The mention of Anasazi ruins brings to mind cliff dwellings and a “lost” civilization. No longer called Anasazi but rather Ancestral Puebloans, these people left massive ruins on the floor of Chaco Canyon which are mind-boggling. Many questions are raised and the imagination is ignited.
In northwestern New Mexico, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is one truly amazing place that I find fascinating every time we visit. To reach Chaco, the last stretch can be a bit challenging. After turning off Highway 550, the first five miles are paved, the next ten are pretty bad dirt road and the last six are really bad dirt road before reaching the paved park road. There is a campground and a very nice visitor center but no other facilities so one needs to be prepared with lunch, snacks and, of course, plenty of water. This high desert area is very hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Spring and fall are ideal times to visit.
Who were the people who left these testaments to their civilization? Without the benefit of the wheel, metal tools, or beasts of burden in a land of little rainfall, how did they manage to build these magnificent structures? Why did they choose this arid canyon? Why did they abandon them? Most answers to these questions are to a degree conjecture but with continued archeological research and scientific advances in the field, the “educated guesses” continue to evolve and the puzzle pieces become a little clearer.
1,100 to 1,200 years ago this canyon was the center of the Chacoan world with monumental architecture, far-reaching trade, and a complex society. Massive great houses rose three and four stories high and contained hundreds of rooms. Water collection and retention systems, dams, and canals were in place. Over 400 miles of road networks linked the great houses in the canyon to over 200 sites throughout the region. Prehistoric staircases provided access from mesa tops to the canyon floor. In addition to the dozen or so great houses, vast numbers of smaller community ruins are found throughout the canyon and the entire San Juan basin.
Pueblo Bonito is the core of the complex and the largest great house. Built in stages between the mid-800’s and early 1100’s. Pueblo Bonito rose at least four stories high, had perhaps as many as 800 rooms and 40 kivas, encompassing almost three acres. The great houses of Una Vida and Peñasco Blanco were also begun in the mid-800’s. Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto and many others followed.
Pueblo del Arroyo
Using masonry techniques unique for the time, Chacoans continued to expand their massive, multi-story buildings for over 300 years. Construction of some great houses spanned decades or even centuries and although the masonry styles varied somewhat over time, they remained distinctively Chacoan. The massive beams (over 200,00 of them) and all other wood used in construction had to be harvested from distant forests and transported to the sites manually. Many original beams and latillas are still visible today and through the use of dendrochronology dating of the cutting has been possible.
Since the earliest archeological expeditions to Chaco in the 1800’s, many theories of use have been proposed. With continued archeological research, theories have evolved from the original ideas of massive habitations with a large population to more ceremonial buildings with pilgrimages from surrounding communities and a smaller permanent population.
Buildings’ orientations, internal geometry and geographic relationships consistent with solar and lunar alignments indicate an extensive knowledge of the heavens. Astronomy apparently played an important role in the lives of the Chacoans. Several solstice markers are present throughout the ruins and on Fajada Butte a three-slab-and-spiral-petroglyph provides a solar and lunar calendar.
So many questions continue to be unanswered, not only about how Chacoans built their structures and how their society was organized, but also about the reasons for abandonment. Even as recent as twenty years ago, it was often said that these people “vanished.” However, it is now accepted that the Anasazi are the ancestors of the modern Pueblo people of Arizona and New Mexico and that these ancient people simply moved – some to the south and some to the west. It was probably not a mass migration but rather a somewhat gradual movement. Then the next question is: why did they move? That one hasn’t totally been answered. There was no more building after about 1130. There was a long period of drought at that time and diminishment of nearby resources. There is little or no evidence of violence as a factor. Perhaps it simply was not sustainable to remain in Chaco Canyon and therefore was time to leave.
Each visit to Chaco reveals something missed on the last visit and raises new thoughts and questions. It is definitely worth the rough road in to get there.
For more information on Chaco: