If you take a two-lane blacktop three hours northwest of Albuquerque New Mexico, 1 you’ll find a sign for the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which also reads
May Be Impassible
Travel At Your Own Risk
They’re not lying. That dusty thirteen miles (21 kilometers) of unpaved dirt road stretching off into the scrub desert turns into into cake-icing mud with even a light rain or snow, although they do grade down the deep ruts once in awhile. The park service’s website warns that “The 4 1/2 miles before entering the park are very rough,” that you may get stuck, and recommends you only attempt it with a high-clearance vehicle. My parents and I made it through with a minivan a day after it had snowed (see header image), but it wasn’t easy. Word has it that this is all by design, to depress the number of tourists, to help protect what lies at the end of that road.
But that difficult drive is worth every washboard and rut, because Chaco Canyon Park was where a long-gone Native American culture rose and fell, leaving behind the largest Pre-Columbian 2ruins in North America stretching across along a 7.5 mile (14 km) stretch of canyon floor, ruins that would remain the biggest structures on the North American continent until the 1800s.
So before we look at those ruins themselves, who built them? Back about 850 CE (or AD), a somewhat mysterious Native American culture arose in the Four Corners region of the US3 and started building many large and celestially-aligned buildings and roads. “Mysterious” because they left no written records, we don’t know why they lived in this area for over a thousand years and then suddenly decided they needed to build such large structures, what they believed about the universe and their place in it, how their society worked, or even what they called themselves.
They’re most often called “the Anasazi” today, a word first used in 1927 by Richard Wetherill who was the first Westerner (“white man,” yeah) to “discover” and explore the Mesa Verde cliff-dwelling ruins back in 1888. Wetherill knew the Navajo (or Diné) language and oral traditions about the “ancient ones” or “ancient enemies” who once lived in Chaco Canyon, so he used their name for the people who had built Mesa Verde, and it’s stuck ever since. Modern Pueblo Peoples, 4most likely the descendants of the original Chaco Canyon builders, don’t care for it though, because they don’t speak Navajo of course, and they find that whole “enemy” thing insulting. Others think that the Navajo don’t really have a solid heritage connection to the original inhabitants, and may not have even existed as a cohesive group until five hundred years after the ruins were abandoned. Like any feud between neighbors, it all gets pretty divisive pretty quickly, and I’m not familiar enough with the topic to do any side of it justice, so I won’t use “Anasazi,” although it’s still worth knowing because its widely used. Some (like Wikipedia) call these builders “Ancestral Pueblo People,” which seems fair enough, but even better to me (as it’s easier to type) is “Chacoans,” so I’ll stick to that.
Western archeologists and variously connected Native American groups have traditions and theories about what Chacoan culture may have been like. Those Navajo oral traditions that Wetherill drew upon for instance describe a divine gambler or gambling-god named Noqoìlpi (“He-Who-Wins-Men (at play)”) who showed up one day, bet everybody against slavery that he could beat them at various games, and proceeded to do just that. Noqoìlpi set his new slaves to building everything across the Four Corners area to create a dark empire to control nature and the elements, but was defeated by a cohort of gods who shot him to the moon like an arrow (he later returned to Earth to rule the Mexican People). Navajo oral history goes on to say that former enslaved tribes didn’t actually include themselves (of course), and those unfortunate people then left the area, while the Navajo stayed behind to prevent the power of Chaco from being used again.5 So were the original Chacoans
- an open amalgam of various tribes who gathered in Chaco canyon from time to time for ceremonies and trade?
- a single family that ruled down the generations? (a DNA study from historical burials suggests a matrilineal line, like the Hopi live today)
- a despotic empire of reviled elites who ruled through institutionalized violence and were overthrown?
Maybe some mix of all three? Something else? We can’t say.
One thing we can confirm about Chacoan culture was their (possibly religious) passion for astronomy, much like the Aztec and the Maya in South America. They may have even chosen to build their stuff in Chaco Canyon based how it aligns with celestial features above it (one archeologist says that the structures in Chaco Canyon mirror the star placement in the constellation Orion). Multiple petroglyphs and their structure placement appear to depict and mirror all sorts of celestial things:
- One petroglyph may document the bright supernova of 1054 CE that created the Crab Nebula, which would have been impossible to miss in the night sky.
- Another may show the 1097 CE solar eclipse that notably lasted for a rare and solid five minutes, whose projected path of the moon’s shadow does indeed cross right over the Four Corners area.
