Moved not Disappeared

Posted: August 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

imageMesa Verde in southwestern Colorado is a world treasure, one of the mother ships of the great Pueblo network of the Southwestern United States. The ancestors of the present-day Pueblo Indians were hunter-gatherers who migrated from the far north long before the time of Jesus. The earliest settlements were simple encampments as they remained fairly nomadic, following the seasons. In time, by 500 CE, permanent pit homes were located near verdant agricultural lands. Many of these dwellings were located in what became large centers of tribal life in Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. They thrived with an intricate and balanced social system of life and eventually transitioned from living on top of the mesas to living below in cliff/cave arrangements with greater shelter and protection. What we see today as the ruins of the cliff dwellers in places like Puye Cliffs in New Mexico is the very latest chapter of their long development.

Sometime during the 1200s the inhabitants of these great cliff-dwelling societies vanished from their centuries-old homes. Unlike the parallel civilizations in Mezo-America and the peoples of the Andes in Latin America, the Pueblos were not marked by any conflagration, violence or conquests by invaders. They left because they could no longer live there and survive. But they didn’t disappear from the face of the earth; they migrated. They moved southward and formed or joined what are now the great pueblos which are scattered the length of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. The story of the great migration from Mesa Verde is carried in the stories and dances of those present-day Pueblo cultures. That is why they hold Mesa Verda and Chaco as the figurative “mother ships” of their cultures, the first ancestors.

Any student of world history knows the rising and falling of civilizations for a variety of reasons. Warfare, conquest, and internal strife play obvious and important parts. A lesser cited but equally important cause is changes in the natural environment. From the end of the dinosaurs to ghost towns that were abandoned because the mines played out, civilizations are either wiped out or relocated.

In the case of Mesa Verde the best guess is that a deep drought that lasted as much as two decades decimated the crops and precipitated far-reaching famine. Like the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers leaving Israel for Egypt in the time of drought, so the ancestors of the Pueblos packed up and left their homes in the cliffs forever behind.

If there is a cautionary tale for us today it comes in several layers.

The first and obvious truth is that nothing lasts forever. Civilizations rise and fall, some enjoying much longer and more resilient dynasties than others. But they all end or at least change form.

The ones that do  experience continuity are the ones that adapt with the changing circumstances. This often means transferring from one physical location to another. It can mean adapting the place we already are. We may face that in the future. It is possible that like the cliff-dwellers we look back from the future and tell stories of where and how we used to live.

A changing environment and climate is a definitive game changer. People have flocked to the South and Southwest of the United States thanks to air conditioning. But what happens when water sources dry up or our desertscapes become even more uninhabitable? They may actually be migrating back north. Please don’t build a wall, Canada.

The way that we are different than the cliff-dwellers is that we do not only experience the change of our environment in passive ways, simply living with or dying with what the natural world deals.  The cliff-dwellers’ whole way of life may have been changed by cyclical climate change, but they didn’t contribute to it. We now have the terrible power to do just that. Through vast environmental degradation, the destruction of water, land and air, we can create an unsustainable environment. We can hasten the end of our civilization as we know it. And our reach is so deep and far that the impact is not only local, but global. Damage our atmosphere by continuing to belch out carbon emissions and you do it to everyone. That is exactly why the Paris accords are so important; we are only as strong as the weakest national link.

One more thing the Puebo cliff-dwellers did not have at their disposal was atomic weapons. People are under the impression that the outcome of a nuclear conflagration would only be lots of dead people all at once. That would surely happen, but what’s more is the irreparable damage to the environments that support life. When the destruction is that vast there is nowhere to which you can migrate to create a future. That is why principled and informed people are so very concerned when nations posture, rattle swords and threaten the worst.

People of faith carry certain convictions about stewarding the world that we pass through but do not own. We have convictions about living as bountifully and peacefully as possible with one another. We have convictions about the goodness of nature and the goodness of humanity that, at its best, is created in the image of its creator.

At the same time we also know that everything is passing, even us, even the planets that orbit a star that may eventually obliterate them. Some things abide and some things pass away. The sound of the wind blowing through the now vacant kivas and pueblos of Mesa Verde remind us that what we see now is not forever even as we sense that the creating and sustaining power of the universe is.


  1. Janie McArthur says:

    Well said!

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