The Magic Gate - Part 2
The Colorado Plateau
From Durango, we ventured west on Highway 160 to the pre-Puebloan alcove and cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde contains the most famous of the Anasazi (or pre-Puebloan) sites in the Four Corners. In 1965, the archeological sites appeared unchanged since their discovery in the 1870s. With park rangers as our guides, we climbed traditional pole-ladders and peered into ancient living spaces and granaries. On hands and knees, we squinted down into dark ceremonial chambers, known as kivas. In contrast, today one views these ruins from behind fences, on well-marked trails.
In the 1960s, mystery pervaded the disappearance of the ancient cultures of the Four Corners. Today, we know that those cultures experienced a combination of drought, overpopulation and internecine warfare. To offer some perspective on their numbers, archeologists believe that in 1200 CE, the population of Colorado’s Montezuma Valley was 30,000, a number larger than its contemporary population.
For reasons both known and unknown, the society broke down, leading to the complete depopulation the Four Corners. Later, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Navajo tribe, with ancestors traceable to Asia, Alaska and British Columbia, repopulated much of the area.
Returning to Durango that night in 1965, we saw live television reports of riots in South Los Angeles. Large areas of Watts and the Central City were ablaze. Not unlike the pressures experienced by the pre-Puebloan cultures of 1250 CE, summer heat, overpopulation and competition for resources had led to violence in LA. Unlike the pre-Puebloan, who could simply migrate south in search of water and new farmland, there was nowhere for the residents of South Los Angeles to go. In a metaphor to the actions of the ancients, some Los Angelenos sacked and burned their own commerce and cultural centers.
Hundreds of archaeologists and other scientists have studied the pre-Puebloan disappearance phenomenon. Not one of them that I know has hypothesized seismic activity as a contributing factor to the mass migrations of 1200 – 1400 CE. Today, researchers assume that prior to their departure; the former residents burned and willfully destroyed many of their most important buildings. The remaining destruction they attribute to the ravages of time.
Rather than assuming that the pre-Puebloan tribes irrationally destroyed their own cultural landmarks, might we trace the initial cause of that destruction to large-scale seismic activity? Even the largest earthquakes leave few long-term traces in the natural environment. Toppled towers and caved-in kivas might be the best indicators we have that cataclysmic seismic activity provided impetus to the complete abandonment of the Four Corners area.
Today, we find potsherds at many Four Corners sites. Intact pottery is so rare that we find it only in museums and private collections. Were the pre-Puebloan so careless as to destroy essentially all of their useful pottery or did seismic activity play a larger role than previously assumed?
Today, the consensus is that the last pre-Puebloan migrated away from the Four Corners, later to “reemerge” as the Hopi, Zuni and other Pueblo tribes. The Hopi creation myth centers on the “sipapu”, a hole in the earth from which their ancestors arose. Every ceremonial kiva in the Four Corners includes a symbolic sipapu in its floor.
The great kivas provided communal warmth and shelter to the pre-Puebloan. Since an earthquake could collapse their roof timbers, kivas also carried the risk of unexpected and immediate death. After a swarm of catastrophic earthquakes around 1250 CE, did the pre-Puebloan survivors reemerge from the metaphorical sipapu of their collapsed kivas, only then to leave the land that had caused them so much death and destruction?
Leaving Durango, we traveled north on Highway 550, also known as The Million Dollar Highway. Whether the road derived its name from its initial construction cost or from silver-bearing ore crushed into its asphalt mixture is still a subject of conjecture. In 1965, its new surface reflected light like a million diamonds in the afternoon sunshine.
After negotiating the 10,910-foot Molas Divide, we descended into Silverton, Colorado, a former mining town now famous as the northern terminus of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Although winter sports are now a factor, the summer tourist trade generates most of the town’s revenue. In late May 2008, a spring snowstorm closed Highway 550 near Silverton, forcing us to make a low-elevation detour in order to reach Moab, Utah.