Stepping Out of Time to Ancestral Houses

June 15, 2015

First thing in the morning, we wanted to rush up to Mesa Verde from camp. But before we could head into the park we needed to stop at the gas station to pick up ice. Our Yeti cooler acts as our refrigerator and kept our first bag of ice icy for several days. I’ll keep talk of logistic short and cut to the chase and the trail about what we saw at Mesa Verde, but I feel it is necessary to occasionally mention the type of equipment that makes these adventures possible. A good cooler (and the Yeti certainly is a top notch cooler) allows us to eat very well (I’m talking steaks) while we travel, which is a wonderful thing when you’ve been on the trail all day. These daily details are part of what makes life “out here” an enjoyable challenge. We always have to be mindful about what we have, where we’re going and what we might need.

Montezuma Valley Overlook
stunning geography of Montezuma Overlook

After re-icing our “fridge,” we were ready to head out to the national park. As we stopped at an overlook, to survey the vast distances around the mesa, which is actually, geologically speaking, a cuesta. A cuesta is sloped on one side, while a mesa has steep drop offs all the way around.  The early explorers who came here to give European names to the landscape often misnamed and misunderstood what they “discovered,” but the names the were written on early maps have stuck, like Pictograph Point which actually has petroglyphs and Montezuma Valley which is far from where Montezuma ruled the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan (present day Mexico City). I wonder what these places were called by the people who lived off this land.


As we got out of the car to taken in the sights at a overlook, we noticed a strange clicking sound coming from a near-by bush and turned away from the magnificent vista to look for the source. The bush was covered in hundreds of little, black cicadas, which were docile enough to crawl onto our fingers. Morgan joked about eating one, but in all seriousness they probably would be good eating, high in protein and crunchy. For the Ancestral Puebloans who lived here and their descendants, including the Hopi, the cicada was a magical, sacred animal. It is sometimes called a locust in translations, though the actual animal being referred to is scientifically known as a cicada. According to some sources, the famous Kokopelli (the iconic dancing flute player) is a depiction of the cicada. In the story of How the Hopi Indians Reached Their World, the cicadas one of the five animals that emerged from the underground worlds with the people. The people did not notice the white cicada at first, but when they did they killed it because they believed it could not be useful.  After a long time the cicada came to life again, but had turned black. By coming back to life, he proved he was useful to the people by having the power of renewing life. Cicada medicine is for mortal wounds and war (summarized from Voices of the Winds: Native American Legends by Margot Edmonds and Ella E. Clark). This story incorporates the actual life cycle of the cicada, which starts out as a white larval grub that vanishes underground for many years and then re-emerges to shed its exoskeleton and fly up into the bushes. The story is certainly right about the cicada disappearing for a long time, when I had time to look it up online, I found out that this cicada was probably from the genus Magicicada, which emerge from the ground synchronously every 13 or 17 years, depending on the species. We happened to be in the park at just the right time to see them–a magical experience. (Click here to listen to the cicadas)


We continued down the park roads and headed for the quiet side of the park by Wetherhill Mesa. To our surprise, we saw several feral horses beside the road. Though they range freely, these horses are not considered wild because they are descended from horses that escaped from near-by ranches. Before Europeans arrived in the Americas, there were no horses. The people who built Step House and Long House, the dwelling of Wetherhill Mesa, would never have seen horses. Step House was occupied  between A.D. 550 and 750, archaeologists believe, and the famous Cliff Palace was built in AD 1200. The end of the Pueblo period was still almost 200 years before Europeans brought horses to this continent.

feral horses 2

 The structures at Step House are not as large as many of the others at Mesa Verde, but they spanned multiple different time periods. The first structures here were what archaeologists refer to as pithouses, which are circular semi-subterranean structures had wood beams. The charred beams reveal that the houses burned at one point and remaining tree rings in the beams tell that the houses were built sometime between AD 616 and AD 627. These houses were probably home to 4 or 5 people who sat warmly around the central hearth with woven baskets made from yucca fiber full of foods like maize, beans, squash, pinon nuts, wild onions and ricegrass. This first period of construction is known to researchers as the Basketmaker period.

reconstructed pithouse with open side for vewing
reconstructed pithouse with open side for vewing

Long after the Basketmakers had stopped living at this site, their descendants came back into this alcove and created stone structures during what is known as the Pueblo period. These occupants probably built the two story pueblo here at around AD 1226. The buildings incorporate and work around large blocks of stone naturally. The people who lived here created circular pits that were probably for religious and social functions, which are now called kivas, and contained benches, a fire pit, and a symbolic representation of sipapu, the place where the Ancestral Puebloans, according to the old Hopi stories, came out into the upper world from underground. There are even more petroglyphs carved into the wall at this pueblo, perhaps to remind the people of the old stories, migrations, and clan relationships.


Step House

Step House 2
look closely on the lower left for petroglyphs

Step House 3

As we walked back up the paved trail away from Step House, we noticed these grooves in the sandstone. From what we read in the information booklet for the self-guided tour of this alcove, we figure that these must be places where stone tools, which the Ancestral Puebloans were experts at making, were shaped and sharpened. Archeologists have found many types of tools, including axes, knives, spear points, hammers, scrappers, grinders and arrow points, all made from the hardest local stones.

Sandstone Grooves

When we reached the top of the mesa, we stopped to look across at the view that the people who lived here hundreds of years ago also enjoyed, with blue, orange and yellow wildflowers growing in the foreground and snow-capped mountains in the blue and hazy distance. (Click here for a video of the view from Step House)View from Mesa Top

canyonside flowers


7 thoughts on “Stepping Out of Time to Ancestral Houses

  1. Your photos are wonderful! You’ve visited some really interesting places – I’d love to see some of them one day. Can you tell me more about the journey you’re on or update the ‘about’ page on your blog? I’d like to know more about the logistics of your travels.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I just wrote a bit more for the About page. I enjoyed reading your Strolling South America posts about Ecuador. Some friends and I even used it to get ideas for our trip to Ecuador and Colombia this May through July! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Have a great trip! I wish I had got round to writing about Colombia. If you can, you should go to Tierradentro – I think you would love it. San Agustin is also great, with lots of opportunities for camping.


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