Before the emergence of the Ancient Ones as a distinct culture, the Southwestern peoples generally lived in caves and camped in the open or in temporary shelters.

The beginning of the Ancestral Puebloan era is defined largely by changes in lifestyle as the hunter-gatherers became more serious about agriculture and they began to stay in one place for a number of years. Part of settling down involved building more permanent living quarters.


Over a shallow pit in the earth the Ancient Ones built semi-permanent houses of poles and brush plastered with mud. These pithouses were essentially the same as those first built in northeastern Europe 25,000 years ago. Pithouse technology was probably transmitted east through Siberia, across the ice bridge between Asia and North America about 12,000 to 14,000 years ago, down through Alaska and Canada to the American Southwest.

An individual pithouse was occupied for an average of about 15 years. By modern standards (in the developed world), these early habitations of the Cliff Dwellers were cramped, smelly, crude, dark, smoky, and cold most of the time during the winter, but probably far superior to the caves and temporary shelters the nomads were used to. In places where soil and water were present in quality and quantity suitable for growing food, a number of Ancient Ones families would build pithouses and create a small community.

From about A.D. 500, as pithouse design and construction evolved, the shallow pits grew deeper — more like three to five feet deep. Often, the sides of the pit were plastered with clay or lined with stone — either large slabs wedged upright in the soil or courses of smaller stones laid around the inside perimeter. Generally, pithouses were round, and between nine and twenty-five feet in diameter. Later, around A.D. 700, many new pithouses were square, rectangular or shaped like the letter D.

Usually, four posts were positioned upright in the pit, joined at the top by four horizontal beams and crossed with ceiling joists. The outer skin of the pithouse was made of branches, brush and grass or a matting of tree bark. Construction was completed with a layer of mud on the outside of the roof and walls for protection from the weather. Inside was a central fireplace, used for heating and cooking. Side vents and a hole in the roof provided fresh air and evacuated smoke.

Today, there are almost no remaining pithouses in the open. The elements have obliterated them. Many of the existing examples have been discovered through excavation. There are pithouse reproductions at places like Mesa Verde and in the Museum at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings.

Out of the pit

Most early Ancestral Puebloans were cave dwellers. The advent of the pithouse brought them out into the open, though they still lived largely in the earth. As early as A.D. 350, but aggressively from around 700-750, the Ancient Ones began to build above-ground structures of mud (jacal or adobe) and stone. They gradually raised the floor to ground level. The transition wasn’t immediate, however. Many masonry structures still had sunken floors.

In time they made an even greater transition, to the mesa tops. Some of the most haunting and thought-provoking ruins lie above the canyons on gently sloping islands of land dotted with cedar and piñon.

In some regions, like Kayenta, they never gave up the pithouse altogether. In most, however, above-ground masonry buildings ultimately became the standard that lasted to the end of the 13th century.

More about above-ground structures

Cliff Dwellers building styles varied with time, the availability of materials, the urgency of the construction project and the skill of the builder. As the Ancient Ones began to build from the ground up, they may have started with jacal before they moved into pure masonry building techniques. In what looks like a natural evolution from pithouse construction, loosely spaced wooden stakes or poles were plastered with mud to make walls. As jacal construction evolved, stone slabs were placed around the base, and courses of stone were laid up around the outside. The next logical step was to build exclusively with stone.

An Example of jacal construction

Masonry walls often consisted of a core of rough, irregular loose stones finished on two sides with a veneer of shaped stones. Sometimes the mason would fashion a wall from a single or double course of larger, more regular blocks of sandstone or limestone. Cliff Dwellers masonry became quite elegant and refined over time. Both the stone and jacal structures were fitted with a roof similar to that of the pithouse — sturdy poles overlain with a lattice of slender poles, branches and brush. A layer of mud finished the job.

