Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park is being recognized for what can only be seen in the dark. It was recently named another International Dark Sky Park for the exceptional quality of its star-filled nights.
The night sky over Mesa Verde today remains among the darkest 1% in the country.
The park had already been designated a World Heritage Site, featuring the best-preserved structures of the Pueblo people. Nestled inside it is an area with 150 rooms, constructed out of sandstone and mortar. TJ Atsye says her ancestors once gathered there, nearly a thousand years ago. She said the area was probably built around 1150.
Atsye was referring to Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, which was once inhabited by southwestern American Indians now known as ancestral Pueblo people, who farmed on the mesa tops above. The first permanent homes were built in the 500s, but according to Pueblo oral stories, their history goes back much earlier.
“I’m gonna tell you they’ve been here forever,” said Atsye. “Part of our traditional stories, our culture, where we came from — we were already here.”
“Mesa Verde’s a very special place,” said Chen.
“Yes, it is because it’s still alive,” said Atsey. “It’s a place where the ancestors are here. No matter where you go, even though you can’t see them, you sense they are here.”
Around 600 alcove sites are scattered throughout the park and at least 3 million objects have been preserved within the dwellings, providing a glimpse into how bustling Mesa Verde once was.
“The population of Mesa Verde in the 1100s was about the same as the population of Paris,” said Mesa Verde Park Ranger Spencer Burke.
Burke said Pueblo people began to migrate away from Mesa Verde in the 13th century. The exact reasons are unknown, but archaeologists tie the move to cultural and environmental changes. They built new communities nearby, but their homes remained.
“These cliff dwellings that were built under these natural alcoves protected these buildings from the elements for hundreds of years,” said Burke. “You can see the original plaster and paint on the walls. You don’t have to stretch your imagination to see these as thriving communities.”
But just as important to Pueblo people as what’s below these expansive mesas is what’s above. A place known as Sun Temple “was the center of the action” — “where everyone in the surrounding area probably came,” said Burke.
Many of Sun Temple’s uses remain a mystery, but some archaeologists believe ancestral Pueblo people may have used the building as a calendar, planning farming and ceremonies based on the cycles of the moon, sun and stars.
“Researchers have found that from within marked spots inside Cliff Palace, looking over the walls of Sun Temple, they could observe the lunar standstill and the sunset on the winter solstice,” said Burke.
“The skies were magic,” Atsey said. “The skies were the universe. It was a very powerful omen. It was a foreteller, a foreseer, you know, for the people who looked at the sky for those answers.”
The same starry constellations used by ancestral Pueblo people still captivate visitors today, even with the naked eye, but especially those with a knack for night vision.
“The night sky unites us all as humans,” said astrophotographer and International Dark-Sky Association director of engagement, Bettymaya Foott.
The nonprofit celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. Its goal is to save vanishing night skies.
“In the United States and Europe, 99% of the population lives under light-polluted skies,” said Foott. “So it’s a huge problem. Light pollution is increasing at twice the rate of human population growth.”
The organization awards certifications to locations around the world with exceptionally high-quality night skies. There are 181 dark sky places in more than 20 countries.
“What happens if we don’t preserve the night sky?” asked Chen.
“I think we lose our sense of awe, our sense of wonder and our sense of kind of the mystery of the universe, right?” said Foott.
In 2021, Mesa Verde was certified as the world’s 100th International Dark Sky Park. Burke spearheaded the effort.
“We at Mesa Verde have extremely dark skies, but every year they get a little brighter,” said Burke. “Here at Mesa Verde where we protect the history of the Pueblo people, those stars are part of the cultural heritage. When you can’t see those stars, when you can’t see the Milky Way, you lose that connection to the ancestors. You lose that connection to our future generations.”
Because of those efforts, that thread now continues to link those who came before to those who visit today.
“What place does Mesa Verde hold today for people who are Pueblo?” asked Chen.
“It’s a place to come home to and let the ancestors tell you, ‘Everything is going to be all right,'” replied Atsye.
That sense of home endured more than 850 years and transcended across generations.
“I can imagine myself being back thousands of years ago, say right here, and just looking up,” Atsye said as she gestured towards the sky. “And knowing that this is, this is forever. This is universal.”