by Mel Fenson

Reflecting life from a bygone era, Chaco Canyon’s stony ruins protrude from archaeological excavations, back dropped by the wild beauty of sheer rock cliff walls, and provide traces of a once thriving Anasazi culture dating back a thousand years.

Situated in a high-desert landscape dotted with sagebrush, cactus, and dry scrub forests of piñon and juniper, Chaco Canyon is in the four-corners region of northwestern New Mexico between Albuquerque and Farmington. It lays in the San Juan Basin, atop the vast Colorado Plateau, surrounded by the Chuska Mountains in the west, the San Juan Mountains to the north, and the San Pedro Mountains in the east. The canyon is oriented in a northwest-to-southeast direction and is rimmed by mesas. Between AD 900 and 1150, Chaco Canyon was a major center of culture and commerce for the ancient Pueblo Peoples.

The emergence of Chacoan culture, which began in the mid 800s, lasted more than 300 years. The ruins reflect the impressive scale of Chacoan architecture and reveal proof of its fine stone work. Chacoan culture had a complex community life and a sophisticated level of social organization. Chacoans were also engaged in a surprising degree of far-reaching commerce. There is strong evidence of a turquoise processing and trading industry dating from the 10th century. The Chacoans traded with other cultures as far away as Mexico

Archaeological studies indicate the Chacoans were preceded in the canyon by hunter-gatherers, who were descendants of nomadic Clovis hunters that arrived in the Southwest around 10,000 BC. By approximately 900 BC, these people lived at sites in the canyon, such as Atlatl Cave. By approximately AD 490, their descendants, known as Basketmakers, were living in pithouse settlements and farming. The Basketmakers remained in the Chaco Canyon area until around 800, during which time their dwellings had evolved into crescent-shaped stone complexes, which were comprised of four to five residential suites, adjoined subterranean kivas that were used for religious observances and ceremonies. By 850 AD, this ancient Pueblo population, known as the Anasazi or ancient ones, had rapidly expanded and were now living in larger pueblos.

Chacoans quarried sandstone blocks and hauled timber for construction from locations, such as the Chuska Mountains over 50 miles to the west. They built fifteen major complexes, which were the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century. Using masonry techniques unique for their time, they constructed massive stone buildings (Great Houses) of multiple stories, which contained hundreds of rooms. Great Kivas placed nearby, created a symmetrical pattern common to many Chacoan Great Houses. Construction on some of the buildings probably spanned decades or even centuries.

The Chacoans built their complexes along a nine-mile stretch of canyon floor. Their structures were surrounded by sacred mountains, mesas, and shrines that still have deep spiritual meaning for their descendants.

During the middle and late 800s, the great houses of Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Peñasco Blanco were constructed, followed by Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto, and others. Lines of sight between the great houses are thought to have been purposely designed to allow communication between them. Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the Chacoan Great Houses, stands at the foot of Chaco Canyon's northern rim. A structure four stories high with at least 650 rooms, it was the largest Great House of its time.

Most of the complexes in Chaco Canyon averaged more than 200 rooms each and often stood four to five stories tall, The Houses were generally oriented to face the south with adjacent plaza areas and ceremonial kivas. The kivas had distinctive architectural features, including T-shaped doorways and stone lintels.

There is an indication that Chacoan buildings were aligned to capture the solar and lunar cycles and their structures were often oriented to solar and lunar directions. For example, a square of light floods a notch in the wall of Casa Rinconada's Great Kiva on the summer solstice, and locations marked within the Great Kiva are thought by some to have created a simple stellar observatory.

By 1050 AD, Chaco had become the ceremonial, administrative, and economic center of the San Juan Basin. Its sphere of influence was extensive. Dozens of great houses in Chaco Canyon were connected by roads to more than 150 great houses throughout the region. Four ancient Anasazi roads converge at Chaco Canyon. Contemporary Pueblo people say that Chaco was a special gathering place where many peoples and clans converged to share their ceremonies, traditions, and knowledge.

In the 1100s and 1200s, change came to Chaco and its role as a regional center shifted, but its influence continued at the pueblos of Aztec, Mesa Verde, the Chuska Mountains, and other centers to the north, south, and west.

Climate change is thought to have led to the migration of Chacoans and the eventual abandonment of the canyon, beginning with a 50-year drought in 1130 AD. Eventually, the inhabitants, sealed up their storehouses, left their homes there and migrated north to new areas. Archaeological and cultural evidence indicates the people from the region migrated south, east, and west into the valleys and drainages of the Little Colorado River, the Rio Puerco, and the Rio Grande.

The Chacoan sites are considered sacred ancestral homelands of the Hopi and Pueblo people, who continue to maintain oral traditions recounting their historical migration from Chaco and their spiritual relationship to the land. Many Southwest Indian tribes look upon Chaco as a spiritual place to be honored and respected, and consider it an important part of their clans' sacred migration paths.

Numic-speaking peoples, such as the Ute and Shoshone, inhabited the Colorado Plateau beginning in the 12th century. Nomadic Southern Athabaskan speaking peoples, such as the Apache and Navajo, who followed the Pueblo people in this region in the 15th century, acquired Chacoan customs and agricultural skills.

The modern Navajo Nation lies west of Chaco Canyon and many Navajo live in the surrounding areas. The arrival of the Spanish in the 17th century inaugurated an era of subjugation and rebellion. Subsequently, the Chaco Canyon area absorbed Puebloan and Navajo refugees, who fled from the Spanish rule. In succession, as first Mexico, then the US, gained sovereignty over the canyon, military campaigns were launched against the region's remaining inhabitants.

A trader, Josiah Gregg, wrote about the ruins of Chaco Canyon in 1832. In 1849, a U.S. Army detachment passed through the area and surveyed the ruins. The location was so remote, however, that over the next 50 years the canyon was scarcely visited. After a brief reconnaissance by Smithsonian scholars in the 1870s, formal archaeological work began in 1896, when a party from the American Museum of Natural History - the Hyde Exploring Expedition - began excavating Pueblo Bonito. They spent five summers in the region, sent over 60,000 artifacts back to New York, and operated a series of trading posts.

In 1901 Richard Wetherill, who had worked for the Hyde brothers during their expedition, claimed a homestead of 161 acres of land in the area. While investigating Wetherill's land claim, federal land agent Samuel J. Holsinger observed the physical setting of the canyon and its sites, its prehistoric road segments, the stairways above Chetro Ketl, and its prehistoric dams and irrigation systems. His report documented these findings and strongly recommended the creation of a national park to encompass and preserve Chacoan sites. The next year, Edgar Lee Hewett, who was president of New Mexico Normal University, which later became New Mexico Highlands University, mapped many Chacoan sites. Hewett and others were instrumental in enacting the Federal Antiquities Act of 1906, which was the first U.S. law passed to protect antiquities. The law allowed President Theodore Roosevelt to proclaimed Chaco Canyon as a National Monument on March 11, 1907.

In 1949, Chaco Canyon National Monument was expanded with lands deeded from the University of New Mexico. In return, the university maintained scientific research rights to the area. By 1959, the National Park Service had constructed a park visitor center, staff housing, and campgrounds. As a historic property of the National Park Service, the National Monument was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. In 1987, the park was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

To safeguard Chacoan sites on adjacent Bureau of Land Management and Navajo Nation lands, the Park Service developed the multi-agency Chaco Culture Archaeological Protection Site program. The presence of more than 2,400 archaeological sites have been identified within the current park's boundaries, but only a small percentage of these have been excavated.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is now managed by the National Park Service, a federal agency within the Department of the Interior. Neighboring federal lands with Chacoan roads are under the control of the Bureau of Land Management.

The Chaco American Indian Consultation Committee was established in 1991 in order to allow Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo, and other Native American representatives a voice in the park’s management in order to assure protection of their heritage at Chaco Canyon.

In addition to campgrounds in the canyon, the park's visitor center features the Chaco Collection Museum, an information desk, a theater, a book store and a gift shop, but very few artifacts remain on location at Chaco Canyon.

Story edited from information
gathered from web sources and a site visit.

For more information, visit the
Chaco Culture National
Historic Park Museum Collection at:


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