Masonry wall with a veneer of shaped stones

Doorways were narrow and short, like the people.
Sometimes they were T-shaped. Some archaeologists suggest that the top portion was wider so that shoulder-borne burdens could be brought in more easily and that a blanket could be draped on the shoulders of the narrower bottom to keep out some of the cold air in the winter. Others suggest the T-shape was for defensive purposes. Some modern-day Hopi elders say that the shape of the doorway is symbolic of the Hopi worldview, like their traditional hair style.

T-Shaped Doorway and T-Shaped Doorway with blanket on right

Surprisingly, even the best masonry work was often hidden — coated inside and out with a smooth layer of mud. Today, it is still possible to see walls plastered more than seven centuries ago, many with the original whitewash, hand painted designs and the designer’s handprints.

In general, Chaco has the finest examples of Cliff Dweller masonry. Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings are best known. Although it has wonderful architectural specimens, the masonry of the Kayenta area is the least carefully executed.

Mesa Verde

Parallel evolution
Architecture evolved with cultural advances, especially the gradual expansion of Ancestral Puebloan communities from a few scattered dwellings to a hamlet to a village to a town. In time, architecture must have become a highly respected profession as Cliff Dwellers engineers and stone masons built increasingly elaborate buildings.

Almost all Cliff Dweller buildings faced south in order to capitalize on the warmth of the winter sun. To individual walled rooms, others were added to create rectangular blocks of rooms that housed many families. Most had at least one super-pithouse, a kiva. Often at the center of the community, the underground kiva is thought to have been used for ceremonial, religious or community purposes.

More about kivas

Usually a pueblo had at least one special subterranean community pithouse — a kiva, sometimes up to 60 feet in diameter. Most were entered through a hole in the roof. A stone bench for sitting lined the perimeter. There was a hole in the floor — now called a sipapu — symbolizing the people’s connection from birth with Mother Earth. Near the center was a fireplace. Ventilator shafts on the sides made the kiva more livable.

Cut away view of a Kiva

The first kivas appeared at the beginning of the Pueblo I period, about A.D. 750. While most ancient kivas are round, some are D-shaped or square. From the 10th Century on, many kivas included a small room opening out from the perimeter on the south or southeast, creating a sort of keyhole design. The side room is believed to have been used for the storage of ceremonial items.

Floor plan of a Kiva

Today, the Hopi and other descendants still use kivas (square and above ground in the case of the Hopi) for ceremonial, religious and celebratory purposes. Most archaeologists believe that the ancient kivas were also used for such purposes. They say that women and children were never allowed into the sacred depths. Men would enter through the hole in the roof, climb down the ladder and find a place on the bench. When they had all gathered, they would smoke, weave or dialogue about important matters facing the village. Sometimes they would dance to invoke the spirits, bless the crops or give thanks. Recently, however, it has been argued that we are only conjecturing when we conclude that kivas were primarily religious facilities. The dissenters think that these structures may have been used for domestic or community gatherings, like a town hall. The debate is not over.

You can see a kiva at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. Reconstructed kivas can also be visited (and entered in some cases) at Aztec Ruins National Monument, Bandelier National Monument and Kuaua Pueblo at the Coronado State Monument, all in New Mexico, and at Mesa Verde National Monument, Colorado.

Kiva at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings

Kiva at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings

Today, we use the term pueblo to describe the larger Anasazi buildings, groups of buildings, and communities. Many Cliff Dweller communities were vacated and lay empty only to be reoccupied years later, often by people from different clans and, sometimes, different cultures than those of the original builders.

Some Ancestral Puebloan towns were quite large. Yellow Jacket, near Cortez, Colorado, is the largest prehistoric town we know of in the Four Corners Area. More than 1,800 rooms are believed to have housed about 3,000 people.

