Cliff Palace and the Ancient Pueblo People


On the 18th of December 1888, Richard Wetherill, explorer, guide and excavator to-be, along with his friend Charlie Mason, both cowboys from Mancos, found Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde after noticing the ruins from the top of the highland. Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America, its structure built by the Ancient Pueblo People, now taking pride of place in Mesa Verde National Park, their former homeland in southwestern Colorado, U.S.A. Ancestral Pueblo peoples were an ancient Native American culture established in the Four Corners area of the United States: S. Utah, NE. Arizona, N. New Mexico, and SW. Colorado. They lived in a range of structures, including pit houses, stone and adobe dwellings built along cliff walls, constructed with bricks created from sand, clay, and water, with some fibrous or organic material, shaped using frames and dried in the sun. These villages called pueblos by Spanish settlers, were often only accessible by ladders, rope or through rock climbing, they were designed so that the dwellers could lift entry ladders during enemy attacks for security. It is documented that they emerged around the 12th century BC, during the archaeologically designated Early Basketmaker II Era.

Tree ring dating indicates that construction and refurbishing of Cliff Palace was continuous from c. 1190 CE through c. 1260 CE, although the best partof the building was done within the period of 20 years. The Ancestral Pueblos were motivated to build these defensible structures by increasing competition amidst changing climatic conditions and the site was eventually abandoned by 1300 presumably due to droughts.


“Recent studies reveal that Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of approximately 100 people. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75% contain only 1-5 rooms each, and many are single room storage units. If you visit Cliff Palace you will enter an exceptionally large dwelling which may have had special significance to the original occupants. It is thought that Cliff Palace was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage. Many visitors look at the size of the doorways in Cliff Palace and other cliff dwellings and wonder about the size of the people who once lived here. An average man was about 5’4″ to 5’5″ (163cm) tall, while an average woman was 5′ to 5’1″ (152cm). If you compare them with European people of the same time period, they would have been about the same size. Compared with today, the Ancestral Puebloan’s average life span was relatively short, due, in part, to the high infant mortality rate. Most people lived an average of 32-34 years, however some people did live into their 50s and 60s. Approximately 50% of the children died before they reached the age of five. Sandstone, mortar and wooden beams were the three primary construction materials for the cliff dwellings. The Ancestral Puebloans shaped each sandstone block using harder stones collected from nearby river beds. The mortar between the blocks is a mixture of local soil, water and ash. Fitted in the mortar are tiny pieces of stone called “chinking.” Chinking stones filled the gaps within the mortar and added structural stability to the walls. Over the surface of many walls, the people decorated with earthen plasters of pink, brown, red, yellow, or white — the first things to erode with time.” (Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado website)


Wetherill gave the ruin its present-day name. Together with family and friends he explored the entire site, selecting artifacts, some of which they sold to the Historical Society of Colorado and many of which they kept for themselves. Among the people who stayed with the Wetherills was mountaineer, photographer, and author Frederick H. Chapin, who visited the region during 1889-90. He described the landscape in detail his 1892 book, The Land of the Cliff-Dwellers, which he illustrated with hand-drawn maps and personal photographs. Another guest visitor was Gustaf Nordenskiöld, a mineralogist who introduced new science to the collection of artifacts, recorded, photographed, diagrammed the location, and correlated what he observed with existing archaeological literature to complement the expertise of the Wetherills. He took numerous artifacts home to Sweden and they eventually ended up in the National Museum of Finland. In 1893, he published The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa VerdeHis actions however raised concerns about the need to protect Mesa Verde land and its resources.