Mesa Verde National Park

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Canyon photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Spanning over 80 square miles (207 square km) of mesas, cliffs, and canyons in southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park protects the largest, densest collection of Native American archaeological sites in the United States. Over 5,000 sites have been discovered to date, and among them are the approximately 600 cliff dwellings that have made this park famous.

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Cliff Palace photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

These impressive structures were built by Ancestral Pueblo people who lived in the area from around 1400 to 700 years ago. For those 700 years the people farmed the mesas, hunted in the pinyon-juniper woodlands, constructed buildings for homes, food storage, and rituals, and developed their culture through innovation.

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Pit house photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

The first Ancestral Puebloans in this area were nomads who found the area ideal for settlement. They built villages of simple pit houses on the mesa tops, close to the land they used for farming corn and hunting with spears and atlatls. Called “Basketmakers,” they were adept at weaving baskets for storing and transporting goods. Before long, however, they began to use pottery. They also began to grow beans and switched to more efficient bows and arrows for hunting.

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Pit house photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

As time went on the Modified Basketmakers and then Developmental Puebloans began to construct above-ground structures using poles and mud.

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Pit house photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Pit houses evolved into ritual kivas, and the people began constructing towers. Pottery was developed into a variety of forms and uses, and decorative elements became more pronounced.

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Sun Temple photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

As their skill with masonry improved, the people continued to develop more elaborate structures to house their growing population. Buildings with numerous rooms, constructed from sandstone blocks and mud mortar, became common.

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Cliff dwelling photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Around 800 years ago they began to construct cliff dwellings in sheltered alcoves. It’s not clear why most of them moved from the mesa tops to the cliff recesses, but ease of defense, better shelter, and religious reasons may have all played a role.

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Cliff dwelling photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Over the next 100 years the Ancient Puebloans constructed a large number of massive cliff dwellings. A few of the more notable include Square Tower House…

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Square Tower House photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

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Square Tower House photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Spruce Tree House

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Spruce Tree House photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

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Spruce Tree House photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

…and Cliff Palace

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Cliff Palace photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

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Cliff Palace photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Suddenly, around 700 years ago, the people abandoned the homes they had spent so long developing. Evidence shows that the area was subjected to prolonged drought and crop failure, and this likely forced the Ancestral Puebloans to seek greener pastures.

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Cliff dwelling photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Today a vast array of ruins from this ancient civilization remain to be discovered. A visitor to Mesa Verde could easily spend days or even weeks exploring the large number of structures and all the other artifacts they hold. The Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum also offers an invaluable resource that provides context for all that can be seen.

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Cliff dwelling photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Mesa Verde is the only US national park that preserves primarily cultural features rather than natural features. In spite of that, this park still offers a nice array of natural features as well. The scenic canyons, distant snow-covered peaks, and forests of pinyons, junipers, pines, and oaks harbor a variety of interesting plants, animals, and geology…just in case you manage to get bored by the extensive archaeological features.

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The North Rim and the San Juan Mountains from the Geologic Overlook. Photographed 04/14/2014 at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

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About Jeremy Sell

Science and nature nerd.
This entry was posted in Culture, National Parks and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Mesa Verde National Park

  1. Square Tower House is definitely one my favorites at Mesa Verde. Beautiful pictures! I hope you had a “warm” and enjoyable trip!

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  2. Jeremy Sell says:

    It was around 60 F and mostly sunny, so the weather was decent even though it was early April. Although it was windy it sure beat the winter weather we had in Michigan. I kind of regret only budgeting about four hours to visit Mesa Verde…after seeing just a glimpse of the vast cultural features I wished I had allowed more time here.

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  3. neihtn2012 says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Mesa Verde is now on my list of places to visit on a planned 2015 road trip.

    Like

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