This is Part 4 of a 7-part series about Mesa Verde National Park. To read the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!
I’ve noted that there are many theories about why the cliff dwellings were built at Mesa Verde. One of the most popular is that these dwellings were something like forts, built for protection from enemies.
When I was on a tour of the Long House cliff dwelling, a park ranger asked us for our theories. Having done my homework, and feeling smug, I quickly responded that cliff dwellings were built because they were easy to protect from attack. He then quickly retorted that I was probably wrong, because they were also easy to lay siege upon, and starve the residents out. I then quickly thought, What a smartass this park ranger is.
But the more I reflected on it, the more I realized how right he was. The popular theory might still be an accurate theory, but it does have that fatal flaw of the siege. But it’s only one theory. There are many others. And given this surfeit of theories, I decided that nobody really knows, so everyone has license to come up with their own. Therefore, what follows is my theory of why the Ancestral Puebloans built cliff dwellings.
During the 13th century, the Mesa Verde area experienced a population explosion such as had never been seen before or since in this area. In fact, even today the population is less than the 35,000 it swelled to, some 800 years ago.
History has shown that the inevitable result of a growing population, is the advancement of civilization. Society becomes more complex. People specialize more and more, in various trades. And hierarchies of political leadership develop.
The cliff dwellings were located below the mesa tops, but above the canyon floors. Given the low angle of the sun during the winter, and the way heat convects upward from canyon floors, the cliff dwellings were about 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the mesa tops, during the cold months.
But given the high angle of the sun during the summer, and the shielding cliff above, the cliff dwellings were cooler than the mesa tops during the warm months. Also, the roof of the alcove above them protected them from falling rain and snow. And the sides of the alcove protected them from harsh winds. This made the cliff dwellings comfortable places to live.
But they were inconvenient places to live, given that crops were grown on the mesa tops. In order to go to work in the fields, a farmer would have a long commute to his job. And all by hand and foot, climbing ladders and hiking trails. So it was impractical for the farmers to live in the cliff dwellings. Instead, they were the ones who lived in the stone and adobe villages on the mesa tops, close to their crops.
So who did live in the cliff dwellings?
My guess is that it was those who did not work in the fields. Instead, they were a privileged class, exempt from such hard labor. They were at the top of the political and social hierarchy. They were royal families, in a sense. The ruling elite. They enjoyed the comforts of their cliff dwellings, while taxing the farmers above them for a percentage of their harvested corn, beans, squash, and other crops.
This is the way it seems to have been in every civilization that has ever formed, over the course of human history. So why not also at Mesa Verde? I believe the Ancestral Puebloans were no exception to human nature. They, too, had their ruling class, that performed far less manual labor than the working class, and that enjoyed comforts and privileges that the working class could only envy.
Or at least, that’s my theory.
The cliff dwellings were abandoned around 1285. But they were eventually rediscovered. In the next post, we’ll cover what happened to them at the time of rediscovery.