Cliff Palace: The Village In The Stone Built By The Prehistoric Anasazi People

One day in 1888 two Colorado cowboys, named Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, came to the rim of a canyon and gazed in astonished awe at what appeared to be stone castles and towers tucked against the face of a massive cliff. It was as if a crusader army or Moorish warlord had built a walled city in the middle of North America, and then abandoned it.

Cliff Palace - Mesa Verde National Park
Cliff Palace - Mesa Verde National Park

This and similar discoveries in the area sparked off excited speculation about a mysterious people who had built their towns and citadels there long ago and abruptly vanished off the face of the earth. Gradually it became clear that the vanished people were not a mysterious race, but the prehistoric ancestors of the Pueblo Indians of the southwestern United States. These native American people were given the name Pueblo (village) by the Spaniards as they explored northwards from Mexico in the 16th century.

What name the prehistoric Indians gave themselves, no one knows. They had no alphabet and left no written records, and they built their remarkable constructions without the benefit of material tools or modern machinery. They are referred to today as the Anasazi, "the ancient ones." which is what the modern Navajo call them. Their buildings have been described as the first high-rise apartment blocks in America. Cliff palace, which Wetherill and Mason saw that day in 1888, is the largest of them and the best-known example in Mesa Verde National Park, established in 1906 on the initiative of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Spruce Tree House - Mesa Verde National Park
Spruce Tree House - Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace was built between 1073 and 1273, and at its peak would have housed about 400 people living in close quarters in a village arranged vertically rather than horizontally. It had more than 200 rooms for living in, plus storage rooms and Kivas (special rooms set aside for ceremonies). The rooms were decorated with wall paintings featuring geometric designs and patterns. At the front of the building, an open terrace was used for the community's everyday work, such as making pottery and grinding corn.

Close to Cliff Palace, along Chapin Mesa are two more of these complexes - Spruce Tree House, which is tucked under the overhang of a ponderous cliff, and Balcony House. Spruce Tree House, rising to three stories, is 216 feet (66m) long and 89 feet (27m) wide. It contains more than 100 rooms, which are rectangular, round, or triangular, to fit into the space under the overhang.

Presumably, these inaccessible fortress villages were built for defence. The people who lived in them were farmers, with crops of corn, squash, and beans. They made baskets, cloth, and pottery, and they domesticated the wild turkey for its meat and feathers. They built small dams to trap rainwater for their fields. Earlier, they had lived in pit houses, dug down into the ground; but after they had built their apartment blocks, they used the older houses as underground rooms for religious ceremonies. Somewhere about 1300, perhaps struck by a long drought, they abandoned their homes. A museum in the park has displays of Anasazi life, with necklaces, bracelets made of dog hair, and decorated seashells brought from the pacific coast.

Balcony House - Mesa Verde National Park
Balcony House - Mesa Verde National Park

Not He or She

The Pueblo Indians - the Hopi, Zuni, Keres, Tiwi, and Tewa peoples - are now restricted to a small number of villages in New Mexico and Arizona. Descended from "the ancient ones" who built Cliff Palace, they had developed an impressive civilization by the time the Spaniards appeared in the 16th century in what is now the southwestern United States. They had a strong influence on the other Indians of the Southwest, notably the Navajo.

Traditional Pueblo society is unusual in tracing its descent through the female line. Men do the work in the fields, which is the exception to the rule among Native American groups, and newly married young couples move in with her mother rather than his. Women have a more important and honoured position than usual.

Life in the villages is intricately bound up with religious beliefs and ceremonies. One story tells of a Pueblo Indian who, asked by a visitor what his religion was, replied simply, "Life."

Pueblo's traditional religion is a fascinating mixture of the simple and the sophisticated. The Zuni, for instance, recognize a high god in the sky whose name is Awonawilona. With no personal characteristics, this being is neither masculine nor feminine (or is equally masculine and feminine) and cannot be adequately called either "he" or "she." Perhaps such profundity goes back to the wisdom of "the ancient ones." The Parthenon: The Religious Centre Of Athens During The Power Of The Delian League


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