The enigma of Chaco Canyon

by DGO Staff

A mystery that keeps getting rewritten, time and time again

Chaco Canyon may not be the most widely revered of the Native ruins in our area, but this hidden gem lies just
a couple of hours from Durango on the Colorado plateau in northwestern New Mexico. One of several important Native American ruins in the region — which includes, of course, the famed Mesa Verde National Park — Chaco Canyon is a site stands out as a profound enigma.

One of the most puzzling aspects of the canyon, and perhaps its former inhabitants, is that the region supports few natural resources. It is built on a high desert plateau, with blazing hot summers and freezing cold winters, which makes it less than ideal for the extensive building project that the ruins indicate was once in this locale. Still, the Anasazi, Navajo for ancient ones, established a complex, sophisticated, and far-flung civilization in this area — but then abandoned it for reasons still unknown.

How and why they did this, why they built here, and why this civilization collapsed is still an inexplicable mystery. In fact, this area has remained such a mystery that textbooks were rewritten due to new evidence that arose about it in the 1990s.

While the Four Corners region has been inhabited for well over 10,000 years — and some evidence suggests human habitation dating back 13,000 years, or perhaps longer — a cultural and architectural explosion was ignited around 700 to 800 CE. It was a time of unprecedented transformation. Chaco people learned to farm the arid, inhospitable terrain with advanced irrigation and water control systems for agriculture. They established a vast trading network with the construction of roads extending hundreds of miles throughout 180,000 square miles of territory. As they erected some of the most magnificent architecture ever built by Native Americans, a revolution was underway that would drastically alter the fabric of life in the region. Suddenly, as quickly as it had began, the Anasazi civilization went into a swift decline and collapsed. People migrated away from the canyon and the culture soon vanished, transforming the region once again.

Chaco Canyon has not yet been fully excavated. However, this 10-mile stretch of canyon is home to the most perplexing ancient mysteries in North America. Over one million artifacts are on display in the visitor’s center, however, many others have yet to be unearthed. Visitors come to see not only the architecture, but also a vast collection of artifacts, and the many petroglyphs; they come to glimpse unsolved mysteries left by an ancient people who tamed a hostile land. Who were these people? What was the purpose of this site, and just what happened here? Today, these questions remain mostly unanswered.

The intriguing architecture of Chaco Canyon

Many of the buildings at Chaco Canyon have stood up to the ravages of time and erosion, while others have needed partial or complete restoration. Even so, they are a testament to the engineering skills and construction techniques of these hardy people. In this region, Chaco’s architecture is unprecedented in scale or sophistication.

The Great Houses of the canyon

There are twelve Great Houses in the canyon — and close to 200 exist in the region. These multi-story buildings may have been ancient apartment buildings. They average 200 rooms, but some held as many as seven or eight hundred. Although each Great House is unique, they are all distinctly Chacoan. They may have served as year round residences; however, there is evidence to suggest otherwise. Modern descendants of the Anasazi believe these structures were only occupied for ceremonial purposes, or perhaps trade gatherings. While the evidence seems to support temporary or intermittent occupancy, no one knows for sure.

Pueblo Bonito, built in stages between 850 – 1150 AD, is the largest and most comprehensively excavated ruin in Chaco. With an estimated 700 rooms and 35 kivas (round ceremonial structures), it may have towered 5 stories above the canyon floor. Covering almost 2 acres, this building rivals the Roman Coliseum in size.

A trail winds visitors through the site, pointing out important aspects of the engineering and construction. Pueblo Bonito would be a staggering architectural achievement for any ancient people. Yet for the Anasazi, a people without the benefit of a written language, it is that and more. Skillfully aligned to east-west cardinal directions, a wall bisecting the center of its large courtyard is perfectly aligned north-south.  On either side of the wall is a great kiva, also precisely aligned in cardinal directions. This symmetry is common to all Great Houses of Chaco Canyon.

Kivas, kivas, every-where

A kiva (from Hopi), is a round ceremonial structure. Each Great House features at least one large central kiva (or more), and perhaps a dozen smaller ones. The number of kivas is proportional to the number of rooms in the house. Whether integrated into the larger complex or built as a freestanding, isolated structure, there are hundreds of kivas in Chaco Canyon, including the six “great kivas.” While most would seat fewer, the great kivas accommodated hundreds of people. They are round, often semi-sub-terranean (partially underground) structures, with a bench situated along the length of the inside wall surrounding a central fire pit. Small niches in the wall are evenly spaced above the bench.

While modern pueblo people use the kiva for spiritual or ceremonial practices, they may have served other functions as well, such as a gathering place for social, political, or other events.
Typical of Chacoan kivas are the meticulously placed T-shaped doorways, and the niches set into the round wall. The shape of the door, as well as the purpose of the wall niches are a mystery. However, in at least one Great Kiva (Casa Rinconada), there are 6 additional niches, offset and slightly below the others.

One in particular stands out: It is illuminated during the solstice sunrise as light enters through the doorway. Debate surrounding the original door placement makes this somewhat speculative, however the preponderance of evidence strongly suggests this is no accident. It is not an isolated example – there are many more instances of skilled, thoughtful engineering features that could only have been inspired by solar and lunar cycles.

That Chacoan people were adept sky watchers is undisputed. Precision placements of their buildings as well as the extant petroglyphs bear witness to this.

Chaco is for the adventurous traveler. The canyon is desolate: 60 to 75 miles from the nearest modern towns with services, depending on the direction one enters, north or south.

Visitors to Chaco Canyon will leave with more questions than answers: Why did people settle in this harsh environment with so few natural resources and such environmental extremes? Without the wheel, writing, or pack animals, how did they build on such a grand scale? Why would they build roads 30 feet wide with parallel, seemingly redundant, road segments? Why position monumental architecture with such precision to cardinal directions? What was the main function of Chaco Canyon; was it primarily residential or just for special occasions? Why did they leave so soon after engineering and building such sophisticated structures?

These questions may never be answered, and perhaps that is how it should remain.


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