Mesa Verde National Park, located in southwestern Colorado about 45 km (28 mi) west of Durango and encompassing an area of 21,093 ha (52,122 acres), is a major site of prehistoric cliff dwellings and open pueblos of the Anasazi Indians. Its name (Spanish for "green table") is derived from the park's typical land formations of steep rock walls and flat tops (mesas). Established in 1906, the park is open to visitors all year. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Hundreds of ruins and artifacts document nearly 1,000 years of cultural development at the site. Archaeologists distinguish four periods. From some time after a.d. 1 until a.d. 400, the people called Basket Maker II lived in caves and pithouses. They grew beans, corn, and squash on the mesa tops and kept domesticated dogs and turkeys. The Basket Maker III period, in which pottery was introduced and house construction began, lasted from the 5th until the mid-8th century. During the Pueblo I and II periods, from the mid-8th until the 11th century, the inhabitants began to build pueblos, rectangular apartmentlike stone houses often arranged in several stories. The Pueblo III period, lasting from the 12th until the beginning of the 14th century, is noted for the construction of the Mesa Verde immense cliff dwellings, communal habitations built of stone, mud mortar, and wood on the ledges of the cliffs and protected by rock overhangs.

The most impressive of the ruins is the Cliff Palace, which was excavated in 1909. Dating from the Pueblo III period, it contained more than 200 rooms and over 23 ceremonial chambers, called kivas. Other notable ruins are Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, and Square Tower House, all built during the 12th and 13th centuries.

After a.d. 1300 the inhabitants of Mesa Verde abandoned their villages and moved away, perhaps because of raids by hostile nomads, perhaps because of prolonged periods of extreme drought. For centuries the cliff dwellings were abandoned and forgotten, but at the end of the 19th century they were discovered by cowboys and subsequently excavated.

Kenneth M. Stewart