Chaco Culture National Historical Park

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NM, United States
San Juan Pueblo , New Mexico

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a United States National Historical Park hosting the densest and most exceptional concentration of pueblos in the American Southwest. The park is located in northwestern New Mexico, between Albuquerque and Farmington, in a remote canyon cut by the Chaco Wash. Containing the most sweeping collection of ancient ruins north of Mexico, the park preserves one of the United States' most important pre-Columbian cultural and historical areas.

Between AD 900 and 1150, Chaco Canyon was a major center of culture for the Ancient Pueblo Peoples.Chacoans quarried sandstone blocks and hauled timber from great distances, assembling fifteen major complexes that remained the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century.Evidence of archaeoastronomy at Chaco has been proposed, with the "Sun Dagger" petroglyph at Fajada Butte a popular example. Many Chacoan buildings may have been aligned to capture the solar and lunar cycles,requiring generations of astronomical observations and centuries of skillfully coordinated construction.Climate change is thought to have led to the emigration of Chacoans and the eventual abandonment of the canyon, beginning with a fifty-year drought commencing in 1130.


Chaco Canyon lies within the San Juan Basin, atop the vast Colorado Plateau, surrounded by the Chuska Mountains to the west, the San Juan Mountains to the north, and the San Pedro Mountains to the east. Ancient Chacoans drew upon dense forests of oak, pinon, ponderosa pine, and juniper to obtain timber and other resources. The canyon itself, located within lowlands circumscribed by dune fields, ridges, and mountains, is aligned along a roughly northwest-to-southeast axis and is rimmed by flat massifs known as mesas. Large gaps between the southwestern cliff faces—side canyons known as rincons—were critical in funneling rain-bearing storms into the canyon and boosting local precipitation levels.The principal Chacoan complexes, such as Pueblo Bonito, Nuevo Alto, and Kin Kletso, have elevations of 6,200 to 6,440 feet (1,890 to 1,960 m)


Dark, rolling storm clouds lower over a desert landscape; a butte stands in the near distance, left of center.
Summer thunderstorms over Fajada Butte and the Fajada Gap, near the southwestern rim of Chaco Canyon.

After the Pangaean supercontinent sundered during the Cretaceous period, the region became part of a shifting transition zone between a shallow inland sea—the Western Interior Seaway—and a band of plains and low hills to the west. A sandy and swampy coastline oscillated east and west, alternately submerging and uncovering the area atop the present Colorado Plateau that Chaco Canyon now occupies.

The Chaco Wash flowed across the upper strata of what is now the 400-foot (120 m) Chacra Mesa, cutting into it and gouging out a broad canyon over the course of millions of years. The mesa comprises sandstone and shale formations dating from the Late Cretaceous,which are of the Mesa Verde formation.The canyon bottomlands were further eroded, exposing Menefee Shale bedrock; this was subsequently buried under roughly 125 feet (38 m) of sediment. The canyon and mesa lie within the "Chaco Core," distinct from the wider Chaco Plateau, the latter a flat region of grassland with infrequent stands of timber. As the Continental Divide is only 15.5 miles (25 km) east of the canyon, geological characteristics and different patterns of drainage differentiate these two regions both from each other and from the nearby Chaco Slope, the Gobernador Slope, and the Chuska Valley.


Rocky desert landscape blanketed in snow, shown in near-twilight. Two massifs, several miles in the distance, are snow-covered.
Fajada Butte: Chaco averages three or four snowstorms a winter.

An arid region of high xeric scrubland and desert steppe, the canyon and wider basin average 8 inches (200 mm) of rainfall annually; the park averages 9.1 inches (230 mm). Chaco Canyon lies on the leeward side of extensive mountain ranges to the south and west, resulting in a rainshadow effect that fosters the prevailing lack of moisture in the region.The region sees four distinct seasons. Rainfall is most likely between July and September, while May and June are the driest months. Orographic precipitation, which results from moisture wrung out of storm systems ascending the mountain ranges around Chaco Canyon, is responsible for most of the summer and winter precipitation, and rainfall increases with higher elevation.Occasional aberrant northward excursions of the intertropical convergence zone may boost precipitation in some years.

