Culture of the Chaco: the builders of the southwestern Pueblo

The “Chaco culture”, as modern archaeologists call it, flourished between about the 9e and 13e centuries AD and was centered at Chaco Canyon in what is now New Mexico.

The people of the Chaco culture built huge structures that sometimes included more than 500 rooms. They were also in the long distance trade that brought cocoa, macaws (a type of parrot), turquoise and copper to Chaco Canyon. [Related: Chaco Canyon Photos: The Center of an Ancient World]

The inhabitants of the Chaco culture did not use a writing system, and as such researchers have to rely on the artifacts and structures they left behind, as well as oral accounts passed down from generation to generation. in generation, to rebuild what their life looked like.

Archaeologists generally agree that Chaco Canyon was the center of Chaco culture. Today the canyon is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The National Park Service estimates that there are around 4,000 archaeological sites in the park, including more than a dozen huge structures that archaeologists sometimes call “Big Houses.” Archaeological research has revealed many finds, including a system of roads connecting many sites of the Chaco culture and evidence of astronomical alignments indicating that some structures of the Chaco culture were oriented towards the solstice sun and lunar stops. .

“There has been more archaeological research carried out in the Chaco and on the subject of the Chaco than on any other prehistoric district in North America,” said a National Park Service statement posted on Chaco Culture National Historic Parkthe website of.

“Today, twenty Puebloan groups in New Mexico, as well as the Hopi in Arizona, claim the Chaco as their ancestral homeland and are linked to this place by oral traditions and clan lineages. A number of Navajo clans are also involved. affiliated with Chacoan sites through their traditional stories, ”the National Park Service statement said.

Despite the fact that there has been an immense amount of archaeological research conducted at Chaco Canyon and other Chaco culture sites in the American Southwest, modern archaeologists disagree on what it looked like. the inhabitants of the Chaco culture.

Some archaeologists believe that the peoples of the Chaco Culture were not politically united, while others think they controlled an empire centered on the Chaco Canyon. “What was the Chaco? Opinions vary widely, perhaps enormously. Interpretations range from a valley of peaceful farming villages to the monumental capital of an empire,” wrote Stephen Lekson, professor at the University of Colorado. Boulder, in an article published in the book “the architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico” (University of Utah Press, 2007).

Lekson noted that there are different interpretations among archaeologists as to what the Great Houses were. Some archaeologists believe they were villages inhabited by thousands of people, while others believe they were elite residences that housed a small number of residents.

Pueblo Bonito, seen from the north rim of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. (Image credit: Douglas Kennett / Penn State University)

Population increase

Around AD 875, there was a sharp increase in population in the Chaco Canyon area, noted Thomas Windes, associate researcher with the New Mexico Bureau of Archaeological Studies, in an article published in the book “The architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico ”(University of Utah Press, 2007). Windes found that the amount of trash was increasing rapidly, indicating that the population in the area had suddenly increased. “Something dramatic happened,” Windes wrote.

Although archaeologists are not sure what caused this dramatic increase in population, they do know that it helped give birth to the culture of the Chaco. “The first large houses were created at the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th centuries; then followed a hiatus of almost a century and an explosion in construction between around 1020 and 1125, ”Lekson wrote in his article. Materials of earth, stone, and wood were used to build many structures from the Chaco culture that archaeologists have found.

Many great houses have been built in the Chaco Canyon. One of the houses, which is known today to “Pueblo Bonito,” may have had more than 600 rooms. This includes several “Great Kiva” (as archaeologists call them), which are huge circular pieces that may have been used for meetings and ceremonies. It also includes crypts that housed over 100 burials. [Related: Chaco Canyon Photos: Amazing Ruins from an Ancient World]

“Pueblo Bonito is an overwhelming structure. With its enormous size, intricate design and fine masonry, the building, even in ruins, clearly represents an impressive technical and aesthetic achievement,” wrote Jill Neitzel, professor at the University of the Delaware, in an article published in the book “The Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico” (University of Utah Press, 2007).

Neitzel noted that Pueblo Bonito was built next to a stone monolith of 30 meters (98 feet high) which collapsed in the 1920s The discoveries made at Pueblo Bonito during the last century include the remains a solitary pine that may have had a symbolic importance and many pieces that may have been used for storage.

