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Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde’s “Lost” People

Turkeys, language and oral histories tell the story of the vanished people of Mesa Verde National Park, who, as it turns out, weren’t lost at all.

There’s a palpable sense of the sacred when you walk through the sandy-colored cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park. Looking out across the mesas, the land seems barren, save for a few clumps of scrub brush dotted here and there and a feral horse grazing on the horizon. But tucked in the cliffs, so hidden you could easily miss it with a passing glance, is the evidence of a long-gone society.

In 1200, more people lived in present-day Montezuma County, encompassing Mesa Verde National Park, than today. A flourishing society built villages into the cliffs and on top of the mesas. And then, by 1300, all evidence of people living there disappeared. Some homes were abandoned seemingly overnight. Some villages show signs of their inhabitants meeting a violent end. Others still appear to have been intentionally left, the ubiquitous kivas burned as a final farewell.

Studies show an extended drought may have played a role in pushing people out of the Mesa Verde region, in addition to societal issues like violence, politics and overcrowding. But for 100 years, archaeologists have argued over the answer to the question, “Where did they go?”

In the midst of a myriad of theories on this topic, University of Colorado Boulder professor Dr. Scott Ortman found some of the first material evidence suggesting where Mesa Verde residents ended up. His work studying turkey bones, language and human remains landed him the prestigious Society for American Archaeology’s Dissertation Award in 2011.

Scott Ortman, top, at an arroyo in southwest Colorado near Mesa Verde National Park
Scott Ortman, top, at an arroyo in southwest ColoradoCourtey Scott Ortman

The traditional archaeological approach to tracing human migration patterns is through architecture and pottery styles. But as archaeologists examined the distinctive Mesa Verde construction of kiva buildings and their inhabitants’ pottery style, they concluded that these unique styles seemed to have evaporated into the ether along with their creators.

As archaeologists struggled with this conundrum, at least one group of people 250 miles to the south already knew the answer.

The Tewa Puebloans had passed their oral histories down generation to generation through seven centuries — they knew they were descendants of the cliff-dwelling Mesa Verde people. Their stories tell of a “12-step” [likely 12-day] journey south to the modern-day Tewa Basin north of Santa Fe, N.M.

But in the archaeological community, oral traditions weren’t always considered valid like material evidence would be. That viewpoint is beginning to change, thanks to anthropologists like Ortman who took the Tewa people’s perspective seriously.

“When I learned of the Tewa people’s oral histories, I imagined being a young Pueblo person on a tour at Mesa Verde and having the validity of the histories I’d been hearing from my elders challenged by scientists,” Ortman says. “Who would I believe? My grandpa or the scientists? This image frustrated me and fueled my research.”

So, Ortman took a different approach. Instead of asking, “Where did the ancient people from Mesa Verde go?” he asked, “What’s the connection between Tewa communities today and Mesa Verde?”

He studied modern Tewa people’s language and culture, finding significant similarities between them and the ancient inhabitants of the Four Corners Region. For example, there were words in the modern Tewa language with seemingly senseless roots, such as the word for a church roof, which translates to “a basket made of timber” — something that doesn’t at all describe a Catholic church. But it’s an accurate description of the roofs of Mesa Verde-style kivas. Connections like these led him to believe that the Tewa language originated in the Mesa Verde region, known as Tewayoge or “the big Tewa place.”

He also studied biological evidence. Studies of the shapes of the faces of ancestral Pueblo people from across the Southwest show Tewa ancestors were biologically the same as those from the Mesa Verde region. In a surprising twist, turkeys also proved to be a critical link between the regions.

Turkeys were raised by Mesa Verde residents for their feathers and later, as a food source. The DNA of the turkey bones in the Tewa region shifted around 1300, matching that of turkey bone DNA found at Mesa Verde, suggesting the ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde migrated south to the Tewa Basin with their turkeys
around this time.

“This study was exciting to work on because while the notion that the Tewa have roots in the Mesa Verde region remains somewhat contentious, this test yields one more bit of evidence attesting to the plausibility of the hypothesis,” says one of the study’s co-authors, Washington State University professor Dr. Tim Kohler.

Ancient peoples exhibit at the museum in Mesa Verde National Park
Ancient peoples exhibit at the museum in Mesa Verde National ParkDepositphotos

Research from Ortman and other archaeologists suggests that while not all of Mesa Verde’s inhabitants moved to the Tewa Basin, a large number did migrate there around 1280 fueled by drought and social difficulties like politics, violence and overcrowding. This echoes the history Tewa people have passed down for centuries.

“Pueblo history is preserved and remembered in oral form and is passed from generation to generation,” says one of Dr. Ortman’s graduate students and member of the Ohkay Owingeh tribe (a pueblo north of Santa Fe), Patrick Cruz. “It tells us who we are, where we come from, and where our people have been. It bridges the gap between today and the past, and it connects today’s people with ancestral places where our people once walked. Archaeology can tell us about the lives of our people from the past and how they made their day-to-day living. It can fill in details about how our people once lived. For Pueblo people who work with researchers and who return to ancestral places, the archaeology can provide context to oral stories. Likewise, for researchers who work with Pueblo people, traditional oral stories can provide context to the material record that they have found.”

Yet, the new society that formed in the Tewa Basin was inherently different than that which was left behind in Mesa Verde. This new society was more stable and peaceful, with incidences of violent death significantly decreasing.

“The Pueblo people learned how to prosper better than before,” Ortman says. “They created effective communities that have withstood 500 years of European colonialism. That’s a much stronger force than drought.”

Walking through Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings, it’s not hard to feel the presence of the ancestral Puebloans. The Tewa people believe that the dwellings are still inhabited by the souls of their ancestors. As you visit, take this into account. You’re in someone else’s home. These sites aren’t just evidence of a long-vanished society. They are the history of modern people.

“These connections bring a sense of humanity to these ancient societies,” reflects Ortman. “It’s so much more than the traditional archaeological narrative that the weather turned bad and everyone had to leave.”