The Mystery of Chaco Canyon

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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.

ASTRONOMY CLEARLY PLAYED A MAJOR ROLE in life at Chaco Canyon. Like all pre-historic cultures, the residents of this unforgiving land organized their lives around the harvest. Corn, squash and beans were staple crops that required careful attention to solar cycles, which told the people when to plant and when to reap.

In complex ways that seem inconceivable, Chacoans observed seasonal patterns by following the progress of the sun across the equinox. They tracked the path of its shadow as it cut across stones erected as a sort of astronomical marker. So precise was this ancient calendar that they aligned the massive walls of Pueblo Bonito along the axis of the summer-winter equinox, and then oriented distant buildings and roads according to the same coordinates. It is a feat that impresses to this day.

Experts believe Chaco was an administrative, economic and trade centre with a small core population that swelled at ceremonial times. Shells, macaw feathers and cocoa residue suggest trade with communities in Mesoamerica and the Pacific coast of California.

“BALANCE AND SYMMETRY WERE SO IMPORTANT,” said Winkler, flipping through a binder with photos of pottery shards found at the site. “The Chacoans loved beauty and colour and they were experts at working with turquoise.”

Chaco’s landscape and building ruins are considered sacred territory to the descendants of the original peoples. Traditions and ceremonial knowledge have survived across time from Chaco to the clans of 23 modern day tribes including the Navajo, Zuni and Hopi.

The typical visitor, if they are paying attention, leaves with more questions than answers, for there is still much that the experts do not – and perhaps can never – know. Why did they come to this barren and unforgiving desert? Who lived at this great social experiment? Why did they leave? How did they survive for as long as they did?

The questions are endless. The answers – when available – reside in the oral traditions of successor tribes and they are not willing to tell everything. The Chacoans had no written language, left no records other than those revealed in their pottery, jewellery and buildings.

At this altitude and with the wind from behind, a misstep could be a last step. As we contemplated the trek down from this cliff we were aware that – thousands of years ago – an ancient people figured all this out and, incredibly, made a civilization flourish here.

To their descendants, Chaco was never abandoned. It is still very much alive with the spirit of ancestors who left their imprint on the sacred canyon.

CHACO 101:

  • Getting there is not easy. It’s a 45-minute drive in from the main highway, including 22 kilometres along rough, dirt road that may be impassable in bad weather.
  • Plan to arrive early and stay the day or camp overnight. There is a modest campground at the park but sites do not have electricity or water. Several times each week, the park holds an excellent Night Sky Program at a small observatory.
  • The majority of the sites are self-guided although there are also ranger-led walks. Six major sites are located along the Canyon Loop Drive. Bring sunscreen as shade is non-existent.
  • Chaco is not a busy park. Peak season is May, August, September and June 21, the summer solstice. Winter months on the high desert are chilly and snow happens.
  • Slow down, take a deep breath and revel in this extra-ordinary space.

Who’s writing

Our journey continues. Travel and exploration have become a lifestyle. Taking her expertise (travel writing) and his experience (as a professional musician, teacher and freelance writer), stirring it together and seeing what happens. Add a camper van (a 20-foot Leisure Travel Class B, for those who need the specs), an easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and a chance to escape the never-ending winter of 2013/14. We’ve got a file full of maps and a GPS nicknamed “Hal” that sometimes toys with us (we prefer the maps).