- The “Sun Dagger” petroglyph is a spiral pattern pecked into a rock in such a place that “a dagger of light” shone on it from between two other stones on both spring and fall equinoxes Each ring of that spiral petroglyph also thusly counted off the oscillating 18.6-year “lunar excursion cycle” of the rising mid-winter full moon.
- Many of the structures across the canyon also line up with the cardinal points and the paths of the Sun and Moon. Rather than try and track them all down to list here, I’ll just quote one from a single source: ”two other complexes… share an axis collinear with the passage of the full ‘maximum moon’ .. refer[ing] to the azimuthal extreme points in the lunar excursion cycle, or the swings in direction relative to true north that the setting full moon exhibits. It takes roughly 9.25 years for the rising or setting full moon nearest to winter solstice to proceed from its maximum azimuthal north, or ‘maximum extremum,’ to its southernmost azimuth, known as ‘minimum extremum.’
I’m not even sure I follow all of that,6 but Chacoans obviously did, and took it very, very seriously. And that’s just one example, that source listed at least four more, and was just a short article. Remember that this sort of celestial knowledge was nothing new for mankind: The Antikythera Mechanism was at least eight hundred years old by the Chacoan Era for example, and a Mesolithic “calendar monument” from about 8000 BCE (about five thousand years before Stonehenge) in the UK also tracks these same lunar cycles. Still, I find it kind of mind blowing to consider how many years – centuries probably – that it would have taken a culture, any culture, to learn all these astronomical patterns and then very carefully plan all their buildings to match it, while we can barely get a recycling program going.
Venturing out onto a more speculative “but hey, who really knows?” limb, some think that the Chacoans may have communicated across much of their area via using “obstructed fire” signals at night and smoke signals during the day. Being able to communicate across your lands nearly instantaneously obviously has its uses, from military to starting ceremonies simultaneously. But how true is that? Well, some of the towers and mesa-top structures do happen to fall into line of sight of one another, like the Chimney Rock ruins about eighty-five miles away as the crow flies. They sit atop a high ridge (near the titular spire of rock), elevating them an extra three hundred feet above the surrounding landscape’s near-four thousand feet above sea level height (or about 91 meters higher than the surrounding 1219), while Chaco Canyon’s structures stand in the low six thousands of feet (18 thousand meters) above sea level. The park tour guide who helped us tourists up that arduous climb told us that one could flash a hand mirror 7 up top and be seen in Chaco Canyon, thanks to a cleft in the intervening mountains.8 I don’t know if this all is really true or some near- von Daniken level of silliness, but I did find some apparently reliable stuff online that took the idea of smoke signals etc. pretty seriously… but hey, who really knows?
Chacoan culture just sort of ground to a halt by 1150 CE, then completely abandoned the area less than a hundred years later in 1280 CE or so, perhaps due to drought 9 and other environmental problems, 10political/societal troubles, 11or some combination of both. The remaining/surviving Chacoans spread themselves around but mainly appear to have moved about 55 miles (89 km) due north to a place now (misnamed) “Aztec Ruins.” Their descendants got along alright there till they moved away in the 1400s, going nearly 400 hundred miles (644 km) south of Chaco Canyon into the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua and merged with the local population in a place called called Paquimé, or Casas Grandes. Perhaps that’s why Noqoìlpi returned from the moon to rule in Mexico, he was just following his people.
Like so much else that we think we know about Chacoan Culture, all this is educated guesswork based on both science and oral traditions, but no one’s really sure exactly which modern Native American group can claim direct descent and cultural “ownership” of the Chacoan Culture. The National Park Service however stepped into that mess by ruling in 1999 that both the 18 modern-day Pueblo tribes as well as the Navajo can claim Chaco Canyon 12 and Chacoan heritage, basing their decision on archeological study and… just that Navajo oral history. Like the word “Anasazi,”, the whole thing’s still fraught with politics that I neither fully know or should comment on; if anything I write here appears to, that’s due to my ignorance or perhaps a source I consulted without recognizing its bias.
What can’t be contested is what the Chacoans left behind: several spread-out ruins of huge structures, hundreds of miles of what may be roads, and irrigation features such as dams, canals and reservoirs (which still didn’t save them in the face of that drought). And they built everything without beasts of burden (horses wouldn’t arrive for hundreds of years) or any sort of wheeled cart, despite often collecting their stone and timber supplies from miles away.
