Centuries before they built cliff dwelling, the Anasazi in this region used alcoves for sleeping and shelter. There is only a shadow-record of their lives: pieces of hinting gear, intricate baskets and crude pottery, and some stone-lined pits.
The first Ancestral Puebloans settled in Mesa Verde about AD 550. They are known as Basketmakers because of their impressive skill at that craft. Formally a nomadic people, they were now beginning to lead a more settled way of life. Farming replaced hunting-and-gathering as their main source of livelihood. They lived in pithouses clustered in small villages, which they usually built on the mesa tops, but occasionally in the cliff recesses for temporary shelter and to store part of the harvest there.
The most of Anasazi lived in pithouses, houses built a half under the ground and later on the ground (see other tips on pithouses). But about 1200 there was major population shift. The people began to move into cliff alcoves that had sheltered their ancestors.
Perhaps it was for defense; perhaps the alcoves offered better protection from the elements; perhaps there were religious or psychological reasons. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, it gave rise to the cliff dwellers for which Mesa Verde is most famous.
I think they moved there because it is not so hot under alcoves during dry, hot summers of Southern Colorado.
Most of the cliff dwellings were built from the late 1190's to the late 1270's. They range in size from one-room houses to villages of more than 200 rooms - Cliff Palace.
Favorite thing: The Ancestral Puebloans lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. By about 1300 Mesa Verde was deserted. There are several theories about the reason for their migration. One of them is a drought and crop failures. Another was a depletion of soils, forests, and animals around. Some new theories assume that Mesa Verde was overcrowded by many tribes that began political and social conflicts for space, food etc. Puebloans moved south to Arizona and New Mexico. One of ranges told us that some of descendants of Puebloans return to Mesa Verde to give their respect to a place of their ancestors. How do they know they are the descendents of Puebloans, I don’t know, but for sure the reasons why people left Mesa Verde will be a mystery for us.
Favorite thing: Years ago visitors could see not only cliff dwelling but also top sites, as villages, houses. Although they are now almost ruins that left only clues about their original look, to protect those sites, they were closed to viewers. So only cliff dwellings and some pithouses are available for view.
Favorite thing: The reason that cliff dwellings were so well preserved is their location, alcove of mountains that protects the building from rain, snow, and sun. Pit houses and cliff dwellings were built from stones glued to each other with a mix of mud and water. Because of those buildings are not protected from nature. Archeological research showed that even during times of dwellers they had to renew and rebuild damage structures. As a result, there are almost none of ground buildings left, except Sun Temple, and cliff dwellings’ structures located close to the edge of alcove were ruined and had to be restored in some places by archeologists, for example structures of Cliff Palace.
Favorite thing: The name Mesa Verde, as a translation from Spanish, green table was given for dense green forests located on the tops of flat mountains. Unfortunately, this natural beauty turned into a view from horror movies (this is what I think of present views of the park). Devastating fires in 1996, 2000, 2002, 2003 killed vegetation and turned green acres into dead ocean of naked dry trees. It is hard to believe that hundreds years ago this place was all green. One of the fires, sorry not sure what year and in what park’s area, was carried by strong winds that not only burnt vegetation, but also depleted earth and left no minerals so important to plant growing. This area of the park has no hopes to restoration for hundreds years. Thanks to efforts of park employees, some of the areas now are covered by dirt brought from other places and full of necessary minerals, and looks like some of such places began their renewal.
Favorite thing: One of the visitors said that it would be devastating to dwellers to have such fires. On what I would reply that those people knew how to take care of fire and they knew that they are dependable on forests. While in our time of spaceships and high-tech technology people grow negligence to nature that gave them the most of things. So dear visitors, please, be careful with fire on the territory of the park.
Favorite thing: Cliff dwellings were not the major living area of Anasazi. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75% contain only 1-5 rooms each, and many are single room storage units. Possibly Anasazi used dwellings as a fortified storage from other tribes or even animals. Exception is Cliff House, the largest cliff dwelling, which is thought that it was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.
There are way more ancient dwellings; cliff dwellings, old pueblos, remains of pit houses, etc than most people think scattered throughout the western part of the United States. I find all of them fascinating and have explored many of them. Mesa Verde is one of the finest examples of ancient dwellings I have seen. The history of these dwellings began around 1400 years ago when a group of these ancient peoples inhabited the area now known as Four Corners (where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet) and decided to build a community in Mesa Verde. This community thrived for over 700 years. Dwellings are situated all throughout the cliffs and canyons in the park. At 28 feet in height, the 4 story "Square Tower" is the tallest structure in the park. It was once part of a large 80 room structure complete with 7 kivas (sacred ceremonial rooms). Several of the sites are available to explore using self-guided or ranger-guided tours. Hikes range from short and easy to long strenuous hikes. A good place to get an overview of the history of the peoples and structures associated with Mesa Verde is the Chapin Mesa Museum located near the Spruce Tree House. They also have an extensive library for those looking to do more in-depth research.
Fondest memory: The Chapin Mesa Museum was fascinating. I also really enjoyed touring the Spruce Tree House and the Successive Villages Area.
Explore one the cliff dwellings. It's worth the hiking involved. If you can...plan to take one of the ranger guided tours. I believe tickets can be purchased the night before at the visitor's center...and I highly suggest doing this rather than waiting the day you visit to get a ticket. You'll be able to choose your time better that you would like to take.
Be sure to take plenty of bottled water, film, sunscreen. I would suggest wearing a hat, too, if it's hot & sunny. Wear comfortable clothes & walking shoes. You'll do alot of hiking trails.
Fondest memory: See how their houses were fitted into the cliff recesses? Some archaeologists say they didn´t have to go down to the bottom of the canyon for water, but they collected the water seeping through the stone.
Sandstone, mortar and wooden beams were the three primary construction materials. The Ancestral Puebloans shaped each sandstone block using harder stones collected from nearby river beds. The mortar between the blocks is a mixture of local soil, water and ash. Fitted in the mortar are tiny pieces of stone called "chinking". Chinking stones fill in the gaps within the mortar and added structural stability to the walls. Over the surface of many walls, the people placed a thin coating of paint, called plaster, the first things to erode with time.
See tip's pictures for wooden beams, brick wall, and natural stone roof.
Favorite thing: When I looked at the size of these doorways, I wonder about the size of the people who once lived here. An average man was about 5'4" to 5'5" (163cm) tall, while an average woman was 5' to 5'1" (152cm). If you compare them with European people of the same time period, they would have been about the same size.
Favorite thing: Compared with today, the Ancestral Puebloan's average life span was relatively short, due, in part, to the high infant mortality rate. Most people lived an average of 32-34 years, however some people did live into their 50s and 60s. Approximately 50% of the children died before they reached the age of 5.
Favorite thing: The water came on the back of alcoves. Also in comparison with Europeans, Anasazis didn’t throw away garbage right in dwellings. They threw it down the cliff, and this is how archeologists found out some moments of Anasazis’ life. Moreover, this was a reason why they didn’t have many diseases as Europeans had.