Chaco Culture National Historic Park
Chaco Canyon National Historic Park - Culture
Chaco Canyon, for all its wild beauty, seems an unlikely place for the Anasazi culture to take root and flourish. This is desert country, with long winters, short growing seasons, and marginal rainfall. Yet a thousand years ago, this valley was a center of Anasazi life. This people farmed the lowlands and built great masonry towns that connected with other towns over a far-reaching network of roads. In architecture, in complexity of community life, in social organization, the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon reached heights rarely matched and never surpassed by their kindred in the Four Corners region.
The cultural flowering of the Chaco Anasazi began in the early A.D. 900s. We can see it most clearly in the architecture. They started building on a much larger scale. Using the same masonry technique as beforewalls one stone thick with generous use of mud mortarthey built multistory stone villages with rooms several times larger than in the previous stage of their culture. Six of the large pueblosPueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Una Vida, Penasco Blanco, Hungo Pavi, and Kin Bineolawere started at this time. This pattern of a large pueblo with oversized rooms, surrounded by conventional villages, caught on throughout the region. New communities built along these lines sprang up. Old villages built similarly large pueblos. Eventually there were more than 75 of these "towns," most of them closely tied to Chaco by an extensive system of roads.
By A.D. 1000 Chaco was firmly established as the political and economic center of the Chaco Plateau. There may have been as many as 5,000 persons living in some 400 settlements in and around Chaco or as few as 2,000, depending upon which assumptions are used to estimate the population. A new masonry techniquethe use of masonry walls with rubble cores and outer surfaces of shaped stonesallowed walls to rise to more than four stories high. Some large buildings show signs of being planned from the start, in contrast to the usual Anasazi custom of adding rooms as needed. Chaco at this time may have been the hub of an extensive political and economic system that drew in goods and commodities and directed affairs over a wide region.
How to account for this blossoming? One theory is that Chaco developed as an administrative and ritual center mainly in response to environmental fluctuations. The vagaries of weather made farming chancy. One year might be wet, another dry, one growing season long, another short. According to this theory, Chaco may have been a kind of capital that directed the agricultural life of the region, tempering good years with bad. Food could be stored here and redistributed as needed. The outlying towns can be thought of as satellites that performed for their locality the same function that Chaco did for the region.
The decline of Chaco apparently coincided with a prolonged drought in the San Juan Basin between 1130 and 1180. Lack of rainfall combined with an overtaxed environment may have led to food shortages. Even the clever irrigation methods of the Chacoans could not overcome prolonged drought. Under these pressures Chaco and the outliers may have experienced a slow social disintegration. The people began to drift away. They retreated to better watered regions, leaving behind impressive evidence of their former influence over a vast territory.
Clues to the Past
The Road System: The true extent of the ancient Chacoan road system, as revealed by aerial photographs, impressed even veteran archaeologists. There were more than 400 miles of roads connecting Chaco to some 75 communities. The longest road presently known runs 42 miles north toward the prehistoric towns now called Salmon Ruins and Aztec Ruins. On the north-south roads, settlements lay at travel intervals of approximately one day.
These roads were not simply trails worn by centuries of foot travel. They were the productions of relatively sophisticated engineering and required a great deal of energy and thought to plan, construct, and maintain. They were laid out in long, straight lines with scant regard for terrain. The roads averaged 30 feet in width. Construction was simple. On sloping ground the roadbed was leveled and a rock berm built to retain the fill.
Where the roads passed over bare rock, they were often bordered by masonry walls or a line of boulders. The roads appear to date from the 11th and 12th centuries, a time of expanding population. Several roads converged at Pueblo Alto from the north. From there well-defined stairways led to the canyon bottom.
Aside from its obvious purpose of easing travel within the Chacoan world, this network could have facilitated communications and the transport of goods and materials between towns and helped bind Chacoans into a single society.
