Mesa Verde’s Ancient Puebloans : Living on the Edge … Then Not

Most scientists don’t like to admit it, but luck counts too – and archaeology is no exception. Take the case of the spectacular cliff-dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park.

On a cold December day in 1888, cowboys Richard Wetherill, Charles Mason, and their Ute guide Acowitz were rounding up stray cattle in the deep wilderness of Southwestern Colorado. Historical records make no mention of locating strays, but what these lucky cowpokes did find was one of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan* archaeological sites in the United States. And visitors still enjoy their good fortune today.

The Four Corners area, where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona meet, is well known for archaeological sites of indigenous cultures. Viewed on a map ruins seem to be everywhere, but until you get behind the wheel and make the miles in this big country, you might not realize how scattered and time consuming they are to reach. But, if you only have time for a one-stop, see-it-all trip, Mesa Verde National Park with its 5,000 archeological sites, cliff dwellings, and petroglyphs is the place to go.

Mesa Verde’s three large cliff dwellings can only be visited on ranger-guided tours. (Unfortunately the park has temporarily suspended these tours.) We snagged reservations on the Cliff Palace Tour, which proved what all travelers know already: there’s nothing like being there. Photos just don’t do the place justice.

To gain a true appreciation of the scale of the alcove village and how well it utilizes the available space it helps to be standing in the shelter of the ominous-looking overhang and peering up. After living in pit houses lashed by Mother Nature for six centuries, the protective setting must have felt like heaven to the Puebloans.

Colorado’s desert climate has been kind to Mesa Verde, and given its state of preservation, it’s one of the premier sites for curious tourists as well as research scientists who are still unraveling some of the mysteries left behind in the ruins.

Anyone who has spent time outdoors will take one look at the cozy, alcove rooms and kivas tucked under the rock overhang and marvel at the site’s obvious appeal. It provided shelter, a source of water, and the protection of community. In a harsh, unpredictable environment, the location seems the perfect solution.

But for all its elegant simplicity and function, this ruin highlights one of the biggest mysteries in the history of the culture. The indigenous people lived at Mesa Verde for 700 years, and in this time they spent the first six centuries living in simple pit houses tending their crops on the top of the mesa. Then, in the early 1200s, in what seems a quantum leap forward in building skill, they ducked under the sheltering protection of the ledge, and began constructing and occupying the multi-story cliff dwellings that we see today.

But then comes the mystery: over the next 75-100 years the people abandoned their new homes and left the area … never to return.

The largest panel of ancient petroglyphs in Mesa Verde National Park are accessed by way of the Petroglyph Trail, which begins near Spruce Tree House.

The Ancient Puebloans had no writing system, as evidenced by their petroglyphs, so we’ll never know exactly why this civilization just vanished. Archaeologists still debate the causes, but one issue on which all agree is that the US Southwest is now, and has always been, a fragile and marginal environment for agriculture. And when extended droughts were added to the mix, the land could no longer support the growing population, and starving survivors abandoned their homes to seek food and shelter elsewhere.

Throughout human history harsh, unforgiving climate and challenging geography have forced cultures to be clever and adaptable to survive. Sometimes it worked, but often it didn’t. The indigenous people of Mesa Verde and the Four Corners Area succeeded for seven centuries, and these fascinating ruins provide a glimpse into how they did it.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

*In recent years there has been some debate over what the indigenous cultures of the Four Corners region should be called. Early researchers grouped them under the umbrella term “Anasazi” – a Navajo word meaning “ancient enemies,” which is considered offensive. More recently, the phrase “Native American” has been used, but modern descendants of these ancient groups maintain that their cultures were centuries-old before the Spanish discovered, and named America. In some circles this is a hot-button issue so because their ancestors lived in pueblos, the more acceptable term “Ancestral Puebloans” was adopted.

Photo Credits: 1. National Park Service  11. Rationalobserver  

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

47 thoughts

    1. Thanks for the comment Jack and for dropping by the blog. I remember on the tour when we rounded the rock wall on the cliff side, and had our first view of the ruins, you’re right, it was breathtaking. ~James

  1. Thank you, James, that brought me back to a fabulous place. It’s true what you say – being there is necessary to understand its scale and structure. But your words and pictures made for a perfect quick visit.

    1. Thanks Shane. We visited on a hot, sunny day, and even with the crowds, the place had a special feel. Given the quiet solitude of the area and the fabulous scenery, I can understand why visitors find it so appealing. ~James

  2. We love this area and this place, and I enjoyed seeing your post. Your photos are great and brought back good memories.
    When the Navajo and their relatives the Apache moved into the Southwest, the Navajo seem to have got along with these people who traded with them and taught them farming. But the translation of Anazazi indicates they did not remain friends, and that could have contributed to their abandoning the place. But I believe the massive eruption of the Indonesian volcano Samalas in 1257 was a significant contributor. It created massive global cooling and resulted in famine in London. I wrote about it at https://ralietravels.wordpress.com/2019/05/03/home-of-the-ancients-southwest-united-states/.

