A group of men in Mesa Verde

Lost Highways

Mesa Verde of the Mysteries

Season 4, Episode 7

For nearly a century-and-a-half, archaeologists have been studying Mesa Verde in hopes of deciphering what happened to the Ancestral Puebloan people who lived and thrived there for so long. For many, it remains one of the great mysteries in the history of North America. On this episode of Lost Highways, we’ll explore the way that historians and archaeologists try to solve these kinds of mysteries, and how they know what they say they think they know. Where does that confidence come from? How confident are they, actually? And what happens when what we think we know changes.

Guests: Ellery Hanson, Hadley Hanson, Jason Hanson, Holly Norton, Jared Orsi, Virgil Ortiz, Tish Agoyo, Matthew Martinez, Mark Varien



Mesa Verde of the Mysteries (Script)

Ellery: It's really funny. We laughed a lot when we first read it. The pictures are hilarious. The bed is some sort of sacred tomb. Not tomb, but…

Hadley:  Coffin sort of thing. 

Hadley: He just decides what all these things are. He just makes up random assumptions. 

Noel: Meet ELLERY and HADLEY. They’re 12 and 10 years old, respectively, and they are the daughters of Historian Jason Hanson, the Chief Creative Officer here at History Colorado. Hi Jason. 

Jason: Hey, Noel. 

Noel:  If you’ve listened to Lost HIghways before, you’ve probably heard Jason’s name in the credits. He oversees all kinds of creative work here at the museum. And Jason recently gave his daughters a copy of one of HIS favorite books from when he was a kid – one of the books that he credits for his love of history. It’s called MOTEL OF THE MYSTERIES. Tell me about this book, Jason. 

Jason: So Motel of the Mysteries was written by an illustrator named David McCauley in 1979. And the basic idea is that in the mid-1980s life in the United States ended catastrophically, buried by a sort of absurd Pompeii-esque avalanche of junk mail and suddenly solidified air pollution. 

Noel Black: A book that every father should give his children

Jason Hanson: Well it’s actually a sort of wry comedy. The mass extinction is just prelude and the focus of the story is a bumbling buffoon of an amateur archaeologist named Howard Carson. And in the year 4022, he stumbles upon the well-preserved ruins of a budget motel called the Toot’n’Com’on Motel. 

Ellery: All these things we have today, are, that seem so normal to us, are like, he doesn't even know what they are. He doesn't know what a telephone is, a bathtub. He doesn't know what a bed or a toilet is?
Jason Hanson: One of our favorite parts of the book is when the bumbling archaeologist determines that a TOILET SEAT is part of a sacred burial ritual.  

Hadley: it's the necklace or

Ellery: It's a collar. 

Hadley: Collar and. 

Ellery: And he has the seat part around his neck and the lid behind his head and a… the headband that keeps a toilet seat together in hotels, around his head, connecting the toilet lid to his head. 

Jason Hanson: Will you ever look at a hotel the same way again?

Ellery: No. 

Noel: So why was this book so formative for you?
Jason Hanson: Motel of the mysteries is a send up of archaeology and the presumptions that archaeologists can make about the past from nothing more than a few artifacts, it also cuts straight to a question at the heart of my work and, really all of history, whether you’re digging up the distant past or a journalist trying to report the facts of a story:: How do we KNOW what we know? And what happens when what we THINK we know CHANGES. . 

[Theme Music] 

Noel: From History Colorado Studios, this is Lost Highways: Dispatches from the Shadows of the Rocky Mountains. I’m Noel Black. 

Jason: And I’m Jason Hanson. On this episode, we’ll explore the one of the key questions Americans are asking themselves in these days of competing facts, when it seems that for every expert out there working hard to make sense of our world there's an equal and opposite expert, and anyone can 'do their own research' in ways that seem to often confirm what they wanted to believe all along. We’ll look at the way that historians and archaeologists and others who study the past know what they say they know. Where does that confidence come from? How confident are they, actually?

Noel: And we’re going to do it by taking you to one of North America’s most spectacular places, and the site of a mystery that has vexed western archaeologists for generations: Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. 

Jason Hanson: Mesa Verde was home to many Ancestral Puebloan communities who lived there for more than a thousand years before leaving the area pretty abruptly around the year 1300. 

Noel: For nearly a century-and-a-half, archaeologists have been studying Mesa Verde in hopes of deciphering what happened to the people who lived and so clearly thrived there for so long. 

Jason: For many, it remains one of the great mysteries in the history of North America. 

Noel: Although, as we'll hear later, for many Pueblo people the decision to abandon Mesa Verde is not a mystery unto itself but rather an episode that fits into their much longer history throughout what is today the US Southwest.    


Jason Hanson: If you’ve never seen or been to Mesa Verde pr seem pictures, it is truly one of the most fascinating architectural wonders you’ll ever see. The ruins of multistory homes, underground ceremonial spaces called kivas, and other buildings dot the landscape. The most well-known is “Cliff Palace,” which is a stone city built into an alcove on the side of a sheer cliff. 

Noel: Picture a small, ancient yellow-brick city in the middle of a giant sandstone sandwich. When you first see it, you immediately wish you could live there, and you can’t help but find your mind climbing in and out of the little plazas and rooms before you even begin to walk through. 

Jason: The last time we took a family trip to Mesa Verde, as I watched my daughters climbing around the ancient structures, I couldn’t help feeling an echo of the children who had lived here centuries ago. And I couldn’t help imagining them playing with one of my favorite artifacts from Mesa Verde, which we have on exhibition at the History Colorado Center in Denver…. 

