It was a journey of two hours and eight hundred years. We stood on the rim of the canyon looking onto a lip of sandstone under which were clustered over 200 dwellings: square, round and most strikingly, a four-storey tower. Built from the same pale rock, dark slashes of door and window openings provided the only colour contrast. Cliff Palace is a remarkably well-preserved twelfth century village, constructed by the Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloans as they are now referred to, one of several to be found in Mesa Verde National Park, America’s first World Heritage Site. You can also visit cruder pit houses, dating from the eighth century and built into rather than above the ground, in this Park, whose name translates as ‘green table’ but it was to Cliff Palace we were now headed with our guide, Sonny.
Scrambling down worn stone steps, we gathered round one of the ceremonial, circular kivas as Sonny painted a vivid picture of life around 1200, when Mesa Verde was home to several thousand people, before they abandoned it, probably owing to prolonged drought, a century later. The Ancestral Puebloans were the first agriculturalists in the area, farming the fertile mesa, growing corn, beans and squash and raising turkeys. They also hunted wild game. Water had to be laboriously carried down into the villages, whose careful positioning provided protection from the elements, a cool refuge during summer and warm retreat in winter. Fading murals could still be discerned on some of the walls.
We gulped water from plastic bottles to combat the effects of altitude (Mesa Verde lies at around 9000 feet above sea level) In my mind’s eye I saw women and children drinking from the attractive black and white pottery vessels I had marvelled at in the Anasazi Interpretive Centre the previous day, where other exhibits included shell necklaces and macaw feathers, evidence of widespread trade.
I noticed the imprints of our hiking boots on the dusty ground and was reminded of another fascinating slice of Puebloan life featured in the museum: a sandal woven from yucca with a distinctively patterned sole, the purpose of which was to aid tracking, different families each having their own pattern.
Sonny pointed to a circular hole about the size of a tea plate on the floor of the kiva. ‘It is called a ‘sipapu’ and means ‘navel’ or ‘place of emergence’ he explained. ‘For the Ancestral Puebloans, the earth world was their fourth life. The sipapu symbolises being born into this world from the spirit world. My people, the Ute, are direct descendants of those who may have sat in this very kiva. We hold many of the same beliefs and practices today’.
As we climbed a ladder through a narrow crevice back to the top of the Mesa and the twenty- first century, Sonny pointed out the original toe and finger holds in the rock face used by his ancestors. And a distance of eight hundred years shrank to a hand’s width.