Explore Geology
geology fieldnotes title

Gila Cliff Dwellings

National Monument

New Mexico

cover of park brochure

park geology subheading
Ruins at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, New Mexico

Seven centuries ago, the people who traveled to the communities in what is now Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument did so on foot, following trails across mesas and mountains and along the clear streams. Until recently, the routes were still little more than trails, and the few people who made the trip to the ruins did so on foot, on horseback, and by 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Today, you can drive to the monument over a paved road. The road ends at the monument.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is surrounded by Gila National Forest and lies at the edge of the Gila Wilderness, the nation's first designated wilderness area. This designation means that the wilderness character of the area will not be altered by the intrusion of roads or other evidence of human presence.

The park offers a glimpse of the homes and lives of Indians who lived here from the 1280s through the early 1300s. The surroundings probably look today very much like they did when the cliff dwellings were inhabited.

The People Who Lived Here
The earliest ruin that has been found within the monument is a pithouse of a type that was made from about AD 100 to 400. This dwelling, in the open, was circular and had a narrow entrance, 2 feet wide and 10 feet long, on the east side; the floor was below ground level. People of this period, referred to by archeologists as the Mogollon, grew corn and beans, hunted, and gathered wild plant food. They made plain brown pottery and undoubtedly were skilled in crafts whose products have disappeared. Such things as nets and snares, baskets, and wooden tools last but a short time in open sites.

The monument also is the site for the remains of later pithouses, those prevalent in the area until about AD 1000. These rectangular structures, unlike their predecessors, were built entirely above the ground. In constructing the buildings the Mogollon usually used masonry or adobe (sun-dried bricks of mud and straw), although some were made of wattle (interwoven twigs). It was around this time that they developed their style of white pottery with black designs.

It was sometime after AD 1000 that the cliff dwellings were built, along with other pueblos situated on terraces overlooking the West Fork of the Gila River.

The term "cliff dwellers" refers to Pueblo people who built their homes in natural caves. but Pueblo people also built in the open. Here at the monument are examples of both types of settlements, which were occupied—at least for a while—simultaneously.

Seven natural caves occur high in the southeast-facing cliff of a side canyon, and five of the caves contain the ruins of cliff dwellings—a total of about 40 rooms. Walls of the dwellings were constructed of stone from the formation exposed to the cliff, the Gila Conglomerate. Thus, it was easily quarried by the Indians. All the timbers in the dwellings are the originals. Tree-ring dates obtained from these timbers range through the 1280s.

Probably not more than 10 to 15 families lived in the cliff dwellings at any one time, but the rooms were used for several generations.

The people were farmers; their fields were on the mesa tops and along the river. They raised squash, corn, beans, and probably amaranth and tobacco. And they supplemented these with animals that they hunted or snared and with wild berries and nuts gathered from the forest.

They were excellent weavers and skilled potters, producing handsome brown bowls with black interiors and black-on-white vessels.

Materials obtained by trade with other peoples included pottery, cotton, obsidian for arrow points, and shell for ornaments.

What was their appearance ? The women averaged 5 feet, 1 inch and the men about 5 feet, 5 inches in height. They were slight of build, yet muscular. They had dark hair and eyes and brown skin.

Women's clothing consisted of small cotton blankets worn around the shoulders, "skirts" or "aprons" of yucca cord, and sandals plaited of yucca, agave leaves, and bark. The men wore headbands, small cotton blankets draped over their shoulders and probably sometimes tied around their waists as kilts, breechclouts of woven cotton, and plaited sandals. Both men and women probably wore their sandals only while walking on rocky hillsides. Few objects of adornment, such as bracelets and beads, have been found here.

And so these small, diligent, artistic people lived in their cliff houses and riverside village, tilling their fields with digging sticks, grinding their cornmeal with metate and mano, fashioning their pottery and cloth, carrying on trade with Indians of other communities, hunting, and gathering wild plants and fruit. For generations, the sounds of their voices and laughter echoed in the canyons. And then there were only the sounds of the streams and birds.

The cliff dwellers had abandoned their homes and fields by the early 1300s. Why they left and where they went are not known. Perhaps they joined other Pueblo Indian villages to the north or south.

The area may have been uninhabited for a period of years after the farming Indians left. In any case, nomadic bands of Apaches then made it their homeland. Later, Spanish colonists settled in the areas to the east and south of the monument, and many of their descendants still reside in the vicinity.

After acquisition of the region by the United States under the terms of the Gadsden Purchase, the Apaches directed their depredations against American pioneers traveling across southern New Mexico. A small military camp was established at Gila Hot Springs in the late 1800s to guard the local homesteaders.



park maps subheading

The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.

For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.

photo album subheading

A geology photo album for this park can be found here.

For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.

books, videos, cds subheading

Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.

Please visit the Geology Books and Media webpage for additional sources such as text books, theme books, CD ROMs, and technical reports.

Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
ISBN 0-393-92407-6
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout

The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!

Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.



geologic research subheading

For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.

The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.

A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.



selected links subheading

NPS Geology and Soils Partners

NRCS logoAssociation of American State Geologists
NRCS logoGeological Society of America
NRCS logoNatural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
USGS logo U.S. Geological Survey

teacher feature subheading

Currently, we do not have a listing for any park-specific geology education programs or activities.

General information about the park's education and intrepretive programs is available on the park's education webpage.

For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.
updated on 01/04/2005  I   http://www.nature.nps.gov/geology/parks/gicl/index.cfm   I  Email: Webmaster
This site is best viewed in Internet Explorer 6.0 or Netscape 7.0