The Mysterious Architecture of Mesa Verde’s Ancient Cliff Dwellings

Cliff Dwelling at Mesa Verde National ParkPhoto: Mike OReilly

Mesa Verde National Park is a place that means a lot to me. A couple of years after moving to Durango, Colorado in 1993, my Mom and I made the drive to Mesa Verde. What we saw gave us a clear window to the past that was more powerful than any dinosaur fossil or petrified forest. It sent chills up my spine, and instantly made me fall in love with the Southwest.

Cliff Dwelling at Mesa Verde National ParkPhoto: Mike OReilly

Mesa Verde is the site of numerous ancient cliff dwellings once occupied by a group called Puebloans – ancestors to about two dozen modern Native American tribes. The Puebloans, often referred to by archeologists as “Anasazi,” have puzzled anthropologists ever since these sites were discovered by white men during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Cliff Dwelling at Mesa Verde National ParkPhoto: Mike OReilly

Other similar Puebloan dwellings have been found and preserved in the states comprising the “Four Corners,” including Aztec Ruins, Chaco Canyon and Bandelier National Monument in northern New Mexico; Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly; and Utah’s Hovenweep National Monument.

Cliff Dwelling at Mesa Verde National ParkPhoto: Mike OReilly

Mesa Verde itself was found by a miner named John Moss, in the early 1870s. In June, 1906 the site was officially given National Park status by President Theodore Roosevelt to “preserve the works of man.”

Cliff Dwelling at Mesa Verde National ParkPhoto: Mike OReilly

Besides the breathtaking settlements tucked into Mesa Verde’s cliffs, archeologists have discovered hundreds of other dwellings, such as brick “Pueblos.” Other dwellings, called “kivas,” housed one or several families at a time, and were dug deep into the ground, which is why so many are not found until being exposed after periodic brush fires burn away juniper trees and sage brush.

Subterranean Kiva DwellingPhoto: Mike OReilly

Careful excavation and analysis have led scientists to conclude that the cliff dwellings are only the most recently occupied sites, abandoned perhaps in 1300 A.D., while some of the kivas date back to 550 A.D. Evidence shows that the designs of some kivas were improved over the years and used for many generations.

Cliff Dwelling at Mesa Verde National ParkPhoto: Mike OReilly

Given the climate – cold winters, and hot, dry summers – it’s hard to imagine how anyone could live comfortably on Mesa Verde’s high, wind-swept plateau, or what would make them want to move from their kivas in the ground to the treacherous cliff faces. There would have been deer, mountain sheep and small game to hunt, but nothing like the bounty of fish, game and forage that supported other Native American tribes. But they did more than simply get by; they thrived in this location for at least seven hundred years.

Cliff Dwelling at Mesa Verde National ParkPhoto: Mike OReilly

Thanks to the quality of their masonry, and the dry climate of the Southwest, these dwellings have provided a nearly perfect picture of what Puebloan life was like. All of which makes the most critical question so vexing. What happened to these people? Where did they go, and why? Sure, we know that modern day tribes are descendants of the Puebloans, but what made them abandon their settlements in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, almost simultaneously, about seven centuries ago? There are several theories, including changes in climate, tribal war or social conflict, and food shortages. Whatever the reason or reasons, I will always be thankful to have witnessed, first-hand, the evidence of such a resilient and intelligent culture.

Note: All the the dwellings in these photos have names, but I didn’t make notes during my last visit and, not wanting to incorrectly label them, I’ve simply labelled them “Cliff Dwelling.”

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