Jason Hanson: Well I brought you here because people ask me what my favorite artifact is in the museum. And yeah, you know, I usually give some diplomatic answer. It's like choosing a child. I love them all for different reasons. Equally. But if you press me, I will tell you that this right here is my favorite artifact in the museum. It's this tiny, tiny little ladle. 

Holly Norton: Can I describe this artifact? 

Jason Hanson: I would love it. 

Jason Hanson: This is Holly Norton, Colorado’s State Archaeologist, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer, and a friend who, when she’s not out in the field, works just down the hall from me.

Holly Norton:So what we're looking at is this little ladle. It's about two inches long. The handle is very short. The handle is maybe only about three quarters of an inch. It's less than half of the length of the ladle. Totally. And the cup of the ladle is pretty large, a little bit over an inch, it looks like. But what's interesting is there's also a miniature ladle next to it that's a little bit bigger. This little one, Jason's favorite, is almost crude.

Jason Hanson: It doesn't look like much. I would bet that most people walk right past it. 

Holly Norton: I would bet so, too. 

Jason Hanson: The reason I love it so much is that, you know, on the label it says the archeologists may think that this may have been a children’s toy. I have two daughters at home and when they were little, they had kitchen toys, and I feel like this is the exact same thing. Like, I can imagine the parent at Mesa Verde being like, would you please just go play with your toys? Like, I have to get some stuff done before the end of the night. Like I have to get dinner ready, whatever it is like.

Holly Norton:  One of the things that strikes me about it is not only may it be a toy, but also on this label, it says it could have been a children's creation. So then there's two ways that a child may have been playing with this, both imitating their parents in the kitchen like our kids do, potentially even helping in some way. I know my eight-year-old kiddo has been helping us make dinner more and more, which is really fun and also really terrifying because there's knives and heat involved, you know? 

Jason Hanson:  For me, this is just the  item in this museum that fulfills the promise that artifacts have, that they can connect us across a millennia. 

Holly Norton: I actually really love that this is your favorite artifact and that you're seeing this connection and like just how there's this humanity about parents and their children, regardless of how we think of them.

Jason Hanson:  After we looked at the ladle together, Holly and I went upstairs to History Colorado’s recording studio to talk more about how we can KNOW what we THINK WE KNOW about this tiny little ladle. But first, I asked Holly to set straight whatever skewed ideas I had about archaeology. Because before I knew real archaeologists like Holly, my understanding of their work came mainly from Motel of the Mysteries and, of course, Indiana Jones, who as a kid growing up in the '80s was a model for what I wanted to be when I grew up. [Indiana Jones theme ] I thought that archaeology, when it was done right, was mostly dashing curators in leather jackets  discovering treasures in secret crypts. Something like this newsreel from the 1950s.

[Clip from: Archaeologists discover Tomb of Mentemhet in Luxor, Egypt.] 

Jason Hanson: Holly said that Hollywood got it right that early archaeologists were often white men from Europe and the United States. But beyond that, the real history of archaeology was a lot less romantic... and dirtier.

Holly Norton: There is a lot of emphasis on digging, because when archeology really kind of got started 150 years ago, you know, people were out literally kind of trying to dig up treasures and dig up shiny, cool, pretty things that they could usually bring back to their patrons.

Jason Hanson: The thrill of the find—especially when it was something shiny or made its finder internationally famous—might have been the initial attraction. But it wasn’t long before archaeologists started looking beneath the shiny surface. 

Holly Norton:  Pretty quickly, I think the people who are so fascinated by these objects realized that they could tell a bigger story than just being shiny and cool.

Jason Hanson: The first question, the most basic question, which anyone who has ever discovered a family heirloom they didn’t know about or even an old rusty beer can in the woods has probably asked, was: When is this from?

Holly Norton: That's really a fundamental question of archeology even today. When did these people live? When were they using these objects?

Jason Hanson: Careful excavation through different layers of soil reveals the past in reverse order:

Holly Norton:  Stuff that's deeper in the ground is older than stuff that's closer to the surface. And so that kind of starts giving us some relative ideas. 

Jason Hanson: In the Southwest, archaeologists can dial in on an artifact’s age more precisely by using a technique called dendrochronology.

Noel Black: Dendrochronology means tree-ring dating. It’s a technique that uses the concentric rings you see when you cut through a tree truck, which show the tree’s growth--thicker in wet years when a lot of rain fell and thinner in dry years--to build a timeline back into the past.

Jason Hanson: In the southwest, the dry climate preserved the wooden beams Ancestral Puebloan people used in their buildings. Eventually, this allowed archaeologists to match up tree-ring patterns to build a record that stretches more than 2000 years into the past.

Noel Black: Thanks in large part to the tree ring record, archaeologists have been able to determine that people lived in the Mesa Verde region continuously in settlements from at least 400 BCE, which is often referred to as BC, to almost 1300 CE, which you will also hear called 1300 AD.

Jason: And once archaeologists felt confident they were able to answer the first question, WHEN, they moved on to more complex questions: 

Holly Norton: How were they organized? Did they have governments the way we think of governments? Did they have hierarchies? How did they get their food? And that's not just a subsistence question, but that's a social organization question. If you've got people who are devoting their time to making that beautiful black and white pottery that we saw downstairs, who's feeding them? How is that working? Is it nuclear families or is it something else? 


Noel Black: Mesa Verde is about a 45-minute drive from Durango. Or 15 minutes from nearby Cortez, or a little farther if you’re staying at the Ute Mountain Ute Casino in Towaoc.

