An Ancient Southwestern Town

June 14, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Ancient history can be a difficult subject for students because it is inherently foreign to them. Not only is there a language difference, but it is genuinely difficult to envision life removed from today’s technologies. When speaking of ancient cities, most people think of ancient Greece or Rome, but today I want to focus on an ancient city of the southwestern United States.

Chaco Canyon, located in northwestern New Mexico, is a great example of an early city. Archaeologists continue to find information which explains this rare and incredible site to us. Getting there today is not so easy, but in the past, Chaco was the center of a large pueblo system that covered up to 60,000 miles. According to the Chaco Culture Complete Guide by Gian Mercurio and Maxymillian L. Peschel (Chaco Complete Guide),

“There are 400 miles of documented roads that connected Great Houses in the canyon with perhaps 150 large pueblos in all four directions. Eight roads lead out of the canyon…. The Great North Road is mainly aligned to true (celestial) north. Many road segments are aligned to the rising of stars or constellations. In some places there are two parallel pairs of roads, each thirty feet wide and the pairs separated by 50 feet, for no apparent reason…. Outliers, or great houses outside Chaco, are defined by a cluster of small unit pueblos around large public buildings and great kivas. Many are associated with roadways….Through these outliers there is line-of-sight communication between Chaco and Mesa Verde.”

A great kiva on the floor of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

A great kiva on the floor of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Archeologists have identified various construction styles by which they have labeled the phases of Chaco. Archaeologists use dendrochronology (using tree rings to date the construction) as well as noting the level of sophistication in building techniques in order to date the various structures. According to the Chaco Complete Guide, Chaco began as a sparsely populated area. In the beginning (ca. BC 9300) it was used as a hunting ground for mammoth and giant bison. Archaeologists use the term Paleo-Indians for this time up until about 5500 BC in which the pueblo peoples enter the Archaic period. As the hunting grounds changed, so did the peoples who used Chaco. They began to leave small camps filled with stone tools. The Chaco Complete Guide adds that, “Around 3000 BC, the size of camps increased, postholes are found, and the atlatl (spear thrower) came into use, as did cooking in large subsurface ovens. But the people still moved with the seasons.” As the community grew, they began to use caves, they developed basketry and grew maize. Between 800 and 400 BC, they cultivated squash.

From 400-700 AD, many changes began to take place. The bow and arrow was introduced as well as pottery. Beans became a staple diet and most importantly, pit houses allowed for full time residences. During this time, the community began to perfect the pit house model by digging down into the earth one or two feet to allow for better temperature regulation. They also added a center hole at the top of the structure for ventilation. Pit houses then became kivas, as the community built surface houses. These structures contain many levels, often with the lowest and darkest levels reserved for storage which might contain pottery, turquoise, food, baskets, etc.

The remnants of Kin Kletso, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The remnants of Kin Kletso, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Chaco stands apart from other plateau pueblos in that during the massive constructions, it became a town. With large plazas, many kivas, and long apartment-style buildings, Chaco was able to support a large population. Those who lived here spoke many languages, but shared customs, traits and religious views. They also traveled between the various pueblos of Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. They traded with tribes from Latin and South America. They exchanged ideas which is demonstrated in the various types of construction styles, pottery styles and clothing. Unfortunately, weather finally forced the peoples to relocate. According to the Chaco Complete Guide, “A fifty year drought began in the mid-1100s. If people continued to live in the canyon there is little evidence of it.”

While they may have had to move to new fields and build new homes, however, many people continued to visit and rely upon the spiritual practices found at Chaco Canyon, which are still practiced today. The Hopi, which would have been one of the peoples present in Chaco’s heyday, incorporated a sipapu, or hole in the center of their floor to represent the “emerging hole.” In this tradition, it is said that “Grandmother Spider and two grandsons, the Hero Twins, led the animals and the people out of the dark land. They climbed a pine tree, moving up to a dimly lit world. Grandmother Spider led them on. As they climbed, it got lighter. At last they emerged from a hole in the floor of a canyon. They stepped out into brightness on the surface of the earth.”* At Chaco, too, they felt that “every tribe came into this world from their own ‘emerging place.’ They were each to migrate from place to place, learning what they needed, until it was time to return to their own center place. Chaco Canyon, for all of its magnificence, was just another stop in their migrations.” (Chaco Complete Guide)

Weather ranges greatly at Chaco. While mostly dry, it can quickly become a flood zone. Winds and breezes blow most days, and when they don’t, the air turns hot. At an elevation of over 6,000 feet, the Chacoans found a climate ideally suited to their needs and built one of the southwest’s first true towns. I wonder what they would be able to tell us about trade and immigration, about community and harvests. How long did they wait out the drought before moving on? How did they identify future communities? Was it difficult to leave the grand, bustling city for a quieter, less-trafficked and distant pueblo?

With over 4,000 archaeological sites, Chaco Canyon makes for an excellent research project, vacation destination, or picnic area. Also, each fall, the National Parks celebrate International Archaeology Day. Check back on their website in the upcoming months to find a celebration near you!

And finally, for teachers who need an archaeology-based lesson plan (for mid to high school), the park service has some resources. Here is one potential lesson plan.

* From The Hopis: A First Americans Book by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, 1995.

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