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What Are Cliff Dwellers?

The Native American tribes who built and lived in cave dwellings in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

Cliff dwellers are people who make their homes in shallow natural caves in cliffs or under cliff overhangs. Although such dwellings have been found in many areas, including the well-known rock shelters of the Dordogne and central Pyrenees regions of southwestern France, the term cliff dwellers is usually associated with prehistoric inhabitants of cliffs in the American Southwest. The cliff dwellings are found in an area extending from southern Colorado and Utah to northwestern New Mexico and northern Arizona. They are concentrated on the Colorado Plateau, where box canyons with more or less vertical sides have been created by erosion.

These shallow caves in the recessed cliffs served as natural shelters from the wind and rain; in addition, caves facing east or south were warmed by the morning sun and cooled in the evening. Many were situated near a spring, above a river valley with arable land. Most were inaccessible from above and had to be entered by either removable ladders or by hand and foot holds cut into the cliff faces. As home sites, these cliff dwellings perched high on ledges of the canyons were virtually inaccessible to outsiders and were easily defensible against nomadic, predatory peoples.

The most spectacular cliff dwellings are the compact, masonry-walled communal habitations, or pueblos, that often completely fill the cliffs in which they are located. They were built by the Anasazi, the prehistoric ancestors of the present Pueblo Indians, and date from about a.d. 900 to about 1450. The so-called Basket Makers, the earliest known people of Anasazi culture, and various later tribes related to the Anasazi, such as the Salado and the Sinagua, are known to have occupied some of the caves, as did much earlier people.

The best known cliff dwellings have been preserved at Mesa Verde National Park, Colo.; Chaco Canyon, N.Mex.; Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Ariz.; and Yucca House National Monument, Colo.

John C. McGregor

Bibliography: Baring-Gould, S., Cliff Castles and Cave Dwellings of Europe (1911; repr. 1968); Chapin, Frederick, The Land of the Cliff Dwellers (1988); Ferguson, W. M., and Rohn, A. H., Anasazi: Ruins of the Southwest in Color (1987); Keegan, Marcia, Pueblo People (1993).

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