Trade: During Classic times, Chaco was the center of a far-flung trading network. Goods were exchanged internally within the Chacoan system and externally with groups as far south as Mexico. Chaco's distinctive Cibola black-on-white pottery may have originated in outlying towns to the south and west. One estimate is that only about 20 percent of the pottery used here was made here. This may have been because there was better clay in other villages and more wood available for firing the vessels.
What Chaco lacked in pottery it more than made up for in turquoise ornaments. Raw turquoise was imported from distant mines and transformed with exquisite craftsmanship into necklaces, bracelets, and pendants. Great quantities of such jewelry have been found here, more than at any other southwestern site.
Other evidence of the trading system are the many seashells (often strung into necklaces), copper bells, and remains of macaws or parrots found here. The two latter items suggest contact with Mexico, perhaps with the ancient Toltecs.
The Ruins of Chaco Canyon
The best way to see the ruins is to go on a conducted walk with a ranger. For information on these tours and the evening campfire programs, inquire at the visitor center. Groups desiring special services should schedule them in advance with the superintendent.
Begin your sightseeing at the visitor center. The exhibits will help you understand Chaco and its people. Rangers will answer your questions and help you make the most of your time.
The ruin closest to the visitor center is Una Vida, which can be reached by trail from the parking lot. Only partially excavated, it looks much as it did when Lt. James H. Simpson of the U.S. Army described it in 1849. Construction was underway by A.D. 930 and continued until late in the next century. There are 5 kivas and about 150 rooms in the structure.
The core of this Anasazi complex lay farther down the canyon. The largest and best known of the great houses is Pueblo Bonito, which was occupied from the early 900s to about 1200. Built in stages, this pueblo in its final form contained some 600 rooms and 40 kivas and rose four stories high. The pueblo was first excavated at the turn of the century and again intensively in the 1920s. It is considered the "type" site for the Classic Bonito Phase (A.D. 1020 to 1120) of Chacoan culture.
Chetro Ketl was begun about 1020. Completed in most respects by 1054, it was remodeled and enlarged in the early 1100s. It holds an estimated 500 rooms and 16 kivas. The enclosed plaza is a typical feature of great houses from this period.
Pueblo del Arroyo was built in stages over a relatively short time. The central part was started about 1075; north and south wings were added between 1095 and 1105; the plaza and the tri-welled structure were constructed about 1110. The building had about 280 rooms and more than 20 kivas.
Kin Kletso seems to have been built in two stages. The first one dates from about 1125, the second from 1130 or later. This pueblo had about 100 rooms and 5 enclosed kivas and may have risen three stories on the north side.
Casa Rinconada on the south side of the canyon is the largest "great kiva" in the park. The trail leading to this ruin passes by several villages contemporary with Casa Rinconada and continues up the mesa to the great house Tsin Kietsin, with its panoramic view.
Hiking trails lead to a number of other ruins. Pueblo Alto, on top of the mesa, is important as the junction of several prehistoric roads. Casa Chiquita and Penasco Blanco can be reached by hiking from the central canyon. Wijiji, built in a single stage in the early 1100s, is notable for its symmetrical layout and rooms of uniform size.
The park is located in northwestern New Mexico. From the north, turn off NM 44 at Nageezi and follow San Juan county road 11 miles north to NM 57. The visitor center is 15 miles ahead. From the south, turn north onto NM 57 from I-40 at Thoreau and go 44 miles on the paved road. Two miles north of Crownpoint, NM 57 turns to the right. Continue east on NM 57 to a marked turn off. From here a 20-mile stretch of unpaved road leads north to the visitor center. Inquire about road conditions by calling the park.
No lodging, gasoline, repair services, or food are available at the park. The nearest town is 60 miles away. On weekdays, staples can usually be purchased at trading posts on NM 44. The NPS operates a campground a mile from the visitor center. Tables, fireplaces, and central toilets are provided. Water is only available at the visitor center. No firewood is available in the park. Trailers over 30 feet long cannot be accommodated. Camping is limited to seven days.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication