SW National Parks Trip: Chaco Culture History


The next day on our trip was our visit to Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  Chaco Culture is located in the San Juan Basin, between Farmington, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a canyon cut by the Chaco Wash.  It is situated at an elevation between 6200 and 6400 feet.  The wash rarely contains water, only filling when a storm rolls through the area.  The area where the park is located receives an average of 9.1 inches of rain annually.  Although the temperatures fluctuate wildly, from -38 degrees in the winter to 102 in the summer, there are only 3 or 4 snow storms each year.

Evidence of human habitation goes back to about 7,000 B.C., with about 70 campsites in caves and on the canyon floor found in the area.  As with other areas in the Southwest, the first people to live here were nomadic or semi-nomadic, but the first evidence of farming dates to about 900 B.C.  As time went on and farming techniques improved, the population increased and people became less and less nomadic.  As in nearby areas, the first housing structures were pit houses, with a portion of the home dug into the ground and timbers, grasses and mud laid over top.  About 800 A.D. the first stone construction began.

Between 900 and 1150 Chaco Canyon evolved into a major cultural center for the Puebloan people; they began building Great Houses that consisted of anywhere between 200 and 700 rooms, and were up to 4 stories high, with spiritual kivas.  The Great Houses were designed and planned, rather than other types of Puebloan architecture where rooms were added on in stages without a formal architectural plan.  The final look of the Great House was known before construction even began, even though some of the Great Houses took decades, or even centuries to complete.  The lack of hearths in many Great House rooms lead researchers to believe that they were not residential complexes, but existed more as spiritual centers or places were people gathered periodically through the year to trade.

Looking out at Pueblo Bonito from above

Looking out at Pueblo Bonito from above

The boundaries of the current park contain 14 known Great Houses.  The archaeological record shows that these Great Houses were built along precise directional lines, with points lining up to mark event like equinoxes and solstices.  The fact that this complex construction was so precise indicates that the builders at Chaco Canyon had considerable knowledge of astronomy.  In fact, one pictograph at Chaco Culture NHP is thought to be a depiction of the Supernova of 1054.  I first heard about the Supernova when we did the Moab Astronomy tour.

Excavation at the sites also uncovered evidence of turquoise and obsidian manufacturing here.  Raw materials were transported here and then fashioned into beads, necklaces and pendants.  Seashells, copper bells, and the remains of macaws and parrots native to Central America also indicate that the Chacoans had an extensive trading network.  Roads were created that link the Great Houses at Chaco to over 150 other Great Houses in the area.  These are more than just foot paths, rather they are planned and engineered roads; over 400 miles of roads are known today.

Like other sites of the Puebloan people, Chaco Canyon and its Great Houses were abandoned beginning in the late 1100s; there were several severe droughts in the area that may have been the catalyst for the populations of the area to move elsewhere.  The ruins were “re-discovered” by the Western world in the 1800s; the governor of New Mexico documented them in a trip to the area in 1823.  The U.S. Army surveyed the area in 1849, but due to the remote location, Chaco Canyon was not visited with any regularity for another 50 years.  Formal archaeological work was begun in 1896 by the Museum of Natural History.  An excavation of Pueblo Bonito, the largest Great House at Chaco Canyon, yielded over 60,000 artifacts that were sent to New York.

One of the walls of Pueblo Bonito

One of the walls of Pueblo Bonito

In 1901, Richard Wetherill, the same man who led all those people up into the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, claimed a homestead of 160 acres at Chaco Canyon.  His homestead included the Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Kelt, and Pueblo del Arroyo sites.  The controversy surrounding his homestead claim was one of the major catalysts for the passage of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which paved the way for the designation of Chaco Canyon as a federally protected site.

Theodore Roosevelt designated Chaco Canyon National Monument on March 11, 1907; Richard Wetherill relinquished his homestead claim.  The area was designated on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, and on December 19, 1980, another 13,000 acres were added to the park.  At that time, it became Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.  It currently encompasses about 33,978 acres.

Its remote location limits visitation even today; in 2011 it received only 39,175 visitors.  Some of this is due to the challenging road leading to the park.  We were lucky enough to make it there on our recent trip, so in my next posts, I will tell you about our visit!

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