Brendan O’Shaughnessy ’93 | October 21, 2018
We’re sitting in silence in the Long House cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park, watching the sun swallow the shadows across the far canyon wall.
I strain to hear the whispers of the ancestral Pueblo people who built the complex villages tucked into massive sandstone alcoves in southwestern Colorado, then abandoned them sometime in the late 13th century. I can feel their presence viscerally, emanating from the soot they scorched into the rock and the small imprints of maize in the mortar.
Villages like Long House were surely loud and bustling places, among the most densely populated settlements found in any Native American culture. They were connected to each other, too — a dozen dwellings of various sizes can be seen from the park’s Sun Point Overlook. The Mesa Verde civilization flourished in these mountains and valleys for nearly seven centuries, but by the year 1290, the ancestral Pueblo clans had vanished from this region for good, having migrated south and west into modern-day Arizona and New Mexico.
The park, which covers about 81 square miles, is dotted with nearly 5,000 archaeological sites. Here the ancestral Pueblo people left scattered clues about who they were — from crumbled walls and the occasional petroglyph to broken pottery and the building footprint of each community. Archaeologists like Donna Glowacki, sitting with me in the silence, are trying to read these signs.
Glowacki, a Notre Dame anthropologist and expert in Mesa Verde culture, studies societal collapse. An estimated 25,000 to 40,000 people left this homeland between 1250 and 1285, one of history’s great migrations. Why they left is one of North America’s great mysteries, and it has animated Glowacki’s work for 25 years.
“I’m really interested in how societies change, and how we deal with really tough situations, and what happens when it just doesn’t work,” she says.
Science can prove a drought occurred here in the late 1200s, but a previous generation had survived severe drought a century earlier. After the first drought, people moved from their mesa-top farms to walled villages on cliff edges, then to more defensible positions under the cliffs as a last resort, suggesting that scattered communities had grouped together for safety as resources became scarce. Other sites corroborate the theory that this crowding led to violence between different Pueblo clans. At Castle Rock, an outcropping of stone just outside the park, early explorers found unburied bones that indicate the village ended in an attack, rather than a move.
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