They were mysterious and enigmatic. They lived here hundreds of years ago, in a sophisticated, permanent society that existed for 700 years. Then they vanished without a trace, for no reason we can discern from the archaeological sites we have explored, and we have no idea where they went.
At least that's the story we have always heard of the Anasazi, who lived throughout the southwest. It turns out not to be true.
Mesa Verde, a huge flat mesa about 2000 feet above the valley floor, was home to a huge population of Anasazi from about A.D. 550 to 1300. Mesa Verde means "Green Table," and there was enough water and good soil for them to grow corn, beans, and squash. They lived at the top of the mesa for 600 years, and then started to built the dwellings Mesa Verde is best known for -- the cliff dwellings. These sandstone, mortar, and wood-beam structures were built inside caves on the steep walls of canyons, cut eons ago by rivers as they sliced through the previously flat land to create the mesas. In addition to living at top of the mesa and in the cliff dwellings, they also lived in the valley -- thousands of sites are now being identified and excavated.
While the cliff dwellings were abandoned, it turns out the Anasazi never left the area -- their descendants have always occupied this land. The Anasazi are now called "Ancestral Puebloans" in an attempt to connect the living descendants with their ancestors and to counter the myth that there was a mysterious disappearance.
One of the most famous cliff dwellings is called "Cliff Palace," a structure with 150 rooms that includes over 20 kivas, living quarters, and storage rooms. 100 to 120 people lived there at any given time. Most cliff dwellings here contain 1-5 rooms each, so the enormity of Cliff Palace may indicate social and/or ceremonial significance.