CHACO CANYON: THE UNMATCHED MYSTERY OF A PUEBLOAN MONUMENT
WORDS by HUNTER HARLOW + MEDIA by JOHN DALE
In the remote wilderness of northwestern New Mexico, lies the remnants of one of the greatest architectural achievements of pre-historic Puebloan culture. You don’t believe us? Just google this place: Chaco Canyon. You won’t be disappointed… Established as a National Monument in 1907, Chaco Canyon has attracted explorers, history buffs, and researches alike. Keep reading if you’re as jazzed about ancient southwestern archaeology as we are.
While anthropologists and archaeologists do not have a solid understanding of what these peoples actually referred to themselves as, the term “Anasazi” is a Navajo word meaning “the ancient ones” or “ancient enemies.” Although they are not descendants, their relationship is reflected in historic traditions. Contemporary Puebloans aren’t a huge fan of this term, and prefer “Ancestral Puebloans.” These Ancestral Puebloans were originally nomads - hunter-gatherers that would range vast expanses of the southwest in search of resources. However, everyone’s gotta put some roots down at some point, sew those wild oats and settle down (not what they did, but it’s just fun to say). By A.D. 700, Ancestral Puebloans began to settle in communities and Chaco Canyon is one of their greatest architectural marvels.
Construction of Chaco Canyon began as early as A.D. 200 with partially subterranean “pithouses,” which eventually clustered together to make congregated villages. By A.D. 700, the population of Chaco Canyon had grown to approximately 100-200 individuals. Around A.D. 800, construction of “Pueblo Bonito” (AKA “pretty village” in español) began. By the end of its construction, this 600 room, 4 story-tall structure housed around 800-1200 individuals. To construct this masterpiece, early builders used nearby pinon, juniper, and cottonwood trees for structural support. After this, Chacoans then had to travel over 80 kilometers (about 50 miles for you non-scientists) to coniferous forests - cutting down trees, peeling them and leaving them to dry for extended periods to reduce weight, before returning and carrying them back to Chaco Canyon. Constructed from around 240,000 trees, these houses are some of the largest pre-Columbian buildings in North America. Most of Pueblo Bonito is considered to be the houses of extended families or clans, curiously however, few of these rooms present evidence of domestic activities. This along with the presence of 32 kivas and 3 great kivas (religious or political rooms), as well as evidence for communal activities, lead many to believe that Pueblo Bonito had an important religious, political and economic function in the Chaco system.
For the big-time science lovers out there, check this out! Otherwise skip this section if you’re not looking for a snooze fest... I once did a research project during my PhD on the strontium isotopes of this wood to try to identify their sources. Pretty freakin’ cool, and to summarize the study, here’s an excerpt published by English et. al, 2001 in PNAS:
“87Sr/86Sr ratios show that the beams came from both the Chuska and San Mateo (Mount Taylor) mountains, but not from the San Pedro Mountains, which are equally close. Incorporation of logs from two sources in the same room, great house, and year suggest stockpiling and intercommunity collaboration at Chaco Canyon. The use of trees from both the Chuska and San Mateo mountains, but not from the San Pedro Mountains, as early as A.D. 974 suggests that selection of timber sources was driven more by regional socioeconomic ties than by a simple model of resource depletion with distance and time.”Like I said, super cool.
An equally impressive marvel of the Chaco Canyon complex are a series of enigmatic lines, presumably roads, that extend for up to 20 miles into the desert - including over mesas and on vertical cliff faces. Your average Ancestral Puebloan probably would prefer the path of least resistance, not the Alex Honnold route! Herein lies the mystery of these lines and what the heck they were actually used for... Most of these lines don’t run continuously from Chaco Canyon, or anywhere else for that matter, but they are often in the direction of notable landscape features or other great houses. Some archaeologists suggest that segments were intended to be symbolic connections to places of importance rather than everyday means of transportation. But the jury’s still out… there’s competing research that the paths actually require less physical exertion than the unpaved wilderness of the area. Whatever they were for, they’re rad and it took serious ingenuity for their construction.
But perhaps the most vexing mystery of Chaco Canyon, and the surrounding region, is what the heck happened to the Ancestral Puebloans? For all intents and purposes, it seems the culture collapsed rapidly around A.D. 1150. The long-held theory is this downfall is the result of poor land-use and deforestation; however, Willis et al., 2014 in PNAS suggest this may not be the case. They go on to state:
"There is no direct evidence for human impacts on local woodlands during the Bonito Phase [the period of high construction from A.D. 850 to 1150], no indication that agricultural fields were destroyed by deforestation or any other process, and, surprisingly, no conclusive information about the amount and sources of archaeological wood. Our point is that we do not know where most of the wood in Chaco great houses originated, and we cannot eliminate local (canyon drainage) sources. Consequently there is no basis for concluding that the abandonment of Chaco Canyon was brought on by deforestation, improvident use of natural resources, or unstable exchange relationships, and therefore there is no reason to use Chaco’s history as a warning from the past about societal failure."While this study dismisses previous theories, there’s still folks that conclude land-use and deforestation are the causes for collapse. It also doesn’t help that the nearby Sunset Crater was erupting. Whether it was volcanoes, land use, aliens, or something else… the question of what the heck happened to the Chacoans around 700 years ago keeps archaeologists busy to this day. If you want to check out Chaco Canyon, we highly recommend it. Bring your curiosity… and a camera.
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