The Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, Cortez Colorado


MV 05 Mesa VerdeI can’t imagine another national park wowing me as much as Mesa Verde. Like other parks, it it has its own unique breath-taking scenery of rugged topography, with large expanses and high elevations, but Mesa Verde holds rare, almost unimaginable ancient archaeological treasures that are nothing short of remarkable.

These treasures, and the mystique surrounding their fascinating lifestyle, are the cliff dwellings left by Ancestral Anasazi/Puebloans. It is estimated that between the years of 550 to 1300, this culture inhabited the Four Corners Area of UT-AZ-CO-NM farming corn, beans and squash; hunting game; and gathering plants. For the first 600 years, they lived and flourished primarily on the mesa tops. Within the final 100 years, they constructed and lived in the elaborate stone cliff dwellings in sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Over 600 dwellings have been discovered in Mesa Verde, ranging in size from one-room houses to villages of over 150 rooms, with much of the area yet unexplored. Eventually, for reasons only speculated, within the span of a generation or two, they left their homes and moved.

Most early Anasazi were hunter-gatherer cave dwellers, moving from place to place. As their lifestyle progressed, and they became more serious about agriculture, they began to stay in one place for a number of years, which required more permanent living quarters. Shelters within the earth called pithouses evolved. Eventually, they began to build above-ground structures of mud and stone, and in time, transitioned to the haunting and thought-provoking high-rises that can be seen at Mesa Verde. Masonry became quite elegant and refined over time. Hand-painted designs marked the designer’s handprints, and petroglyphs left an impression of what they saw or believed.

Doorways were narrow and short, like the people. Most dwellings had at least one super-pithouse, a kiva, thought to have been used for ceremonial, religious or community purposes. Entry to the kiva was through a hole in the roof. A fireplace near the center, and ventilator shafts on the sides made the kiva more comfortable. Some kivas had small, narrow passage-way in the walls connecting to another kiva, apparently as an alternate form of entry. Not good for claustrophobia.

Most cliff dwellings were built on south-facing ledges in deep canyons where the lower sun provided heat in the winter and the overhanging cliff offered shade in the summer. Agricultural fields were maintained on the mesas above and sometimes below the dwellings. Access to the dwellings consisted of small hand- and toe imprints in steep stone walls, with no handrails. Yikes!

It is ironic to think that the Anasazi/Puebloan seemingly reached their cultural peak only to “disappear.” Most cliff dwellings were built and vacated within less than 100 years. It is suggested that climate and weather conditions such as major droughts had impact on the lifestyle, and finally the abandonment of this ancient civilization.

Mesa Verde is a mind-capturing and thought-provoking experience. It’s an intriguing “cliff-hanger” story, evoking more questions than answers.