Chaco Canyon - Ancient Power Center
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The Beginning of the End

You go to the grocery store, but they're closed because they have no food. This starts a riot, and you leave just in time.

You get home and turn on the tap - and no water comes out. Light switches don’t do anything either. You’ve had no heat for a few years now, and winters are cold. Government leaders seem powerless to improve things. What would you do?

That was the situation for the Anasazi starting around 1130: crop failures caused by a long series of droughts, no nearby wood for heat and building, irrigation problems, and no wildlife left to hunt.

There were constant raids by other villages looking for food. Kokopelli seemed to ignore the leaders’ prayers and promises of rain and crops. Pilgrims and traders stopped coming to the Anasazi capital in Chaco Canyon. Residents slowly trickled away as the system broke down.

Where did they come from?

The American Southwest is a dry place, filled with sand and sage, cholla and sandstone. Native Americans have hunted, gathered, and dry-farmed there for centuries. Around 400 CE or so, someone decided to dig shallow circular holes near their farm fields and start roofing them over. It was a lot warmer than sleeping in the open, and more convenient than caves they didn't have nearby.

By 750 or so, those pit houses had grown into small adobe pueblos of rectangular rooms in front of a circular chamber, a true community. That circular chamber morphed into a kiva, probably the focus of ceremonies shared by the whole pueblo.

Near the center of the San Juan Basin in Chaco Canyon, someone gathered enough influence by 850 to start building a D-shaped structure of sandstone bricks, quarried from the Canyon's mesas. But there aren't any big trees there. Logs for building supports had to be cut and transported by muscle power from the Chuska Mountains and other sites, many miles away from Chaco.

Why Chaco?

Chaco Canyon is an unlikely place for a ceremonial power center. It has:
- less than 9 inches of annual rainfall
- only a few deer and rabbits to hunt
- no turquoise for ceremonial beads, statues and trade - it's all at mines far to the east.

But there are other reasons for any location.

Chaco was central, runoff from its North Mesa could be channeled for irrigation, and it possessed excellent east-west and southern sight lines. All these factors may have helped it become important.

By early 1100, Pueblo Bonito had become the 4-story D-shaped building uncovered in the late 1800s. Its walls were made of massive cut and dressed sandstone bricks, with long-gone plaster veneer.

Pueblo Bonito and several other Great Houses must have been an impressive sight for travellers descending the Jackson Stairs from Pueblo New Alto into the canyon after a trek along the Great North Road.

For some reason, groups migrated north and close to the confluence of the San Juan and Animas Rivers and built a Chacoan geat house community there, around 1088. But they built a little too close to the riverbank. When the ground started eroding away, and perhaps for other reasons, they moved further north and further away from the Animas River by 1125.

Restored Great Kiva interior, Aztec Ruins Pueblo New Alto, Chaco Canyon

When did they leave?

But the dream began to fade by the mid 1100s, for many reasons. The people had likely exceeded Chaco's limited carrying capacity, and found themselves in the middle of a long-term drought. They may have begun fighting over what was left. In particular, Salmon Ruin shows charred roof timbers in its tower kiva ruin, where burned, disarticulated skeletons were also found. Some archaeologists think the bones were burned in cremation or ritual, due to the calicination of some of them. Others think they were casualties of a raid. The cause is uncertain.

By 1300, the original residents had ritually burned Pueblo Bonito's Great Kiva, bricked up doorways, and left. They also departed the northern riverside communities at Salmon and Aztec.

No more travellers walked the Great North Road. The survivors gradually migrated out to the Hopi mesas, Zuni, the Rio Grande pueblos, Acoma. The Chaco System ended.

Today, you still see the structures first excavated by Richard Wetherill in 1896.

For More Information:

  • Lekson, Stephen, A History of the Ancient Southwest, School for Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe 2008.
  • Lekson, Stephen, ed., The Archaeology of Chaco Canyon, School for Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe 2006.
  • Reed, Paul F., ed., Chaco's Northern Prodigies, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City 2008.
  • McNitt, Frank, Richard Wetherill: Anasazi Pioneer Explorer of Southwestern Ruins, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque 1966.
  • Dean, Jeff, Tree Ring Database, Chaco Research Archive, available online here (Great House construction dates).

  • Pueblo Ruin Photo Tips

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    Mark Bohrer, Active Light Photography.

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