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First People :: American Indian Articles :: Chaco Culture National Historical Park :: The Evidence : Chaco Society, Technology and Trade

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

by Lynne D. Escue

The Evidence : Chaco Society, Technology and Trade

It is part blessing and part pity that so few of the great houses in the San Juan basin have been completely excavated: Blessing because important Chacoan artifacts excavated in the early 20th Century were scattered hither and yon and also because modern archaeologists use far more sophisticated and accurate techniques; pity because compared to the material remains from, say the Tigris-Euphrates civilizations, there is relatively little to go on. Nor do we have any form of writing to give us clues to what sort of civilization this was.

Some clues come from the artifacts that have been found to date, some from the oral traditions of the pueblo peoples, and some from the culture and lifestyle of those same Native Americans.

We know that these Anasazi people built a monumental center at great cost, but archaeologists disagree on what this center represented. Hopi oral tradition, however, is specific on what Chaco Canyon represents. In addition to being one of the places where the wandering clans gathered, each of these early pueblo clans was instructed to complete and purify their clan knowledge and incorporate it into their own ceremony. Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma says that the many kivas at Pueblo Bonito were constructed so that visiting Bow Clan members could perform the Salako dance there. A new kiva had to be constructed each time the dance was performed. Since the Bow Clan stayed at Chaco for many years, performing their dance four times every 16 years, many kivas needed to be constructed for them. The great kiva at Casa Rinconada was originally built so that the Parrot clan could perform their basket ceremony.

Acoma tradition holds that a place called White House, north of modern Acoma where the real kachinas lived and where the kachina or katsina society originated, is Pueblo Bonito. This was a place where semi-nomadic ancestors stayed for a period of time.

One of the documents included in The Puebloan Society of Chaco Canyon is a short narrative by Zuni historian Andrew Napatcha which describes a Zuni medicine society called the "Sword Swallowers" from their rite of putting wooden swords down their throats, which Napatcha believes lived at Chaco Canyon for a time. Another Zuni tradition says that the Sword Swallowers or Wood fraternity led a migration of the Zuni Winter People that spent some time at Chaco Canyon and built some of the great houses, before continuing north toward the San Juan River.

The Navajo clans that settled in and around Chaco Canyon also have oral histories about this place. Richard M. Begay in "Tsé Bíyah 'Anii'áhí: Chaco Canyon and Its Place in Navajo History," tells of a being known as The Gambler or The Winner of People who came from a place far south of the canyon. Once Winner of People learned about the Chaco area, he began to consolidate people in the canyon and under his guidance hundreds, maybe thousands, of people built the great houses to be a center of economic and social activity. It became a sinful place where everything was for sale. Winner of People began to enslave the people who had built his great trading center and they feared that he might become powerful enough to control the sun, rain and other elements, so they raised up a champion who defeated him at his own games of chance. After Winner of People was banished and the place that he had built collapsed, the people who lived there began to disperse.

The question of whether Chaco architecture and society was influenced by Mesoamerican culture might better be worded, "To what extent was Chaco influenced by outside sources?" At this time an extensive system of trade routes crisscrossed the Americas reaching into Central America and the Caribbean Islands. At the height of Chaco Culture, Cahokia was flourishing along the Mississippi near modern St. Louis. The Mayan and Toltec cities were also great commercial centers. We know that Central American artifacts were found at Chaco (i.e. shells, copper bells, parrot and macaw feathers). Given the Native American oral history telling of migrations that visited Chaco Canyon and the propensity of human beings to explore beyond the horizon, it seems very likely that the Chacoan peoples had at least second-hand knowledge of the great civilizations to the south that had flowered before them, had acquired, along with desirable trade goods, some idea of how these peoples lived and had adapted some of their ideas.

For example, the great Mayan cities in the rain forests of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras were built as both religious and trade centers for the agrarian people of the surrounding areas. Like Chaco Canyon, given the size and complexity of the structures, the population that supported them was relatively small.

More than timber for the Chaco great houses was imported. Although Chaco Canyon has good clay sources for making pottery, it's evident from the composition and tempers of pottery found there that it came from many different locations.

H. Wolcott Toll analyzed the types of stone used by the Chaco Anasazi and came to the surprising conclusion that although sandstone for building and harder stones for edged tools is available close at hand and was extensively used, nevertheless, much stone at Chaco Canyon came from sources as various as the Jemez Mountains and Mt. Taylor (obsidian), the Zuni area (yellow chert), and the Four Corners Area (green chert).

In her sidebar to "Artifacts in Chaco: Where They Came From and What They Mean," Linda S. Cordell cites strontium analysis of excavated ancient corn, which studies the chemistry of the soil water where the corn was grown and finds that some, at least, of the corn cobs from the oldest section of Pueblo Bonito were grown on the eastern slopes of the Chuskas. In an admittedly small sample, none of the corn cobs tested was grown in Chaco Canyon itself.

Not only stone and corn were transported long distances, but during the 11th Century, large game, as well, was imported. Prior to the 1000 C.E., more antelope bones than deer bones are found at Chaco excavations. After that time, deer bones predominate. Since Chaco's high desert environment is more typical habitat for antelope than for deer, which prefer higher, wooded areas, Toll believes that the deer were brought in.

Overall, archaeological finds suggest that there were more imports than exports.

Excavations at Pueblo Alto during the late 1970s resulted in the conclusion that Pueblo Alto was mainly used for storing foods such as corn, beans, dried squash and pumpkins while other rooms may have been used for crafts including making ornaments from turquoise and other materials. This supports the idea that Chaco was a great trading center as well as a major religious center. Not every link in early trade routes had its own unique merchandise to send on; many places were simply crossroads, way stations between north and south or east and west.

Questions remain about how extensive the turquoise industry at Chaco Canyon may have been. In addition to Pueblo Alto, evidence from small house sites at Chaco's East Community show that a number of craftspeople there produced turquoise beads and pendants using stone brought from the Cerrillos Hills mine near Santa Fe. The bulk of turquoise found thus far at Chaco Canyon comes from Pueblo Bonito. Does this mean that the turquoise was exported, or that the turquoise objects were given to or deposited at the great houses for religious or socio-economic reasons, or, perhaps, both?

We know that despite a sophisticated water control system, at its height Chaco Canyon imported food. Farming, and in fact, survival at Chaco is about water. R. Gwinn Vivian, "Puebloan Farmers of the Chacoan World," speculated that for a while the formation of a natural sand dune at the western end of Chaco Canyon near Penasco Blanco may have improved farming prospects in Chaco Canyon. The dune would have temporarily dammed flood water from localized storms and created a large, shallow lake. This lake then arrested the cycles of arroyo cutting and filling in Chaco Canyon proper, as well as raising the water table there.

And modern weather observations show that summer storms are deflected into breaks in the canyon, resulting in greater precipitation in those areas. Downtown Chaco is located near such a gap.

Two different kinds of agricultural practices were used in Chaco Canyon. On the south side of the canyon where more precipitation falls, a land intensive method of growing crops was used. Seeds were planted in areas where runoff or minor flooding watered small patches of crops. On the canyon's north side, however, a much more labor intensive method of agriculture was employed. There farmers collected and channeled water running off the canyon walls using diversion dams with channels and head gates to irrigate gridded fields (rectangular plots separated by low earth borders). A somewhat similar version of this kind of irrigation was used in ancient Israel for the same reasons. And, even today, many pueblo peoples still practice "waffle gardening."

By the Early Bonito Phase a semi-sedentary form of civilization had been established in Chaco Canyon. The basic diet consisted of corn, beans and squash along with some gathered wild foods supplemented by domesticated turkey and wild meat obtained by hunting (birds, small game, antelope and deer).

Clothing made from cotton, yucca fiber and buckskin was worn. Loincloths were made from cotton or yucca fiber, leggings of fiber, and robes were woven of feathers, hides or textiles. Sandals were made from yucca fiber.

At one time Chaco Canyon was thought to be the nexus of a great road system something like that of the Incas. In the 1980s Bureau of Land Management studies showed that the Chacoan road system was not as large as had been thought. Remains of ancient roads often extend only a short distance from a great house before disappearing. In "Chaco's Sacred Geography", Ruth M. Van Dyke observes that the two longest road segments run approximately due north and south of Chaco Canyon. In the north it seems to end at Kutz Canyon; in the south it runs across the Dutton Plateau and appears to end not far from Hosta Butte.

On the other hand, the vast amount of wood, food and pottery brought into Chaco Canyon from Mt. Taylor, the Chuska Mountains and more distant areas point to the existence of well defined paths for transporting these goods. H. Wolcott Toll suggests that at least some of the large number of people who brought goods into Chaco Canyon may have had second or temporary homes in the canyon which they used when bringing in goods or during important religious or social events.

If the Chaco roads were for more than transportation of goods, why were they built? Ruth M. Van proposes that the roads may have been part of the Chaco great house architectural style which included kivas and earthworks. She adds that some road segments, such as the roads leading north from the early 12th Century great house Tsin Kletsin, may have a symbolic purpose in that they seem visually, if not physically, to connect Tsin Kletsin with 11th Century Pueblo Alto across the canyon as well as with contemporary New Alto.

In any case, the road segments were carefully engineered: Primary roads were about 20 feet wide; secondary road 12 feet wide. The roads were laid out to avoid major obstacles but cut through minor obstructions such as low hills or shallow arroyos. Most of the Chacoan roads run northward from Pueblo Alto. Some may have linked Chaco Canyon with great houses along the San Juan River such as Salmon and Aztec. The fact that so many roads converged at Pueblo Alto as well as the unique room construction of this great house, leads some archaeologists to conclude that it was a major trade or storage and distribution center.

As the spiritual and/or socio-economic center of a large geographic area, Chaco Canyon had need of more than roads to connect it with important outlier great houses. In fact, Alden Hayes and Tom Windes discovered an extensive line of sight communications network, using, perhaps, smoke or mirrors to signal. For example, at one point of Chimney Rock Pueblo in southern Colorado, there is a direct line of sight to Huerfano Mountain south of the San Juan River. From Huérfano Mountain, on which many archaic fire boxes and shrine sites have been found, there is line of sight to Pueblo Alto.

There is also evidence, that like their Mayan neighbors to the south, the Chaco Anasazi were deeply interested in astronomy. This isn't unique; one of the most important things for any agricultural society is an accurate calendar so that crops can be planted at the correct time. Most early societies have attached religious significance to the solstices, to times for making offerings to deities concerned with agriculture, and with ceremonies that will ultimately assure a successful harvest. Near the top of Fajada Butte at the southern end of Chaco Canyon is a 19-turn spiral petroglyph, a calendar perhaps, which is crossed by a sun dagger. It's believed that the Chacoans marked not only the solstices and equinoxes, but the moon's standstill cycle of 18.6 years, using the desert horizon for their observations. At Fajada Butte on days of the equinoxes the sun dagger crosses a small, secondary spiral. In addition, certain windows in great houses, the tower kivas and the orientation and arrangement of wall niches in some of the great kivas may have been used as part of a calendar system.

Copyright 2005 by Lynne D. Escue "Reproduction without permission prohibited."

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