Little Bits of History

Ancient Pueblo Housing

Posted in History by patriciahysell on December 18, 2013
Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace

December 18, 1888: Richard Wetherill, Charles Mason, and Acowitz, a Ute tribesman, discover “Cliff Palace” at Mesa Verde. The men were looking for stray cattle as they neared the edge of a juniper and pinyon forest when a vast canyon came into view. There, carved into the rock wall of the canyon, was an ancient city. The discovery spurred Richard into a career change. He became an explorer of ancient Southwestern ruins. He sought out artifacts in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.

Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America. The Ancient Puebloan Indians left suddenly about 1275. We are left with the mystery of their disappearance as well as the buildings they left behind. Cliff Palace contains 150 identified rooms and 23 kivas. Kivas are sunken rooms used for ceremonies. The buildings were carved out over time and were built somewhat randomly. The ruins here and throughout Mesa Verde National Park are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

There are three other cliff “towns” in Mesa Verde Park. Mug House is four levels and contains 94 rooms with a central kiva. The Spruce Tree House and Square Tower House show indications of abandonment at the same time as the others. The term Anasazi is sometimes used to describe the dwellers of these ancient ruins. The term is, however, considered offensive by many Native Americans. The Ancient Puebloans had a varied history of clustering and dispersal across the Colorado Plateau spanning 2,000 years.

The region saw a great period of growth between 700 and 1300 AD. Rainfall was plentiful and regular. Fertility increases (rather than mortality decreases) are evident from skeletal remains. There was a population boom with numbers increasing 10-fold in just a few generations. There must have been an immigration influx as the rise in population occurred too rapidly for birth rates to have been alone responsible. Technology (pottery, food storage, and agricultural improvements) also grew during this time. Then, for 50 years, the rains decreased and famine was common. The border regions were abandoned and populations shifts moved whole settlements. Today, archeologists can answer many questions with supposition only. There was no written record found.

“The name ‘Anasazi’ has come to mean ‘ancient people,’ although the word itself is Navajo, meaning ‘enemy ancestors.’ It is unfortunate that a non-Pueblo word has come to stand for a tradition that is certainly ancestral Pueblo.” – Linda Cordell

“Although the name Cliff Palace is not altogether an appropriate one for this ruin, it is now too firmly fixed in the literature of cliff­dwellings to be changed.” – Jesse Walter Fewkes

“The thing that makes this archeology and not treasure-hunting or salvage is the scientific approach, which includes precision navigation and mapping.” – Brendan Foley

“All an archaeologist is, is a glorified and educated garbage picker.” – unknown

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Richard Wetherill was born in 1858 and was part of a prominent Colorado ranching family. He was the person who originally selected the term Anasazi for the builders of the abandoned cities. He spent the remainder of his life studying the ruins and acting as a guide and trading post operator. In 1901, he became a homesteader in Chaco Canyon and when President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the area a national monument in 1907, Wetherill gave up several claims to land. However, he remained in Chaco Canyon and continued to operate a post at Pueblo Bonito. His death in 1910 was either cold blooded murder when he was shot by a Navajo man who owed him money. Or else it was the result of a gunfight brought on by Wetherill’s cattle rustling. The man charged with his murder, Chiishchilí Biye, was released from prison in 1914 due to poor health.

Also on this day: The Grinch – The Dr. Seuss tales came to television for the first time.
Nuke Power – In 1957, the first nuclear power plant in the US began producing power.
NFL Playoff – In 1932, the Chicago Bears beat the Portsmouth Spartans.


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