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Mesa Verde and the preservation of Ancestral Puebloan heritage

Mesa Verde, the largest archaeological site in the U.S., houses over 600 cliff dwellings and 4300 sites. The Ancestral Puebloans, known for their ceramics and basket weaving, once inhabited this area. Despite facing threats from tourism, weather, and forest fires, Mesa Verde remains a significant historical site for modern Pueblo communities. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(mellow piano music) - [Dr. Steven Zucker] Mesa Verde is one of the most spectacular archeological sites in the world. - [Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank] It's the largest archeological site in the United States. There are more than 4300 sites and more than 600 cliff dwellings. - [Steven] Which draws upwards to half a million visitors every year. The topography is spectacular, flat-topped mesa's with deep, steep ravines and human settlements were built both on top of the mesas but also along the cliffs. We think this site was inhabited for centuries but ultimately it was abandoned. - [Lauren] The Ancestral Puebloans who have lived at Mesa Verde are the ancestors of the Pueblo peoples that you find in the American South West today. - [Steven] And there are certain continuities. Modern Puebloans are well knows for their ceramics, for their basket weaving, and these are traditions that we can trace back to these more ancient people. - [Lauren] People who were living in Mesa Verde and in other parts of the four corners region, they were trading extensively with peoples, not just within the American South West region, but you find evidence for trade south into what is today, Mexico, what we called back then, Meso America. - [Steven] This is so interesting because we think of the border between the United States and Mexico as a hard line and we often differentiate peoples from Meso America from Native North American peoples but that border is political and modern and was not in existence. These Ancestral Puebloans built these extraordinary structures, full scale cities. - [Lauren] If we're talking about the cliff dwellings, they're set into the face of the cliff and they are built using stone but also mud and various other organic materials, but what this means is that people have to constantly maintain these types of structures. - [Steven] Because although they're set within the cliff face, they are still exposed. Archeologists believe that by the year 1300, most of these sites were abandoned and there were various competing theories as to why this took place. - [Lauren] Maybe there were problems with the weather that was forcing them to move, maybe it was water access, we're not entirely sure what caused people to abandon Mesa Verde. What we do know is that largely after 1300, most of these cliff dwellings are no longer in use meaning that they are not being maintained. - [Steven] Fast forward to the modern world and to modern tourism and you have stressors on these structures that are not only the result of lack of maintenance but now also heavy foot and vehicle traffic. - [Lauren] Stabilization issues are some of the main problems facing the conservation and preservation of places like Cliff Palace. Many of these cliff dwellings don't have permanent foundations because they're set into the face of the cliff and so with the heavy foot traffic, with extreme weather, particularly heat, that is affecting the site, as well as things like pollution, you have structures that are cracking or falling apart. Cliff Palace, in 2011, one of the kivas collapsed and as of 2015, because of dangerous rock falls, Spruce Tree House is no longer open to the public. - [Steven] But tourism is only one part of the stress that Mesa Verde is facing. Forest fires have also posed a major environmental threat. - [Lauren] Fires in the late 90s and the early 2000s destroyed almost half of the park. Even though they were responsible for destroying various local flora and fauna, the fires did help to uncover a very large number of unknown sites. So the site is facing a lot of stressors. The rediscovery of Mesa Verde occurred in the late 19th Century when cattle ranchers discovered Mesa Verde in the winter. Now we know that they were not the first people here since is was abandoned. - [Steven] And, of course, Native American peoples in the area knew about these structures. - [Lauren] But what happened with these cattle ranchers is they kicked off this desire for people who were interested in the past of this area and the so called exploration and excavation of Mesa Verde. - [Steven] One could call that exploration a type of looting. - [Lauren] People were stealing things, they were camping out in some of the dwellings. There was basically nothing in place to protect Mesa Verde. We know, for instance, in the late 19th Century there was someone who took artifacts and human remains back to Sweden and this brings us back to the problems with some of the excavations or the looting that took place from the late 19th Century into the 20th Century. There were people who stepped in to try to conserve and to prevent further damage and one of the most important individuals for this was Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian who had done excavations in the American South West and he was writing about the need to have some type of rules or legislature in place that would help to stop the destruction of places like Mesa Verde. - [Steven] But even as the dwellings themselves were being secured, archeological excavations were continuing that were unearthing human remains that we now realize should have remained in place. In 1990 a law was passed that goes by the acronym NAGPRA. - [Lauren] NAGPRA stands for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. - [Steven] And what that did is to give legal standing to the idea that museums and other cultural institutions that held Native American human remains should return those to communities that had some connection to those original peoples. - [Lauren] There was also sacred objects, maybe objects that were not intended to ever be on display for a certain peoples, ones that were intended to accompany the dead into the grave and what NAGPRA did was allow different groups, tribes, first nations to receive these objects and human remains and to properly rebury them. - [Steven] The human remains were reburied in a private ceremony in 2006. - [Lauren] And also grave goods that had been in collections were reburied in the ceremony and it was over the course of 12 years and in association with 24 different tribes that all of these human remains and goods were collected to be reburied. - [Steven] So Mesa Verde remains a tremendously popular tourist site but it's also a lands through which we can understand the difficulties of preserving a historical site that remains central to the culture, the history and the interests of contemporary native communities. (mellow piano music)