more advanced than was believed to exist in North America. They say that pictures are worth a thousand words, but being there, basking in the incredible sights and sounds of Mesa Verde National Park, are worth a million.

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