Mesa Verde National Park is the largest of the National Park Service parcels protecting cultural resources in Colorado, with nearly 5,000 documented sites, including about 600 cliff dwellings. A majority of the sites are associated with Ancestral Pueblo cultures and date to different time periods, ranging from AD 580 to 1290. Although the park offers some of the best-preserved examples of late Basketmaker to pre-1300 Pueblo sites, in many ways both the sites and the setting of Mesa Verde are atypical when compared with other contemporary sites in the surrounding central Mesa Verde region.
Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green mesa,” earned its name because of its relatively lush cover of piñon and juniper forest. The mesa’s higher-than-average elevation (6,000–8,570 feet above sea level), dependable precipitation (16.4 inches per year), fertile mantle of loamy soil, slight tilt to the south, and many associated drainages and springs made it an excellent setting for corn farmers who moved to the central Mesa Verde region from the south just before AD 600. Interestingly, there is little evidence of early Basketmaker or Archaic period settlements within the park, which suggests that the rather uniform environmental setting required by dedicated corn farmers did not match the more diverse needs of hunter-gatherers or incipient farmers who depended on hunting and gathering for a significant amount of their daily caloric intake.
The earliest well-established construction date for a small farming hamlet on Mesa Verde proper (i.e., Mesa Verde National Park, in contrast to the much more expansive Mesa Verde region) is approximately AD 580–90. Settlements and population increased rapidly over the next two centuries, so the population estimate for the entire mesa is 750 people between AD 725 and 800. Whereas the earliest farming settlements consist of one to two pithouses with less substantial outside storage features and shade structures, by the 750s the first small pueblos, with two to three households and a single associated pit structure, are evident. Archaeologists have recognized potentially large ninth-century villages in surveys of the mesa; however, these early Pueblo sites are relatively under-researched compared with other areas of the Mesa Verde region.
Depopulation, Revival, and Raids
Mesa Verde proper and much of the area north of the San Juan River lost significant numbers of people in the tenth century, and the reasons for and scale of this depopulation are just now being debated. By 1020, Mesa Verde’s population appears to have rebounded, with the initial increase much more rapid than elsewhere in the region. Chaco era Great House communities, such as the fortress-like Far View complex, developed on the mesa, but researchers are still uncertain about the extent to which people living in the Mesa Verde region were connected to Chaco Canyon, the great cultural center seventy-five miles to the south.
Chaco Canyon’s decline by 1125–50 coincided with one of the most severe drought intervals of the last thousand years, between 1130 and 1180, and the combined pressure of crop failures and regional upheaval rippled all the way north to Mesa Verde. A series of violent clashes date to this period, and there is evidence of significant conflict at sites close to the mesa. A variety of evidence supports the interpretation that the people of the Totah region, centered at the Great House complex Aztec approximately thirty-five miles southwest of the mesa, were the likely raiders. By the early 1200s stability had returned, and the population of the Mesa Verde region was increasingly drawn into large, walled villages in canyon-head settings or smaller settlements built into difficult-to-reach canyon-wall recesses.
The best-known sites associated with the park are those dating to 1220–90. These sites are built into the natural alcoves of the Cliff House Sandstone in the western half of the national park. The largest two or three of these sites are estimated to have had approximately 100 to 200 rooms in use at their peak. They are magnificent examples of Pueblo architecture, but they are significantly smaller than many of the large later villages of 200 rooms to more than 600 rooms found at the canyon edges of the farmlands north of Cortez. Because of the mesa’s restricted agricultural lands, the total population of Mesa Verde rarely accounted for more than one-fifth to one-tenth of the regional population.
By the 1260s, unsettled times returned. A complex mix of environmental stressors, intra-site conflicts, and internal challenges to traditional cultural practices made smaller settlements less safe and farming increasingly risky. Present models suggest that areas close to where present-day Pueblo groups are found in New Mexico and Arizona would have been potentially less risky and more attractive, which may have contributed to the rapid Ancestral Pueblo depopulation of the Mesa Verde region over a twenty-year period. By 1290 even the well-protected communities of Mesa Verde proper, with their relatively rich mesa-top lands and somewhat isolated setting, succumbed to the turbulent conditions of the region.
Utes and Other Native Americans
Between 1400 and 1500, telltale material signs of Ute and possibly Athapaskan (present-day Apache and Navajo) use of the area are evident. Both groups originally shared a lifeway centered on hunting, gathering, and only limited use of domesticated crops. As the Navajo intensified their use of crops such as corn, their settlements became more fixed on the landscape in the sixteenth century. In addition, the Spanish entradas and occupation of the Rio Grande Valley in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries introduced horses and other potential trade goods into the regional economy.
These changes allowed groups such as the Ute to play an increasingly dominant role in the northern Southwest as mobile raiders and traders. By 1750 they were largely in control of the Mesa Verde region. In the nineteenth century, they were often the brokers for early US explorers and immigrants. They, along with the Navajo, were the guides for the first US explorers in the area. The resulting reports accelerated popular curiosity about the cliff dwellers and ultimately led to the creation of Mesa Verde National Park.