Chaco Culture National Historic Park

For all the remote charm of Chaco Canyon's high-desert landscape, its brutally long winter season, ultra-brief growing season, and scare rains make it an unlikely location for the Capitol of Anasazi / Ancestral Puebloan culture. Utilizing masonry methods never before seen in North America, they built huge, complex stone structures (multi-story Great Houses) consisting of numerous rooms much bigger than any the Anasazi had formerly constructed. These structures were conceived, planned, and built from scratch, in contrast to the previous system of modifying or adding on to existing structures. Although each is Great House is distinct, they all share architectural commonalities that identify them as uniquely Chacoan. Advanced astronomical alignments, ingenious agriculture, water control systems, and mysterious earthen mounds surrounded the Great Houses of Chaco. Chaco's structures were established in a sparse landscape surrounded by spiritual mountains, mesas, and shrines that still have deep spiritual significance for their descendants, which include the Hopi, Zuni, and Puebloan tribes.

Public Architecture

Chaco Canyon's structures are excellent examples of pre-Columbian "public architecture" that utilized advanced engineering to create spectacles and serve as gathering points. This facilitated distant trading and commerce and supported short-term populations gathered in the canyon for these events. Pueblo descendants affirm that Chaco was a unique meeting place where individuals and clans assembled (often in Kivas) to share their events, goods, ceremonies, customs, and understandings. Was Chaco the center of a turquoise-trading network developed to attract the trade of macaws, copper bells, shells, and other products from far-off lands?   Chaco's impact continued at Aztec, Mesa Verde, the Chuska Mountains, and other centers to the north, south, and west, and throughout the Colorado Plateau, which is roughly the 4-corners region. In time, the people moved away from the Chacoan life and methods, migrated to new and previously occupied locations, restructured their world, and ultimately connected with foreign cultures. Numerous Southwest Indian Tribes consider Chaco Canyon as a crucial stop along their clans' spiritual migration paths, respecting Chaco as a spiritual location to be honored and appreciated.

The Uniqueness of Chaco Canyon

Chacoans engineered and built impressive works of public architecture which lacked precedent in the ancient North American world, and which stayed unrivaled in size and intricacy up until the development of steel, long after Columbus arrived. This absence of written or preserved records adds to the mystique surrounding Chaco. With the archaeological and anthropological evidence limited to items and structures left, lots of tantalizing clues tease scientists but refuse to fully reveal their secrets. The first indication of long-lasting human settlement in Chaco Canyon dates to the 3rd century CE with the building of partly below-ground houses referred to as pithouses, structures which became clustered together to form villages. The fantastic, multi-story Great Houses, like Pueblo Bonito, and constructions, were a giant leap in technology and construction. Chacoans produced strong, tall walls utilizing a variation of the "core-and-veneer" building strategy. Although today these mosaic design veneers are in evidence to visitors, adding a striking charm to these structures, Chacoans used plaster on most exterior and interior walls as soon as construction was complete to protect the delicate mud mortar from water damage and add aesthetic appeal. In addition to natural sandstone tanks, rainwater was captured in wells and dammed locations that trapped the furious torrents of water off the canyon walls when thunderstorms struck.

The Chaco "River"

The arroyo (a periodically flowing stream) that sculpted the canyon, Chaco Wash, occasionally flowed with water, but it was likely muddly and saline. To build the Kivas and Great Houses, Chacoans traveled over 80 kilometers to coniferous forests to the south and to the west, felling trees, then peeling and leaving them to dry to decrease weight. Then, by hand across the unforgiving desert, they carried them back to Chaco Canyon. Remember, there is no evidence of the use of wheels or domesticated animals to help with the burden. Key to the structure of the Chacoan world was the practice of aligning structures and roadways with the positions of the sun and moon at key intervals, such as solstices, equinoxes, and lunar alignments. Chacoans imported unique items, birds, and animals by means of trade paths that extended west towards the Gulf of California and south more than 1000 kilometers along the coast of Mexico. Seashells (obviously not native to Chaco Canyon) were utilized to as trumpets. Other goods discovered include copper bells, cacao (chocolate!), and the remains of scarlet macaws, which are parrots with lively red, yellow, and blue plumes. With life at Chaco difficult during periods of even typical rains, a prolonged drought would have strained resources and set migration in motion. This is what appears to have occurred in the middle 1100's.

Ancient Observatories: Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon is seventy miles from the closest town and accessible only by axel-busting washboard dirt roadways. Remote? Yes it is. The Anasazi were mainly nomadic, classic hunter-gatherers, when the first agriculture appeared, and they settled on the Colorado Plateau and begin building and living in small pit houses. Frequently constructed with celestial positioning in mind, they also constructed water-collection systems and were connected to far-flung Chacoan outliers by a substantial network of roadways. It's not entirely clear why the Anasazi abandoned Chaco Canyon, however, tree ring data indicates extended dry spells, and is one possible explanation. It was around this time that the population in other locations in the area, such as Mesa Verde and the Chuska Mountains, grew in size and significance. Today, modern-day Pueblo individuals trace their roots to Chaco Canyon, and consider it a spiritual location.

