See the picture on the right for the condition of the structures when it discovered in Dec. 1888.
In the thirteenth century a fairly unique trend appeared in the northern American Southwest. Many local farm families, whose ancestors had been living primarily on mesa tops and in broad canyons and valleys for six centuries, moved into the natural alcoves found in cliffs to build their homes and ceremonial architecture. These people are the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico. Thirteenth century cliff dwellings are found in many canyons on the northern Colorado Plateau, an area that stretches in an arc from the Mesa Verde on the east across the canyon country of Utah on the north and ending in the Tsegi Canyon area of Arizona on the west. In a matter of a few generations, cliff dwellings and ceremonial architecture were built, modified, and then abandoned. By the end of the thirteenth century construction had stopped in all of these areas.
Mesa Verde National Park was set aside to preserve a concentrated, yet small, percentage of the cliff dwellings that were built in alcoves. Recent tree-ring dating makes it clear that, at least in Mesa Verde, this cliff dwelling period was relatively short, A.D. 1180-1280, with any one cliff dwelling built over an even shorter span, often less than 50 years. Around A.D. 1280 all construction stopped. An area that had been farmed for 700 years was left unoccupied. The last inhabitants moved to areas more central to the Pueblo world at that time, an area south and southeast of the Mesa Verde. Several centuries later when the Spaniards first explored this area, they named this landform Mesa Verde--green tableland. The Mesa Verde was always on the periphery of the Pueblo world. But the outstanding preservation, the size and complexity of the built environment, and the aesthetic appeal of the cliff dwellings has made Mesa Verde central to the interpretation of this prehispanic Pueblo world.
The result of this cliff dwelling settlement pattern has been standing architecture protected for 700 years from rain and snow: walls that still retain the original earthen surface finish, the original yucca door loops, even finger prints of the thirteenth century masons who built the walls. This has led to special management responsibilities that necessitate balancing the preservation of these very fragile resources with the public's desire to have access to these spectacular structures and landscapes.