Mesa Verde Slowly Revealing Secrets of Anasazi Culture

July 25, 2004
By James Abarr
For the Journal

MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo.- Rising sharply between the Mancos and Montezuma valleys of southwest Colorado, the broad escarpment of Mesa Verde beckons with a promise of adventure and mystery.

With cliffs soaring 2,000 feet above ridges and grassy plains, the mesa- 25 miles long- offers a feast for the senses as well as the eyes. Along its piñon-juniper ridges and in its plunging canyons are hundreds of surface pueblos, cliff dwellings, stone towers and pithouses attesting to a time when a prehistoric Indian people called the great mesa home.

They were the Anasazi, who abandoned Mesa Verde more than 700 years ago, but to present-day Indian people of the Four Corners region and the Middle Rio Grande Valley, the Anasazi have never left. They believe the spirits of their ancestors still inhabit the mesa.

Since 1906, this rich cultural treasure has been set aside as a national park, one of the first in the nation dedicated to preserving an ancient culture. In 1978, the United Nations designated Mesa Verde a World Heritage Site.

Unlocking secrets

For more than 100 years, archaeologists and researchers in a host of other scientific fields have strived to unlock the secrets of the mesa’s ancient inhabitants. While much has been learned, there is much that remains sketchy. The Anasazi left no written record, and details of the things vital in their daily lives have long since vanished.

Since archaeologists do not know what the Mesa Verdeans called themselves, they have adopted Anasazi- the Ancient Ones- the name given to them by the Navajos, who claim an ancestral link. More recently, the National Park Service has adopted the term Ancestoral Puebloans.

Much remains to be learned about these prehistoric people, and yet, for all the passage of centuries, the ruins of their many dwellings speak with a ghostly grandeur. As a Park Service researcher noted:

“They tell of a people adept at building, artistic in their crafts and skilled at wresting a living from a difficult land.”

Using tree-ring dating, comparisons of pottery fragments, building styles and other investigative tools, archaeologists have traced 800 years of development on Mesa Verde- from the Basketmakers of about A.D. 500 to the Classic Pueblo period of A.D. 1100 to 1300.

A change in lifestyle

There is some evidence that hunting bands roamed the region more than 10,000 years ago. In about A.D. 500, however, a group of wanderers abandoned their nomadic lifestyle to settle atop Mesa Verde to mark the beginning of what would become a stunning cultural advancement over following centuries. Archaeologists call these early people the Basketmakers because of their skill at weaving reed and yucca baskets of every size.

In their more sedentary role, the early Mesa Verdeans constructed pit houses clustered in small villages, and farming replaced hunting and gathering. In canyon bottoms and along mesa tops, they raised corn, beans and squash. To supplement their food supply, they hunted deer and small game and collected edible plants.

Basic features of Basketmaker pithouses included square-shaped living quarters dug three to four feet into the ground. Four stout timbers at the corners supported a roof of saplings covered by layers of earth. In the interior were living quarters, a large firepit and an antechamber for storage. Entrance was by ladder through a hole in the roof.

Today, visitors can inspect two excavated pithouses dating to Mesa Verde’s earliest known settlement. There also is a pithouse reconstucted to appear as it did in the sixth century. Archaeologists theorize that these dwellings were the forerunner of the kiva, the underground ceremonial chamber of later Pueblo times.

By about A.D. 750, pithouses began to give way to small surface dwellings of stone. By about A.D. 1000, these had been replaced by multiroom pueblos as the Mesa Verdeans appear to have become more communal minded. By this time, they also had become skilled dryland farmers, weavers and makers of pottery, clothing, jewelry and stone tools of every kind.

By about A.D. 1100, the Anasazi had entered their Golden Age with accomplishments in communal living and the arts that rank among the best expressions of culture in prehistoric North America.

It was a period marked by compact pueblos of many rooms and kivas, set off by both round and square towers. There was a high level of craftsmanship in masonry work, pottery, weaving and tool making.

Mesa Verde’s world-famous cliff dwellings- there are more than 600 within the park boundaries- represent the last 100 years of Anasazi occupation.

In about A.D. 1190, many clans begin to abandon their mesa-top homes to move into the cliffs high on the sides of Mesa Verde’s deep canyons. The result was the scores of elaborate cliff dwellings. Ranging in size from several rooms to more than 200 rooms and many kivas, these cliff structures were built beneath large overhanging alcoves that shielded residents from the elements and potential foes.

It was a move that left archaeologists with a major puzzle. Why, after centuries, did the Anasazi abandon the mesa tops for the steep and perilous cliffs?

One theory holds that they may have been threatened by an outside enemy. This could have forced the Anasazi to flee to the strong defensive positions afforded by the cliffs. However, no evidence of any such threat has been uncovered.

Gilbert Wenger, who served 14 years as chief Park Service archaeologist at Mesa Verde, discounts the defense theory:

“If so, who were their enemies?” he asks. “There is currently no evidence of any other people than Pueblo in the area until after the abandonment of Mesa Verde.”

Some researchers believe internal strife resulting from food shortages and declining resources may have been a factor, forcing individual clans to seek protection from their neighbors.

The Anasazi legacy

Whatever the reasons, the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, although occupied for a relatively brief span, rank as amazing examples of Anasazi building skills. There was no formal plan or design for these stunning structures. They were simply constructed to match the topography of the great alcoves. Thus the dwellings are similar, and yet, each is different.

Sandstone, widely available in the area, was the basic building material. This soft, porous material was carefully shaped into rectangular blocks and laid in rows cemented by mud mortar. Walls were then coated with plaster and often decorated with painted designs.

