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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 influence?

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 addressed.

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 correct.

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 items.

The importation of such large amounts of material implies organization, but how formalized it was and what form it took, we do not, as yet, know.

Question 5: What kind of leadership did the Chacoan peoples have?

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 Press.
  • 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, Greenwood Press.
  • "Chaco Culture National Historical Park: Geology," The National Park Service website
  • "Paquimé the Last Great Center of Puebloan Influence;" Jay W. Sharp,
  • Chaco Culture, The National Park Service; © 2002.

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

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