However, the purpose and population of Pueblo Bonito remains uncertain. Some archaeologists believe it contained more than 1,000 people, while others believe that only 70 people lived there. “Recent architectural analyzes have suggested that in addition to being an elite residence and ceremonial center, Pueblo Bonito was also a storage facility,” Neitzel wrote.

Commercial objects

The rise of the Chaco culture has led to an influx of commercial goods in Chaco Canyon and surrounding areas. A recent study found that scarlet macaws, a colorful parrot, were brought to Pueblo Bonito from Mesoamerica in the late 9e century AD in journeys that took at least 1,500 kilometers (932 miles).

Scarlet macaws would have been a fantastic luxury item that could have helped determine who in Chaco Canyon was in an elite class. These class divisions were “reinforced in the late 9th and 10th centuries by the acquisition of scarlet macaws and other powerful cosmological agents from Mesoamerica,” said Stephen Plog, professor of archeology at the University of Virginia and one of the co-authors of the study, in a Press release issued by the American Museum of Natural History.

Cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, was also brought from Mesoamerica to Chaco Canyon in AD 900, according to research. It was consumed as a drink in jars with patterns similar to those found in Mesoamerica.

The chocolate and scarlet macaws were just the tip of the iceberg, as archaeologists found objects in turquoise, copper, and seashells believed to have been made from materials imported from some distance away. Even the wood used in buildings was imported.

A University of Arizona study found that prior to AD 1020 most of the timber used in Chaco Canyon came from the Zuni Mountains, located about 80 km to the south, while after AD 1060, much of the timber came from the Chuska Mountains about 50 miles to the west. The amount of timber imported into Chaco Canyon from these regions was immense. “The casual observer will see hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of beams protruding from the walls. There is wood all over these structures,” said lead author Christopher Guiterman, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona, in one Press release.

Blocks of rooms in Pueblo Bonito. (Image credit: George Perry / Penn State University)

Moms rule

A recent study indicates that power in Pueblo Bonito appears to have been passed down through maternal lines. In other words, being in the elite depended on who your mother was, not who your father was.

The discovery was made by performing a DNA analysis of nine people who were buried in a crypt at Pueblo Bonito. The crypt contains thousands of shell beads and turquoise, and many archaeologists believe that the individuals buried in the crypt were part of an elite family that held some power in Pueblo Bonito.

DNA analysis revealed that the nine people were maternally related and collectively the nine people appear to have lived between around 800 and 1130. They may have formed a dynasty of sorts at Pueblo Bonito.

mysterious collapse

The Chaco cultivation sites declined in the 13e and 14e centuries, gradually becoming abandoned. At Pueblo Bonito, “complete abandonment in the 1300s was marked by a variety of termination and closure rituals, including widespread burning,” Neitzel wrote.

Research indicates that the American Southwest was hit by a series of droughts around this time which may have led to the end of Chaco cultivation, uprooting people and forcing them to move to places where there were more water. Mesa Verde, a region straddling Colorado, Utah and New Mexico has flourished during the 13e century and some people who lived in the Chaco culture sites may have settled there.

However, not all scientists agree that there has been sufficient drought to result in the abandonment of the Chaco cultivation sites. A research team reported in an article in the 2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they had examined the archaeological and environmental records and found no evidence of an event serious enough to cause the ‘abandonment of Chaco Canyon and neighboring areas.

There is “no clear indication that the 13th-century depopulation of the canyon was caused by specific cultural practices or natural events,” the researchers wrote in the review article. “There was clearly a reason why these farmers eventually moved elsewhere, but archaeological records have yet to produce convincing empirical evidence as to what that reason might have been.”

Pottery and wooden flute found in the graves of elite individuals at Pueblo Bonito. (Image credit: Roderick Mickens / Copyright American Museum of Natural History)

Modern-day Chaco Canyon

Today, Chaco Canyon is a national park and a national monument, protecting its ruins from development. In 2013, Chaco Canyon was declared a Dark Sky Park, a designation meant to protect it from light pollution, allowing visitors to see the stars.

While the Trump administration is considering removing national monument status from sites that received the designation after 1996, Chaco Canyon is not expected to be affected as it was designated a national monument in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

However, Chaco’s national monument status may not protect it from all forms of development pressures. Recently, permission was given for hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique that extracts oil or gas from deep underground, to take place near Chaco Canyon. The Navajo contest this decision by noting that pollution from fracking threatens the ruins and the inhabitants of the region at large.

Additional resources

NPS: Chaco Culture National Historic Park

UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Culture of the Chaco

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