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Mesa Verde National Park Preserves Sky-high Native American Cliff Dwellings

Mesa Verde
Ancestral Pueblo people created communities that existed from about 550 to 1300 C.E. high in the sandstone cliffs of southwestern Colorado. www.fordesign.net/Getty Images

If you were one of the unfortunate Ancestral Pueblo people who happened to have a fear of heights, well, you probably didn't get out much. The cliff dwellings at what's now known as Mesa Verde National Park certainly would've made you wish for a less lofty home. Now, these sprawling structures in the sky attract adventure seekers and history lovers from around the world.

Sandstone blocks and wooden beams make up these gravity-defying structures, which are built right into the steep and spectacular cliffs of southwest Colorado, tucked away in rocky alcoves underneath jagged clifftops. Mortar made from ash, soil and water fills in the gaps. And though their hues have long since disappeared, some rooms were painted brilliant colors like yellow, red, pink and white for further touches of beauty.

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To preserve these structures, the park was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Mesa Verde was the seventh park to be added to the country's roster, a year after Wind Cave National Park and four years prior to Glacier National Park. It's the only national park formed to protect a historic cultural site as opposed to a natural space.

In designating the site as a national park, Roosevelt aimed to preserve the heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo communities that thrived here for seven centuries, from around 550 to 1300 C.E.

To this day, no one's certain why an entire community abandoned their hard-earned homes – nearly 600 of them in all. The 150-room Cliff Palace, a 26-foot (8-meter) behemoth, is the structure most associated with the park – it's likely the biggest cliff dwelling on the continent, tucked into an alcove far above the ground. In total, the park contains more than 5,000 archaeological sites, making it the biggest preserve of its kind in the country. What's more, there may be thousands of sites still undiscovered.

Due to its historical importance, as well as the mind-boggling trove of architectural and perishable materials in the alcoves, Mesa Verde is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of 24 in the United States.

Mesa Verde National Park
A digital image showing the interior and exterior of a pit house reconstruction inside the Step House ruins of Mesa Verde National Park.
Rebecca L. Latson/Getty Images

Visitors can roam some areas unattended; for others, like tours of specific buildings and tunnels, you must register for ranger-led tours.

Colorado University Boulder assistant professor Scott Ortman says the cliff dwellings were the homes of Ancestral Pueblo families and often the central gathering places of larger communities. For example, at Sun Point View in the park you can see many contemporaneous settlements in adjacent canyons that were part of a single community.

"It is important to emphasize that, while the settlements in the alcoves are much better preserved, the vast majority of ancient settlements in the park occur on the mesa tops and talus slopes outside of the alcoves," Ortman says via email. In other words, the cliff structures were in the minority in this community. "Most of the structures you see in the alcoves today date from the final century of occupation, but earlier structures were likely periodically razed and rebuilt, and this is why the archaeological record of the alcoves is somewhat biased toward the final period."

Why Did Native Americans Build in the Cliffs?

But why, you might ask – particularly if heights give you the heebie-jeebies – would people live in homes where the front steps led straight to vertical oblivion?

"Probably the most basic reason that people built in the alcoves is that, except for north-facing alcoves, they are nice passive solar environments — shady in the summer, sunny in the winter," says Ortman. And because the alcoves are formed by water action, most also have seeps or springs useful as domestic water sources in them.

But there might be more ominous reasons. Violence may have played a role in the community's decision to build cliff high-rises.

"During the 13th century people really packed into these places and the architecture has some defensive aspects to it. So perhaps the packing during the final decades of occupation was due to increasing competition related to population density, or perhaps defense against enemies," he says.

Ortman adds that it seems virtuosity in architecture played a role in Mesa Verde society, as many structures exhibit evidence of being built for beauty as well as function.

The structures also exhibit startling precision, with amazing geometry and positioning that relates to astronomical events. Sherry Towers, an Arizona State University statistician with a doctorate in experimental particle physics, published a paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science in 2017 that demonstrated how the D-shaped Sun Temple corresponds to the heavens.

Incorporated into the structure are staples of geometry, including 45-degree right triangles, equilateral triangles, the Pythagorean triple and the Golden rectangle. And somehow, these builders did all this work without modern tools of any kind – or even any sort of written language or number system.

Twenty-four modern tribes of the Four Corners region trace their lineage to the people who made their lives on these cliffs. Of course, their lives look much different than those of their ancestors.

"What I find so fascinating is that, while there are clear continuities between Mesa Verde society and contemporary Pueblo Indian communities, it is clear that these societies have changed since their ancestors left Mesa Verde," says Ortman.

"Pueblo communities today seem to place less emphasis on families and more on the community overall. I often wonder whether this change is a byproduct of the lessons learned from the Mesa Verde experience, where people formed communities, but they seem to have been more collections of families than an integrated place-based identity."

How did this transformation come about? Ortman hopes his work will shed light on those questions.

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