Public Protections

It ended up being designated a nationwide historic park in 1980, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Website in 1987, placing it among a curated list of safeguarded locations "whose impressive natural and cultural resources form the typical inheritance of all humanity. Today, approximately eighty thousand people arrive to explore Chaco Canyon each year, the majority of them drawn to see the remains of the excavated Great Houses, which are preserved in a state of "arrested decay". Chaco Canyon continues to be a primary destination for those with an interest in ancient cultures, especially those interested archeoastronomers. Proof exists in many forms that the Chacoans were knowlegeable skywatchers, and they had a clear understanding of the cyclic and seasonal patterns of the sun, moon, and stars. Uncontaminated by city lights, Chaco Canyon's nighttime skies are resplendent with stars and other astronomical phenomenon that are seldom seen from somewhere else. Why did the ancient Anasazi construct such an extravagant destination in so extreme an environment; one with 100-degree summer seasons, freezing subzero winter seasons, and just 9 inches of rain each year?   This remains a mystery to this day.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park

An ancient and magical location, Chaco Canyon is a delicate and crucial piece of pre-Columbian cultural and historic conservation. The Ancient Anasazi were experts in building and construction, and they left behind proof of understanding advanced archeoastronomy, evident through the numerous structures lined up to catch the cycles of the sun and moon. The canyon's 15 complexes include. the biggest structures north of Mexico until the 19th century. The Chacoans and their complex, astronomically-influenced architecture flourished between AD 900 and 1150, most likely ending due to a drastic change in climate that produced a dry spell that lasted perhaps half a century. The grandest of the Great Houses is Pueblo Bonito, a four-story high complex with 650 "rooms", using up nearly 2 entire acres of land with its girth, its huge scale a sign of the spiritual power of the Great House. Pueblo Bonito sits straight on the East-West line, an axis that matches the equinox sun. Some higher than others, the kivas hosted worshippers, workers, and clan meetings. Some are still standing almost intact, some endure as structure ruins, the park contains upwards of 2,400 recognized archeological sites, and few of them have been completely excavated. Due to the fragile condition of the erosion-prone canyon, some parts of the park are closed to the general public, however much of it can be seen by automobile.

Chaco Canyon, Northwest New Mexico

The Anasazi were nomadic hunter-gatherers spread over a large area. By 700 AD they started to collect in settled neighborhoods, of which Chaco Canyon is the grandest example. Extensive building and construction took place throughout Chaco Canyon from 900 to 1100 AD, leading to the construction of several advanced Great House complexes. Pueblo Bonito (implying "pretty town" in Spanish; the initial Anasazi name being unidentified) had more than sex hundred spaces or rooms, many 2 and three-story structures, numerous ritualistic structures called kivas, and an estimated population between 800 and 1,200 individuals. Radiating out from the Chaco complex are an enigmatic series of straight lines or roads that extend 10 to twenty miles into the desert, often going nowhere. They transverse mesas (table-top mountains), up and down vertical cliffs, and along routes which are unwise for use by the casual or even motivated tourist. Paul Devereux, a British scholar and author of the so-called "Earth Mysteries" has suggested these lines (and others he has actually studied all over the world) are much better comprehended as markings that represent the spiritual journeys of ancient shamans.

The Chaco Road Network

Checking these roads at ground level, it appears they have been created over multiple centuries, and have been subjected to natural disintegration, making it hard to determine purpose and use. Scientists from the University of Arizona examined tree-ring information to determine the canyon's wood geographical origins, the first time this dendroprovenance approach has been utilized in the southwestern United States. Prior to 1020 AD, the majority of the wood originated from a formerly unacknowledged wood source; the Zuni Mountains, about 75 kilometers to the south of the Chaco Canyon. Christopher Guiterman from the University of Arizona, lead author of the research study, informed CWA (Current World Archaeology), 'The study reveals the wood was carried to Chaco Canyon from a great distance, without the help of beasts of burden, the wheel, metal tools, or a significant watercourse, and the wood procurement was a vibrant and on-going enterprise. We now see that when products start to show up from the Chuskas, the development and expansion of Chacoan society takes root, and the Chaco we understand today is the consequence of this change.'

Native American Religion in Early America, Divining America, TeacherServe®, National Humanities Center
Native American tribes in North Dakota have their own distinct origins, history and language, but they all had and still have the same behavior, with the exception of the Nakota (commonly known as Sioux). The tribes of the plain are united by fundamental beliefs and values derived from their history and culture. read more
Ancient Observatories: Chaco Canyon
High atop the dramatic Fajada Butte at the entryway to Chaco Canyon is the most enigmatic and celebrated of Chaco's sites. There, a set of spiral petroglyphs pecked into a cliff face behind 3 huge pieces of sandstone rock functions as a sophisticated solar marker. read more
Pueblo Bonito - Chaco Culture National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service)
Pueblo Bonito is one of the most extensively researched and commemorated cultural sites in Chaco Canyon. Planned and built in phases in between 850 AD - 1150 AD by Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) individuals, this was structure in Chaco Canyon was the center of the Chacoan world. read more

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