Flora and fauna

Chacoan flora typifies that of North American high deserts: sagebrush and several species of cactus are interspersed with dry scrub forests of pinon and juniper, the latter primarily on the mesa tops. The canyon is far drier than other parts of New Mexico located at similar latitudes and elevations, and it lacks the temperate coniferous forests plentiful to the east. The prevailing sparseness of plants and wildlife was echoed in ancient times, when overpopulation, expanding cultivation, overhunting, habitat destruction, and drought may have led the Chacoans to strip the canyon of wild plants and game.It has been suggested that even during wet periods the canyon was able to sustain only 2,000 people.


The first people in the San Juan Basin were hunter-gatherers: the Archaic–Early Basketmaker people. These small bands descended from nomadic Clovis big-game hunters who arrived in the Southwest around 10,000 BC.More than 70 campsites from this period, carbon-dated to the period 7000–1500 BC and mostly consisting of stone chips and other leavings, were found in Atlatl Cave and elsewhere within Chaco Canyon, with at least one of the sites located on the canyon floor near an exposed arroyo. The Archaic–Early Basketmaker people were nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who over time began making baskets to store gathered plants. By the end of the period, some people cultivated food. Excavation of their campsites and rock shelters has revealed that they made tools, gathered wild plants, and killed and processed game. Slab-lined storage cists indicate a change from a wholly nomadic lifestyle.

Ancestral Puebloans

A map of the American Southwest and the northwest of Mexico showing modern political boundaries. Overlaid over them are four colored and labeled territories: "Anasazi", "Hohokam", "Petaya", and "Mogollon". Anasazi land is colored green.

Anasazi sites in the Southwest

By 900 BC, Archaic people lived at Atlatl Cave and like sites.They left little evidence of their presence in Chaco Canyon. By AD 490, their descendants, of the Late Basketmaker II Era, farmed lands around Shabik'eshchee Village and other pit-house settlements at Chaco.

A small population of Basketmakers remained in the Chaco Canyon area. The broad arc of their cultural elaboration culminated around 800, during the Pueblo I Era, when they were building crescent-shaped stone complexes, each comprising four to five residential suites abutting subterranean kivas,large enclosed areas reserved for rites. Such structures characterize the Early Pueblo People. By 850, the Ancient Pueblo population—the "Anasazi", from a Ute term adopted by the Navajo denoting the "ancient ones" or "enemy ancestors"—had rapidly expanded: groups resided in larger, denser pueblos. Strong evidence attests to a canyon-wide turquoise processing and trading industry dating from the 10th century. Around then, the first section of Pueblo Bonito was built: a curved row of 50 rooms near its present north wall.

Athabaskan succession

Large square map of northwestern New Mexico and neighboring parts of, clockwise from left, western Arizona, southeastern Utah, and southwestern Colorado. The map region has a green and blocky rectangular-crescent area at its center labeled "Chaco Culture National Historical Park". Radiating from the green region are seven segmented gold lines: "[p]rehistoric roads", each several dozen kilometers in length when measured according to the map scale factor. Roughly seventy red dots mark the location of "Great House[s]"; they are widely spread across the map, many of them far from the green area, near the extremes of the map, more than one hundred kilometers from the green area. Two proceed roughly south, one southwest, one northwest, one straight north, and the last to the southeast. Yellow dots mark the location of modern settlements: "Shiprock", "Cortez", "Farmington", and "Aztec" to the northwest and north; "Nageezi", "Cuba", and "Pueblo Pintado" to the northeast and east; "Grants", "Crownpoint", and "Gallup" to the south and southwest. They are connected by a network of gray lines marking various interstate and state highways. A fan of thin blue lines along the northern margins of the map depict the San Juan River and its communicants.

