Chaco Culture National Historical Park
by Lynne D. Escue
Like all studies of remote civilizations, we come back to the
questions that can't be answered by analysis of pottery shards,
by infrared photography or dendrochronology. We can admire the
architectural skills of the Chacoan people, we can discuss their
achievements in various arts and the evolution of the wondrous
structures in Chaco Canyon, but the culture will remain abstract
until we understand what sort of society it was, how their economy
worked, what they believed and hoped, how they lived their daily
lives, because, in the end, a culture is people.
Question 1: How large an area fell within the sphere of Chaco
One answer is that the region influenced by the Chaco Anasazi
covered a large part of the Colorado Plateau. Another is that
it included only the San Juan Basin. There is no definitive answer
at the present. Archaeological study shows that many outlying
communities in southeastern Utah, southwestern Colorado, eastern
Arizona and west-central New Mexico share too many characteristics
of Chacoan society to exclude them from the bigger picture.
Before this question can be answered, questions about the permanence
of the Chaco Canyon area population and their religious, social
and economic relationships with outlying communities need to be
Question 2: How large was the population in Chaco Canyon at
the height of the Pueblo III period?
One estimate sets the population of Chaco Canyon at about 1000
CE between 2,000 to 6,000 people. Thomas Windes argues for the
lower figure, based on a study of groups of what he calls residential
suites-groups of interconnected rooms in the great houses which
he believes were occupied by a single household group. By his
estimate, no more than 18 households-a possible total of 100 people--lived
in Pueblo Bonito. This argument is supported by Stephen H. Lekson
who considers the small circular pit structures within great houses
the final and most elaborate form of their predecessors, the pit
house. He goes on to say that the number of families living in
a particular great house can be reckoned by counting these small
kivas. Time and greater study will tell whether this theory is
It has been suggested that some of the housing in Chaco Canyon
was only occupied on a seasonal basis, or perhaps during important
religious ceremonies. Was Chaco, like the great Mayan centers,
a religious and commercial center for the surrounding area? Or
was it a city in the more traditional sense, with a permanent
population, social or economic classes and all the rest?
In any case, the Chaco population was small compared to say,
Cahokia, whose population was 10,000 or more.
Question 3: How did such a small number of people influence
a much larger region?
In asking this question, we are really asking what kind of society
the Chacoan people had, what kind of politico-religious structure.
Was it an egalitarian society where all came to share equally
in the rituals and spiritual guidance offered by select people
who could offer this guidance? Or was it like the Central American
cultures, or like ancient Egypt or Sumer? In her article, "Understanding
Chacoan Society," Lynne Sebastian discusses this question.
She points out that the central argument is the function of the
great houses in Chaco Canyon. If they were strictly for religious
purposes and tenanted by people concerned only with the ritual
well being of the Chacoan people, then the former view may prevail.
If the people living in the great houses were families who had
little or no association with the popular religion, then the scholar
must fall back on the traditional social hierarchies found in
other societies. However, if those living in the great houses
had both political and spiritual influence, as is typical in many
modern Native American societies, then there may be a congruence
of Native American oral tradition with archaeological evidence.
Certainly the great houses were built to impress. In modern Native
American societies ceremonies don't require the equivalent of
Notre Dame Cathedral. But, those great houses on the Chaco Plateau
were built many centuries ago, not long after many Central American
peoples felt the need of impressive religious centers. Also, great
houses like Pueblo Alto are atypical of those in Chaco Canyon
and until we understand the activities that took place in the
rooms of these great houses, we can't hypothesize about the people
who undertook them.
Arguments for a hierarchical Chacoan society are based on the
fact that the great houses and many small house communities coexisted
simultaneously in and around Chaco Canyon. Another argument is
the small number of people apparently living in the great houses
and evidence from the few burials found there showing that these
people were buried with great riches compared to their small house
neighbors. For that matter, why have so few burials overall been
discovered at Chaco Canyon? Too, construction of the great houses
and roads, along with the signal stations argues for a highly
organized society with division of skilled labor. The importation
of building materials and food, as well as pottery, turquoise
and special items like Central American birds, and copper bells
also seems to indicate a well-developed economic structure. H.
Wolcott Toll mentions the fact that although the people of Chaco
Canyon had a supply of rock for chipped stone tools available
close at hand, they nevertheless obtained large amounts of stone
from more distant areas. This imported stone makes up about 26%
of the stone excavated at Pueblo Alto.
At the end of his article Toll observes that "the extent
to which people moved around the region probably far exceeded
anything we might have expected." Because a culture lacks
mechanical transport and electronic telecommunications, we should
not assume people didn't travel. The Inca road system alone should
give this argument the lie. Without wheels, without riding animals
they still traveled, as did other societies before our own.
Question 4: How did the Chacoan exchange system work and who
brought the materials from the outside?
