Mesa Verde National Park is about a 40-minute drive from Durango Colorado. It is home to one of the most complete, best-preserved archaeological remnant of the Anasazi ancestral pueblo system in the country. Over 600 cliff dwellings are located here including the Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America.
Although nomadic hunters who followed game herds over and around the mesa had been creating temporary shelters in the area for millennium, the adoption of small-scale agriculture spurred the creation of more permanent settlements by about the 8th century. These initial settlements were built on top of the mesa-like structure. (Mesa Verde, whose top tilts seven degrees to the south, rather than having a flat top of an actual mesas, is actually better for growing crops since it provides better sun exposure than does a flat-top mesa.) The settlements grew three primary crops—beans, squash, and corn (the latter of which was almost as much a religion as a crop). These crops provided virtually all the nutritional value the people actually needed, supplemented with a wide range of wild plants and by hunting local game, such as deer, elk, and rabbits.
Their homes evolved greatly over the centuries. As can be seen through self-guided mesa-top tour, the initial dwelling were “pit homes” . These circular living quarters were dug into the ground for natural insulation from the heat and the cold. They sometimes included additional anterooms and storage areas. They used trees to support roofs made of branches that were covered in an adobe-like mud which had to be mended each year and replaced every 10 to 20 years.
By the 10th and 11th centuries, the buildings were often built atop previous structures. They evolved to more permanent above-ground pueblos made of hand-cut sandstone blocks that were held together with mortar and covered with a thin layer of plaster, some of which was painted. These structures also evolved from basic single-row masonry to more stable double-rows of stone bricks which could support towers and multi-story buildings.
The concept of the underground circular structures of the original pit houses, meanwhile, was expanded to create larger, more stable “kivas” with benches along the walls and stone pillars on which more secure roofs could be built and used as open-air community spaces. Although the precise roles of kivas aren’t known, they are thought to have played a number of roles, including as administrative and community centers, meeting spaces and as ceremonial and spiritual centers. Some of these kivas and rooms were connected by tunnels.
The primary mesa-top communities are scattered across two locations. Those along the Mesa Top Loop road include many of the oldest structures on mesa and several sites on which pueblos were built on the foundations of previous structures. A few of the more recent (roughly 11th and 12th-century) complexes are in a smaller concentration of sites at Farview, named for the views from the huge, two-story, 70-room Far View House.
By the 12th and 13th centuries, more and more communities began to move from the top of the mesa to natural alcoves than had been eroded into the sides of the mesa. While the reasons are again not known, scientists believe these cliff-side alcoves may have provided easier access to the streams in the valleys and better natural protection from the elements. Each alcove housed one or more extended family groups, with each nuclear family living in roughly 6×8-foot, six-foot high rooms (each with its own hearth and ventilation system) arranged around central, shared kivas. They were accessed by series of hand- and foot-olds cut into the cliff walls, wooden ladders and in some cases, stairs.
Dozens of these cliff-house complexes still exist and a number can be seen from viewpoints along the roads. These include the mid-sized (38 rooms and two kivas), two-story Balcony House, the 120-room, 8-kiva Spruce Tree House and Cliff Palace, the largest and most elaborate of them. This complex has 150 rooms in one-, two- and three-story structures, 75 open spaces for group activities, 21 kivas and a large, round, multi-story tower that rises almost to the alcove’s ceiling.
It is estimated, however, that only about 25 of Cliff Palace rooms (accommodating an estimated 100-120 people} are thought to have been lived in. Others were for storage and special purposes. This combined with the unusually large size and number of kivas and open spaces per living room suggests that Cliff Palace was more than a communal living site: that it also served larger communal functions, such as an administrative and food storage center for multiple communities.
Cliff Palace and many of the other alcove complexes remain almost as they were when they were left 800 years ago, with little repair required. Even some of the wooden timbers have held up. Their tree rings provide valuable means of determining the dates of initial construction, remodeling, and expansions.
While these sites can be visited as part of organized ranger-led walk, they have to be reserved well in advance. If you wait too long to book them (as we did), you can still see them from a distance from overlooks and to learning about them from an introductory film or informative books that explain the architecture, building techniques, inferred populations and uses of each of the major communities.
The National Park also has petroglyph panels, self-guided walks/hikes though canyons, along ancient footpaths and trading routes. It is a fascinating area to explore how people lived.
The museum shows a short movie providing an overview of the history, the people, and the spiritual importance of the Mesa. It displays a large collection of artifacts discovered on the mesa and helps to identify and explain them in context both of the history and the lives of individuals and communities. Exhibits examine issues including:
- The evolution of Pit House, Pueblo and Kiva architecture;
- Stone tools for functions ranging from building to farming, hunting, and food preparation;
- The role of corn in both diets and spiritual practices;
- How they used virtually every part of the Yucca plant;
- The role of numerous plants and hunted animals (especially elk, deer, and rabbits) in the diets of residents;
- The uses of plant fiber woven into cordage including ropes of 100 and more feet;
- The evolution of pottery for different functions and with different types of decoration from ancient times to a display of works by a master, late 18th/early 19th-century native potter; and
- The types of jewelry and art (such as sand paintings) the residents created.
In other words, the Mesa appeared to be prospering. By the mid-13th century It appeared to be well run and relatively prosperous with a population of about 5,000.
What Happened to the People?
Then, practically overnight (over fewer than 50 years), it was gone. By the end of the 13th century, the buildings were still standing and in generally good repair, but were empty. Personal goods such as woven baskets, pottery, tools, clothing items, and seeds lay undisturbed and there was no sign of violence or social disruption. But the mesa was abandoned.
Without written records, nobody really knows why the people left. But there is a lot of speculation. Tree ring and other climate-related evidenced suggests that the region went into a decades-long cycle of colder weather and drought. Perhaps the area had depleted local resources. Could cultural or social changes have affected their departure?
And what happened to the people. Did they just vanish?
Although many questions remain about Mesa Verde, the question of whether the its people just disappeared, appears to be well on its way to being answered. The people and the communities probably did not just disappear. Instead they logically left a region that would no longer support their lifestyles (or even their lives).
They dispersed throughout the southwest establishing their own much larger pueblo-based villages in new locations. Many of these villages were designed on the same principles and built with many of the same techniques as used at Mesa Verde.
Subsequent blood and DNA tests confirm that the dispersed populations either integrated into or formed the cores of many of the region’s current Native American pueblo-based communities including Navajo, Zuni, Acoma, and Rio Grande. (See our post on Taos New Mexico, home to the oldest continuously inhabited of these pueblos. )
Nor does it now appear that Mesa Verde was unique in its development. Evidence suggests that it was merely one of several satellites of a more organized and powerful community. It appears that Chaca New Mexico (140 miles away) may have been the trading and religious hub of a network that stretched from the Pacific to the Mississippi and into Mesoamerica.
But why did they leave so many of their goods behind? How much could they carry without draft animals? What would they need at their new homes” And if they ended up needing something they didn’t bring, could they not just make or trade for a replacement? Maybe some days these mysteries will be solved.