Where ancient cultures thrive
The astonishing Four Corners region shelters the US' real Southwest
The locals call it a shortcut, but it’s not really a shortcut. On the map it looks like miles saved, but a jarring two-hour crawl along a washboard dirt road doesn’t add up to much of a time saving. When Joe Day leaned over his map and traced a route from his shop in Shungopavi on Hopi Second Mesa to the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, he clearly meant business.
To the uninitiated, Shungopavi may look like the middle of nowhere. The cluster of small buildings sits atop one of the three Hopi mesas in the heart of the Four Corners region — where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado intersect. It is dry. It is barren. If I’d been looking for the antithesis of Toronto or New York, this might be it.
But middle of nowhere? Joe Day would disagree.
“This is a real place where real people live. The Hopi reservation is the oldest continuously inhabited town in the North America and the people who lived here were contemporaries with the ancient puebloans whose ruins are all over the Southwest – Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly.”
These remote mesas are not somewhere you just happen upon. Hopi is a destination. “Visitors are not coming here just cause they broke down and had to spend the night because they’re halfway to the Grand Canyon. They’re interested in culture, they’re interested in history, they’re interested in archaeology,” explained Day. “Being 65 miles from the interstate screens out some of the riff-raff; no rubber tomahawk customers at all.”
Patterns of culture
Roads criss-cross the Four Corners region, where the states of ArIzona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado intersect, some of them blacktop, some dirt washboard. Many lead to and from the ruins and communities from whom today’s Southwest people are descended. Each ruin, every village or pueblo, as the Spanish called them, have stories to tell — of the ways these great cultures came together, diverged and then crossed paths again. Over the arc of time, migrations occurred, powerful communities disbanded, and new ones grew and flourished, continuing traditions laid down by their ancestors. Roaming these roads, from ruins to vibrant communities, is a way to follow that arc.
The Four Corners is a place for exploration. Several hours along that rough road and then paved highway — past the soaring red and orange cliffs of the high desert — brought me to Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, the only US National Park based on archaeology rather than natural features alone.
“For a Puebloan person everything you do, see and breathe is spiritual,” explained guide Mike Petrose who has spent most of almost six decades living on top of the mesa. “It’s not that we’re all the same, but the energy that built us is the same.”
Case in point: On a four-hour, architecture-themed tour that just barely touches the 4500-plus archaeological sites at the park, Petrose pointed out the construction of a kiva, a subterranean religious ceremonial space. “Most classic kivas share a southern orientation with a vent, fireplace and spirit entrance forming an axis that points south. Roofed, the kiva would appear to be a part of the earth, the traditional pueblo spirit world.”
We travelled along the Mesa Top Loop, through changes in architecture that traced a timeline of the people who lived here from 600 to 1300. At first there were pithouses, large spaces dug into the ground where people of the Basketmaker period would have lived and stored their winter supply of corn. Several hundred years later, the buildings moved above ground to single wall “waddle and dab” masonry. As time and techniques progressed, walls became thicker, constructed of stone and mortar.
The architecture builds to a crescendo at Cliff Palace, the jewel of the massive archaeological collection at Mesa Verde. At 151 rooms it is the largest cliff dwelling in the southwest. The people who lived and worked and raised families under these rock overhangs were there for 750 years, almost three times as long as the United States has been a country.
With a guide we follow a narrow trail into the ruins and speak in hushed tones. The dwellings demand reverence. There were no shouts to bounce echoes from one cavernous wall to the next. But there were questions. Lots and lots of questions.
There are about 600 cliff dwellings here and about. Best guess is that the people who built them knew and understood math, although we are at a loss about where that knowledge came from. It would have taken many years to build all of this without the benefit of the wheel or the horse. Education must have been an important concept, with ideas and information being passed from one generation to the next. They lived in this final stage of building styles – the cliff dwellings – for less than a century. By the year 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted. The reasons why? Unknown.
As with many of the ruins in this part of the country, there are more questions than answers. There’s a lot made of the migration of the people from these great communities. Some say that they just disappeared, a wording that makes Petrose bristle.
“They never vanished. We know where they are – they moved. We find them in the Zuni, Laguna and the pueblos along the Rio Grande and on the Hopi lands right square in the middle of Arizona’s Four Corners.” The point is that many of the native cultures that thrive today can trace their ancestry to these ancient builders at Mesa Verde.
At the heart of it
Gone does not mean disappeared. This idea is also at the crux of Chaco Canyon, the ruins in northern New Mexico’s high desert that experts speculate were once the ceremonial, trade and cultural centre of a great civilization that stretched across much of this area.
There is nothing quite like Chaco anywhere else. Archaeologists and archaeoastronomers pinpoint this as the high-water mark in the thriving puebloan cultures of millennia past. Because of its remote location the UNESCO World Heritage Site has few visitors. Spread out across the canyon’s wild beauty of rock, scruf piñon pine, creosote and manzanita brush the excavated ruins are dominated by monumental architecture built with an estimated 50 million slabs of sandstone.
Multi-storey buildings with hundreds of rooms called Great Houses — including Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto — were oriented to solar, lunar and cardinal directions. How the Chacoan people managed such sophisticated calculations is one of the great mysteries. In some cases it would have taken decades, or even centuries to construct these buildings. More of these public structures are concentrated here than in any other spot across the Southwest. The question is, why? Experts believe Chaco was the hyper-organized ceremonial centre of the ancestral puebloans, creating an even deeper significance for today’s indigenous people.
Astronomy clearly played a major role in Chacoan culture. Like all pre-historic cultures, the residents organized their lives around the harvest of corn, squash and beans. The Chacoans attuned themselves to seasonal patterns by following the progress of the sun, tracking the path of its shadow as it cut across stones erected as astronomical markers. So precise was this ancient calendar that they aligned the massive walls of Pueblo Bonito along the axis of the summer-winter equinox, and then oriented distant buildings and roads to the same coordinates — an impressive feat of engineering.
These concepts of the seasons, of balance and symmetry, and of the landscape’s spiritual nature forge close bonds between the ancient people and their descendants. Traditions and ceremonial knowledge are still very much alive with the spirit of ancestors who left their imprint on these sacred lands.
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