Rare items such as turquoise and macaw feathers aside, one of
the unanswered questions about Chaco culture is whether the huge
amount of wood for construction, as well as more commonplace articles
such as pottery were brought to Chaco Canyon by people living
outside the immediate area, or whether the Chaco residents made
periodic trips outside to acquire them.
Because of the variety of small house sites at Chaco Canyon,
not to mention the Chaco and McElmo great house construction existing
side by side, it has been suggested that people from many different
areas came to Chaco to work on great house construction, to participate
in ceremonies, possibly to trade. These people may have built
some of the small houses during their temporary residence.
They may well have brought some of the goods described above
as offerings or for trade or both. Toll mentions that while we
can trace the routes by which materials come into Chaco, there
appears to be little or no outward flow, but again, we lack evidence.
The exception is Cerrillos Hills turquoise, traded south to Toltec
merchants for shells, macaw feathers, copper bells and other rare
The importation of such large amounts of material implies organization,
but how formalized it was and what form it took, we do not, as
Question 5: What kind of leadership did the Chacoan peoples
This is another question where again we return to the debate
on the purpose of the great houses, because it seems that a few
people lived in much larger quarters and in more luxury than the
rest. Which indicates some kind of hierarchy.
Some scholars believe that Chaco leadership was more like that
of the pueblo peoples; others disagree, pointing out that archaeological
evidence points to a society with more social differentiation.
And if Chaco society was hierarchical, was power centralized in
a few chosen leaders, or was it diffused as, say, in the spiritual
and political leaders of various clans, all of whom made up what
we describe as Chacoan society?
Question 6: What evidence is there of warfare and ritual violence
at Chaco Canyon?
There are no records of a society that existed without conflict
at one time or another. However, research in Chaco Canyon to date
has turned up very little evidence of violence, especially during
its peak between 900 to 1150 CE. Archaeological evidence of violence
only appears after 1150, after the decline of Chacoan culture,
or earlier in the Mesa Verde area, which is not Chacoan culture.
Question 6: Why did people leave the Chaco Plateau and where
did they go?
We know that after leaving Chaco, the people dispersed westward
to the Hopi mesas, southward to Zuni, north along the San Juan
River, and east past the Rio Puerco where they eventually settled
in the pueblos existing today.
It is now believed that some of the Chaco Anasazi along with
remnants of the Mogollon and Hohokam cultures, made their way
south to the small trading community of Casas Grandes in northern
Chihuahua. Prior to their coming, the people of Casas Grandes,
or Paquimé, had followed the same pattern as these northerners,
moving from pit houses to jacal surface dwellings and then to
single story adobe houses. It should be noted that these single
story houses had the same T-shaped doorways characteristic of
northern Anasazi structures.
But at the beginning of the 13th Century, about the time large
numbers of people left Chaco Canyon, Casas Grandes underwent a
dramatic change. Its population grew and the original small city
became a sprawling, multi-story complex with sophisticated water
control and drainage. At it's height, Paquimé covered some
88 acres and was 27 times larger than Pueblo Bonito. Many of the
architectural features seen at Chaco Canyon--T-shaped doorways,
sandstone disk timber seatings, square colonnades--appear at Paquimé
but in a more sophisticated form, along with a complex system
of water control for irrigation as well as domestic purposes.
For example, Paquimé had domestic running water.
The Chaco Anasazi were migratory people: Chaco Canyon may have
been one of the stopping places in their annual migrations, or
they may have stopped there for a number of years and then moved
on. Also, human societies change and evolve; with time, the nature
of Chaco culture and society undoubtedly changed.
The question of course, is why they moved on when they did. The
exact answer is unknown, but at least one of the major contributing
causes is a 50-year drought that began in 1130. An agricultural
society dependent on precipitation and an intermittent stream
as sources of water, would find it difficult to survive an extended
drought. By 1150 only small patches of maize were being grown
in the Chaco Canyon area and as the dry years passed, more and
more people moved away until the great houses were abandoned to
the wind and the dust.
Lynne Escue is a free lance writer whose credits include articles
in History Today and New Mexico Magazine.
- In Search of Chaco: New Approaches to an Archaeological Enigma;
ed. David Grant Noble, © 2004, School of American Research
- Chaco Canyon, Archaeology & Archaeologists; Robert H. &
Florence C. Lister, © 1981, University of New Mexico Press.
- The Puebloan Society of Chaco Canyon; Paul F. Reed, © 2004,
- "Chaco Culture National Historical Park: Geology," The
National Park Service website www.nps.gov/chcu/geology.htm
- "Paquimé the Last Great Center of Puebloan Influence;"
Jay W. Sharp, www.desertUSA.com/ind1.
- Chaco Culture, The National Park Service; © 2002.
Copyright 2005 by Lynne D. Escue "Reproduction without permission prohibited."
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