Mesa Verde National Park

The Anasazi

About 1,400 years ago, long before any European exploration of the New World, a group of Indians living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home. For over 700 years their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone cities in the sheltered recesses of the canyon walls. Then in the late 1200's, within the span of one or two generations, they abandoned their homes and moved away.

Mesa Verde National Park, which occupies part of a large plateau rising high above the Montezuma and Mancos Valleys, preserves a spectacular remnant of their thousand-year-old culture. We call these people the Anasazi, from a Navajo word meaning "the ancient ones." Ever since local cowboys discovered the cliff dwellings a century ago, archaeologists have been trying to understand the life of these people. But despite decades of excavation, analysis, classification, and comparison our knowledge is still sketchy. We will never know the whole story of their existence, for they left no written records and much that was important in their lives has perished. Yet for all their silence, these ruins speak with a certain eloquence. They tell of a people adept at building, artistic in their crafts, and skillful at wresting a living from a difficult land. They are evidence of a society that over the centuries accumulated skills and traditions and passed them on from one generation to another. By classic times (A.D. 100 to 1300) the Anasazi of Mesa Verde were the heirs of a vigorous civilization, with accomplishments in community living and the arts that rank among the finest expressions of human culture in ancient America.

Taking advantage of nature, the Anasazi built their dwellings under the overhanging cliffs. Their basic construction material was sandstone, which 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, space enough for two or three people. Isolated rooms in the rear and on the upper levels were generally used for storing crops.

Much of the daily routine took place in the open courtyards in front of the rooms. The women fashioned pottery there, while the men made various tools—knives, axes, awls, scrapers—out of stone and bone. The 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 half of every year.

Clothing closely followed the seasons. In summer, the adults wore simple loincloths and sandals. In winter, they dressed in hides and skins and wrapped themselves against the cold in blankets made of turkey feathers and robes of rabbit fur.

Getting food was a ceaseless struggle, even in the best of years. Farming was the main business of these people, but they supplemented their crops of corn, beans, and squash by gathering wild plants and hunting deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other game. Their only domestic animals were dogs and turkeys.

Fortunately for us, the Anasazi tossed their trash close by. Scraps of food, broken pottery, and tools—anything unwanted went down the slope in front of their houses. Much of what we know about daily life here comes from these garbage heaps.

Tools: The Anasazi were a stone-age people, without metal of any kind. They skillfully shaped stone, bone, and wood into a variety of tools for grinding, cutting, pounding, chopping, perforating, scraping, polishing, and weaving. They used the digging stick for farming, the stone ax for clearing, the bow and arrow for hunting, and sharp-edged stones for cutting. They ground corn with the metate and mano and made wooden spindle whorls for weaving. From bone they fashioned awls for sewing and scrapers for working hides. They usually made their stone tools from stream cobbles rather than the soft sandstone of the cliffs.

Anasazi Family: The structure of the Anasazi life is difficult to know. Archaeology has yielded some information, but without written documentation, there is no way to be sure about their social, political, or religious ideas. We must rely on the insight of comparisons with modern Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona. In classic times at Mesa Verde, several generations probably lived together as a household. Each family occupied several rooms and built additional ones as it grew. Several related families constituted a clan, which may well have been matrilineal (descent through the female line) in organization. If the analogy with current Hopi practice is correct, each clan had its own kiva and rights to its own agricultural plots.

Trade: Mesa Verde's economy was more complex than might appear at first glance. Even within a small agricultural community there undoubtedly were people more skilled than others at weaving or leather working or making pottery, arrow points, jewelry, baskets, sandals, or other specialized articles. Their efficiency gave them a surplus, which they shared or bartered with neighbors. This exchange went on between communities too. Seashells from the coast, turquoise, pottery, and cotton from the south were some of the items that found their way to Mesa Verde, passed along from village to village, or carried by traders on foot over a far-flung network of trails.

