A Social Divide Written in Stone

Archaeological research at Cliff Palace resumes after 80 years. Surprises are the order of the day

Cliff Palace
Cliff Palace Wikimedia Commons

One of the great mysteries of North American archaeology concerns the Anasazi, a Native American people who suddenly abandoned their complex buildings around A.D. 1300. New research is in progress at the mud brick "village" known as Cliff Palace in Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park. Signs of a hierarchical society are emerging, right down to a wall that divides Cliff Palace into two parts.

Larry Nordby, the National Park Service archaeologist who discovered the dividing wall at Cliff Palace, suspects that only a caretaker population, as few as 100 people, lived at the site year-round. The 20 kivas, special chambers for ceremonial and social gatherings, were, he believes, for people who came there from outlying areas, perhaps when surplus food was to be distributed.

Whatever was going on at Cliff Palace, it all ended in a burst of building and then ... abandonment. No one yet knows why. Drought could have brought famine. The people may have hunted the game to extirpation and cut down what trees there were. If the new archaeological work can explain what the function of Cliff Palace was, it could in turn be a clue to what failed so badly that the Anasazi walked away from all that sweat equity.

The Pueblo Indians of today are believed to be the descendants of the ancient Anasazi. They have their own names for their forbears and do not use the word "Anasazi." They would prefer that all others use the term "ancestral Puebloans." And they do not consider Cliff Palace a ruin or abandoned. The spirits of their ancestors still inhabit the site and are linked to modern-day Puebloans, they believe.

In fact, the Puebloans are not only keenly interested in what Nordby and his colleagues may find out about Cliff Palace, they have invited him to come to Zia Pueblo to assist them with their own traditional chronology. It could be the first step of a journey in which cooperation will replace animosity between Native Americans and archaeologists in the American Southwest.

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