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Special Characteristic: Prehistoric Cliff Dwellings

WHERE did the Indians come from? That is one of the innumerable questions which anthropologists have not yet solved. Some suggest that they came from Asia by way of Alaska, because the Eskimo seem to somewhat resemble Mongolians. Others think they came from Europe by way of Greenland; others that they came from the South Sea islands by way of South America.

Perhaps all these theorists are right. In one thing only do they agree, and that is that from the Arctic to the Antarctic, no matter what their tribal or other differences due to varying conditions of climate and surroundings, all American Indians are of one physical type with similar mental characteristics and cultural tendencies.

The highest civilization undoubtedly developed in Peru, Central America, and southern Mexico, where architectural ruins of quite astonishing beauty are to-day crumbling under the jungle. This civilization was ruthlessly destroyed by the Spanish conquest following the discovery of America.

The next highest prehistoric civilization was in our own Southwest, and the remains of its highest special development are the cliff dwellings of the Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, to preserve which Congress has set apart the Mesa Verde National Park.

When one speaks of the Pueblo Indians he does not mean an Indian stock or tribe, but merely Indians, possibly of various stocks and many tribes, who used to live, and a few of whose modern descendants still live, in pueblos or community houses of many rooms holding entire tribes or villages under one roof. The builders of Mesa Verde's prehistoric dwellings were of the Pueblo type.

Showing how the dwellings are protected under overhanging cliffs


Those who have traveled through our Southwestern States have seen from the car window innumerable mesas or small isolated plateaus rising abruptly for hundreds of feet from the bare and often arid plains. The word mesa is Spanish for table, and indeed many of these mesas when seen at a distance may suggest to the imaginative mind tables with cloths reaching to the floor.

Once the level of these mesa tops was the level of all of this vast southwestern country, but the rains and floods of centuries have washed away all the softer earth down to its present level, leaving standing only the rocky spots or those so covered with surface rocks that the rains could not reach the softer gravel underneath.

All have heard of the Enchanted Mesa in New Mexico which the Indians of recent times considered sacred. The Mesa Verde, or green mesa (because it is covered with stunted cedar and pinyon trees in a land, where trees are few) is the next most widely known.

The Mesa Verde is one of the largest mesas. It is 15 miles long and 8 miles wide. At its foot are masses of broken rocks rising from 300 to 500 feet above the bare plains. These are called the talus. Above the talus yellow sandstone walls rise precipitously two or, three hundred feet higher to the mesa's top.

It stands on the right bank of the Mancos River, down to which a number of small, rough canyons, once beds of streams, slope from the top of the mesa. It is in the sides of these small canyons where the most wonderful and best preserved cliff dwellings in America, if not in the world, are found to-day.


In prehistoric times a large human population lived in these cliff dwellings, seeking a home there for protection. They obtained their livelihood by agriculture on the forbidding tops of the mesa, cultivating scanty farms which yielded them small crops of corn.

Life must have been hard in this dry country, when the Mesa Verde communities flourished in the side of these sandstone cliffs. Game was scarce and hunting arduous. The Mancos yielded a few fishes. The earth contributed berries or nuts. At that time, as at present, water was rare and found only in sequestered places near the heads of the canyons, but notwithstanding these difficulties the inhabitants cultivated their farms and raised their corn, which they ground on flat stones called metates, and baked their bread on a flat stone griddle. They boiled their meat in well-made vessels, some of which were artistically decorated.

Their life was hard, but so confidently did they believe that they were dependent upon the gods to make the rain fall and the corn grow that they were a religious people who worshipped the sun as the father of all, and the earth as the mother who brought them all their material blessings. They possessed no written language, and could only record their thoughts by a few symbols which they painted on their earthenware jars or scratched on the sides of the cliffs adjoining their habitations.

As their sense of beauty was keen, their art, though primitive, was true; rarely realistic, generally symbolic. Their decoration of cotton fabrics and ceramic work might be called beautiful, even when judged by the highly developed taste of to-day. They fashioned axes, spear-points, and rude tools of stone; they wove brightly-patterned sandals and made attractive basketry.

They were not content with rude buildings, and had long outgrown caves or earth homes that satisfied less civilized Indians farther north and south of them. They shaped stones into regular forms, ornamented them with designs and laid them one on another. Their masonry resisted destructive forces of centuries of rain and snow beating upon them.

The Mesa Verde tribes probably had little culture when they first climbed these precipitous rocks and found shelter, like animals, in the natural caves under the overhanging floor of the mesa. These caves were shelters not only from the storm of winter and the burning sun of summer, but from rapacious human enemies as well; for there are evidences of determined warfare among the prehistoric tribes of our southwest lands.

But with the generations, perhaps the centuries, they made rapid strides. Ladders were substituted for zigzag trails, making their retreats more inaccessible, adobe supplemented caves, brick and stone succeeded adobe, culture succeeded savagery.


A great mound on the top of the mesa which Dr. Fewkes unearthed in the summer of 1915 shows that, probably about 1300 A. D., they had begun to emerge from the caves to build upon the surface, still a further advance in civilization. It is significant that this building is partially sculptured and architecturally ambitious. It is still more significant that it was not a house for temporal needs nor a fortress, but a religious structure. It was a temple to their god, the sun.

The following year Dr. Fewkes unearthed another great building on the surface in what is known as the Mummy Lake region of the park. This was a pueblo, or community living house, and apparently belongs to the period of Sun Temple. This is called Farview House, because of its commanding situation. There are other similar mounds.

The remains of this advanced civilization, of quality so greatly beyond its neighbors, may be seen and studied by all who choose to visit the Mesa Verde National Park. It is an experience full of interest and pleasure. There are many canyons, and many ruins in each canyon. There are ruins yet unexplored. There are several mounds, like that under which Sun Temple was discovered, yet unearthed. The visitor may enter these ruins and examine many of the articles which were found in them.


Two herdsmen, Richard and Alfred Wetherill, while hunting lost cattle one December day in 1888, discovered these ruins. Coming to the edge of a small canyon, they saw under the overreaching cliffs of the opposite side, apparently hanging above a great precipice, what they thought was a city with towers and walls. They were astonished beyond measure—and indeed even the expectant visitor of to-day involuntarily exclaims over the beauty of the spectacle.

Later they explored it and called it Cliff Palace—an unfortunate name, for it was not a palace at all, but a village with 200 rooms for family living with 22 kivas, or sacred rooms, for worship. Later on they found another similar community dwelling, which once sheltered 350 inhabitants. This they called Spruce Tree House, be cause a large spruce tree grew near it. These names have remained.

Other explorers followed and many other ruins were found. This is not the place to name or describe them, but it may be said that here may be seen the oldest and most fully realized civic-center scheme in America. City planning, of which we hear so much now, as if it were a new idea, began in America five or six centuries ago under the cliffs of the Mesa Verde.

Antiquities are not the only attractions in the Mesa Verde National Park. Its natural beauties should not be overlooked. In winter it is wholly inaccessible on account of the deep snows; in some months it is dry and parched, but in June and July, when rains come, vegetation is in full bloom, the plants flower, and the grass grows high in the glades; the trees put forth their new green leaves. The Mesa Verde is attractive in all seasons of the year and full of interest for those who love the unusual and picturesque of mountain scenery.

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Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009