CLIFF DWELLERS are peoples whose dwellings are built in large caves in cliffs or under cliff overhangs. Often these groups are distinguished from their immediate neighbors solely by the location and architecture of their structures.
The custom of using cliff overhangs or rock shelters as places of abode is almost as old as man himself. Partly because of the protection which these places have given to their contents, some of the best archaeological records of early human culture have been found in such shelters. These shelters were variously used, either permanently or temporarily; their temporary use, especially for herds of animals, stili persists. In the earliest prehistoric uses, the cliff overhangs were rarely embellished with architectural modifications.
France. Two of the bestknown areas of cliff dwellings are southwestern France (the departments of Dordogne and Lot, among others) and the southwestern United States. In both areas the dwellings were commonly located on the north side of valleys in order to obtain heat from the winter sun and protection, by overhanging rocks, from the summer sun. The French cliff dwellers built their houses, or occasionally castles, against the cliff walls to utilize the native rock as the rear wall, and often as part of the roof, of the structures. The buildings may be at the level of the valley floor or high on the talus at the base of the cliff proper.
United States. The Indian cliff dwellings of the southwestern United States were the end pıoduct of a long tradition of use of rock shelters. As early as the Basket Maker period (about 500 a.d. ), impermanent structures of poles and brush erected över a shallow pit had been located in caves as well as in the open. The same practices of dwelling location continued into the Pueblo periods, with masonry houses replacing the former type. The cliff dwellings reached their peak in the Great Pueblo period (also known as the Classic Pueblo or Pueblo III), which lasted from about 1050 to 1300. During this time the large multistory buildings commonly associated with the cliff dwellers were built. These consisted of a compact mass of contiguous rooms, numbering from 20 to several hundreds, often terraced toward the cliff wall, the whole complex set in an enormous shallow cave. The individual sleeping rooms were often as small as 6 by 8 feet (1.8 by 2.4 meters) but sometimes as large as 10 by 16 feet (3 by 4.9 meters), with ceilings ranging from a height of 4 feet to 8 feet (1.2 to 2.4 meters). Toward the front of the building mass, ceremonial châmbers (kivas) were embedded with their roofs at terrace level. These terraces were probably the locus of everyday life. Complete with living rooms, corngrinding rooms, storage rooms, and ceremonial châmbers, each building actually constituted a single town.
The southwestern United States clifF dwellings are concentrated in the Four Corners area (where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet). Some of the notable examples are preserved in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, and in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona. In general cultural affiliations they belong to a wider prehistoric area that includes other dwelling styles.
By contrast with the French cliff dwellers, about whom there is no mystery, the cliff dwellers of the southwestern United States have caused speculation. The dwellings, sometimes against vertical cliff walls but more often in huge caves in the cliff face, were found abandoned by the first explorers of the region; most of them showed sign of orderly abandonment. When other Indian pueblos were found stili inhabited, what fate overtook the cliff dwellers? The abandonment of these dwellings in the San Juan River drainage area, as well as of those villages in the open, came toward the end of the 13th century. Probably no single factor was responsible. But we know of a serious drought lasting from 1276 to 1299, following years of subnormal rainfall. Possibly, combined with attacks from nomadic nonPueblo peoples in the area and with internal social dissension, the drought may have been the final blow. The refugees evidently drifted to the southwest and southeast of this area, and their descendants are likely to be found among the Indians of northeastern Arizona and the Rio Grande pueblos.
The American cliff dwellings were first brought to the attention of archaeologists in 1874 by the explorations of the photographer W. H. Jackson. The majör ruins in the present Mesa Verde National Park were found in 1888, and some were scientifically excavated in 1891 by Baron Gustav Nordenskiöld. Their value as a record of man’s past was formally recognized when the park was established in 1906.