What are the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings?

Constance Simmons
Constance Simmons
Man with a backpack
Man with a backpack

The Mesa Verde cliff dwellings are housing structures that were built in caves, and under protruding portions of cliffs, by the Anasazi, an ancient Pueblo People, from 1200-1300 AD. The more than 600 cliff dwellings are made from sandstone and adobe mortar, which make them appear as a seamless part of the landscape. The Mesa Verde cliff dwellings are found in the United States, in Montezuma County, Colorado, which is located in the southwest corner of the state.

The Mesa Verde cliff dwellings owe their name to the tallest tree-covered plateau of the Rocky Mountains, under which they are located. Mesa Verde is Spanish and translates to English as green table. These ancient homes are all uniquely composed due to the diversity of topography.

The Mesa Verde cliff dwellings are evidence that, during the 13th and 14th centuries, the Anasazi were living in large numbers, in easily defendable structures. The dwellings were not built all at once — evidence shows that rooms were added as needed. The cliff dwellings are prime examples of ancient Pueblo architecture because they all include kivas, towers, and pit houses.

The Mesa Verde area was discovered by the Spanish in the 18th century. Despite being the first in the area, the Spanish did not uncover the cliff dwellings, which had been abandoned for hundreds of years, because they are hidden under the plateau. It was not until the area was settled by ranchers in the late 1800s that the cliff dwellings were found.

Unfortunately there were no archaeological standards or procedures when the dwellings were discovered, and many of the artifacts and structures were vandalized, stolen, or damaged. For this reason, definitive information on the dwellings and culture of the Anasazi people who lived there are hard to conclude. The Wetherill family of the area were responsible for the preservation of some of the dwellings. They collected and documented artifacts and sold some to the historical society of Colorado. To aide in preservation, the area was made a national park by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.

There are a few structures within Mesa Verde National Park that are notable because of their size. The largest is the Cliff Palace which consists of 150 rooms and is thought to have housed as many as 300 people. The second largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde is Mug House which has 94 rooms and four different levels. There is also Square House Tower, which has the distinction of being the tallest tower in Mesa Verde.

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Discussion Comments


I have only seen pictures of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, and even the pictures amaze me. I am sure in person it is truly an interesting and beautiful site to see. If I ever make it to Colorado, I am going to try to make it to the southwestern part to see the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings.

It is truly sad that so much of history is lost forever because of greedy and disrespectful people who stole and destroyed many of the artifacts of history. I am glad that some of this history was preserved though.

Just looking at these cave dwellings makes me think of how smart and innovative the Anasazi Native Americans had to have been. They used what little material and large knowledge they had to build living structure that could fit all their people plus keep them from many of the harsh natural elements.

I wonder if some descendants of the original Anasazi Native Americans may know more of the true and fascinating story of the Anasazi people.


It's probably a good thing that the Spaniards didn't discover the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Since they were known for plundering, there probably would have been fewer artifacts left at the dwellings than there were.

When the ranchers moved into the area and discovered the cliff dwellings, it's really too bad that they didn't put the artifacts they found into safekeeping for a museum. I, along with a lot of other people would have loved to know more about the story of these cliff dwellers.


The Anasazi tribe found the perfect place to settle down. They had a huge covered and protected area for staying dry and warm and defending themselves from enemies.

I was fortunate to visit the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. It was a fascinating place. The mesa itself was amazing. It looked just like a green table top.

We had a guided tour up to the caves and got to go inside some of them. It was fun to imagine what it must have been like with the Anasazi people doing all sorts of activities in the cave area.


I think it's interesting how people adapt their dwellings to their surroundings. If you live in an area with a lot of caves, it makes complete sense to build your homes in and around them.

Anyway, I think it's awesome the mesa verde cliff dwellings are part of a national park now! I actually read something about this awhile back. Apparently a woman by the name of Virginia McClurg was instrumental in making this happen. She organized the Federation of Womens Clubs to lobby the government about the importance of the cliff dwellings. It worked, and now we have our national park!


Its really a shame to think of all that was lost by the careless people who initially discovered these incredible structures. there was likely an amazingly complete record of their culture and history. Unfortunately much of this was lost by the callous behavior of those who initially excavated the site. So much was lost to history and now we will never really know how these incredible people lived.


I have seen these in person and they are spectacular. Before I saw them with my own eyes I had only ever seen pictures and let me tell you that the pictures don't do it justice. You don't get a sense for the size, scale and complexity of these incredible structures until you are there in person.

You really gain an appreciation for the tribe that built them. We tend to think of people from the past, and particularly Indian tribes and other "primitive" people as being so much different than us and leading lives that were completely unlike out own. But seeing this incredible dwelling reminded me of how much we are all alike. You can imagine families living there, children running around, women talking together, men making plans, business being conducted. It feels like a place where real people lived. In its own way this was a revelation to me.

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