A great concentration of ancestral Pueblo Indian dwellings, built from the 6th to the 12th century, can be found on the Mesa Verde plateau in south-west Colorado at an altitude of more than 2,600 m. Some 4,400 sites have been recorded, including villages built on the Mesa top. There are also imposing cliff dwellings, built of stone and comprising more than 100 rooms.
Among the American Indian civilizations recognized by ethnologists and prehistorians, that of the Anasazi Indians and of their distant descendants, the Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona are indeed quite original, owing in part to the substantial rigours of their natural environment: the south-western part of Colorado with its mesas cut by deep canyons. On the high limestone and sandstone plateau, which in one place reaches an altitude of 2,620 m above sea level, the climate is semi-arid, being characterized by irregular precipitation and great differences between day and night temperature. The first signs of regular human occupation go back to the 6th century of the current era. They are principally located on the plateau where partially buried villages, consisting of silos and low dwellings, have existed since this period. Original handicrafts, in which the production of yucca fibre objects play a major role, was to remain characteristic of Anasazi civilization for seven centuries.
From roughly 750 to 1100 some highly specific features appeared in the human settlements of Mesa Verde. While the plateau villages were increasingly built in an L- or U-shaped layout, the valley villages grew larger. In rock shelters under the refuge of imposing overhanging cliffs, on the side of cuestas deeply lacerated by erosion, composite, both troglodytic and built villages were established having various functions: agricultural, handicrafts or religious - the first kivas (subterranean or buried structures of a subcircular layout) appeared during this period.
This civilization reached its apogee between 1100 and the end of the 13th century before suddenly disappearing. Impressive, multi-storey constructions (the best-known being 'Cliff Palace' and 'Long House', with its 181 rooms and 15 kivas) were erected under the shelter of the cliffs. They are demonstrative of surprising progress in building techniques and a very keen sense for use of space. At the same time, agrarian techniques were improved: irrigation, based on a network of reservoirs and dams, was used to offset the rigours of a climate largely hostile to the cultivation of cereals and starches, staples of the Anasazi diet. This 'golden age', facilitated by control of the natural environment, is further illustrated by the outstanding quality of the handicrafts. As the first explorers of Mesa Verde claimed on many an occasion, the wickerwork, weaving and especially ceramics were of astonishing quality.
Discovered in 1874, the rock-cut villages of Mesa Verde were pillaged by collectors (there was a very large pottery sale in 1889) before being studied and excavated by archaeologists. However, the protection of the site which came into effect in 1906 under the Federal Antiquities Act is one of the most effective and long-standing on the American continent.