    1. Ray, your theory on global cooling as a cause of the abandonment of Mesa Verde is an interesting one. I suspect that there were a number of causes for a gradual decline, and in the end, there may have been a catalyst that was the nail in the coffin: like a sustained global cooling event.

      The important thing to remember is that even in the best of times, this area is a harsh, fragile, and marginal area for growing food. The ancients were never very far from starvation and it didn’t take much to push them over the edge. Thanks for the link and the thought provoking comment. ~James

    1. I agree that it is amazing. It’s funny that as travelers many Americans, us included, spend lots of money and time to visit vanished civilizations around the world when we have such a great example in the SW corner of Colorado. ~James

    1. Leslie, I read an architectural tidbit that didn’t make it into the post that you might be interested in. Up until the 1880s and the skyscrapers of Chicago, the buildings constructed by the Ancient Puebloans were the biggest and tallest in North America – so much for claims of the superior intellect of white Europeans. ~James

      1. I have been to India Leslie. But honestly, I couldn’t appreciate the engineering for marveling at the incredible artistic facades on all sides of the Hindu Temples. ~James

      2. There’s a place in Elora, I think, that is carved right out of a mountain. The stone work was amazing. The Jane Temples near Mount Abu were something else. They definitely are aware of engineering.
        Leslie

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. Mesa Verde is one of the largest surviving ruins in the area, and I suspect that its sheltered location has a lot to do with that. And it only takes a few hours roaming the trails in the park to realize how clever and tough these people were to be able to survive in this harsh landscape for so long. ~James

  3. Great photos. This place looks amazing. I have yet to visit it. I visited a much smaller cliff dwelling settlement near Sedona, Arizona, with a similar story. No one knows why the inhabitants seemed to have disappeared. Fascinating!

    1. Thanks Darlene. One thing that we learned on our visit to this area is that there are ruins (and petroglyphs) all over. And with a bit of planning, perseverance, and sometimes a 4-wheel drive vehicle, all are there for your enjoyment. Sometimes these smaller sites are even better than the bigger places. On a previous trip we visited the Gila Cliff Dwellings, and we almost had the place to ourselves. Very nice. ~James

    1. Rebecca, I suspect that not much has changed in the ruins since you visited. I’m sure the crowds are bigger now, but the desert climate has been kind to the ruins so they probably look the same. In addition to the ruins, the countryside is fabulous. The views from the Mesa are wonderful. ~James

      1. I remember I was impressed how the architecture reflected the cosmology of the Ancient Puebloans, the kivas as the umbilical cord of the culture. Though I probably thought of it in different terms in elementary school when I visited ; ) It is ruggedly beautiful country. I’d like to go back and take our child to see it.

  4. Fascinating in so many ways James but especially what in a relatively short amount of time after moving to what would seem like heaven under the stone roof, they moved on. Food and water
    Sources would seem like a probable reason. Thank you for the explanation around the terms and names give to the people. In Canada this has become a very sensitive
    Issue. Our son in law and grandchildren have Métis ancestry so we are very much aware of the process and grateful for the progress being made in decreasing inappropriate labels.

    1. Sue, this area was always (and still is) marginal for growing food, and the ancients came up with some clever ways of dealing with the cold/heat/water issues. But in the case of Mesa Verde, one of the additional benefits that I didn’t discuss was that many of the original caves in the very rear of the cliff overhang had water seeps. There’s a geologic reason that you don’t need to know, but it raises another question of why on earth did they leave this place?

      As to names, it’s easy to make a misstep when these issues come up, because sometimes there’s even disagreements within the community for what names are and are not appropriate. As always, I think that even a bit of sensitivity goes a long way and just do your best. ~James

      1. It truly is a historical puzzle. I suppose some illness could have even made them feel as if it wasn’t safe. Can you tell I have a pandemic in mind.
        I am with you 110% on sensitivity and doing one’s best. Always a good plan.

  5. Four Corners is one place we just didn’t have time to stop and visit. It is still on our ever growing list. I wonder how they came to have such a “leap in building skills”. With no written records, I doubt we will ever figure it out. The argument for the agricultural challenges certainly makes sense to me why they might have left. Who know what they could have achieved if not for those challenges. I never knew there was such controversy of the proper naming of the people.

    1. Laura, as you probably know, the weather in this area is one of extremes. On any given day it can go from freezing to torrid. We experienced some of this camping. At the same time, it’s feast or famine when it comes to rain. Either it’s bone-dry or a flash flood that mostly runs off. These taken together make it really tough to grow food. And in fact, it’s the same there today.