Basketry: The finest Anasazi baskets were produced at an early stage of their culture before they learned how to make pottery. Using the spiral twilled technique, they wove handsomely decorated baskets of many sizes and shapes and used them for carrying water, storing grain, and even cooking. They waterproofed their baskets by lining them with pitch and cooked in them by dropping heated stones into the water.

The most common coiling material was split willow, but sometimes rabbitbrush or skunkbrush was used. After the introduction of pottery about A.D. 550, basketry declined. The few baskets found here from the classic period are of inferior workmanship.

Pottery: The Anasazi of Mesa Verde were accomplished potters. They made vessels of all kinds: pots, bowls, canteens, ladles, jars, and mugs. Corrugated ware was used mostly for cooking and storage; the elaborately decorated black-on-white ware may have had ceremonial as well as everyday uses. Women were the potters of the community. Their designs tend to be personal and local and were probably passed down from mother to daughter. Design elements changed slowly, a characteristic that helps archaeologists track the location and composition of ancient populations.

The Living Past: The first Anasazi settled in Mesa Verde (Spanish for green table) about A.D. 550. They are known as Basketmakers because of their impressive skill at that craft. Formerly a nomadic people, they were now beginning to lead a more settled way of life. Farming replaced hunting-and-gathering as their main source of livelihood. They lived in pithouses clustered into small villages, which they usually built on the mesa tops but occasionally in the cliff recesses. They soon learned how to make pottery and they acquired the bow and arrow, a more efficient weapon for hunting than the atlatl, or spear thrower.

These were fairly prosperous times for the Basketmakers and their population multiplied. About 750 they began building houses above ground with upright walls made of poles and mud. They built these houses one against another in long curving rows, often with a pithouse or two in front. The pithouses were probably the forerunners of the kivas of later times. From this time on these people are known as Pueblos, a Spanish word for village dwellers.

By 1000 the Anasazi had advanced from pole-and-adobe construction to skillful stone masonry. Their walls of thick double-coursed stone often rose two or three stories high and were joined together into units of 50 rooms or more. Pottery also changed as black drawings on a white background replaced crude designs on dull gray. Farming provided more of the diet than before and much mesa-top land was cleared for that purpose.

The years from 1100 to 1300 were Mesa Verde's classic period. The population may have reached several thousand. It was mostly concentrated in compact villages of many rooms, often with the kivas built inside the enclosing walls rather than out in the open. Round towers began to appear and there was a rising level of craftsmanship in masonry work, pottery, weaving, jewelry, and even tool making. The stone walls of the large pueblos are regarded as the finest ever built in Mesa Verde; they are made of carefully shaped stones laid up in straight courses. Baskets show evidence of decline in workmanship, but this may be due to the widespread use of pottery and consequent less attention to the craft. About 1200 there was another major population shift. The Anasazi began to move back into the cliff alcoves that had sheltered their ancestors long centuries before. We don't know why they made this move. Perhaps it was for defense; perhaps the caves offered better protection from the elements; perhaps there were religious or psychological reasons. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, it gave rise to the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is famous.

Most of the cliff dwellings were built in the middle decades of the 1200's. They range in size from one-room houses to villages of over 200 rooms (Cliff Palace). Architecturally there is no standard ground plan. The builders fitted their structures to the available space. Most walls were single courses of stone, perhaps because the alcove roofs limited heights and also protected them from erosion by the weather. The masonry work varied in quality; rough construction can be found alongside walls with well-shaped stones.

Many rooms were plastered on the inside and decorated with painted designs.

The Anasazi lived in the cliff houses for less than a hundred years. By 1300 Mesa Verde was deserted. Here is another mystery. We know that the last quarter of the century was a time of drought and crop failures. Maybe after hundreds of years of intensive use, the land and its resources—the soil, the forests, and animals—were depleted.

When the Anasazi left they may have traveled south into New Mexico and Arizona, perhaps settling among their kin already there; hundreds of archaeological sites can be found in Canyon de Chelly, in Northeastern Arizona. Whatever happened, it seems likely that some Pueblo Indians today are descendants of the cliff dwellers of the Mesa Verde.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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