Mesa Verde National Park


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Cultural History

About 1500 years ago, a group of Indians living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde as their home. For more than 700 years their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone cities in the sheltered recesses of the canyon walls. Then in the late 1200s, within the span of one or two generations, they abandoned their homes and mysteriously moved away forever.

Mesa Verde National Park preserves a spectacular remnant of this thousand-year-old culture. We call these people the Anasazi, from a Navajo word meaning the ancient ones. They left no written records and much that was important in their lives has perished. Yet the ruins speak of a people adept at building, artistic in their crafts and skillful at wresting a living from a difficult land. They are evidence of a society that over the centuries accumulated skills and traditions and passed them on from one generation to another. By classic times (1100 to 1300 AD), the Anasazi of Mesa Verde were the heirs of a vigorous civilization, with accomplishments in community living and the arts that rank among the finest expressions of human culture in ancient America.

The first Anasazi settled in Mesa Verde about 550 AD. They are known as Basketmakers because of their impressive skill at that craft. Formerly a nomadic people, they were just beginning to lead a more settled way of life as farming replaced hunting-and-gathering. These early Anasazi lived in pithouses clustered into small villages, which they usually built on the mesa tops. They soon learned how to make pottery, and they acquired the bow and arrow, a more efficient weapon for hunting than the atlatl, or spear thrower.


The pithouse represents the beginnings of a settled way of life, based on agriculture. Its basic features were a living room, squarish in shape and sunk a few feet into the ground with four main timbers at the corners to support the roof, a firepit with an air deflector, and an antechamber, which might contain storage bins or pits. Pithouses evolved into the kivas of later times. In Mesa Verde, the Anasazi lived in this type of dwelling from about 550 to 750 AD.

About 750 AD, they began building houses above ground, with upright walls made of poles and mud. They built these houses one against another in long, curving rows often with a pithouse or two in front. The pithouses were probably the forerunners of the kivas of later times. From this time on, these people are known as Pueblos, a Spanish word for village dwellers.

By about 1000 AD, the Anasazi had advanced from pole-and-adobe construction to skillful stone masonry. Their walls of thick, double-coursed stone often rose two or three stories high and were joined together into units of 50 rooms or more. Pottery also changed, as black drawings on a white background replaced crude designs on dull gray. Farming provided more of their diet than before, and much mesa-top land was cleared for that purpose.

The years from 1100 to 1300 AD are called Mesa Verde's classic period. The population may have reached several thousand at this time. It was mostly concentrated in compact villages of many rooms, often with the kivas built inside the enclosing walls rather than out in the open. Round towers began to appear, and there was a rising level of craftsmanship in masonry work, pottery, weaving, jewelry and tool-making. The stone walls of the large pueblos are regarded as the finest ever built in Mesa Verde; they are made of carefully shaped stones laid up in straight courses.

Cliff Houses

The Anasazi began to move back into the cliff alcoves that had sheltered their ancestors long centuries before. We don't know why they made this move. Perhaps it was for defense; perhaps the caves 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 dwellings for which Mesa Verde is famous.

Most of the cliff dwellings were built in the middle decades of the 1200s. They range in size from one room houses to villages of over 200 rooms (Cliff Palace). Architecturally, there is no standard ground plan. The builders fitted their structures to the available space. Most walls were single courses of stone, perhaps because the alcove roofs limited heights and also protected them from erosion by the weather. The masonry work varied in quality; rough construction can be found alongside walls with well shaped stones. Many rooms were plastered on the inside and decorated with painted designs.

The Anasazi lived in the cliff houses for less than a hundred years. By 1300 Mesa Verde was deserted. Here is another mystery. We know that the last quarter of the century was a time of drought and crop failures. Maybe after hundreds of years of intensive use the land and its resources -- the soil, the forests and animals -- were depleted. When the Anasazi left, they may have traveled south into New Mexico and Arizona, perhaps settling among their kin already there. Whatever happened, it seems likely that some Pueblo Indians today are descendants of the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde.

Social Structure

Family organization may have been in clans and matrilineal. Mesa Verde's economy was more complex than might appear at first glance. Even within a small agricultural community, there undoubtedly were persons more skilled than others at weaving or leather-working or making pottery, arrow points, jewelry, baskets, sandals or other specialized articles. Their efficiency gave them a surplus, which they shared or bartered with neighbors. This exchange went on between communities too. Seashells from the coast, turquoise, pottery, and cotton from the south were some of the items that found their way to Mesa Verde, passed along from village to village or carried by traders on foot over a far-flung network of roads.


