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It’s a quiet and remote place in northwest New Mexico, surrounded by sandstone cliffs. Wind whistles through the canyon at high speeds, churning up the sandy soil. While wandering around the high desert landscape of Chaco canyon, it’s hard to imagine that this area was once a major cultural center about a thousand years ago, where thousands of prehistoric people gathered. There is marginal rainfall, little vegetation, and so on, but something about this area was special to the Ancestral Puebloans and their descendants. Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico contains a staggering number of pueblos, absolutely spectacular archaeological sites with hundreds of thousands of artifacts, which were created by the Ancient Puebloan peoples, also known as the Anasazi.
The Prehistory of Chaco Canyon
During the mid-1000s AD, the ancestral Puebloan people built ‘great houses,’ buildings containing hundreds of rooms, multiple stories, all with unique masonry, creating an easily recognizable Chacoan type of architecture. These buildings were typically constructed to face specific solar, lunar, and cardinal directions, and specifically placed in a spot surrounded by sacred features, like mountains or mesas. Evidence shows that some of these great houses took decades to centuries to construct, which isn’t too surprising considering how much went into each building. Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the great houses, would have covered 3 acres, contained more than 600 rooms, and was 4 to 5 stories tall! It also contained dozens of kivas, circular ceremonial rooms, and two large plazas. That’s a lot of planning and building!
Chaco Canyon developed further into a major ceremonial, administrative, and economic center in the Puebloan world by 1050 AD and it had far reaching influence, from building styles to pottery types. The Ancestral Puebloans built canals to direct water to farm fields to grow corn, beans and squash for an ever growing population. They created over 200 miles of roads, a sort of prehistory super highway, that connected not only the great houses of Chaco, but to over 150 pueblos throughout the region. The great houses of chaco were likely major hubs of ceremonial and commercial activities, with far reaching influence outside their social-cultural sphere. Chacoan influence can be seen at Mesa Verde National Park, a series huge cliff dwellings in Colorado. Also, Archaeologists have found macaw feathers and copper bells—indicating a complex trading network all over the southwest into Northern Mexico.
And then something happened. Was it drought? Was it conflict? During 11 and 1200s AD, building slowed down and influence waned. People began to leave Chaco Canyon migrating to different areas in the southwest, possibly due 50 years of drought conditions. Whatever the reason, the great houses were abandoned. Modern Southwest Puebloan tribes are the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans and many the groups consider the creation and abandonment of Chaco as part of their migration story. Consequently, many Native Americans consider Chaco Canyon a spiritual place to be respected.
The Archaeological History of Chaco Canyon
Archaeologists, even after 100 years of studying Chaco Canyon, are still scratching their heads as to why did these people build in such a desolate place? Why were the buildings constructed where they were? Why was the area abandoned? And most of all, who WERE these people? Archaeologists have been carefully piecing together a story for Chaco Canyon, but there is still so much to discover and learn. The ruins were first documented by Euro-Americans during the early 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1890s that excavations were conducted by the American Museum of Natural History from New York. This was known as the Hyde Exploring expedition. Fred and Talbot Hyde were tipped off to the area by Richard Wetherill, a self-taught archaeologist who discovered the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde—Wetherill hoped the brothers would finance an expedition and they ended up doing a 5 year excavation at Pueblo Bonito. The Wetherills actually moved to Chaco Canyon, building a house next to the west wall of Pueblo Bonito! Wetherill and the Hyde brothers excavated enough artifacts, and human remains, to fill an entire freight car at the end of just one season.
So, the scientific excavations weren’t what we would consider today as ‘best practices.’ Also, there was a lot of controversy that all of the artifacts were being shipped to the East, as opposed to staying in New Mexico. Rumors that artifacts were being sold to the highest bidder also were circulating. With the creation of the Antiquities Act of 1906 and the establishment of the Chaco Culture National Historic Park in 1907, Chacoan sites were better protected from will-nilly excavation. Other excavations, surveys and studies have taken place by the National Geographic Society, the University of New Mexico, and a number of multi-disciplinary research projects through the Chaco Center. Recent surveys have identified more than 2400 archaeological sites in the park boundary!
Fun facts and finds at Chaco Canyon:
- In the first season of excavations, the Hyde Expedition uncovered from one room at Pueblo Bonito, 114 ceramic jars, 22 ceramic bowls, and 21 jar lids. And this type of pottery is stunning, with painted geometric designs.
- Chaco Canyon is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site!
- Thousands of exquisite turquoise necklaces, earrings and beads have been observed. One necklace contained 2500 beads! The turquoise likely came from a mine over 100 miles away.
- A dam was excavated in 1967 that emptied into a canal that directed water to 24 acres of farmland. If there was 1 ¼ inches of rain in one storm, this canal could have carried 540,00 gallons of water to the farmlands of one of the great houses. This type of building allowed the Chacoans to live in such an arid area!
- The black on white pottery made at Chaco was painted with a mineral paint created by grinding up red or brown stones with iron minerals and then mixed with water.
- Cylinder jars excavated from Pueblo Bonito were found to have a residue for Cacao, the beanlike seeds from which chocolate is made. Chaco is now the first place known North of the Mexican border to use Cacao to make a specialized drink. Consequently, the people of Chaco were trading with cultivators in Mesoamerica.
When visiting Chaco Canyon, keep in mind that its far more than a tourist destination. For archaeologists, it is a place rich in prehistory and mystery. For the descendents of the Ancestral Puebloans, it is a place to be honored. Think of each great house, every archaeological site, as one giant museum that deserves careful consideration and respect.
Learn more about Chaco Culture National Historic Park: on the National Park Service or Unesco world heritage sites webpages.
- In Search of Chaco edited by David Grant Noble
- Clay, Copper, and Turquoise: The Museum Collection of Chaco Culture National Historic Park by Western Natl Parks Assoc
- The Archaeology of Chaco Canyon: An Eleventh-century Pueblo Regional Center by School of American Research Press
- There are also numerous scholarly articles on this topic