Jason Hanson: Spanish explorers called it Mesa Verde, which means “green table”, because it’s an enormous flattened mountain topped with thick growths of green juniper and pinon trees. 

Noel Black: From aerial views, it looks like an outcropping of the San Juan Mountains was scraped flat about halfway up. Drainages cut through the mesa everywhere, running roughly from north to south to flow into the Mancos River, creating a web of deep canyons that give Mesa Verde a dramatic topography. 

Jason Hanson: It’s in those canyons, in recessed alcoves eroded into the otherwise sheer rock walls, that the Ancestral Puebloans built the spectacular settlements that capture the imaginations of those who see them. Again, the most famous is Cliff Palace, the large complex built into a canyon overhang near the center of the mesa. 

Noel Black: It was built beginning around 1200, and at its peak in the latter half of the 1200s, more than 600 people likely lived there. 

Jason Hanson: Cliff Palace is just one of nearly 5000 Ancestral Puebloan sites archaeologists have identified throughout Mesa Verde National Park.
Noel Black: But there are many more, about 18,000, throughout the wider region. And that includes more cliff dwellings, settlements on the mesa top, towers, temples, dams and water systems, and farming structures. 

Jason Hanson: When Theodore Roosevelt designated Mesa Verde as a national park in the summer of 1906, it was just the seventh national park in the United States. 
Noel Black: Previous parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Mt Rainier had been created to preserve their natural splendor. Any people who had lived there were treated like incidental inconveniences to the spectacular scenery that was worth protecting. 

Jason Hanson: But at Mesa Verde, the people were the reason to preserve the place. It was the first national park to be established to preserve its human history rather than allegedly untrammeled nature. 

Noel Black: Its creation is a fascinating story of its own right.

Jason Hanson: The abbreviated version is that the Ute people, whose origin stories say they had always lived in that area, of course knew about the people who had lived there centuries before and the ruins they left behind. And others who had spent time in the area—trappers and surveyors and explorers and ranchers—had encountered some of the evidence that others had lived there long before.

Noel Black: Settler’s awareness of the ruins remained within these small circles until 1888, when two white American ranchers named Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason were guided to Cliff Palace by a Ute man named Acowitz. 

Jared Orsi:  We can start the story with the Wetherills. 

Jason Hanson: This is Jared Orsi. He’s a professor of history at Colorado State University, where he is also the director of the Public and Environmental History Center. He’s also a member of Colorado’s State Historian’s Council. 

Jared Orsi: Richard Wetherill was a rancher in the area and he located Mesa Verde's... Some of its ruins that interested him in 1888. And he told other people and a lot of local people began to come and visit the site. 

Jason Hanson: Richard Wetherill and his four brothers, plus his brother-in-law Charlie Mason, worked on their Alamo Ranch near the small town of Mancos, just a few miles northeast of Mesa Verde. 

Noel Black: When they could, the Wetherill brothers would explore the ruins they found in Mesa Verde. They were well-read men who kept up with the latest scientific discoveries of the day, they brought a more archaeological sensibility to their explorations than the souvenir “pot hunters” and more organized looters who came out and took whatever artifacts they found. The Wetherills did their best to document their finds while lobbying the Smithsonian in Washington to protect the site.

Jason Hanson: Even though they were doing their best to approach their explorations in a scientific manner and documenting their finds, they still removed them from where they found them, offering them to museums for research and education, as was common practice for archaeologists at the time. 

Noel Black: They sold some of their early finds to the Colorado Historical Society in the 1880s and ‘90s, creating one of History Colorado’s foundational collections. In fact, the ladle Jason loves dates to some of those early acquisitions from the Wetherills and a few others who were also active in the region. 

Jason Hanson: In the winters, when the work was slower on the ranch, the Wetherills started leading tours to the area.

Noel Black:  As word got out, people came from farther and farther away to see the ruins of Mesa Verde with their own eyes.  

Jared Orsi: There was a Swedish archeologist. His name was Gustav Nordenskiöld. 

Noel Black: Gustaf Nordenskiöld was a Swedish nobleman with an interest in science when he came to study the ruins at Mesa Verde in 1891 and worked with the Wetherills to conduct what was up to then the most professional and extensive archaeological survey of the area. 

Jason Hanson: Ultimately, despite some locals trying to arrest him for looting as he boarded a train in Durango to leave, he returned to Sweden with hundreds of artifacts as well as the remains of twenty people who had been buried near settlements on Mesa Verde. 
Noel Black: Nordenskiöld’s collection eventually ended up in the National Museum of Finland. Though the museum recently returned the remains of the twenty people he had taken from Mesa Verde to a coalition of Pueblo Tribes, many of the items he collected have been in Helsinki ever since.
Jason Hanson: Prompted by the lack of any legal means to prevent Nordenskiöld from removing artifacts, and in general by fears that the ruins of Mesa Verde would be, well, ruined by daytripping souvenir hunters and more organized looters, some Coloradans began campaigning to protect the historic sites.

Noel Black: The most effective advocates were a dedicated group of Colorado women.

Jared Orsi: Two Colorado women, Lucy Peabody and Virginia McClurg, were very interested in making sure that the lands were preserved. They looked at all of this collecting and they saw it as unsustainable, and that after a while there would be nothing left if private people went to Mesa Verde, took the best stuff, even damaged the ruins, perhaps to facilitate ranching or farming or other activities. And so they organized people in Colorado and in the Four Corners area and began to press for a land reserve.

Jason Hanson: Eventually, Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt agreed with the ladies of the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association that  Mesa Verde should be protected. Although McClurg had wanted the park to be under local control and run by her organization, Roosevelt was on a nationwide conservation kick and designated Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. 

