InWord Journeys

The People of Mesa Verde

The Basketmakers

1Somewhere around A.D. 550, a nomadic group of people living in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest drifted to Mesa Verde where, on the mesa tops and in the canyon alcoves, they began to construct small villages of log and mud-plastered pithouses (dug-outs in the earth). Named for their excellent basket-crafting skills, these Basketmakers lived primarily by gathering wild plants and hunting game animals with spear-throwing sticks called atl atls.

2As the lives of the Basketmakers became more settled, farming gradually began to replace hunting and gathering as the main source of food, and crafting pottery began a long journey to supplant basketry in skillfulness and utility. Within 200 years or so, the Basketmakers had learned how to build curving rows of above-ground houses fashioned out of poles and mud. Evidence of these more elaborate living quarters has prompted archaeologists to name the people of this new era “Puebloans.”

The word “Puebloan” means “village dweller” in Spanish.

The Puebloans

Two hundred and fifty years after first building their above-ground houses, the Ancestral Pueblo people had become skillful stone masons constructing thick-walled buildings two and three stories high and, in some cases, containing 50-plus rooms. In that time, agriculture had continued to gain importance, and the mesa tops and side canyons were now dotted with farming plots.        

Civilization at Mesa Verde during this Classic Period, A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1300, peaked with a population of several thousand. Somewhere in the middle of the Classic Period, the people began a short migration from the mesa tops back to the cliff alcoves where their ancestors had first built some of their modest pithouse homes. This neighborhood relocation may have been for increased protection from the elements, or it could have been for defense or religious reasons. Now, though, centuries of innovation enabled the Puebloans to create large, magnificent apartments perched in the canyon walls, as exemplified by the iconic Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House.

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park

The finely-built stone walls of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings were adapted to fit the available space in the alcoves, and were used to create rooms with dimensions of approximately 6 feet by 8 feet, most of which were used for storage. As the need arose, rooms were added to the original ones so that several generations could live together.  In many of these living quarters, the interior walls were first plastered and then painted with designs.  The underground pithouse remained, but was now a spiritual and social center of the community called the kiva.

Then, in the late 1200’s, the people of this vibrant Mesa Verde civilization turned their backs on their homeland of 700 years and migrated south. The spectacular cliff dwellings had been occupied for less than one hundred years.

                  Square Tower House 4
Did the people leave Mesa Verde because of drought and crop failures? Did their migration stories tell them it was time to go? Was it social and political unrest and violence that drove them away? Or was it the depletion of natural resources? Although the definitive answer remains hidden in the past, one has only to look at the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans, the Pueblo people of the 21st century, for a contemporary glimpse of the culture that once flourished here.


Discovery of Mesa Verde

When Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason
discovered Cliff Palace, they were accompanied
by a Ute Indian named Acowitz.

The abandoned homes at Mesa Verde stood for hundreds of years as silent testimony to the skill and resourcefulness of their former owners. Then, six centuries after having been deserted, the grandest of the cliff dwellings was rediscovered. It was on a December day in 1888 that ranchers Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason stumbled across the elaborate Cliff Palace.

The two men were searching for stray cattle, but when the astonishing sight of an ancient cliff city slowly materialized through the swirling snow, they promptly forgot about the lost cows. Instead, they scrambled across the canyon to search the mysterious ruins.

                          Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park
At first sight, what did Wetherill and Mason imagine about the former inhabitants of this Cliff Palace? Astride their horses, dressed in wide-brimmed cowboy hats for protection from the elements and cowboy boots devised to settle into the stirrup of a horse’s saddle, how could these two men of European descent possibly envision a similar wintry day in the forgotten past, when a brown-skinned man wrapped in a turkey feather robe squatted down to tend a fire that was lit to dispel the chill and dampness of his sandstone home?

Cliff Palace and Long House are the largest
of the dwellings at Mesa Verde. Each has at
least 150 rooms.

Thirteenth and Nineteenth Century Lifestyles

Eventually, research and new discoveries began to provide a picture of prehistoric life at Mesa Verde. Whereas Wetherill and other 19th century ranchers in the Four Corners relied on metal for everything from weapons to kitchenware, the residents of Cliff Palace crafted their tools from bone, stone, and wood. Their containers were pots of clay and baskets of willow, rabbitbrush, or skunkbush. The typical rancher dined on beef, pinto beans, biscuits, dried apples, and coffee (often sweetened with a dab of molasses), while a 13th century Mesa Verdean ate cultivated corn, squash, and beans, and a variety of wild game and plants. In a rancher’s “toolbox” was a rawhide lariat for lassoing cattle, a revolver for protection from wild animals, a pocket knife, and gear for his horse. A Mesa Verdean farmer cleared the land with a stone axe, planted seeds with a wooden digging stick, and hunted with a bow and arrow.
6 7 The seasonal round of Ancestral Pueblo life was also different than that of a rancher, whose life revolved around the needs of his cattle. In spring, the rancher spent his time repairing fences and at the annual roundup, where cattle were gathered from the open range and sorted so the young calves could be branded and the older cattle prepared for the drive to market. In summer, the remaining herd was moved to higher pastures, while hay was mowed and stacked in the valley. With the cooler fall weather, the herd was moved back down to lower elevations. During the long winter months, browsing through mail-order catalogues often provided a welcome diversion.

Manos and metates used to grind corn 8
At Cliff Palace, springtime was no doubt devoted to the task of planting mesa-top fields, which were accessed by precarious hand-and-toe holds chiseled into the cliff face. In the heat of summer, the men would continue to tend the fields, while the women busied themselves with domestic chores such as grinding corn into meal or decorating clay pots with designs learned from their mothers. Hunters would stalk small game animals, while gatherers would harvest wild plants. Both men and women no doubt enjoyed the natural air conditioning provided by their cool rock homes. In the busy autumn season, crops would need to be harvested, spread on the rooftops to dry, and stored in the village’s rear and upper rooms for the lean winter months ahead. Hunting and gathering would continue. Respite from the tedium of winter could have come from storytelling and games.

Despite the differences, many similarities existed between the life of a rancher and an Ancestral Puebloan. In 1888, the ranching lifestyle had begun to meet its own demise in a way that echoed what may have been a cause of the end of Mesa Verde, the overuse of natural resources. This time, however, the overuse was in the form of overgrazing, which led to the destruction of the open range and the subsequent bankruptcy of many large cattle operations. As in ancient times, people adapted by moving elsewhere.

Before that, though, the yards of both cultures bustled with people and domesticated animals, turkeys and dogs in the case of the Mesa Verdeans and dogs and horses for the ranchers. Children scampered in both places, discovering what it meant to be born at that particular time in that particular place. And although the external settings were as different as a subterranean chamber of earth and a church with wooden steeple and walls, the people in each place prayed for health, prosperity, and rain to water the arid Four Corners they called home.


Sunset, Mesa Verde National Park

Copyright © Tish Minear and Janet Limon