Photo of a sweeping view of the Mesa Verde

The view is spectacular from the ancient cliffside villages in the Southwest’s Four Corners region—chiseled canyons; orange, coral, and copper sandstone; desert flora; a sky that stretches forever.

But this view was just a bonus for the Pueblo ancestors who constructed these dwellings not far from the point where Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico meet. No one’s sure quite why the Ancestral Pueblos decided to build these houses in cliffside alcoves instead of on the ground. Theories include: the apartment-like clusters were sheltered from the elements; stored food was safer here from animals; and the ground below was freed up for planting. Then there was security from enemies. Gene S. Stuart, a writer with an exploration party for National Geographic , summed up the obvious defensive advantage: “One toddler with a long-stemmed lily could have held me at bay.”

The Ancestral Pueblos started settling into different pueblos (Spanish for “villages”) in the region around 900 CE, a time of increased rainfall in the desert that promoted their transformation from hunter-gatherers into farmers. Pueblos at Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, Betatakin, and Keet Seel featured as many as hundreds of rooms that could house thousands.

The people may have concentrated their homes like this for the sake of easier trade or to form tight religious communities. The largest Pueblos had dozens of kivas, circular rooms where ceremonies were held. It may have been religious leaders who were able to persuade the residents to build the multistory sandstone structures, staircases, roads, and the reservoirs and canals that managed water to make the dry environment livable.

Eventually drought won out. By about 1300, lack of water had forced the inhabitants to flee Four Corners for more habitable locations. The ruins they left behind remain here due in large part to the Antiquities Act of 1906, which banned unauthorized digging on federal and Native American lands. Regional authorities acted quickly after that to establish cliff dwelling locations as protected places.

this article first appeared in American history magazine

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Photo of a female teenager climbs the 32 foot ladder to access Balcony House
ruin, an Ancient Puebloan (Anasazi) cliff dwelling that was inhabited until
the 13th century, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado,
USAA Mesa Verde visitor experiences a bit of Pueblo life climbing a ladder. CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK, NM - MARCH
23, 2014: A guide leads a group of visitors through past excavated circular
kivas in the ruins of a massive stone complex (Chetro Ketl) at Chaco Culture
National Historical Park in Northwestern New Mexico. The communal stone
buildings were built between the mid-800s and 1100 AD by Ancient Pueblo
Peoples (Anasazi) whose descendants are modern Southwest Indians. Chaco was
a major center of Ancestral Puebloan culture for more than 1,000
years.Tourists walk by kivas built between the mid-800s and 1100 CE at Chaco Culture National Park. UNITED
STATES - MARCH 29: View of the ancient settlement of Anasazi, Chaco Ruins
Culture National Park, Chetro Ketl, 11th century, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico,
United States of America. Anasazi
civilisation.The settlement of ancestral Pueblos at Chaco Culture. Photo of the Kiva at Spruce tree house,
inside.A ladder descends to a reconstructed Kiva at Spruce tree house, a large underground room, at Mesa Verde. It is believed such rooms were used for religious and political meetings. Photo of 2 sets
of booted feet standing at the famous 4 Corners of the USA. The 4 corner
states are Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico where all 4 states meet in
one spot.Yes! You can stand in four states at once at Four Corners Monument.

This story appeared in the 2024 Winter issue of American History magazine.

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