TRAVEL / Majesty in Amber: Preserved by the dry desert air, the Cliff Palace of Mesa Verde is an awesome legacy of the Anasazi Indians, writes Rupert Cornwell. But why did North America's first town-builders feel forced to abandon their new city?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT BEGINS, as it must end, with nature; or more exactly the view, a few miles after you have entered Mesa Verde National Park. A small road to the right leads up to Park Point, 8,572 feet above sea level. On a clear spring day, the vista which surrounds you must be the most stupendous on earth.

Etched on the northern horizon is the snowcapped Manti-LaSal range, 100 miles distant in Utah. Turn southwest and you can make out Shiprock in New Mexico, a galleon in sandstone, sculpted by the desert winds. Look east, and 15 miles away are the jagged white peaks of the La Plata mountains of Colorado. But each time your gaze somehow returns southward, across a mysterious blue-green landscape slashed by great ochre canyons, falling softly away into infinity. There, the traveller already senses, lies his destination, the world of a vanished people - the Anasazi.

Maybe it was somewhere nearby that Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason passed during a fierce storm one December day in 1888, searching for stray cattle. They would have ridden on another 20 miles or so, on a trail across the hillsides, that dropped down on to that strange plateau-land to the south. As they reached a canyon's edge, they stopped in amazement. On the other side, half obscured by the whirling snowflakes, stood a cluster of buildings that seemed a fairyland city in miniature, perched in a cleft in the rockface. Thus did the first white man stumble upon what became the most celebrated archaeological ruin in North America; the Cliff Palace of Mesa Verde, last redoubt of the Anasazi.

My own arrival at the same place was more prosaic. A brilliant late April afternoon held no fears. Mesa Verde is Spanish for 'green table-land', and by then it is starting to live up to its name. Spring shoots are poking up amid the pygmy forest of pinyon pine, Utah juniper and sword cactus. Tarmac roads have long since replaced cowboy trails. Outwardly the 20th century has tamed Mesa Verde. But the instant you step out of your rented car at any of the sites or vantage points skilfully laid out by the National Park Service, you are humbled.

The Anasazi, in the Navaho language 'the ancient ones', arrived here some 1,500 years ago, in what is today known as the Four Corners because the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet in perfect symmetry. Eight centuries later they left, never to return. Compared to the great civilisations of antiquity, their legacy is modest indeed, and would have been even less but for the preservative qualities of the dry desert air.

They were an Indian people who built no triumphal arches, mighty fortresses or temples. No names of chieftains or legendary warlords survive. They had not learnt the use of metals. Primitive rock-paintings are the closest they came to writing. Nor, from a strictly architectural standpoint, is Mesa Verde even their greatest monument. For that, you must travel a few score miles south into New Mexico to Aztec, with its great ceremonial room or kiva, or to Chaco Canyon and the dazzling patterned stonework of Pueblo Bonito, the largest single prehistoric community in the South-west, and the towering masonry walls of Chetro Ketl. Here, on the echoing high plateau, there is nothing similar, just the remains of a subsistence farming society, whose population at its height was only 2,500, which eked out a living on these inhospitable uplands between the mountains and the desert.

But you contemplate their achievements with awe. Oddly, the very insignificance of the ruins only enhances the impact. At a pinch you can 'do' Mesa Verde in three or four hours. But at least a full day is needed to begin to appreciate the majesty of the place. Nowhere in my life have I felt so conscious of the fragility and impermanence of the human condition. Stand where Wetherill and Mason stood that winter day, among the gnarled and twisted pines as the hawks float idly above, and the silence is complete. Your days are few and counted, but the cliffs and canyons will be there till the end of time.

The word 'palace' is a misnomer. These little houses exude not might but fear. With their narrow windows and tiny doors, they huddle together like a swarm of extinct insects, by the purest chance preserved in amber.

Apparently there are no fewer than 571 separate sites with standing walls scattered across the Mesa Verde park. But for all the copious explanations in the guidebooks, we know so little about the Anasazi. The modest museum, which should absolutely be visited beforehand, raises more questions than it answers. It contains some lovely artefacts: specimens of their geometrically painted black-and-white pottery which the local Indian tribes are making to this day, delicate jewellery and several wide, elaborately woven cords. You imagine they must be the Anasazi equivalent of a bishop's stole. But what god or gods did they worship? This is a people without heroes, without names.

Begin the tour, which takes you through the various stages of their civilisation, from primitive pithouses to pueblo to the Cliff Palace itself, and other questions crowd the mind. Why did they come here? What threat from outside was it which persuaded them, around AD1200, suddenly to abandon more convenient settlements on the plateau top and to build the Cliff Palace and other new, hardly accessible homes in gashes in the canyon's side? Why did they move on again barely a century later? And why, finally, did they never thereafter return? The thing about Mesa Verde is that your guess is almost as good as an expert's.

Some things can be deduced from what remains. The Anasazi must have been small and agile. The kivas are reasonably large. But their dwellings and what seem to be look-out towers are more on a child's scale. They must have been uncommonly agile, too. Even today, you can only reach and leave the Cliff Palace by wooden ladders propped against vertical boulders. Ladders, however, are a technological miracle compared with the method preferred by the original inhabitants. Look closely as you go, and you notice small indentations in the rock, worn almost smooth by the wind and rain. These are what remain of hand- and toe-holds by which the Anasazi climbed in and out of their sanctuary, bringing food, water and every other item they needed to survive.

Their architecture offers other clues. That graceful stonework, the neat square doors and windows, the immaculately straight walls suggest a refined and meticulous people. When they left, you feel, they must have packed up everything neatly, leaving behind the shell of their cameo kingdom, which over the centuries gathered dust like priceless bone china stored in an attic. But again, what made them go?

The accepted explanation is of terrible relevance to ourselves, a first enactment of America's drought and dustbowl tragedy of modern times. The Mesa land is not quite as unwelcoming as it initially appears. When the Anasazi first arrived, there were berries, nuts and game aplenty. As they settled down they learned the skills of farming. Corn grew in abundance; perfectly preserved ears of many varieties are in the museum, looking exactly as when they were harvested a millennium ago.

Unwittingly though, scientists are convinced, the Anasazi provoked an environmental disaster. Over-planting and over-hunting depleted the resources of nature. Then came a fearful drought. Tree-ring studies show the rains virtually failed between AD1276 and 1299. The Anasazi were forced to abandon everything. The parallel in waiting with the modern South-west, whose fragile eco-system today has been brought close to collapse by excessive population and development, is irresistible. But why, you ask again, did they never come back when the drought was over? Now Mesa Verde's empty canyons and boundless skies alone are left. They mock with their silence.

(Photograph omitted)