(One of the Kivas at Chaco Canyon Ruins)
Chaco Canyon is a rather desolate place today but I suspect it may not have always been that way. Chaco was the zenith of Pueblo culture in the American Southwest a thousand years ago and the ruins that the people of Chaco left behind are nothing short of amazing. Yet, one wonders just how these ancient people s fed themselves as some archaeologists estimate that at it height Chaco housed thousands of people. Now a new study conducted by Dr Larry Benson of the University of Colorado-Boulder is postulating that the people of Chaco likely imported corn, a food stable for the Pueblo Indians, from mountain to the west of Chaco Canyon. Yet, other researchers do not hold the view that Chaco was ever inhabited by more than a few people as they believe it was primarily a ceremonial center and not a community.
However, if Chaco was a community that at its zenith housed thousands of Pueblo people then they would have to have had the means necessary to feed so many people and the soil in Chaco is not all that great for farming, anything. Benson says that the most significant thing about this study is that it demonstrates that the Chaco people could not have grown large amounts of food in the soil at Chaco and neither could such quantities required be grown in the side canyons enough to feed perhaps several thousands of people.
Benson speculates that, instead, much of the corn was imported from the Chuska Slope which is on the eastern flank of the Chuska Mountains some 50 miles west of Chaco Canyon. We know much of the timber used in the construction of the great houses at Chaco came from this area between the 9th and 12th centuries. Benson employed tree ring data as part of his study technique. The data set was created by University of Arizona Professor Emeritus Jeff Dean. This data showed annual precipitation at Chaco spanning 1100 years and this tree ring data showed the minimum amount of annual precipitation required to grow corn was only exceeded 2.5% of the time during that time period. The Chuska Slope, in contrast, would have been able to produce enough corn for the people of Chaco IF, indeed, thousands of people did live there a thousand years ago. Pueblo people are known to have lived on the slope prior to 1130 AD and it was no small population as estimates range from 11,000 to 17,000 people.
Benson concluded that winter snows in the Chuska Mountains would have produced enough spring snow melt to grow large amounts of corn. This water likely was used to irrigate large corn fields on the slope. Further, the people of Chaco did, in fact, trade on a regular basis with the Pueblo people living on the Chuska Slope and we know this from finds such as chert (stone tool material), pottery, and wooden beams used at Chaco. Continue Reading