About 1,400 years ago, long before any European exploration of North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home. For more than 700 years their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then in the late 1200s, within the span of one or two generations, they left 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 reminder of this 1,000 year-old culture. Archeologists have called these people Anasazi, from a Navajo word that has sometimes been translated to mean "the ancient enemies." We now call them the Ancestral Puebloans, reflecting their modern descendants. Ever since local cowboys first saw the cliff dwellings a century ago, archeologists have been trying to understand the life of these people. But despite decades of excavation, analysis, classification, and comparison, our scientific 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 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 the centuries accumulated skills and traditions and passed them on from one generation to another. By Classic times (1100 to 1300), the people 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 North America.
Taking advantage of nature, the Ancestral Puebloans built their dwellings beneath 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 6 feet by 8 feet, space enough for two or three persons. 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. Pottery was fashioned there, as well as various tools-knives, axes, awls, scrapers-made from stone and bone. 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.
Clothing closely followed the seasons. In summer the adults probably 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.
The Ancestral Puebloans spent much of their time getting food, even in the best of years. Farming was the main business of these people, but they supplemented their crops of beans, corn, 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 Ancestral Puebloans tossed their trash close by. Scraps of food, broken pottery and tools, anything unwanted, went down the slope in front of their homes. Much of what we know about daily life here comes from these garbage heaps.