Numic-speaking peoples, such as the Ute and Shoshone, were present on the Colorado Plateau beginning in the 12th century. Nomadic Southern Athabaskan speaking peoples, such as the Apache and Navajo, succeeded the Pueblo people in this region by the 15th century; in the process, they acquired Chacoan customs and agricultural skills. Ute tribal groups also frequented the region, primarily during hunting and raiding expeditions. The modern Navajo Nation lies west of Chaco Canyon, and many Navajo live in surrounding areas. The arrival of the Spanish in the 17th century inaugurated an era of subjugation and rebellion, with the Chaco Canyon area absorbing Puebloan and Navajo refugees fleeing Spanish rule. In succession, as first Mexico, then the U.S., gained sovereignty over the canyon, military campaigns were launched against the region's remaining inhabitants.

Excavation and protection

The first documented trip through Chaco Canyon was an 1823 expedition led by New Mexican governor Jose Antonio Vizcarra. He noted several large ruins in the canyon. The trader Josiah Gregg wrote about the ruins of Chaco Canyon, referring in 1832 to Pueblo Bonito as "built of fine-grit sandstone". In 1849, a U.S. Army detachment passed through and surveyed the ruins.The canyon was so remote, however, that it was scarcely visited over the next 50 years. After brief reconnaissance work 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. Spending five summers in the region, they sent over 60,000 artifacts back to New York and operated a series of trading posts.


A large green area representing Chaco Culture National Historical Park's boundaries sits in the middle of a white field. The green area is roughly rectangular with one smaller square-like and one triangular appendage abutting it at bottom-left and bottom-right, respectively. Fifteen small red circles represent the location of important Chacoan sites; they are focused on a line running from top-left (northwest) to bottom-right (southeast). A dashed blue line depicting the Chaco Wash runs roughly along the same line; a network of dashed and solid orange lines represent trails and metalled roads, respectively, also focus on the same axis, connecting the red dots. Two gold squares define high points: "Fajada Butte (2019 m.)" and "West Mesa (2035 m.)".

Major Chacoan sites within park margins

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is managed by the National Park Service, a federal agency within the Department of the Interior; neighboring federal lands hosting Chacoan roads are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. In the 2002–2003 fiscal year, the park's total annual operating budget was US$1,434,000.The park has a visitor center, which features the "Chaco Collection Museum", an information desk, a theater, a book store, and a gift shop. Prior to the 1980s, archeological excavations within current park boundaries were intensive: compound walls were dismantled or demolished, and thousands of artifacts were extracted. Starting in 1981, a new approach, informed by traditional Hopi and Pueblo beliefs, stopped such intrusions. Remote sensing, anthropological study of Indian oral traditions, and dendrochronology—which left Chacoan relics undisturbed—were touted. In this vein, the "Chaco American Indian Consultation Committee" was established in 1991 to give Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo, and other Indian representatives a voice in park oversight.


The Chacoans built their complexes along a 9 mi (14 km) stretch of canyon floor, with the walls of some structures aligned cardinally and others aligned with the 18.6-year cycle of minimum and maximum moonrise and moonset. Nine Great Houses are positioned along the north side of Chaco Wash, at the base of massive sandstone mesas. Other Great Houses are found on mesa tops or in nearby washes and drainage areas. There are fourteen recognized Great Houses, which are grouped below according to geographic positioning with respect to the canyon..

Central canyon

Daytime view looking down on a desert valley: in the near distance, a large semi-circular set of tumbled-down and ruined walls, greyish-yellowish brown in color. The far side of the ruins is a straight line, running left-right, roughly parallel to a line of cliffs in the far distance.
Pueblo Bonito, largest of the Great Houses, abuts the foot of Chaco Canyon's northern rim.

The central portion of the canyon contains the largest Chacoan complexes. The most studied is Pueblo Bonito; covering almost 2 acres (0.81 ha) and comprising at least 650 rooms, it is the largest Great House; in parts of the complex, the structure was four stories high. The builders' use of core-and-veneer architecture and multi-story construction necessitated massive masonry walls up to 3 feet (91 cm) thick. Pueblo Bonito is divided into two sections by a wall precisely aligned to run north-south, bisecting the central plaza. A Great Kiva was placed on either side of the wall, creating a symmetrical pattern common to many Chacoan Great Houses. The scale of the complex, upon completion, rivaled that of the Colosseum.