Noel Black: But there was an important caveat: 

Jason Hanson: Much of the land designated for the national park was actually sovereign Tribal land. It was part of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, which was created a decade earlier when a band of Utes had refused to agree to have their land broken up and allotted for homesteading. 

Noel Black: As you can imagine, many members of the Tribe were less than enthusiastic about the creation of a national park that demanded more land from them. 

Jason Hanson: It wasn’t until five years later that the federal government negotiated a land swap with the Tribe to ensure that the entire park was on federal land—a transaction that created hard feelings among many Ute Mountain Ute people at the time and still does for some today.   

Noel Black: Despite ceding the land for the park, the Ute Mountain Ute retained many Ancestral Puebloan sites on their reservation. Alongside the national park today is the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, which is more than twice as big as Mesa Verde. Only accessible with a Tribal guide, it contains Ancestral Puebloan sites that rival those in the national park and offers visitors more intimate tours informed with Tribal knowledge.

Jason Hanson: But most people visit the national park. 

Noel Black: Today, more than half-a-million people from around the globe visit the park each year to learn about the Ancestral Puebloan people who called it home a millenia ago. 

Jason Hanson: Which brings us back to our original question: What do those visitors learn? What do we know about the people who called Mesa Verde home ? And can visitors today be any more certain that archaeologists and historians know what THEY KNOW about the site and the people who lived there.


Mark Varien: Who are the Pueblo people? Well, the single most defining characteristic of Pueblo Indian culture is that they were farmers and their primary crop was maize or corn.
Jason Hanson: This is Mark Varien. He’s been doing archaeological work in the US Southwest since Motel of the Mysteries was published in 1979. Though he recently retired, he did much of his work at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center near Cortez,  just outside Mesa Verde National Park.

Mark Varien:The earliest dated corn in the Four Corners is from Black Mesa in northeastern Arizona, and it dates about 4000 years ago.  More in the central Mesa Verde region, there are some dates that are pretty early, but not that early, and it looks like it's not until about 400 BC that the first permanent farmers move and stay settled in the region.  And there's relatively continuous occupation in that larger central Mesa Verde region from 400 BC until the end of the AD 1200s.

Jason Hanson: Over those centuries, people built settlements all around the region, throughout southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. And by the 1200s, it was a bustling place. 

Mark Varien: There was a population peak in the mid-1200s where the Central Mesa Verde region, right here where I live in Cortez, Colorado, had as many people then as it does today. 

Noel: The population of Montezuma County in the southwest corner of Colorado today is about 24,500, which is around the population that archaeologists believe lived in the region in the 1200s. As a point of comparison, that’s similar to the size of London, Lisbon, Verona, Copenhagen, or Prague during the 13th century. But the growth didn’t last at Mesa Verde. 

Mark Varien: It was only a few decades after that peak that the migrations were completed and virtually all the Pueblo people had moved from the region as an area of permanent residence. 


Jason Hanson: Some of the most compelling work that Mark Varien and his colleagues did at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center was the Village Ecodynamics Project.

Noel Black: Gustaf Nordenskiold and other early archaeologists used the best archaeological tools and practices available to them around the turn of the 20th century. Mark Varien and his colleagues were building new tools for modern archaeologists.

Mark Varien: The essence of it was to use the most advanced technology available to conduct what's called agent based simulations.

Jason Hanson: Essentially, the Village Ecodynamics Project, which he sometimes refers to as the VEP, gathered all the data available about the more than 18,000 archaeological sites documented since the first expeditions in the region, fed it all into a big database, and then ran computer simulations to test different variables and scenarios. 

Mark Varien: So we did a computer simulation of ancestral Pueblo families living on the landscape in southwestern Colorado using the tree-ring reconstructions of climate in the soils, we could estimate how their agricultural yields changed from year to year. And so we created a simulation where we started in AD 600 and the simulation had all these different variables and the variables were actions by the simulated Pueblo households. 

Noel Black: The simulation was testing what would happen depending on what different decisions Ancestral Puebloan people made. 

Jason Hanson: The variables in the program were what people might have done in a given set of circumstances, and what the consequences might be. For instance, the archaeologists could estimate how much corn and other crops Ancestral Puebloan people could grow in a given year based on tree-ring data about how much rainfall there was that year. 

Noel Black: Then, they could run a simulation for dry years when crop yields were low and people may have had to rely more on hunting for food. And that would give the archaeologists some ideas about what long-term ramifications might have been for wildlife populations in the region as well.

Mark Varien: You could run the simulation five hundred different ways, combining all of those things, which included many things that would be virtually impossible to observe archaeologically, but nonetheless would have been critical to Pueblo people living on that landscape.

Noel Black: Then they checked the different outcomes from the simulation against the archaeological record they had from those 18,000 sites. That way they could see which simulations fit with what they could observe about where people had lived at different times. 

Jason Hanson: The Village Ecodynamics Project took archaeological information and applied modern computing power to process that information in ways that have given us new insights into the past. 

Noel Black: And that is what has given archaeologists a lot of confidence to say they know things like about how many people were living in specific settlements during a particular time, and that most people abandoned the region by around 1300.

Jason Hanson: It also allows archaeologists to say with confidence how often the rains were below average, when the drought got really bad, and how low their crop yields would have been during those times. But it still doesn’t fully explain why EVERYONE left the Mesa Verde region around 1300.

Noel: The data shows that people had weathered droughts that were as bad or worse in the region before. During those periods, some people left, reducing the population to a more sustainable size, and then the population rebounded when the rains returned. So why DIDN'T they follow that tried and true strategy again at the end of the 1200s?