The Anasazi were a stone-age people, without metal of any kind. They skillfully shaped stone, bone and wood into a variety of tools for grinding, cutting, pounding, chopping, perforating, scraping, polishing and weaving. They used the digging stick for farming, the stone axe for clearing land, the bow and arrow for hunting and sharp-edged stones for cutting. They ground corn with the metate and mano and made wooden spindle whorls for weaving. From bone they fashioned awls for sewing and scrapers for working hides. They usually made their stone tools from stream cobbles rather than the soft sandstone of the cliffs. They also used copper they acquired via trade.


The finest Anasazi baskets were produced at an early stage of their culture before they learned how to make pottery. Using the spiral twilled technique, they wove handsomely decorated baskets of many sizes and shapes and used them for carrying water, storing grain, and even cooking. They waterproofed their baskets by lining them with pitch and cooked in them by dropping heated stones into the water. The most common twined coiling material was split willow but some times rabbitbrush or skunkbush was used. After the introduction of pottery about A.D. 550, basketry declined. The few baskets found here from the classic period are of inferior workmanship.


The Anasazi of Mesa Verde were accomplished potters. They made vessels of all kinds: pots, bowls, canteens, ladles, jars, and mugs. Corrugated ware was used mostly for cooking and storage; the elaborately decorated black on white ware may have had ceremonial as well as everyday uses. Women were the potters of the community. Their designs tended to be personal and local and probably were passed down from mother to daughter. Design elements changed slowly, a characteristic that helps archeologists track the location and composition of ancient populations.

Exploration & Settlement

William Haydn became the first American to document the Mancos Canyon cliff dwellings by taking photographs in 1874. Balcony House was probably entered by prospector S. E. Osborn some time in the spring of 1884. In a newspaper article published late in 1886, Osborn describes some of the ruins he visited in the Mesa Verde in 1883-1884. In 1886, New York journalist Virginia McClurg found her way to Balcony House and spent the next 20 years attempting to preserve and protect these archeological resources.

On December 18th, 1888, two cowboys, Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason, were riding across the mesa top looking for stray cattle. These ranchers from the Mancos Valley east of the park were the first white men to see what they called "Cliff Palace" and "Spruce Tree House." After further exploration, they entered the dwelling and made a small collection of artifacts before leaving for the day. In the next 18 years these same men, as well as various exploring parties and tourist groups, made expeditions into Mesa Verde.

Many of them camped in the dwellings for days or weeks at a time while they were sightseeing or looking for cattle. Because there were no laws protecting such sites at the time, they often removed artifact collections or defaced certain sections of the ruins. Protection for the dwellings came with the establishment of Mesa Verde in 1906, yet it was not until 1909 that Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institution excavated and first stabilized Cliff Palace.

The majority of alcoves are small crevices or ledges able to accommodate only a few small rooms. Very few are large enough to house a dwelling the size of Cliff Palace which contains 217 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of 200-250 people. This is partially why, 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.

Park History

The Colorado Cliff Dwelling Association, founded by Virginia McClurg, rallied support to stop the removal and sale of artifacts and worked on preserving the ruins. Their 20-year efforts finally resulted in the establishment by Congress of Mesa Verde National Park. On June 29, 1906, Mesa Verde became the first cultural park set aside in the National Park System. Mesa Verde National Park was also designated as a World Cultural Heritage Site on September 8, 1978 by UNESCO, a United Nations organization formed to preserve and protect both the cultural and natural heritage of designated international sites.

Natural History

Plants & Animals

On this high plateau at 6,000 to 8,000 feet on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, typical pinyon/juniper flora and associated fauna occur.


The Mesa Verde Group rock unit is composed of the Cliffhouse Sandstone formation, lying atop the Menefree Shale formation, above Point Lookout Sandstone. This group sits atop the Mancos Shale formation.

Point Lookout, a very resistant sandstone, is visible as a band of white cliffs along the North Rim of Mesa Verde and in the cap rock of the mesas and buttes surrounding Morefield Campground. When erosion wears away this protective sandstone, the underlying soft shales of the Mancos Formation gully rapidly.

The rock you see in most of the cliff dwellings of the canyons throughout the park is Cliff House Sandstone, deposited during the Cretaceous Period about 78 million years ago. Since sandstone is very porous material, moisture seeps down through it. Beneath the layer of sandstone, is a layer of shale, the Menfree Formation, through which the moisture cannot penetrate. Water therefore oozes laterally between these two formations. In the winter months, when the moisture freezes and expands, chunks of sandstone are cracked and loosened. Later these pieces collapse, forming alcoves where the cliff dwellings were built. The same process was responsioble for creating the arches of Arches National Park.

Overview | Climate/Map | Things To Do | Lodging/Camping | Nearby Resources


Visitor Center
P.O. Box 8
Mesa Verde, Colorado 81330


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