The roots of modern civilization |

The roots of modern civilization

Tracey Flower
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily

Thousands of years ago – long before Colorado was known for its epic powder, long before Vail was a destination for skiers worldwide and long before Vail was even Vail or Colorado was Colorado – the Pueblo Indians were living and thriving in this area, busy laying the ground work for life as we know it today.

“Organized Pueblo Indian society begins with the introduction of farming into this area 4,000 years ago, and it lasts until present day,” said Mark Varien, research and education chair at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez. “It remains one of the most interesting cultures in the world.”

Varien will be at the Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon on Monday evening to talk about Crow Canyon’s newest research initiative: the Basketmaker Communities Project, a multiyear excavation project focused on a dense concentration of sites dating to the Pueblo’s Basketmaker III period (A.D. 600-725). He will share the details of what they are discovering about ancient Pueblo society’s role in the Neolithic Revolution and what these discoveries can teach us about the roots of modern civilization.

“We are excited to partner with the Vail Symposium on what we hope will be many more collaborations at our new Science Center campus,” said Markian Feduschak, executive director of Walking Mountains Science Center. “Having worked with Mark Varien before, we know he is a dynamic and fascinating speaker conducting important research at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. We can’t think of a better topic to explore than the roots of civilization in Colorado and the cultural and environmental factors that contributed to native populations’ successes and challenges.”

Varien, who received his Ph.D. in anthropology from Arizona State University, has conducted archaeological research throughout the western United States and in Central America. His work in the Mesa Verde region began in 1979 and continues to the present. He joined the staff at Crow Canyon in 1987.

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The Neolithic Revolution refers to what may be the most important transformation in human history: the shift from hunting and gathering to domesticated food production. The way we live today – settled in homes, close to other people in towns and cities, protected by laws, eating food grown on farms and with leisure time to learn, explore and invent – is all a result of the Neolithic Revolution, which occurred as much as 12,000 years ago. The Mesa Verde region is perhaps the best-documented case in the world of the expansion of this new Neolithic way of life.

“In my presentation, we will be looking at this dramatic shift in the way humans made their living and how that changed society,” Varien said. “I will discuss how the Neolithic Revolution is the foundation for all of the societies that exist today, how all societies have their roots in this period of time.”

The Basketmaker III period marks when the Pueblo people first came together as an integrated society and a period during which several key inventions emerged. It is also the era when the first public architecture – great kivas – was invented. These are buildings that were used for community activities, rather than domestic activities. A great kiva is a large, circular, usually subterranean or semisubterranean structure that was designed and used by Pueblo Indians for ceremonial and/or political gatherings. Great kivas are one of the earliest examples of what archaeologists refer to as “public architecture,” and they are distinguished from domestic, or residential, structures by their large size (more than 100 square meters in area), distinctive floor features (such as foot drums) and artifact assemblages that reflect communal feasting as opposed to everyday food preparation and consumption.

The centerpiece of the Basketmaker Communities Project is the Dillard site, a Basketmaker III community center that dates from the seventh century A.D. and includes the only confirmed Basketmaker III great kiva in the central Mesa Verde region.

Also during the Basketmaker III period, a new variety of corn emerged and beans appeared in the Pueblo diet for the first time. These new foods required cooking, so pottery appeared for the first time. It was during this time that the primary weapon for warfare and hunting became a bow and arrow, rather than a spear.

“All of these inventions came together for Pueblo society to really start growing, marking a pivotal period in Pueblo Indian history and laying the foundation for future Pueblo society,” Varien said.

While the Neolithic Revolution happened all over the world, the Mesa Verde region contains possibly the best-preserved archaeological evidence of this in the world and is, according to Varien, the world’s most important archaeological site.

There are more archaeological sites per square mile – 100 per square mile in Mesa Verde – in Southwest Colorado than anywhere else in the world, and thanks to an arid environment, they are remarkably well-preserved; this area is also largely protected by federal and government land, making it easy for archaeologists to gain access to these sites.

Archaeologists in Southwest Colorado also have access to a system of tree-ring dating that is second to none, providing them with key information such as the exact date a building was constructed and precise information about the climate at the time of construction. As a result, Varien said, their research “reflects the most detailed study anywhere of the interaction between humans and their environment over thousands of years.”

Archaeologists studying Pueblo history in southwest Colorado also have an advantage in recreating the past because Pueblo society is still alive and well in this area, with 22 independent Pueblo nations living throughout New Mexico and the general Four Corners area.

“We can work with living modern Pueblo people, who have maintained their own tradition and language, and use their understanding of their history to better understand the archeological record,” Varien said. “There are very few other places where this can happen.”

Tracey Flower is the development and marketing associate with the Vail Symposium. She can be reached at

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