Ancient high rises

Some of the individual structures were as big as present day apartment buildings. Many had several levels, up to five stories. One partially restored building at Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico had at least 220 ground-floor rooms, 119 second-story rooms and more than 12 third-story rooms. The Great House may have had as many as 450 rooms aggregating 161,000 square feet. In addition, there were 29 kivas and one Great Kiva. Fifty feet in diameter, the Great Kiva had four massive columns set on 375-pound hand-carved limestone bases supporting a 95-ton roof. Pueblo Bonito, at Chaco, occupied more than three acres and rose five stories. With more than 800 rooms it was home to about 1,000 people. Until 1882 it was the largest apartment house in the world!

Cliff dwellings

Cliff dwellings — stone houses, villages and towns built in caves or on large shelves in sheer rock canyon walls — are generally considered most representative of Ancient Ones architecture. In fact, before much was known about the inhabitants of places like Mesa Verde, the ancient builders were called simply Cliff Dwellers. Though these dwellings may be the most spectacular of the Ancient Ones architecture, they constitute less than ten percent of all Ancestral Puebloan habitations built from about 1200 B.C. to the end of the Ancient Ones era, about A.D. 1300. When you consider the enormous amount of work that went into constructing a cliff dwelling, it seems surprising that they were rarely occupied continuously for more than 80 years.

Most cliff dwellings were built on south-facing ledges in deep sandstone canyons. Thanks to the southern exposure, the low-riding sun provided heat in the winter. The overhanging lip of the cliff offered cool shade from the high summer sun. Agricultural fields were maintained on the mesas above and, sometimes, in broader canyons below the dwellings. Access to most cliff dwellings consisted of a series of small hand- and toeholds in the steep sandstone walls. Sometimes there was a slender bridge of rock to cross. There were no handrails. Today, few of us besides seasoned climbers and committed archaeologists would dare to scale a sheer rock wall without ladder or rope to enter a cliff dwelling 75 feet above the canyon floor.

The Ancient Ones built cliff dwellings before the 13th century. One of the oldest of the important cliff dwellings, Keet Seel, was originally inhabited around 950. Redesigned in 1272 to include 160 rooms, it is the second largest cliff dwelling. The largest is Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace.

During the 13th century, for reasons that are still debated, the Ancient Ones focused almost exclusively on cliff dwellings. In a single 100-year period, they built and occupied most of the existing cliff-side structures that have captivated modern viewers. Some archeologists suggest that, by living in the canyons rather than on the mesas, the Cliff Dwellers made more land available for cultivation in a century that saw two major droughts. Others believe that cliff dwellings were built as protection against some unidentified enemy.

Cliff dwellings are not the only Ancestral Puebloan architectural structures that invite our curiosity, awe and interest. Especially in the Mesa Verde and Northern San Juan Basin areas, the Old Ones built round, square and D-shaped towers several stories tall, apparently intended for non-residential use. One of the possible uses of these towers was for communications. Messages could be transmitted by a communications technician using a mica “mirror” to reflect the sun and signal from the top of a tower to a technician on a tower in a nearby village. Some modern scientists and native elders suggest that towers were also used for astronomical observations. Following the appearance of Haley’s Comet in 1066 and solar eclipses in 1076 and 1097, five astronomical observatories were built at Chaco. Many others were built elsewhere in the Four Corners Area.
Tower at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings

It seems ironic that the ancestors of modern Puebloans may have reached their cultural peak in the 13th century only to “disappear.” Most of the cliff dwellings were built and vacated in less than 100 years. Though that time period represented several generations for the Ancient Ones, 100 years is a very short lifetime for a village, especially an elaborately constructed stone village in the side of a cliff.

By 1300 Keet Seel, Mesa Verde and all the other cliff dwellings were abandoned. Early archaeologists found evidence that cliff dwellers may have left hastily. Pottery, tools, baskets, woven fabrics, grain and ears of corn were often left behind, as if the inhabitants were out on an errand and intended to return shortly. The rotted and collapsed roofs and cold fire hearths, however, gave mute testimony to the centuries that had passed since the dwellers had departed.