Archeological evidence suggests that Pueblo Indians lived in the area between 550 – 1300 CE. The famous cliff dwellings were only constructed during the last 100 years their time in Mesa Verde. My guess is that it took them some time to trust that the cliffs wouldn’t crumble down on them.
There are a few reasons why it makes sense to make your home under a cliff.
Some are obvious (e.g. protection from the elements) and others are more subtle, like the fact that these alcoves usually have freshwater seeps. Water is the golden resource out here, and it’s no coincidence freshwater springs usually flow from the base of these alcoves.
Water seeps are what cause the arched alcoves to form in the first place.
Rainwater percolates through the sandstone before bottoming out on a layer of shale or some other less permeable layer. Then the water flows horizontally eventually trickling into the ravines. The water erodes and undermines chunks of sandstone which fracture and fall into the ravine leaving a naturally strong arching structure.
The architecture of the cliff dwellings is something to think about. The larger dwellings supported 40 to 60 people. Most of the rooms were living and cooking quarters, but some of the them were for seasonal food storage (they had acquired corn from Central America by this time). Each cliff dwelling had at least one circular room called a kiva (wiki). Kivas were communal rooms used for spiritual meetings and perhaps informal hangouts.
Kivas are dug into the ground (or rather the a retaining wall is built and the ground is backfilled around them). The entrance to each kiva is down a ladder which pokes out through a hole in the ceiling. There is a vent at the base of each kiva. Hot smoke from the fire exits out the entrance hole in the ceiling and draws fresh air through the vent.
I was surprised that they would intentionally route the smoke through their only entrance and exit.
It was later explained that passing through the smoke likely served as a psychological or spiritual cleansing. Which kind of makes sense. You descend down through a hot smoking hole in the ceiling and sit down on the cool stone bench cut out of the walls. Fresh air would be rushing into the room from the vent near the floor, and the sunken room might be relatively cool compared to outside. Sounds refreshing to me.
The guide pointed out evidence of remodeling too.
The rectangular smoke stain on the cave ceiling shows that a second story room used to be built out further. You can also see the outline of a doorway that was later patched up with bricks.
The first day I arrived in Mesa Verde I happened to I meet a guy named Jesse who has the same interest in roadtripping across America as I do.
Our similarities were striking. He’s 26. He loves driving. He highlights his atlas. He visits every national park he can. And he believes that the great parts during long roadtrips outweigh the tough parts. In 2015 he’s been on the road for about five months over three separate trips, and he’s visited more than 20 national parks. We split a campsite that night, and rifled through the highlights of each state.
It’s impressive how large they built their homes with such rudimentary building materials. The homes are lined up on either side of a long creek bed, and I find it interesting how closely the layout is to suburban homes being built on either side of a long street.