Chaco Canyon

Ancient Chaco\' s New History
by Stephen H. Lekson

Chaco is an arid, barren, sandstone canyon in the middle of nowhere. But a millennium ago, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries A.D., ancient peoples not only survived there, they thrived and created an amazing city. Chaco\'s ruins awe us even today. The people we call the ancestral Pueblo (also "Anasazi") built monumental political and ceremonial buildings that towered, literally and figuratively, above anything previously seen in the Southwest.

The ruins are preserved in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, 175 kilometers (110 miles) west of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Ancient Chaco Canyon was the center of a regional system covering over 100,000 square kilometers (40,000 square miles). The principal excavated ruins are Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo, Pueblo Alto, and Kin Kletso. Hundreds of other buildings, large and small, dot the canyon floor. The largest buildings, called "Great Houses," are usually associated with "Great Kivas"-16-meter-diameter (53-feet) subterranean ceremonial chambers, such as Casa Rinconada.

Pueblo Bonito was the largest Great House. Construction began as early as 850 and continued until about 1125; the D-shaped building stood five stories tall, covered .8 hectares (2.2 acres), and contained over 650 rooms, 45 smaller "kivas," and two Great Kivas. The carefully coursed sandstone masonry walls were up to 80 centimeters (2.6 feet) thick. Over 25,000 pine roof beams were transported from distant forests. Chetro Ketl and the unexcavated ruins of Una Vida and Penasco Blanco were almost as large as Pueblo Bonito and had similar construction histories.

Many thousands of turquoise beads, pendants, and inlays were found at Chaco Canyon sites. The turquoise came from mines near Santa Fe and elsewhere. Macaws and parrots, copper bells, and sea shells were imported from Mexico, up to 1,000 kilometers (more than 600 miles) to the south. Kitchen pottery and stone for tools were also brought from distant sources. Much of the pottery at Pueblo Alto, for example, was made two days\' walk to the west.

Rich burials at Pueblo Bonito suggest to some archaeologists the existence of elite leadership, presumably the lords of the regional system indicated by a network of "roads" and over 150 smaller Great Houses or "outliers." The roads were 9 meters (30 feet) wide, arrow-straight constructions, up to 60 kilometers (36 miles) long-probably landscape monuments rather than transportation corridors.

Chaco Canyon was much like the rest of the ancestral Pueblo area until about 900. What some archaeologists call the "Chaco Phenomenon" began, in the early-tenth century, as a local center in northwest New Mexico, perhaps serving as a food storage and redistribution center in a highly uncertain environment. About 1020, the scale of the Chaco region and Chacoan building expanded, eventually encompassing most of the ancient Pueblo world. Contacts with Mexico intensified after Chaco assumed regional preeminence.

At Chaco\'s height in the early-twelfth century, between 2,000 and 5,000 people may have lived in the canyon, though some believe even the lower figure is way too high. A drought, beginning about 1130, coincided with the end of monumental building at Chaco Canyon and the beginning of a second major center, 85 kilometers (50 miles) north of Chaco Canyon, at Aztec Ruins National Monument.

From about 1000 to 1150, Chaco was the "capital" of the Pueblo world. Some scholars believe that Chaco was an economic, political, and fundamentally ceremonial center that transformed many slow centuries of Pueblo village life into a coherent regional system. Chacoan buildings, even in ruins, astonish us with their size, complexity, and beauty. At its height, Chaco was a ceremonial city of unprecedented wonder. Its monumental structures housed rooms full of bright imported feathers, shell, and turquoise, all used in ceremonies staged on a ritual landscape of vast geometric symmetry. Surrounding these immense villages were sophisticated irrigation and water control systems that transformed the dry canyon into a tapestry of corn fields, Great Houses, and monuments.

Events in Chaco Canyon had far-reaching effects, both in its time and in all subsequent Pueblo history. Smaller, less formal versions of the Great Houses of Chaco Canyon were erected all over the Colorado Plateau in the eleventh, twelfth, and even the thirteenth centuries. Acoma and many other Pueblos recall Chaco as the seminal "White House" and regard it as a sacred place. Important Hopi clans originated there. Chaco saw dramatic events -recounted in origin stories-which shaped Pueblo life, society, and religion forever after. The many Navajo people, who live all around Chaco today, tell stories of the astonishing things that happened there long ago. There was nothing remotely like Chaco in the eleventh- and twelfth-century Southwest. Chaco was epochal.

So much for the hype. Some archaeologists have more modest readings of Chaco, as we shall see. But Chaco Canyon was special. The hundreds of archaeologists who have flocked to Chaco over the last century attest to Chaco\'s particular fascination. Chaco was evidently so central to Southwestern prehistory, yet so mysterious in the details of its history, that archaeologists came to call it the "Chaco Phenomenon."

We may never resolve the Chaco Phenomenon. Who built these amazing buildings? How many people lived in this forbidding canyon? How did people survive in Chaco-much less create this astonishing civilization? What effects did Chaco have on the rest of the Southwest? These are only a few of the questions that people who have seen this wonder have asked and tried to answer. Scholars of Southwest archaeology have argued about these issues for decades.

Archeaology Southwest, Center for Desert Archaeology, Winter 2000, Volume 14,
Number 1.


Chaco Canyon\'s community thrived as the center of Pueblo village life in the southwestern U.S. during the 11th and 12th centuries.  Questions surrounding survival in Chaco continue to intrigue visitors and scholars.