In Chaco's northern reaches lies another cluster of Great Houses; among the largest are Casa Chiquita ("Small House"), a village built in the AD 1080s, when, in a period of ample rainfall, Chacoan culture was expanding. Its layout featured a smaller, squarer profile; it also lacked the open plazas and separate kivas of its predecessors.Larger, squarer blocks of stone were used in the masonry; kivas were designed in the northern Mesa Verdean tradition. Two miles down the canyon is Penasco Blanco ("White Bluff"), an arc-shaped compound built atop the canyon's southern rim in five distinct stages between AD 900 and 1125. A cliff painting (the "Supernova Platograph") nearby may record the sighting of the SN 1054 supernova on July 5, 1054.


A rectangular entrance through a thick wall dressed with sandstone blocks in the foreground. The entrance reveals a view of another similar wall, itself bearing a doorway showing yet another wall with another door. Four such nested sets of doorways are seen, with a fifth wall visible through the final fourth doorway.

Immense complexes known as "Great Houses" embodied worship at Chaco. The Chacoans used masonry techniques unique for their time, and their building constructions lasted decades and even centuries. As architectural forms evolved and centuries passed, the houses kept several core traits. Most apparent is their sheer bulk; complexes averaged more than 200 rooms each, and some enclosed up to 700 rooms.Individual rooms were substantial in size, with higher ceilings than Anasazi works of preceding periods. They were well-planned: vast sections or wings erected were finished in a single stage, rather than in increments. Houses generally faced the south, and plaza areas were almost always girt with edifices of sealed-off rooms or high walls. Houses often stood four or five stories tall, with single-story rooms facing the plaza; room blocks were terraced to allow the tallest sections to compose the pueblo's rear edifice. Rooms were often organized into suites, with front rooms larger than rear, interior, and storage rooms or areas.


This 11th century pictograph at Chaco Canyon may depict the supernova of AD 1054 This supernova and the Moon were in this configuration when the supernova was near its brightest. An imprint of a hand at the top signifies that this is a sacred place.

Several parties have advanced the following contested theory: that at least twelve of the fourteen principal Chacoan complexes were sited and aligned in coordination, and that each was oriented along axes that mirrored the passing of the Sun and Moon at visually pivotal times. Chaco's suspected role as a regional center of pilgrimage, where priestly elites staged the ritual smashing of pots—which over time built up at least one hillock composed solely of shards—is thought to underscore this pattern. Two whorl-shaped etchings near the top of Fajada Butte compose the "Sun Dagger" petroglyph, itself tucked behind the eponymous rock panels of the "Three-Slab Site". They are symbolically focal.


A partly overcast sky and subdued sunlight over a roughly six-foot tall wall of dusky tan sandstone bricks which vary somewhat in size. The wall runs diagonally from the immediate foreground at left towards the right, running perhaps several dozen feet to the near middle distance. A few feet to the right, in the middle foreground, a low ring of similar blocks delimits a circular pit sunk into the ground. The remains of several other ruinous low walls, perhaps one to three high at most, are arrayed in parallel; they align left to right from the high diagonal wall. Perhaps a mile distant to the center and right, a canyon wall slopes gradually level to meet the valley floor on which the walls sit.

Casa Rinconada

The first Great House known to evince fastidious proportioning and alignment was Casa Rinconada: the twinned "T"-shaped portals of its 10 m (33 ft)-radius great kiva were north-south collinear, and axes joining opposing windows passed within 10 cm (4 in) of its center.[73] The Great Houses of Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl were found by the "Solstice Project" and the U.S. National Geodetic Survey to be sited along a precisely east-west line, an axis that captures the passage of the equinox sun. The lines perpendicularly bisecting their principal walls are aligned north-south, implying a possible intent to mirror the equinox midday. Pueblo Alto and Tsin Kletsin are also north-south aligned. These two axes form an inverted cross when viewed from above; its northbound reach is extended another 35 mi (56 km) past Pueblo Alto by the ramrod-straight "Great North Road", a pilgrimage route which modern-day Pueblo Indians believe to be an allusion to myths surrounding their arrival from the distant north.

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