[Music Break]

[VOX POP from Mesa Verde here]

Jason Hanson: That was Minoru and Tomoko, two visitors to Mesa Verde on a recent summer day, telling us what they think happened to the people who had lived there before 1300.  And  this question about WHAT happened is a big part of what’s so compelling at Mesa Verde: the ARCHAEOLOGICAL mystery. The cliff dwellings are like spectacular ghost towns, and western archaeologists have long wondered why people who figured out how to adapt so brilliantly to their environment seem to have suddenly UP AND  LEFT. All the more so when Mark Varien explains that the available scientific evidence suggests that they could have stuck it out if they’d wanted to. 

Noel Black: There are some theories. But those theories have changed over time. And the WAY they’ve changed is really fascinating.

Jason Hanson: The earliest western archeologists to study sites in Mesa Verde, like the Wetherills and Nordenskiold and others who came after them from institutions like the Smithsonian, found evidence that led them to conclude that WAR drove people away. 

Noel: Here’s Mark explaining it: 

Mark Varien: The very first Anglos to explore these ruins encountered some evidence that indicated that conflict was present.  

Noel: Some of that evidence came from digging up the bodies of people who had died there centuries before, something that many early archaeologists did in the name of science without considering how offensive it was to their descendants. 

Mark: Because they did excavate human remains, they found some evidence in those remains where it looked like bones had been harmed through conflict.

Jason Hanson: These early archeologists also thought that the cliff dwellings looked like a natural castle – the type of place you would live if you were trying to make it very hard for someone to attack you.

Mark Varien: They may have also seen the cliff dwellings as a defensive site location as well. 

Noel Black: This, along with the discovery of human remains, led them to conclude that violence must have shaped the lives of Ancestral Puebloan people during their final centuries at Mesa Verde. 

Jason Hanson: At the end of the 1920s, new evidence emerged that really pushed aside the initial theories of warfare. As archaeologists filled in the record created by tree rings, it gave them the ability to reconstruct the rainfall data at Mesa Verde going back centuries. And that record revealed that a severe drought began about 1276 and lasted for decades. Mark Varien explains:

Mark Varien: If you had evidence of the outside ring, you had evidence of the year that a human being harvested that tree to build a building. So that person who created that first chronology, identified the presence of an extreme drought that began in about A.D. 1276. And he labeled that the Great Drought and identified that as the basis for Pueblo people leaving the region.

Jason Hanson: So the record seemed to reveal that just as the population was peaking, a severe drought gripped the region. It seemed self-evident to archaeologists that it explained why people left the area. Holly Norton articulates the simple logic this way: 

Holly Norton: There was a drought and that people were no longer to do subsistence agriculture. They were no longer able to consistently grow food. And so people out migrated. 

Noel Black: This conclusion – that the drought was a major factor in the depopulation of Mesa Verde – has prevailed among archaeologists for more than a century. 

Jason Hanson: But over the decades the drought theory morphed in important ways. New techniques allowed for more sophisticated analysis and reconstruction of the Ancestral Puebloan environment over time. And that led many archaeologists to a NEW THEORY in the 1960s and ‘70s that it wasn’t JUST the drought—after all: people had survived droughts before at Mesa Verde—but that the region experienced a more wide-ranging environmental collapse that forced people to leave. 

Noel Black: Mark Varien explains that MORE evidence was found that seemed to suggest that centuries of intensive land use are to blame. Hunting, farming, cutting the trees, building settlements, and all the things that come with supporting a growing population ultimately overwhelmed the environment’s ability to sustain the people.   

Mark Varien: One of the new facets of an interpretation that came into into being is probably in the seventies was resource depletion, that living on this land over so many centuries really changed the landscape and depleted the landscape to the point that that was a factor in people leaving.

Noel Black: But while archaeologists might be able to pinpoint when the drought began, and the cascade of hardships that followed, they CAN’T pinpoint a moment when people finally decided it was time to go. 

Jason Hanson: More recently, some archaeologists have seen evidence that social inequality may have compounded the environmental challenges and played a larger role than previously recognized in prompting people to migrate. Holly explains: 

Holly Norton: There were some really deep social hierarchies in the Southwest and in places like Mesa Verde. And if with some climate change and environmental factors, and if you are maybe a little bit lower on the social ladder, and you are, you know, working overtime to try to feed not only your own community, but these elites who are, I don't know, producing pottery or governing your society, you might start having second thoughts about your place and your role in that. You know, what are you getting back? 

Noel: In other words, the social contract may have been broken. 

Jason Hanson: Mark also sees ways that each of these explanatory frameworks might converge in mutually reinforcing ways, especially as the population grew larger than it ever had been before. 

Mark Varien: There wasn't enough to share in some of the bad years. So it's really these new forms of data collection and more sophisticated forms of data collection that bring these different factors that earlier folks had cited into a more holistic interpretation. 

Jason: As one theory replaces another, the wildly different explanations for why Ancestral Puebloan people left Mesa Verde around 1300 can feel like they’re just guesses. But maybe there's another explanation that’s been present all along.

Noel Black: Presentism is the idea that we interpret the past through the lens of our experience in the present. And if a historian uses the term, it’s not likely that they’re giving a compliment. As Jared put it: 

Jared Orsi:  Presentism if it comes out of the mouth of a historian, is a slightly derogatory term to describe excessive attention to present concerns and the allowing of those present concerns to color or even pollute our understanding of the past.When we evaluate people in the past according to the concerns that we have, even if it made no sense to them, that's anachronism. So we're making a statement that is out of time. 

