Mesa Verde, Part 4: My Theory

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!

My Theory

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.

My brother observing a presentation by a park ranger at Long House cliff dwelling.

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.

House of Many Windows, in Mesa Verde’s Cliff Canyon. You have to study the photo carefully to spot it. It’s halfway down the sheer cliff. My theory as to how this crazy cliff dwelling was constructed involves the discovery of supernatural powers of levitation by the Ancestral Puebloans. There are several other smaller cliff dwellings like this, that line the canyon walls, nearby.

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.

Long House. Cliff dwellings allowed more sun in the winter, and less in the summer.

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.

According to my theory, those who lived and worked the fields on top of the mesas, such as at this pueblo in Mesa Verde’s Far View Sites, were lower-class schlubs. They paid taxes to the ruling class who lived in the comfortable cliff dwellings, and continually held on by a thread to their rulers’ lofty promises of better times to come.

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.

Spruce Tree House. Notice how deep under the rock this cliff dwelling extends? I’ll bet the wealthiest of Puebloan nobility lived in the deepest recesses, far from the falling rain and other elements encountered at the outer edge.


Categories: Travel

36 replies »

  1. So I guess you and the park ranger got along well, being that he was a smartass too. πŸ™‚
    Your theory does actually make sense. The Spruce Tree House does look more roomier, but it would be dark, All the cliff dwellings would be, for those little windows don’t give that much light. But even if I wouldn’t want to live in them, I am impressed with how they made them.
    Good pictures!

    Liked by 1 person

      • People lived in caves for shelter and build stuff for shelter. The cave seems like a free roof for their buildings to me. So, my vote is for shelter.

        But…. Maybe the mesa-folk enjoyed the great outdoors a bit more and enjoyed seeing the stars at night. Perhaps there were fewer parasites and scorpions on the mesa. Perhaps it mattered less how bad you smell when you lived upon the mesa. Perhaps the mesa dwellers were closer to God.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. your theory seems to make sense; the privileged class got to live in the nicest place and didn’t have any work to do.

    by the way, is your brother practicing social distancing, or does he have really good hearing? the photo makes it look like he is a decent distance away from the park ranger…

    and did you mean to say that the park ranger was a smart ass?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You spin a fascinating mystery. On the one hand, vertigo is terrifying to many people. On the other hand, you’d get a hell of a good view. gesticulating with one hand Six of one, half a dozen of the other. I wonder what they fermented for alcohol?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think those with a fear of heights would have had to live on top of the mesa.

      Yes, the view was great. But as for alcohol, I don’t think the Indians invented firewater. It was introduced to them by invading Europeans.


  4. I think you’re theory is pretty sound. Does it have much support on the internet, or have you created something entirely new with this. My trips to Mesa Verde have all been marred a bit by my fear of heights. I don’t know how anyone could have lived there, much less had kids there.

    Liked by 2 people

    • No, this theory is pretty much my own creation. I’m relying on human nature’s tendency to develop hierarchies of power and privilege.

      So you’ve been to Mesa Verde, eh? Yeah, touring the cliff dwellings is not for the faint of heart. But at least there are places where you can look at them from a distance.

      Yes, I wonder how many Indian kids crawled off cliffs, trying to grow up there.

      Liked by 1 person

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