The Great Houses
Chacoan culture is probably best known by tourists for its scenic “cliff dwellings” like Mesa Verde13 which were built underneath cliff overhangs or into shallow caves, but they’re nearly elfin in scale next to the massive Chaco Canyon “great houses” that were the centers of Chaco Canyon life. The two largest of these great houses are now called Chetro Ketl (apparently a garbled Navajo phrase for “shining house” or “house in the corner”) and Pueblo Bonito (Spanish for for “beautiful town”), which were built less than half a mile from one another. Like any other large Chacoan large complexes, they’re oriented toward various astronomical markers and cardinal directions, and are presumed to have been built in places that were sacred to the Chacoans. Tree ring dating and other archeological work tells us that these large buildings were constructed in stages between between 850 and 1150 AD (or CE), across two or three generations, and weren’t fully abandoned until the 1200s. Both great houses cover over three acres and are as large as the Roman Coliseum in Italy, easily rivaling anything in South America. Pueblo Bonito is the best known (and therefore the best documented, it seems) of the great houses, perhaps because it may also be the least damaged by time, so I’m mostly going to stick to describing just that one. Keep in mind that Chetro Ketl is barely smaller.14
fig. 1: Pueblo Bonito, brought to you by the letter D
Pueblo Bonito once stood four and five stories tall on its footprint that looks something like a capital letter D that’s 174 yards (160 meters) long, with the rows of rooms and floors hugging the inside of the curved section. It probably had about 800 rooms that were each part of one of fifteen interior divisions connected from one to the next by low, T-shaped doorways. That T-shape isn’t thought to be of any utilitarian use, so people speculate the shape carried some significance but again, we don’t really know.15 Those stacks of rooms half-surrounded two great plaza areas (bisected from one another by a wall running north to south, for some reason) that housed ceremonial kivas, which were basically “Chacoan churches.”16
fig. 2: An excavated kiva.
Kivas of various sizes are round rooms dug down into the earth and topped with logs and earth to preserve/create that plaza space, and are ubiquitous in Chacoan architecture. For its size, Pueblo Bonito surprisingly only had one entrance near its southeast corner, which was just seven feet (2 meters) wide when first built, and then later narrowed down to just three. They sealed it up completely when they finally abandoned it, perhaps for religious reasons.
The above-the-ground walls of Pueblo Bonito and other similar nearby structures are “core and veneer walls,” where some rough sandstone blocks 17 were set with mud to create two parallel load-bearing walls, and then the space between them filled in with rubble. Chacoans then covered their outside facing surfaces with more finely shaped stones set in more mud to create a smoother surface, and then all that got plastered down, although that plaster (probably more mud) is long gone by now. So these first story walls were made quite thick (often three feet) from the very beginning, which tells us that the Chacoans were already planning on building the upper floors (now all collapsed).
It’s estimated that only about fifty to a hundred people 18 actually lived inside Pueblo Bonito at any given time, with maybe two to six thousand over the whole Chaco area. That information leads to today’s received wisdom that the great houses weren’t so much cities where people lived out their lives, but gathering spots for a more spread-out populous that came together on certain occasions for perhaps food storage, religious reasons, or maybe trade. Speaking of that trade, a number of archeological finds show their trading reached as far as Pacific Ocean (oceanic shells) and South America (special cylindrical jars with chocolate residue that clearly came up from Mexico, macaw and parrot skeletons). They probably traded turquoise objects they had created, one source said much of the turquoise found in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, came from this area.
fig.3: Thanks, helpful Park Service display sign!
The Navajo call Pueblo Bonito “tse biyaa anii’ahi,” (“Leaning Rock Gap,” or “Threatening Rock”) after a massive section of separated cliff face stone that once stood 97 feet (30 meters) tall behind it. I’m not sure if it was the Navajo or the Chacoans who placed prayer sticks 19 in the gap between the standing rock and cliff wall to ensure it stayed up, but they worked until 1941 when it finally toppled after some heavy rain. You can see where it took down some of the great house’s back wall in the aerial photo in the included Google Maps screen shot.
Chacoans built an estimated 3 or 700 miles (483 or 1126 km; sources vary) of roads radiating across their land around 1050 to 1125 CE, which probably weren’t used after 1140 CE, and they’re unlike anything the cultures they had been before or would become ever built. They were mostly scraped out of the earth to create a flat surface twenty to thirty feet wide (9 meters, about as wide as a modern two-lane highway) with stone borders. The Chacoans didn’t take short cuts by routing them around higher or rougher ground either, these roads are ruler-straight and include some road cuts they had to excavate. Some run to and from springs or lakes, while others end (or begin?) at staircases and ramps that reach up to what must have been Chacoan sites of significance.20
The largest of these is the Great North Road, which one archeologist suggests might have been so placed to mirror the cant of the Milky Way in the sky above. It’s about 60 miles (97 km) of mostly straight lanes, Much of it is two, and for one stretch about a kilometer and a half, four closely spaced, parallel roads. It descends by staircases into Chaco Canyon and through the least developed region towards Pueblo Alto, another large ruin near the north rim of the canyon. From there it runs almost due north for 50 km to Kutz Canyon, where it ends at a stairway that descends to the canyon’s floor. There are no communities on the road’s final run to Kutz Canyon And most of the outlying Chacoan communities are to the south, west and east. Few health spots found along the road suggest there was little encampment along it, although several concentrations of pottery shards have been found, suggesting some deliberate, ceremonial breakage of vessels there.
But why did they build hundreds of miles of these if they had no beast of burden or even wheeled conveyances? Why build them so wide and sometimes redundantly if they were just for walking along? The Navajo think they were used for transporting all that lumber they needed (which had to come from further and further away as time went by, some as far away as 43 miles or 70 km), while historic Pueblo beliefs mention a North Road leading to sipapu, where their ancestors emerged from a dimensional doorway into our current Fourth World 21, and where the spirits of the dead travel. Maybe calling it a road is coloring our perceptions – if they were of spiritual significance (that is a lot of wasted effort for just utilitarian use), these may not have been “roads” as we think of them at all. Or maybe they were built for a mix of the two. Again, we’ll never really know. I think that’s one of the reasons these ruins are so fascinating, they present us with mysteries we’ll never really be able to answer but are so intriguing to ponder.
Mostly filled in by time, little of the roads are visible today unless you’re NASA and have a spare thermal radar detection satellite (which is how we found these roads in the first place in the 1980s).
Other Chacoan Ruins
There are so many related ruins from about the same time period or shortly thereafter – hundreds, maybe thousands – many of which haven’t even been well studied, 22 just look at how many are in Colorado alone https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Ancestral_Puebloan_dwellings_in_Colorado And that’s just one of the Four Corners states! Many don’t look like that much; one I’ve visited was barely more than a large mound of rubble with some suggestive shapes peeking through to give you some idea of where a wall once stood, or sunken divot where a kiva once rested below the surface. Others are intact enough like Pueblo Bonito to give you some idea of what they were like in their day. I strongly encourage you to visit any and all sanctioned sites you might stumble across if you pass through the area, or at least to look them up online. Just a smattering of such spots off the top of my head: Mesa Verde, Aztec Ruins, Hovenweep Canyon de Chelly, Kin Ya’a.
The austere beauty of landscape these ruins are set against is also worth your time. The Four Corners area is an arid region of desert scrub of sagebrush, cactus and the occasional piñon and juniper forests. It only gets about 8 to 9 inches of rain a year and the temperature ranges between −38 to 102 °F (−39 to 39 °C); some days swing back and forth over 60 °F (33 °C). It also usually gets less than 150 frost-free days a year. Being out in the middle of nowhere like this with such dry air, the clear night sky is one of the darkest in the US. Living in the city, you can still see a few stars in the night sky, but they’re about as exciting as pennies on a sidewalk. Get away from the light pollution to see them glow in all their spectral glory. The Park Service closes the park at night unless you’re lucky enough to reserve a camping spot, 23and they say the star-spangled night sky is breathtaking. Someday I hope to see that for myself.
If you do get a chance to visit, please remember:
- Pets aren’t allowed and keep your children pets with you at all times.
- Do not climb on the walls, these ruins are fragile, like any ruins.
- Stay on the trails.
- Watch for the open kivas, which haven’t been railed off (doing so would detract from their historical relevance).
- Most trails are graveled but there is a wheelchair accessible route.
- Don’t take anything other than pictures (pottery shards abound, but taking one will supposedly bring down a curse upon you).
- Don’t deface or alter anything.
- This is a historical site is sacred to the Hopi, Pueblo Peoples and the Navajo, so treat it with respect.