Jason Hanson: And the past, says Jared, exists on its own terms. 

Jared Orsi: People of the past, whether we're talking about Ancient Puebloans at Mesa Verde or we're talking about Virginia McClurg and Lucy Peabody, or we're talking about park rangers from the 1950s, they operated at Mesa Verde around the concerns of their day. And those aren't the concerns of our day. And so you can imagine if historians start going back and interpreting in terms of what we care about today, then we would miss something about the past. We would misunderstand something.

Jason Hanson: Despite the best efforts of the many the many truly distinguished and brilliant archaeologists who have worked at Mesa Verde to understand what life was like for the people who lived there and, especially, why they eventually chose to leave, there’s more than a whiff of presentism in the conclusions they came to. 

Noel Black: In other words, the explanations that archaeologists have offered at different times for why people left Mesa Verde MAY say more about the times THEY’RE  living in than the actual experience of Ancestral Puebloan people in the late 1200s. 

Jason Hanson: Consider that the first archaeologists at Mesa Verde saw evidence of violence and, in an era not far removed from the American Civil War and careening through. Imperialistic wars like the Spanish American War toward World War I, they concluded that warfare must have been what drove people away. 

Noel: Thanks to tree-ring dating, the evidence for the Great Drought emerged. But  it’s hard to miss the fact that it came into focus at the same time that the Dust Bowl settled in on the West,  forcing farmers to leave their land  in search of literal greener pastures. 

Jason Hanson: It might just be coincidence that the tree-ring record was finished right before the Dust Bowl began. But drought remained the consensus explanation for why people left Mesa Verde until the environmental movement in the United States gained traction in the 1960s and ‘70s. 
Noel Black: At that time, archaeologists started to see evidence that widespread resource depletion throughout the region had precipitated an environmental collapse that forced people to migrate. 

Jason Hanson: And, more recently: Theories about inequality eroding and dispersing Ancestral Puebloan society seem to track with our current heightened awareness of the toll of widespread inequality created by structural racism. 

Noel Black: In other words, perhaps those who fail to learn the lessons of history AREN’T doomed to repeat them. But rather: Those who try to learn the lessons of history so as not to repeat them are DOOMED TO SEE THE PRESENT.  

Jason Hanson: I asked Mark Varien about this phenomenon:

Jason Hanson:  I'm wondering whether, as an archeologist, you see those connections too and whether it's, you know, a case where we are creatures of our own culture and it informs how we see things or whether it's just really the data is emerging and leading people to these conclusions. 
Mark Varien:   We can't help but be creatures of our own culture and influenced by what's going on during the times in which we live. And yet at the same time, we do try to independently evaluate the data that we collect. So I think it's both. And I would also say, I think there is real truth to those, the pairings  between interpretations and things that have emerged in modern culture.

Jason Hanson: Holly Norton said something similar when I asked her about it.

Holly Norton: We always make sense of the past related to the present. And I don't think that's anything to shy away from our changing views of the world and how we experience it and how we move through it actually allows us to ask different questions of the past.

Jason Hanson: But, says Holly, we have to be aware of the shortcomings of our own perspective—or at least humble enough to acknowledge that our perspective has shortcomings, whether or not we know exactly what they are. 

Holly Norton:  If we walk through the world with certain assumptions about gender or sex or class or race, then that is going to color our research questions and it's going to kind of color our analyses. It’s going to make us not be able to see things that may have occurred in the past because we have these blindnesses.

Noel Black: And so, part of being a good archaeologist or historian or a journalist is being aware of the blindspots and biases we may have. 

Mark Varien:  You can't change the fact that you're a human being that has grown up in a specific culture and is living in a specific time. So what we're trained to do is realize that that does bias us and try to factor into our interpretations an evaluation of that bias. Is that imperfect? Yes, because we're humans and it's a part of human imperfections in seeking this knowledge. 

Jason Hanson: And anyway, he pointed out that while the connections I was seeing between the times in which archaeologists were living and the ways they interpreted evidence about the past WERE real, I was ALSO oversimplifying things, especially as I tried to pin presentist motivations on the archaeologists. 

Mark Varien: I'd also say that humans have always seen that violence and warfare has characterized modern times. You know, it wasn't just the end of the civil wars. Warfare and conflict has sort of been a constant of my lifetime

Noel Black: The western archaeologists who’ve studied Mesa Verde over the past century and a half have almost always been outsiders looking in, bringing their own perspective to whatever windows they are able to open up to the past. No matter how much training and self-awareness they bring to their work, it’s not possible to NOT bring their personal perspective of the world to how they see the evidence. 

Mark Varien:  You've been talking to me and I'm an archeologist, but the people that we study are the ancestors of the modern Pueblo people, and modern Pueblo people have their own histories about all of this. I'm a gringo sort of trying to summarize this, and that's not the best thing in the world. The best thing would be to get a Pueblo person to talk to you about this. 


Matthew Martinez: My name is Matthew Martinez. [Un sengi tamu’] I was born and raised in Ohkay Owingeh, where I served as former lieutenant governor from my Tribe. And my formal title is Executive Director of the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project, which is a nonprofit in northern New Mexico aimed at stewardship and education of cultural sites. 

Jason Hanson: The petroglyphs at Mesa Prieta—ancient images carved into the rocks—make the settlements at Mesa Verde seem like relatively recent history in comparison. 

Matthew Martinez: They were obviously examples of indigenous people who traveled the Southwest, who left their stories for all of us to remind us of this very special and sacred place. We estimate the petroglyphs on the Mesa in northern Mexico date back at least 8000 years or so. So there's a long legacy of travels and story making in the region, which is quite fascinating. 
Jason Hanson: From Mesa Verde, you can travel south, generally following the migration route that most archaeologists believe people took when they left the region in the late 1200s. The Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh, from where Matthew spoke to me, is located between Santa Fe and Taos. Tribal members traditionally speak Tewa, a language spoken by six of the contemporary Pueblo communities today. 

Noel Black: Ohkay Owingeh was where the Spanish governor and conquistador Juan de Oñate established the first Spanish capital in Nueva Mexico, claiming it and renaming it San Juan de los Caballeros, in 1598. It was also the birthplace of Po’pay, the mastermind of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 that successfully drove the Spanish out of the region for a dozen years.  

Matthew Martinez:  So there's a large legacy of political and colonial empires in the region that our tribe has survived and continues to confront some of the challenges today.

Jason Hanson: Matthew Martinez says that the people of Ohkay Owingeh, like the people of each of the other Pueblo communities in New Mexico and Arizona today, recognize a connection with Mesa Verde. He explains that while Mesa Verde is a Spanish term…

Matthew Martinez:  In Tewa we do have a name for this region. It’s called Te wa Yogeh and we refer to these places all the time. And there's this, you know, pretty popular narrative that people left the region, people left the Mesa Verde region and disappeared. From Indigenous perspectives, we always believe that people never left these areas because they continue to be occupied in spirit and in memory. And our ancestors also left their breath, their cultural connections, so-called artifacts in the region that are very much alive. So there's life to them. And so we firmly believe that we've never left and we continue to visit these places, to pay respects to all those that came before us. 

Noel Black: Virgil Ortiz, an internationally renowned artist from Cochiti Pueblo who uses ceramics, costumes, photography, and film to explore an Indigenous future 500 years after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, feels the connection to his ancestors and their presence in the ceramics they left behind. 

Jason Hanson: He says he felt that connection when we asked him to collaborate on an exhibition that put his futurist artwork into a conversation with the historic Cochiti pieces and Ancestral Puebloan pieces in History Colorado’s collection. 

Virgil Ortiz: The first time I went into your vault here in History Colorado, it blew my mind. I went in there and just like you get chills right away because you feel they're alive. The spirits around there and like thinking about all the people that have created them, way back and who knows how long, long ago they created them without all the resources, like running water or electricity or like how in the heck did they do this? But that's what gives me strength and, you know, prayer about guidance to continue that tradition. But to see pieces that are that old all brought together and like they're taken care of and everything, that's an amazing thing to see. 

Noel Black: Virgil’s manager, Tish Agoyo, is from Ohkay Owingeh. Her father, Herman Agoyo, devoted his life to reclaiming and sharing the history of the Pueblo Revolt, inspiring Virgil along the way. She feels it too:

Tish Agoyo: It's also sort of a very spiritual sense that I feel when I'm around that work. It's a very good feeling to see that and to know that it has survived, really.it just brings me a great sense of pride. It really does. 

Jason Hanson: Virgil points out that many of the cultural connections between the ancestors at Mesa Verde and contemporary Pueblo communities persist today:

Virgil Ortiz: When you participate in, say, our feast day dances, like the women that wear their headdresses—the tablitas is what they call them—they have like a certain design element with within the headdresses, and then they have like doorways that like in the shape of a T. Then you look at Mesa Verde or all of the different ruins, their doorways are like that too, they're like passageways. So like you can kind of start to put together old regalia, old ceremonial what we wear while we do our dances and then look at the actual buildings. 

Noel Black: Virgil also feels that connection as he works with clay, especially the ceramics he makes in the traditional Cochiti method.

Virgil Ortiz: When you touch the clay, you can feel all the people that have worked with clay before speaking to you and it’s like I think all the you know, all the people that have passed, all the spirits right now all communicate. And that's where I always say that, like it's not my talent that you see with the artwork that I put out there. I feel like I'm a conduit, always asking for guidance from our spirits and family members that have passed.Like I always also say, it's like I'm just a bead in a necklace, but like, the connections are all there, are always there. 

Noel Black: And so what do modern Puebloan people think of the many theories that western archaeologists have dreamt up for the last 150 years? What do the descendents of those who came south to what we know today as the current Pueblo communities in New Mexico and Arizona tell us about what happened at Mesa Verde around 1300?
Jason Hanson: It’s important to note here that Pueblo people, like western archaeologists and historians and, really, all people everywhere, don’t always agree on everything. So there is not *quote* “The Pueblo View” of this. 

Noel Black: But Matthew Martinez said there’s some pretty clear consensus that the migration away from Mesa Verde fits within a much longer history of mobility in the region. 

Matthew Martinez: Pueblo belief systems is centered on migrations and survival. And so there's an understanding that there was a possible drought that pushed people out of certain regions and settled up along the present day Rio Grande River, which is really based on agricultural practices. That's really the connection of how people traveled in small bands all along, again, this northern corridor. And so we estimate that between 13- and 1500 is when you see the establishment of current day Pueblo villages.

Noel: That timing for the establishment of the modern pueblos fits neatly with what archaeologists have discovered about when people left Mesa Verde and traveled south, eventually forming new communities.

Jason Hanson: Matthew underscored that movement of all kinds is part of Pueblo culture, and has been for millenia, probably even since before people carved the petroglyphs at Mesa Prieta 8000 years ago. And he understands the   move away from Mesa Verde as part of that much broader experience. 