      One thing that amazed us about this area is all the ancient sites that there are, particularly petroglyphs. There are roadside signs all over the place that aren’t covered in the tourist info. Also, there are tons of wonderful, private camping sites, but the best places are primitive so it’s good to be prepared. We kept our gas tank filled and water jugs full. There’s lots of wild country out here, but you guys made the trek to Alaska, so it won’t be any big deal for you. ~James

  6. James and Terri – We are having a beautiful rain storm right now, but you have made me want to pack up the camping equipment and head out to the Four Corners. The area has always been on my mental list, but I have never been. Now, I’m itching to go 🙂 Cheers – Susan

    1. Susan, the desert southwest takes some driving, but for quiet and solitude there’s nothing like it. It’s so different from our part of the world, and even though the landscape is stark, for the observant there are new things to see in every direction. We enjoyed our time there, and it was fun to learn a good deal more about our continents’ early inhabitants. I’m sure you’d enjoy it and hope you can make it soon. And BTW, it’s easy to get socially distant there. ~James

  7. Thanks for this fabulous post reminding me of why we loved Mesa Verde so much. And you’re right, no post does it justice (although yours is the best we’ve seen) mainly because we enjoyed climbing down the ladder, roaming the premises, and standing and listening to the guide. It’s a must-see, all right. And a place we’ll never forget.

    1. Thanks Rusha. I’m not surprised that you and Bert have such fond memories of Mesa Verde. We spent a few days camped at the base of the Mesa and had an opportunity to have a good look around. The ruins are exceptional and the surrounding countryside is beautiful. It’s a national treasure for sure, and as you say, a must-see. ~James

      1. The whole area was interesting, of course, but Mesa Verde had us thinking right from the get-to! Who were these people? What did they eat? Was there a hierarchy? Why did they leave? And on and on. Just one of the many mysteries of civilization, I guess. And something to make us keep wondering.

    1. Alison, as I said to another commenter, I’m sure things haven’t changed much at the ruins since then. Mesa Verde has developed into a center for scholarship on the indigenous cultures, so it’s a wonderful place to visit for folks that have more than a casual interest. ~James

  8. Terri and James, I have never heard of Mesa Verde. Such an amazing place, thank you for introducing me to it. I really hope to be able to visit it in the near future, you have really sparked my curiosity about this fascinating place.

    1. Gilda, American travelers, us included, are guilty of flying off to far-flung destinations to see ancient ruins when we have some really interesting ones in our own country. For indigenous North Americans Mesa Verde is the best known, and while not a place one just drops by, it’s worth the effort to get there. I hope you can make it. I’m sure you won’t have your camper, but there are some wonderful spots to camp in the area. ~James

  9. Mesa Verde is such a fascinating place! As often, Mark and I had not researched or looked at photos of this National Park, before checking it out. Seeing the first cliff dwelling (I think it was Cliff Palace) blew us away! I bought a 1000-piece puzzle of Cliff Palace for my Belgian niece. 🙂

    Like you two, we managed to snag a ranger tour of that dwelling as well, on one of the days we biked the park. (We had parked our camper van well into the park from where we biked and camped for free at night, minutes from the entrance.) I still find it strange that the Pueblans only lived in their better protected dwellings, which were also closer to a river, for less than 100 years…

    In case your readers are interested in more photos and experiences of Indian Pueblos, here is our account from a couple of years ago. https://www.roamingabout.com/two-week-rv-trip-part-2-indian-pueblos-and-culture/ Feel free to delete the link if inappropriate.

    1. Thanks for the link Liesbet. It makes a good addition to the post. I remember reading this post before our trip, and it’s even more meaningful after our visit. We didn’t make it to Chaco Canyon, so it’s good to see your photos and read the details.

      I haven’t read any good explanation for why the Puebloans only spent 100 years in the cliff houses, after 500 years in pit houses on the top of the Mesa. It’s probably a combination of reasons, but the most prevalent explanation that I read was diminishing resources which led to tribal disputes and warfare. It had to be incredibly difficult to survive in this area in the best of times, and with long term drought it must have been nearly impossible. It’s a testament to their ingenuity and toughness that they made it as long as they did. ~James

  10. Hi Terri and James, A fascinating post! I appreciate you sharing these spectacular photos. I likely will not see this area in real life. I agree with the element of good fortune. I may rethink a visit to this area in the future (when areas open up again.) I have taken ranger-guided tours in other parts of our continent. Very informative. I can appreciate how photos do not do this area justice. A good point on how climate helps with preservation. A great post! Erica

    1. Thanks Erica. We usually prefer to do our own research and structure our own tours, but for Mesa Verde, this isn’t an option. And honestly, given all the stairs, cliffs, narrow trails and large crowds, a ranger guide was a good idea.

      A trip to this area would be a long one for you, but it’s truly unique and if you can make it you wouldn’t be disappointed. In addition to the wealth of indigenous culture ruins and petroglyphs, the desert and mountain scenery is wonderful. In fact, it’s so unlike other parts of the US, that it feels a bit like a foreign country. I hope you can make it at some point. ~James

  11. I haven’t made it to Mesa Verde yet and I long to explore it and more of the US Southwest (one of my favourite regions in the world). Interesting to read about the term “Ancestral Puebloans”.

    1. Caroline, the indigenous people of North America are understandably sensitive to their tribal names, and it’s heartening to see them feel empowered enough to make an issue of it. After all, they were here thousands, and I mean thousands, of years before us European interlopers.

      It takes a bit of effort to cover the Southwestern US because driving is really the only way to see it, but it’s worth the effort. I hope you can make it. ~James

What do you think? We'd love to know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s