President Theodore Roosevelt on June 29, 1906, set aside Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. This land, inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans for over 700 years, included the most complete and extensive concentration of prehistoric cliff dwellings in the United States. Today, the park protects over 4,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. In fact, these sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States.
The Native Americans first settled on the Colorado Plateau and farmed the mesas. Life was hard in the arid climate, boasting warm summers, cold winters, and limited rainfall. They lived in various settlements above ground until AD 1100, when they started constructing the massive cliff dwellings.
Many have thought that the Ancestral Puebloans retreated to the cliff dwellings to hide from aggressors, but archeological evidence does not support that theory. In fact, the entire region lived in harmony. The cliff dwellings do offer better protection from the elements than the mesa-top sites, which may be one reason we see so many similar dwellings across the southwest.
Between AD 1200 and 1400, there was a mass exodus from the region. To this date, we still do not know why. Perhaps the climate changed significantly, eliminating the ability to farm on the mesa. What do we know, is that their descendants live on in modern tribes residing in the Rio Grande river valley in New Mexico, the Ute in Colorado, and the Hopi in Arizona.
Each year, new dwellings are continued to be uncovered, allowing researchers to peer deeper and deeper into the past. It is this continued effort that has led to the decade old change in name from Anasazi to Ancestral Puebloan to reflect the people who lived here.
When traveling in the Southwest, there are many must-see National Parks,. This is one of them. The fact that you can still walk the grounds and experience the cliff dwellings from within, make it not only a wondrous educational opportunity, but an experiential one as well. The park is open year-round and worth spending at least three days exploring its history.
All Images take by me in 2006.
Intro and Outro Music: Redondo Beach by Apple Loops
Score by Kevin MacLeod, used with permission: Long Road Ahead, Expeditionary, Unpromised, Shamanistic, and Ritual