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. By the Classic Period (A.D. 1100 to A.D. 1300), Ancestral Puebloans were heirs of a vigorous civilization, whose accomplishments in community living and the arts rank among the finest expressions of human culture in North America.
Using nature to advantage, Ancestral Puebloans built their dwellings beneath the overhanging cliffs. Their basic construction material was sandstone that they shaped into rectangular blocks about the size of a loaf of bread. The mortar between the blocks was a mix of mud and water. Rooms averaged about six feet by eight feet, space enough for two or three persons. Isolated rooms in the rear and on the upper levels were generally used for storing crops. Undergound kivas, ceremonial chambers, were built in front of the rooms. The kiva roofs created open courtyards where many daily routines took place.
Fires built in summer were mainly for cooking. In winter, when the alcove rooms were damp and uncomfortable, fires probably burned throughout the village. Smoke-blackened walls and ceilings are reminders of the biting cold these people lived with for several months each year.
Ancestral Puebloans spent much of their time getting food, even in the best years. They were farmers, but they supplemented their crops of beans, corn, and squash by gathering wild plants and hunting deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other game. The soil on the mesa top was fertile and, except in drought, about as well watered as now. The vegetation is also about the same then as it is today, but with less pinyon and juniper. Then, the Ancestral Puebloans cut pinyon and juniper for building materials and firewood, and to clear land for farming. Their only domestic animals were dogs and turkeys.
Fortunately for us, Ancestral Puebloans tossed their trash close by the cliff dwellings. Scraps of food, broken pottery and tools—anything not wanted—went down the slope in front of their homes. Much of what we know about daily life here comes from these garbage heaps, or kitchen middens. Ancestral Puebloans lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. By about A.D. 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted. Several theories offer reasons for their migration. We know that the last quarter of the A.D. 1200s saw drought and crop failures—but these people had survived earlier droughts. Maybe after hundreds of years of intensive use the land and its resources—soils, forests, and animals—were depleted. Perhaps there were social and political problems, and the people simply looked for new opportunities elsewhere. When the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde left, they traveled south into New Mexico and Arizona, settling among their kin who were already there. Whatever may have happened, some of today’s Pueblo people, and maybe other tribes, are descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde.