Chaco Culture National Historical Park is located in remote northwestern New Mexico about 90 miles southeast of Farmington. Getting there is now, as always, a chore. Today the park is at the end of miles of dirt road. Astronomers love it as the ‘darkest night skies in North America.’ It is that far from the nearest external light source.
Between 850 A.D. and 1150 A.D. the Anasazai (Ancestral Puebloans), specifically the Chacoans, built and rebuilt an array of apartment buildings as tall as five stories, the largest containing over 600 rooms. There are seven constructed in a D-shape with rooms stepped up and back atop one another along the curving back wall like a stadium. The straight wall is only one story high and the inner courtyard divided in two, each half containing a community or great kiva.
Kivas are underground rooms once covered and enclosed by a crib of logs filled in with earth so that from above they appeared flat with a square opening entered via ladder. There were numerous small kin or clan-kivas 10 and 15 feet in diameter. Generally, there were two community or great-kivas in the plaza, each 50 or more feet in diameter. There was also one separate kiva, not associated with a town, Casa Rinconada, a giant 100 feet across, across the stream from the large apartment structures. We know from present-day pueblo people that kivas were used for secret ceremonies and that masked gods and demons appeared from their depths during community festivals. There were also tower-kivas three stories high completely enclosed and surrounded by the apartment structure.
Mystery of the Community Kiva. Within the greatest of community kivas, called Casa Rinconada, separated from other structures by the Chaco stream, are two rectangular boxes of uncertain purpose. They are believed to have once been covered by wooden planks and used as the sound boxes of foot-drums. Dance on them, the theory goes, and they provide amplified drum beats. The nichos in the wall above the bench are believed to have held clan regalia. The tunnel running from a ‘robing room’ to the center of the floor is believed to have been a route by which masked gods could enter.
The Mystery of Why They Built Here. The logs needed to crib the roofs of kivas and to make vigas to support roofs and floors had to come from over 40 miles away on the slopes of Mount Taylor or from the Chuska Mountains to the west. Chaco is hot – one of the hottest places in New Mexico – and dry with very little water, and no firewood. Theories suggest the water table has dropped since the Chacoans lived here and that their fields and irrigation system are now covered by earth.
The Mystery of the People. The Ancestral Puebloans, in general, and the Chacoans as well, buried their dead under floors and in disused back rooms. The cities of Chaco could easily have accommodated 20,000 people who stayed for 300 years and yet only about 200 burials have been found most of these dating to a later period when people believed to have come from Mesa Verde settled in the since abandoned Chaco Canyon. Only the lowest rooms toward the front show any signs of cook fires and occupation, but pottery abounds.
Downtown Chaco. Some of the largest D-shaped houses – Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Bonito, Casa del Arroyo – are within half a mile of each other. More are scattered within 3 miles along with fortress-like rectangular buildings of a later period – 7 D-shaped, 14 total. Most are in the canyon but there are others on the mesa tops. Pueblo Pintado lies 15 miles to the east but is perfectly aligned with structures in Downtown Chaco
The Mystery of Two Types of Buildings. The stadium-like D-shaped cities were built between 850 and 1075 A.D., and then, Chaco was abandoned during a period of droughts. At least some of the people, Chacoans, went north to Aztec, New Mexico (although it wasn’t called that then) and built anew. A few years later other people arrived believed to have come from Mesa Verde, the cliff-dwellers. Mesa Verde National Park. They rebuilt some of the cities and renovated others to suit themselves. They built a new type of religious structure found only here and at Mesa Verde where it is called the Temple of the Sun. Unlike a kiva it is above ground and consists of concentric rings where the outer rings are divided into rooms with no apparent entrance – perhaps entered from above. The new arrivals also built new cities, five of them, in a rectangular shape with high external walls and guarded entrances. They seem like castles.
Where Did the People Go? Both the newcomers, Mesa Verdeans, and the original settlers, Chacoans, are no longer here at Chaco. The Chacoans are no longer at Aztec (Aztec Ruins National Monument) either. Rio Grande Puebloan populations grew at about the time of the Chaco and Four Corners exodus and so did the population of an advanced people at Casas Grandes, Mexico. In fact, the occupation of the original settlers, Chacoans, ends about the time Aztec was built and Aztec was abandoned about the time Casas Grandes (Casas Grandes/Paquime) was built. A straight, north-south line can be drawn connecting all three – they lie on the same meridian.
A Vast Culture Area. Chaco Canyon lies at the heart of a vast culture-area that encompasses the northwest corner of New Mexico from Farmington south beyond Gallup, from the Chuska Mountains east to Mount Taylor. Archaeologists, unable to directly access language, training and religion, look to material culture for evidence of peoples’ lives, that is, at artifacts, man-made objects, and buildings. The Chacoans were known for creating vast D-shaped cities, when their neighbors were living in much smaller complexes and building rectangular or E-shaped towns. They constructed round, underground kivas, tower kivas and community kivas, while their neighbors were limited to small kin-kivas or built them square. The built T-shaped doors of unknown purpose. Their pottery was of a certain type and design. By all these things, archaeologists identify sites that belonged to the same culture and find more than 150 ‘great-houses’ of the Chacoans.
A Vast Commercial Network. Pottery is identifiable by construction and design, by color and by the very clay from which it is made. Pottery arrived at Chaco from all over the culture-area in vast quantity. People carried pots and probably the contents of the pots to Chaco. What did they contain? Was it grain? Was it tribute? Chaco was at the center of a trading network that brought copper bells and macaws (birds) from deep in Mexico and turquoise from around the Southwest. Even corn came from the far reaches of the Chacoan culture area. Theories suggest that the Chacoans were politically connected to the great empires of Mexico through their trading guilds. There is even a hint at Mexican-style architecture at Pueblo Bonito.
Straight Roads and Stairways. Broad, cleared roadways radiate out from the great-houses of Chaco Canyon in all directions. They are dead-straight and when they come to a cliff or canyon they continue up and over or down and through. That is, they cut stairs in the rock or used wooden ladders or both. The purpose of these roads is unknown. They are too broad and too straight to have been useful pathways for transport.
Puebloan Languages. Where did the people go? Today there are three scattered Puebloan groups that share elements of culture but speak four vastly different languages. The Hopi of eastern Arizona speak a language related to Ute, Aztec and Pima. Their origin seems to be with the cliff-dwellers of eastern Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly. The origin of the Zuni is unknown and their language, not closely related to any other, is a linguistic isolate. The Rio Grande Puebloans speak Keresan and Tanoan, which are not related, and which have sub-families, the Tiwa, Tewa, Towa languages, for instance. The Jemez, a Towa speaking tribe, trace their origin back to an area of western Colorado and southeastern Utah.
Astronomy and Alignments. Kivas and great houses are aligned along north-south and east-west axises. Pueblo Pintado, 15 miles distant, is aligned with Pueblo Bonito. Roads run true north and south, east and west. If we accept the theory and the alignment is not accidental, Paquime in Mexico and Aztec Ruins near Farmington are aligned with Pueblo Bonito on the same meridian. Whatever these alignments may mean, the Chacoans were great astronomers creating windows and concentric circles, like the Sun Dagger, where shadow and light would show the equinoxes and solstice.
The Gamblers House. Atop the mesa above Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl and Kin Kletso, lies D-shaped Pueblo Alto, the high house, and its neighbor, fortress-like New Alto, the Gambler’s House. Navajo legend relates that at Pueblo Bonito one could trade for anything – pottery, food, clothing, ceremonial items and turquoise. There were also many vices including prostitution, sexual deviancy and incest, as well as gambling. Through gambling, Naahwiilbiihi, the Gambler, was able to enslave the people. He won all of their goods until the people had only themselves left to wager and this they finally did, becoming his slaves. The people feared his might afraid that, so powerful was he, that he might begin to exercise control over the elements – wind, sun and rain. So they plotted his downfall. With the help of the Holy People, they molded a Challenger who eventually defeated the Gambler. Navajo legend thus tells of the trading empire that existed at Chaco and hints at a rivalry between the peoples of the D-shaped houses and those of the later fortress-like towns.
What is Chaco Culture All About? There are several explanations current among scholars.
- A great many people lived here using an advanced irrigation system. The water table has dropped and most of the system is now obscured by blown in earth. This ignores the lack of firewood and other resources.
- The Chacoans were a military and ruling cast that dominated the Four Corners
- Chaco was a ceremonial center tied to the storage and redistribution of excess grain. Rain is unpredictable in the Four Corners and falls heavily in one region and not at all in another in any given year. Sharing surplus over a wide area lessens the impact of drought. People visited for ceremonies bringing in part of the harvest and trading for goods.
- Chaco was dominated by the great civilizations of Mexico who infiltrated through their trade guilds, pochteca.