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
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
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
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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