(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.
So why was Chaco built in the first place? Many archaeologists find the site puzzling due to its long winters, marginal rainfall, and short growing season. Benson says he doesn’t think anyone is sure why Chaco was built where it was as there was no time when Chaco was “a Garden of Eden.”
The Chaco Canyon ruins (aka: Chaco Culture Natural Historic Park) is located in the San Juan Basin in north-central New Mexico. These ruins are nothing short of magnificent with their great houses and many round Kivas! In fact the site hosts 12 stone masonry Great Houses and several other structures most supported by wooden beams. It also hosts a network of roads linking Chaco to other Pueblo settlements in the Southwest. Reportedly some of these roads were actually lite at night by fire pits scattered along the way. These people had what I believe was a high civilization going on! I’ve been to Chaco Canyon and every time I go I feel the same awe that I felt the very first time I went there long ago.
During my first trip to Chaco I roamed around amazed that the Pueblo people created something so fine as Chaco. I sat in a few of the great round Kivas and studied the Great Houses. I walked through the canyon and it seemed at every turn there was something more amazing to see. However, what we do NOT find is evidence for thousands of people living in Chaco over long periods of time and that has why some researchers think Chaco was mainly a ceremonial site and not a residential site. We also find no graves at Chaco which, if it was a residential community, we should find evidence of UNLESS the people of Chaco used cremation as their normal form of disposing of the deceased.
Another interesting find at Chaco is that the people there apparently drank chocolate from cylinders a thousand years ago! Perhaps this chocolate drinking was some sort of ritual OR perhaps NOT. The Maya drank the same chocolate mixture from ceramic cylinders too and the cylinders, in my mind, show a connection between the Chaco people and the Maya. Perhaps the people of Chaco acquired the chocolate from trade with the Maya or perhaps some of the people living or coming to Chaco were Mayans! We’ve got to get over this idea that ancient cultures lived in relative isolation!!
Scarlet Macaw skeletons have also been found at Chaco Canyon! These birds had to have come from the Mayan country as Macaws don’t live in New Mexico! Researchers are now coming to the opinion that the Chaco people had a vast trade network and that trade with distant people s began at least 150 years earlier than first suspected. Social and political hierarchies likely emerged in the American Southwest earlier than thought as well. This is proof enough that the Chaco people were indeed trading with the Maya of Mesoamerica and they likely were also trading for chocolate and turquoise among other items.
I have long wondered if we are missing something in the American Southwest. I have long wondered it Chaco might not have been some sort of “Capitol” of some as yet unrealized Pueblo “empire.” Or, perhaps it was a Mayan outpost! But wait! I know what you’re thinking! “If so then where are the typical Mayan style pyramids?”. Well, let me tell you a story……
For a very long time there have been rumors in Arizona and New Mexico of Aztec or Mayan style pyramids as yet unknown. Some lay people have looked for them but have found nothing, mostly. I myself POSSIBLY stumbled upon some evidence when I was about 11 years old. I was with my father who was hunting bear near Flagstaff, Arizona in a location known as Sycamore Canyon (which was one of my father’s favorite spots for hunting). After hunting for most of the morning and having no luck we decided to leave the area and along the dirt road we stopped to watch a bald eagle flying overhead. Watching the eagle soar was amazing! I had to relieve myself so I went over to a clump of trees. After doing my business I noticed a semi-smooth reddish stone slab sticking out the bottom of the hill I was near. I immediately called my father over. He looked at it and said it was probably the remains of someone’s old homestead. I was not convinced and, frankly, I’m still not convinced!
I swept some of the forest dirt away to expose more of the slab at the base of a “hill.” I was enthralled by it but my father was not. I even told him maybe there was a pyramid under the hill and he just laughed and told me to get in the truck. Still, I wonder what was under that hill. Why would anyone build their homestead in the side of a hill when there was plenty of open space to build a cabin? I wanted to stick around for a while and investigate further but my father did not so we left. I’ve been back to Sycamore Canyon a few times but I’ve never found this spot again. And here’s something else. Was the great eagle showing us something? Something HIGHLY important and significant? Something that we simply ignored? The little bit of Native American blood in me says YES! Frankly, I don’t think that reddish semi-polished flat stone was the remains of someone’s homestead at all. I think it might have been part of a pyramid structure under that hill! I have no proof BUT that is my suspicion and that continues to be my suspicion today.
This is why I am asking if we have missed something very important in the American Southwest. Granted the Aztecs and Maya had a fantastic civilization and their realm of influence was vast. But how vast? Was it so vast that it extended far into the American Southwest to the point of north-central New Mexico? And here’s something else to consider….
When the Spanish Conquistadors first came to New Mexico they were somewhat taken back and surprised by the rather sophisticated culture that existed among the Pueblo people there. Some thought that the great Pueblo houses these people built out of adobe were “cities of gold” including, initially, the famous Conquistador Coronado who explored the region. Sadly, the Conquistadors were somewhat ruthless in their dealings with Native Americans especially with the Pueblo people and although the Pueblos did mount a somewhat successful revolt against them in 1680 the Spanish marched back into New Mexico and conducted a successful reconquest of the region. In the aftermath they reduced the Pueblo people to a conquered people and demoralized people. And isn’t that always the case? We find the same pattern over and over again throughout human history of the conquerors demoralizing the conquered and eradicating their culture into oblivion! What sad creatures we are……
Corn and Chaco:
Chocolate at Chaco:
Macaws, the Maya, and the People of Chaco Canyon, NM: