Postcard From Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde
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About 1,450 years ago, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde (in the southwest corner of Colorado) for their home. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived and flourished, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late A.D. 1200s, in the span of a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away, disappearing from history. Mesa Verde National Park preserves a spectacular reminder of this ancient culture.

Mesa Verde cliff dwellings
The first Ancestral Puebloans settled in Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) about A.D. 550. Formerly nomadic, they were beginning to lead a more settled way of life. Farming replaced hunting and gathering as their main livelihood. They lived in pithouses clustered into small villages usually built on mesa tops but sometimes in cliff recesses. By A.D. 1000 the people of Mesa Verde had advanced from pole-and-adobe construction to skillful stone masonry. Walls of thick stone often rose two or three stories high and were joined together into units of 50 rooms or more. Farming accounted for more of their diet than before, and much mesa-top land was cleared for agriculture.

About A.D. 1200, another major population shift saw the people move from the mesa tops back into the cliff alcoves that sheltered their ancestors centuries before. Why did they make this move? We don’t know. Perhaps it was for defense; perhaps it was for religious or psychological reasons; perhaps alcoves offered better protection from the elements. Whatever the reason or reasons, it gave rise to the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is most famous. Ancestral Puebloans lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. By about A.D. 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted.

Ever since local cowboys first reported the cliff dwellings in the 1880s, archeologists have sought to understand these people’s lives. But despite decades of excavation, analysis, classification, and comparison, scientific knowledge remains sketchy. We will never know the whole story: they left no written records and much that was important in their lives has perished. Yet for all their silence, these structures speak with a certain eloquence. They tell of a people adept at building, artistic in their crafts, and skillful at making a living from a difficult land. The structures are evidence of a society that, over centuries, accumulated skills and traditions and passed them on from generation to generation. So what happened to them? Why, in such a short period of time, did they leave the home they had known for 700 years? Perhaps we'll never know.