Square house blocks, some three stories high, were accompanied by square or round tower dwellings and many kivas, or recessed ceremonial chambers.

Even while the Anasazi were fashioning the dwellings that would be their legacy, some clans were already beginning the exodus that by about A.D. 1300 would leave the mesa tops and canyons that had been occupied for 800 years deserted.

Tree-ring evidence shows that in 1273, rain virtually ceased to fall at Mesa Verde. For the next 12 years, or until about 1285, a severe drought gripped the region. Not only was there a lack of moisture, which impacted farming, but centuries of use had depleted natural resources- soil, timber and wildlife.

Archaeologists believe this may have triggered internal discord with villages raiding the food supplies of neighbors.

Recent research indicates that a shift in climate may have shortened the growing season to the point where the Anasazi could no longer raise enough food to feed the mesa’s peak estimated population of about 5,000.

As archaeologist Wenger noted: “A combination of such difficulties all happening at the same time would have had a devastating influence on the population, forcing them to leave their homes.”

Where did the refugees go? Anthropologists say they gradually moved south. Some groups joined the Hopis in northern Arizona, while others merged with the Pueblos in western New Mexico and along the Middle Rio Grande Valley, where their descendants live today.

A panoramic treat

From Mesa Verde’s entrance on U.S. 160, 36 miles west of Durango, a two-lane paved road winds upward 2,000 feet through piñon-juniper forests and canyons.

At Park Point, on the northern edge of the mesa at 8,600 feet, the visitor is treated to a panoramic view of the Montezuma Valley to the west, and the Mancos Valley, framed by the 14,000-foot San Juan and La Plata mountains, to the east.

Fifteen miles south of the park entrance, Far View Visitor Center provides information and displays designed as an introduction to the Anasazi civilization.

Just to the south of the Visitor Center is an Anasazi farming complex dating to about A.D. 1050. Two large surface pueblos- Far View House and Pipe Shrine House- and smaller settlements make up the complex.

At Far View, the road also divides. The west fork leads to Wetherill Mesa and a number of major cliff dwellings, including Long House, second largest at Mesa Verde. The south fork leads to Park Headquarters on lower Chapin Mesa and the major cliff dwellings of Cliff Palace, largest in the park, Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, Square Tower House and others.

Near Park Headquarters is the outstanding Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. With scores of exhibits and five unique dioramas, the museum provides a comprehensive overview of the area’s ancient people.

Mesa Verde does not lend itself to a hurry-up visit. It takes time to savor the magic of its 80 square miles and eight centuries of prehistoric Indian culture. As a vintage slogan at the park advises:

“It’s a place where you can see for 100 miles and look back in time 1,000 years.”

Mesa Verde’s Treasures

Among Mesa Verde’s hundreds of cliff dwellings and mesa-top structures, the most spectacular and frequently visited are:

CLIFF PALACE: Largest and most captivating of Mesa Verde’s cliff villages. Located on Chapin Mesa, Cliff Palace features multistoried house blocks, courtyards, kivas and stone towers built beneath a massive cliff overhang.

When Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, two cowboys searching for stray cattle, discovered the ruins in December 1888, they thought they resembled an ancient palace, thus the name.

Built about A.D. 1210, Cliff Palace contains 220 rooms and 23 kivas. It can be entered only on ranger-guided tours from mid-April to early November. However, the site can be viewed year-round from a canyon overlook.


This small dwelling, with 45 rooms and two kivas, was built high on a ledge several hundred feet above the floor of Soda Canyon. Tree-ring dates from timbers used in construction indicate the village was occupied for nearly 200 years, from about A.D. 1096 to 1278, and may have been the last occupied dwelling on the mesa.

It was named for the walled and still-intact balcony which fronts a four-room structure at one end of the dwelling.

Balcony House can be entered only on ranger-guided tours.


Built in the mid-1200s in an alcove in the cliffs of Navajo Canyon, Square Tower House is a small but stunningly picturesque settlement of about 60 rooms and two kivas.

An 86-foot-high square tower built against the rear wall of the alcove gives the structure its name. The tower, which actually was a four-story dwelling, is the highest structure on Mesa Verde.

Square Tower House can’t be entered, but the site is easily viewed year-round from a canyon overlook.


This series of mesa-top pueblos on the northeastern edge of Mesa Verde dates to about A.D. 1050. The flat, relatively open area affords a spectacular view of Mancos Valley to the east and Montezuma Valley to the west.

Far View villages were farming communities surrounded by fields ideal for basic Anasazi crops of corn, beans and squash. Because Far View is at a higher elevation where winters are more severe than in the region of the cliff dwellings to the south, archaeologists theorize it was inhabited only in spring and summer.

Far View House, Pipe Shrine House and Coyote Village are the major units in this complex. Pipe Shrine House was named for the large number of ceremonial pipes recovered when it was excavated in the 1920s.

Also in the complex, which is open year-round, is a stone tower believed to have served as a lookout station.


On Wetherill Mesa in the western section of the park, Long House is Mesa Verde’s second largest cliff dwelling. Built in the early 1200s on three levels in a canyon alcove, the pueblo has 150 rooms, 21 kivas and a unique rectangular dance plaza.


Mesa Verde’s third largest cliff dwelling and one of the best preserved. It is open all year, weather permitting in winter months, for self-guided tours.

Built between A.D. 1200 and 1273 in a cave alcove 216 feet wide and 89 feet deep, Spruce Tree House contains 114 rooms, eight kivas and a broad central plaza.

Wetherill and Mason also discovered this ruin in December 1888. They named it Spruce Tree House for a towering spruce that once grew directly in front of the dwelling.