700 years of history…Mesa Verde

Once again during our weekly days off we tried to squeeze in a National Park or two. Luckily for us, Mesa Verde National Park is just 2 1/2 hours away from Ridgway State Park in southwestern Colorado. Mandy has been lobbying pretty hard for a visit to Mesa Verde, so happily we finally made it!


Consult the Mesa Verde wikipedia page for a more in-depth discussion of the area’s history and culture. The mesa area has an abundance of structures. It is estimated that at its height, the Mesa Verde region housed more than 20,000 people, at the beginning of the 13th century or c. 1285. By the next century, Mesa Verde was empty. It is thought that long drought, overpopulation, resource decline and overdependence on maize precipitated the decline and eventual exodus from the mesa. The exodus may have been very rapid, as evidenced by the pottery and other tools and possessions left behind.

The Ancestral Puebloans long inhabited the mesa, which stretches from north to south for about 20 miles and rises gradually towards the south. The first humans to inhabit the area may have done so around 6500 BCE, and were hunter-gatherers following large game. It is not clear whether these peoples inhabited the mesa area permanently or temporarily.

The mesa top is punctuated by canyons, and this is where you will find the cliff dwellings. To visit the cliff dwelling you will drive across the top of the mesas. Stairs or a steep pathway will lead you down to the cliff dwellings, which were mostly sandstone, timber and plaster mortar. The Puebloans began building these more complex structures around c. 1075. The cliff dwellings contain many adjacent rooms, towers and kivas. All are found under a sheltering cliff or recess in the canyon walls.

The kivas are a circular structure sunken in the ground and were typically 12 to 15 feet across. Kivas were accessed from the smoke hole in the roof by ladder. The firepit can be found directly under the hole in the roof. A cooling tunnel was usually built into the side of the kiva, with the air flowing from a hole near the floor, which was blocked by a diversion stone, to keep the airflow from extinguishing the fire. A sipapu was typically a small pit dug in the north of the kiva and symbolized the peoples’ emergence from the Underworld. One of the cliff dwellings has a nice reconstruction of a kiva, complete with the roof and ladder, cutaway so that you can see the construction. Kivas may have been both ceremonial and residential.

A single village may have housed 100 people or multiple families in a small clan. The villages or cliff dwellings were always located near a water source and were accessible to the fields, which remained on the mesa tops.

Prior to the cliff dwellings, the Ancestral Puebloans lived in multi-roomed structures on the mesa tops, close to the fields and check dams which were constructed to control the flow of water. Prior to the multi-room structures the Puebloans lived in pit dwellings, which were a precursor to the kiva. There are several fine excavations of pit dwellings to explore in the Park.


There are also petroglyphs, which predate the cliff dwellings by centuries.


We enjoyed the talk and flute performance by our ranger guide, David Nighteagle.



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