Cliff Palace, Colorado, is the largest cliff dwelling in North America. It had about 100 residents at the height of its use in the 1200s. 
Cliff Palace was built by Ancestral Puebloans, sometimes called the Anasazi. Ancestral Puebloans were native to the Four Corners region, where the U.S. states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona neatly intersect. 
The 150 rooms of Cliff Palace were constructed out of natural sandstone, wooden beams, and mortar. The mortar was made of soil, water, and ash. Tiny pieces of stone called chinking are also embedded in the mortar, to strengthen construction.
Ancestral Puebloans entered their cliff-dwelling apartments through wooden ladders. (The ladders in this beautiful photograph were reconstructed by the National Park Service.) Rooms in Cliff Palace were about 2 by 2.5 meters (6 by 8 feet). Families lived together, and historians say that two or three people often shared a room. Many rooms were originally plastered in bright colors—usually pink, brown, red, yellow, or white.
Smaller rooms near the back of the cliff were used for storing crops, such as beans, corn, and squash.
The unusual large, round rooms in Cliff Palace are called kivas. Kivas were used for rituals and ceremonies, although archaeologists and anthropologists are not sure how. Each clan or family probably had their own kiva in front of their dwelling and storage space.
Instructional Ideas
Consult National Geography Standard 12: The processes, patterns, and functions of human settlement.
Discuss how people benefit from living in settlements. Question one addresses how Ancestral Puebloans benefitted from settlement in Mesa Verde.
Consult National Geography Standard 4: The physical and human characteristics of places.
Discuss different types of urban dwellings. Questions two and three in the Questions tab addresses other types of dwellings used by Ancestral Puebloans.
  1. Cliff Palace was part of the thriving village of Mesa Verde, home to several thousand people. What other lifestyles could the Ancestral Puebloans have chosen? Why do you think they chose to live in a large settlement?

    • Answer

      Answers will vary! Ancestral Puebloans could have pursued a nomadic lifestyle. Families could have established isolated plots of land, and extended families could have formed loosely connected networks.

      The village of Mesa Verde offered Ancestral Puebloans more opportunities. They could store food and other goods, making the economy more stable during times of drought or conflict, for example.

      Mesa Verde also offered Ancestral Puebloans a greater range of services, such as aid for the injured or help with child-care.

      Ancestral Puebloans at Mesa Verde could also specialize their work. Some people could construct buildings (such as Cliff Palace) while others harvested crops, for instance. Not everyone had to do everything themselves.

      Finally, the village of Mesa Verde created a strong sense of community among Ancestral Puebloans. The settlement's shared culture allowed residents to negotiate with neighboring communities or tribes in times of both peace and conflict.

  2. Cliff Palace was just one part of Mesa Verde. What other types of dwellings do you think Ancestral Puebloans used?

    • Answer

      Besides cliff dwellings, residents of Mesa Verde lived in stone houses built on top of cliffs and on the valley floor. They also lived in so-called "pit houses," dwellings dug into the ground and covered with wood, thatch, or mud roofs.

  3. The apartments at Cliff Palace had storage space, living quarters, and even a place for entertainment (kivas). What features of modern apartments are missing from Cliff Palace?

    • Answer

      Answers will vary! The apartments at Cliff Palace did not have specialized rooms for cooking (kitchens). They also did not have private bathrooms. (Eating and hygiene were more communal activities for Ancestral Puebloans than modern Western cultures.)

Today, 24 tribes trace their heritage to the Ancestral Puebloans who constructed Cliff Palace and the rest of Mesa Verde. They span the entire Four Corners region:

  • Navajo Nation (Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico)
  • Southern Ute (Colorado)
  • Ute Mountain Ute Tribe (Colorado)
  • Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (Texas)
  • Hopi (Arizona)
  • The 19 Pueblos of New Mexico: (Taos, Picuris, Sandia, Isleta, Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara, San Ildelfonso, Nambe, Tesuque, Jemez, Cochiti, Pojoaque, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Zia, Laguna, Acoma, Zuni)

(1200 BCE-1300 CE) people and culture native to what is now the southwestern United States. Also called Ancestral Puebloans.

Ancestral Puebloans
Plural Noun

(1200 BCE-1300 CE) people and culture native to what is now the southwestern United States. Also called Anasazi.


person who studies cultures and characteristics of communities and civilizations.


person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.


activities to celebrate or commemorate an event.


tiny pieces of stone used to add stability to mortar.


steep wall of rock, earth, or ice.


to build or erect.


agricultural produce.


a place to live.


to attach firmly to a surrounding substance.


circular room entered from a hole in the ceiling, used for ceremonies among several tribes of the Southwestern United States.


sticky substance, such as cement, used to bond bricks or stones.


large home or mansion, often the home of a leader or dignitary.


paste-like material made of crushed stone (usually lime, gypsum, and sand), water, and fiber.


series of customs or procedures for a ceremony, often religious.


common sedimentary rock formed by grains of sand compacted or cemented with material such as clay.


top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.


small human settlement usually found in a rural setting.