Peoples of the Mesa Verde Region

The Pueblo III Period: A.D. 1150 to 1300



Across the Mesa Verde region, thousands of people are congregating in immense pueblos. Walled villages wrapped around canyon heads and magnificent cliff dwellings perched on steep, rocky slopes are home to the majority of the population. The time is the mid-thirteenth century, and the Pueblo people of the Mesa Verde region, who over the centuries have built a remarkable cultural legacy, will soon carry that legacy to new homes in the south.

Late Pueblo III canyon-head village. Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, based on original artwork by Theresa Breznau, Living Earth Studios.

A late Pueblo III canyon-head village.

The Pueblo III period was a time of dramatic change for Pueblo communities in the Mesa Verde region. Early in the period, most people lived on small farmsteads loosely clustered around community centers. But by A.D. 1250, almost everyone had left their farmsteads and moved into the community centers, resulting in the formation of large villages. And most of those villages were located in canyon settings—around canyon heads or in rock alcoves high above the canyon floors.

Late Pueblo III community. Illustration by Joyce Heuman Kramer; copyright Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.

Late Pueblo III communities consisted of large, densely populated villages—often located at the heads of canyons—and a few scattered farmsteads.

Paralleling these developments was an astonishing increase in the number of people living in the area. Archaeologists believe that the Pueblo population in the Mesa Verde region reached its peak between A.D. 1200 and 1250, probably numbering more than 20,000. But only a few decades later, by about A.D. 1285, the Pueblo people had left the region, moving south to numerous villages in present-day Arizona and New Mexico.

Such dramatic changes in such a short period of time naturally raise the question, "Why?" Why did the Pueblo people suddenly congregate in such large numbers in and near the canyons? Why, after investing so much effort in building enormous villages, did the entire population depart the region?

Migration of Pueblo people from the Mesa Verde region to pueblos in Arizona and New Mexico, late Pueblo III period. Map by Neal Morris; copyright Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.

By the end of the Pueblo III period, the Pueblo people had left the Mesa Verde region, moving south to numerous villages in present-day Arizona and New Mexico.

Archaeologists have long pondered these and related questions, and they continue to explore a variety of explanations. Deteriorating environmental conditions, food shortages, and social conflict in the Mesa Verde region appear to have contributed to the migration from the area. In addition, the inhabitants of the Mesa Verde region probably already knew about, and had connections to, Pueblo people living in numerous villages in Arizona and New Mexico. Having those connections might have made the decision to leave the Mesa Verde region—and adjusting to their new homes—easier.

Learn more . . .

Why did the Pueblo Indians who migrated from the Mesa Verde region in the late 1200s move to different places?