Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Mesa Verde National Park


The History of Mesa Verde
©2006 National Park Services The ancient cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park have been well preserved by the dry environment of the region.

Archaeologists have determined that the people who abandoned the buildings at Mesa Verde were not the first to live in the region. Nearly 2,500 years ago, nomadic hunters and gathers wandered into what is now the southwestern corner of Colorado. There, in the canyons and gullies of a high mesa, they established what was to become an advanced culture that prospered for more than a millennium.

The first people of Mesa Verde lived in caves. Later they dug pit houses into the ground and covered them with logs and mud. These were farmers who grew corn and beans, and they became basket weavers of consummate skill.

By about the eighth century A.D., they were building houses above ground with poles and mud. These apartment buildings, or pueblos, were built on the mesa's top and had as many as 50 rooms, usually arranged in the shape of a crescent. By now, the people had given up baskets and begun making pottery, some of which still survives. Decorated with black and white geometric designs, these pots are remarkable for their artistic expression.

Around A.D.1200, the mesa people moved down into recesses in the cliffs that formed the walls of canyons cut into the mesa. The reasons for the move are unknown today, but archaeologists speculate that the people may have been threatened by tribes of newcomers.

There, they built sturdy, compact apartment buildings with as many as four stories and 50 rooms -- the Cliff Palace had 150 to 200 rooms. Many of the buildings had courtyards with kivas dug into them. These underground chambers, which are reminiscent of their ancestors' first dwellings on the mesa's top, were used for religious ceremonies. 

Although their culture was surprisingly advanced, with complex trade networks supplying such goods as turquoise and shells from as far away as the Pacific Coast, life was harsh for the people of the cliff dwellings, and few lived beyond the age of 35.

In the 13th century, the cliff-dwelling people began to leave their homes. By the end of the century, all of them were gone, never to return. Why did they go? Archaeologists once thought they were overtaken by enemies, but there is no evidence of warfare. 

Today, many believe that the Anasazis' farming methods may have been so productive that the population grew too swiftly, reaching as many as 5,000 people on Mesa Verde alone. Gradually, this huge population would have taken its toll on the environment. Game would have been hunted out, the soil would have become depleted, and the surrounding woodlands would have been cut away. Years of drought and poor crops would have been the final blow.

Two cowboys discovered the ruins in 1888. Tracking wandering cattle through a snowstorm on top of the mesa, they stopped on the edge of a steep canyon. Through the snow they could see the faint outline of the walls and towers of what looked like a huge palace of stone on the far side of the canyon. 

Excited about their discovery, they made a makeshift ladder and climbed down to the deserted cliff city, exploring its ghostly network of deserted rooms, where they found such artifacts as tools and pottery. Their condition was so good that some of the items were still usable. They named the dwelling Cliff Palace, and archaeologists later determined that no one had stood in the rooms explored by the cowboys for nearly six centuries.

Modern visitors to Mesa Verde can share in the wonder of discovery felt by those early explorers. The cliff dwellings inspire awe in visitors today, just as they did hundreds of years ago.

© Publications International, Ltd.