Matthew Martinez:  One way to think about mobility is to really understand that movement is a part of life and it's ever continuous. And so whether that is a physical element and manifested moving from a village to another region and or through dance and cultural practices, there's continuous movement in traditions and art forms and language. Language is always fluid and there's always new concepts to be added and defined. And so I think that's a part of who we are as Pueblo people, there's a centered place surrounded by elements of movement. And it's both, and I think it's really important to understand that these movements, the migrations, are really essential to survival. 


Jason Hanson: When my daughters were younger and more willing to play with analog toys, my wife and I took them on a family trip to Mesa Verde. And at one point in the afternoon, as I watched them hold hands and walk together down the path leading to the remnants of what had been another family’s home more than 800 years before, I couldn’t escape the feeling that there was some sort of human connection between us and the families who had called this place home. 

I thought of caretakers doing their best to raise their children and teach them all the things they would need to know as they grew up. And I thought about the little toy ladle back at the History Colorado Center and imagined children in that place playing with their toys and emulating the adults around them in some essentially similar way to how my daughters played with their own toys. 

I asked Jared Orsi if I was inappropriately projecting my own present-day life on the people of the past. 

Jared Orsi: Human connection is a good thing. And so standing at Mesa Verde and knowing that you are not the same as the people who walked there 800 years ago, but that you share some traits, and that that provides a real and bonded connection. I think you're participating in something that human beings throughout history have done. That's why we study history and why we're interested in it, because we crave this connection to past peoples. 

Virgil Ortiz: I think it's all real. I mean, you have to accept that, like when you have really weird déja vu is what they call it, or, you know, like you might have been from somebody you don't have and you don't know that if that touched you that closely, you could have been from there. 

Jason Hanson: Virgil Ortiz says there are ways to discover those connections. For him, working with clay allows him to feel the presence of ancestors.  But we can seek out opportunities to celebrate our common humanity, which is part of Pueblo culture today.  

Virgil Ortiz: If you look up different Pueblos, they have each a feast day that they invite people in. You could eat the food, the cuisine that, like, who knows how long we've been eating this type of food, and to enjoy the dances. If you have a chance to go see that, you can feel the power of the of all of our people, all dancing in unison and singing together and, you know, asking prayer for not only us, but the whole world. And that makes you that makes everybody realize that we're a lot more closely related than we are different.

Jason Hanson: Tish Agoyo agrees with Virgil—it’s hard not to feel connected to one another, and connected to something larger, at a Pueblo dance. 

Tish Agoyo: That's a good suggestion to , you know, find out when there's these dances are going on at the Pueblos and and and visit and experience that. And Pueblo people are very welcoming. They really are. They'll invite you over and give you a good meal. And that's what it's all about. I love that feeling.

Matthew Martinez:  I think about what is the larger human connection here, and regardless of our own particular backgrounds, there's something very innocent about kids playing outside in the mud, in the dirt, and kind of just being out with nature, and I think we lost sight of that as a society that's so consumed with technology. And so we take, you take your kids and, you know, I have a son as well, and there's almost something very magical and spiritual when they're able just to be out in their element and be outdoors and enjoy that and just be present. And I think that's just one of the oldest forms of human activity, is that connection and that that intersects across many cultures and communities globally. 

Jason Hanson:  For Matthew Martinez, there’s something magical about that feeling. He told me that we CAN know the people of the past beyond simply what they did and when. And that knowledge begins with ourselves and our being open to connecting across time and culture. 

Matthew Martinez: Our bodies are, you know, made of majority water, right? And so there's, you know, we feel certain things when we're walking the stream and there's a conduciveness of movements, of water and walking barefoot on dirt and sand. And it's just that reconnection as human people, as earth-based people around the world, that we are reminded of this. And I think that's that's what that's what you're talking about. There's a reference point of that connectivity across peoples. For sure, absolutely.

Jason Hanson: That's really cool. 

Matthew Martinez: Yeah. It's beyond cool. It's magical. 

[Outro Music]
Lost Highways is a production of History Colorado and History Colorado Studios. It’s made possible by a generous grant from the Sturm Family Foundation, with particular thanks to Stephen Sturm and Emily Sturm. And by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor.

If you enjoyed this episode of Lost Highways and want to support it, please subscribe, rate us, and write us a review on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. Also: tell a friend and share one of your favorite episodes. You can find links to individual episodes at historycolorado.org/losthighways.

Many thanks to our Producers, María José Maddox and Dustin Hodge. And thanks to reporter Chris Clements at KSJD Public Radio in Cortez, Colorado who helped gather scene tape. 
Special thanks also to Susan Schulten, our History advisor; to Publications Director Sam Bock; to Ann Sneesby-Koch for her newspaper and periodical research; and to Lori Bailey, our problem solver extraordinaire.

Thanks to our volunteer transcribers for this season, Clint Carlson, Barry Levene, Ivy Martinez, Erin Wilcox, and Sharyn Zimmerman.

If you'd like to see a transcript of any of our episodes, either as a matter of accessibility, or because you'd like to use Lost Highways in your classroom, you can find them at historycolorado.org/losthighways.
Devin James Fry composed the music for this episode, and our theme is by Conor Bourgal.

Many thanks to our editorial team:
Shaun Boyd
Kimberly Kronwall
Angel Vigil
And Eric Carpio

And to our Advisory Group:
Stephen Sturm
Emily Sturm
Thomas Andrews
Jonathan Futa
Charlie Woolley
Susan Schulten
Tom Romero
and Cara DeGette

Noel: Finally, a huge thanks to the entire staff at History Colorado. And thank you for listening. I’m Noel Black.