Digging Deep

The invaders arrive in the cool, early morning. The imposing sandstone edifices and towers, dotted with darkened windows, had been quiet and peaceful, a silent city hidden deep within a rocky tableland rising hundreds of feet above the Colorado desert. But now the canyon echoes with voices and the sounds of feet tramping down worn, rocky footpaths.

The strangers, a group of twelve, reach the village and gaze up at the carefully constructed buildings, some soaring two and three stories to the ceiling of the canyon's overhang. The leader of the group steps forward and turns to face the others. "This is the Spruce Tree House," she says. As if on cue, the strangers pull out high-end digital cameras and glossy tourist brochures and begin ambling through the sandstone ruins. Another day has begun at Mesa Verde National Park.

As the tourists snap photos and scramble into reconstructed kivas, bubbling with a coffee-induced morning high, park ranger Lorisa Qumawunu gives a brief history lesson. The builders of these structures were a prehistoric people who lived throughout what's known as the Mesa Verde region, a backdrop of stark canyons, lonely mesa tops and sparse desert expanses north of the San Juan River, a landscape stretching across modern-day southwestern Colorado as well as parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Probably beginning in the first millennium A.D., these people built increasingly complex communities here, complete with wide roads across the desert, complex dams that revitalized the landscape, and the tallest buildings in North America until the age of the skyscraper. In the mid-thirteenth century, many relocated their homes from mesa tops and open plains to canyon rims and cliff-face alcoves, building the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is known.

Fifty years later, the area was deserted.

Walking through the ruins, Qumawunu points out traces of original soot still visible on ceilings, pieces of plaster clinging to walls. She says it's no longer appropriate to call the former residents of these buildings "Anasazi," explaining that it's a Navajo word meaning "enemy ancestors." The accepted term is now "ancestral Pueblo people," reflecting the fact that they're related to the modern-day Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona. For Qumawunu, the name change is important, personal. She's from the Hopi Pueblo.

These explanations are lost on many of the visitors. Most are busy talking loudly among themselves, peering quizzically into sandstone rooms. "Where's the ping-pong court?" one exclaims loudly.

Despite the ruckus, it's a quiet time of year at Mesa Verde, with the summer throngs thinned to a wintertime trickle. But this will soon change: 2006 marks the national park's centennial, with a year-long celebration culminating in four days of hundredth-birthday festivities in June. This means more than just a big party for Mesa Verde National Park; it's a commemoration of archaeological achievements throughout the Mesa Verde region, an area that's proved to be a prehistoric gold mine.

As the tourists prepare to depart Spruce Tree House, one asks Qumawunu the question that's on everyone's mind: Why, after having invested so much work in this place, did the ancestral Pueblo people leave it all behind?

The park ranger's answer sounds well-rehearsed: "We can come up with so many thoughts about why they moved in and why they moved out. But no one really knows for sure."

It's a conundrum that local archaeologists would love to solve. Southwestern Colorado has provided abundant details of the ancestral Pueblo people's lives -- everything, it seems, except why, in the late thirteenth century, the entire prehistoric population, possibly tens of thousands of people, abruptly departed what had been their home for centuries, leaving behind immense stone cities and towns, never to return. It is one of the last great archaeological mysteries of the Southwest, the big question mark atop Mesa Verde's centennial birthday cake.

But it's a mystery that is finally beginning to unravel. Using painstakingly careful excavations of the area's prehistoric sites, elaborate computer and mathematical models and old-fashioned detective work, archaeologists are creating a more complex and subtle picture of the ancestral Pueblo people. In a field where new developments are often measured in decades, the past fifteen years have seen a flood of archaeological discoveries regarding their final years in the Mesa Verde region. Many of these new advances have come from researchers at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, who seem to break all the old rules. Working with scholars throughout the Southwest and beyond, archaeologists at Crow Canyon are forming an explanation for the long-pondered depopulation of the region not yet referenced in museum dioramas or in textbooks -- an explanation that looks disturbingly familiar from a 21st-century perspective.

But getting the clues out of the ground and piecing them together is only part of the equation. How to get this research into the narratives of Mesa Verde tour guides like Qumawunu is another quandary.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner