Impressive ruins. A must-see stop for anyone interested in American Indian culture and history, archaeology and archaeoastronomy


A STRONG WIND FROM BEHIND and a steep cliff are not a reassuring combination. That’s what we found after hiking to the top of the mesa overlooking the great house ruins of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture National Historic Park. But the vista . . . what a sight!

 By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones

It was a bird’s eye view of the largest and most sophisticated of the pre-historic stone structures of Chaco Canyon in remote northwest New Mexico. We hiked to the mesa top by scrambling over boulders, along a steep crack in the cliff wall. The cliff forms the backdrop for a triumph of architecture that was once the centerpiece of Chacoan culture, a civilization that reached its high water mark between 850 and 1250 AD.

Chaco – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – was the heart of a far-reaching ceremonial, trade and cultural network. It’s a must-see stop for anyone interested in American Indian culture and history, archaeology and archaeoastronomy (the study of the astronomical practices, celestial lore, mythologies, religions).

The ruins of monumental public buildings built to impress – called “great houses” – are scattered across the canyon floor. More of these public structures are concentrated here than in any other one spot across the Southwest. The question is, why? Chaco was the ceremonial centre of the Ancestral Puebloans, holding deep significance for the Southwest Indians of today. It remains a place of mystery.


“FROM WHAT WE KNOW AND BELIEVE, everything was very organized, on a scale not seen before or elsewhere,” speculated Cindy Winkler, a National Parks ranger who leads interpretive walks through the park’s ruins. “It’s quiet here now but at the time it would have been a very busy centre of trade.”

For the Chacoans, the landscape of rock, piñon and creosote was a powerful spiritual draw. In the space of several hundred years, they erected numerous “great houses” (using a mind-boggling 50 million slabs of sandstone), dug canals, and built a network of over-sized roads so straight that experts believe they were carefully planned before construction began. These massive projects were completed without benefit of the wheel, oxen or horse. Winkler paused for a moment, “To construct these buildings, some of the beams would have been carried by hand from the Chuska and San Juan Mountains, 60 to 100 miles away.”

Seen from above, the walls of Pueblo Bonito curve in an enormous D-shape. More than 600 rooms and 35 ceremonial kivas were organized into four storeys, very meticulously constructed along axes that trace the seasonal equinox and solstice.

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