When we think about great ancient civilisations and their crowning architectural achievements, we don’t usually think about the United States. As you travel south there are plenty of examples – Tikal in Guatemala, Chichen Itza in Mexico and of course the imperious Machu Picchu in Peru – but the land that stretches from sea to shining sea lacks the same kind of great bygone metropolises to the south. With one major exception.
Chaco Canyon may not illuminate the imagination in the same way as the eternally instagrammable Machu Picchu, but this concentration of ancient villages and their social dwellings known as great houses, represent the most significant ancient urban site in the United States.
What’s astonishing about Chaco Canyon was not only its size, with some buildings remaining the tallest in the United States until the 19th Century but how quickly it rose and fell. The area saw its peak between 900 AD and 1150 AD before a series of droughts led to the eventual abandonment of Chaco Canyon and the disbursement of the Chacoan people.
Today it is a quiet, dusty site on the southern edge of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. Compared with other great cities from the past, it receives far fewer visitors and is generally considerably less well known. And while it may not boast the pyramidal splendour of Giza and Chichen Itza, what was built here over a thousand years ago, was one of the world’s great early metropolises.
The Chaco Culture National Historical Park covers an area of 137.50 km2 (53 sq miles) – which is around half the size of Edinburgh. A fairly large area but with most historical sites located in or around Chaco Canyon which lies at its centre.
The Chaco Culture National Historical Park receives on average around 40,000 visitors each year. Not a bad figure, but when you consider Disneyland can average 51,000 in a single day, it certainly puts that figure in perspective. With the Yellowstone National Park welcoming roughly 4 million people a year, the Arches National Park hosting 1.5 million and even the White Sands National Park in Southern New Mexico seeing 608,000 visitors each year, you get an idea of how infrequently visited Chaco is.
Perhaps much of this is down to the fact that Chaco requires a little imagination to really understand its full glory. There are no towering monuments, no precise pyramids and no grand, complete buildings left in Chaco. Much of what you see today are the foundations of what this once great community was built upon. And when I say community, that’s exactly what I mean. This wasn’t a single village or town, but rather a large collective spread throughout the area. More than 150 of the iconic ‘great houses’ were built in the Chaco Canyon region with roads and trade routes connecting them.
The Basketmaker People
While Chaco didn’t fully rise to prominence until around 1,000 years ago, this area has seen human activity that stretches back thousands of years with the wonderfully named hunter-gatherer group, the Archaic–Early Basketmaker people.
Descendants of the Clovis people who arrived in the area around 10,000 years ago, the basketmaker people, as you might be able to tell from their name, were known for their excellent basket making skills. This era broadly spanned from 7000 BC to 1500 BC and saw the basketmaker people progress from hunting and simple gathering to early attempts at processing seeds and nuts as their nomadic lifestyle slowly morphed into a semi-nomadic way of living.
Over 70 examples of early basketmaker campsites have been found within the Chaco area, many of which contained fragments of tools and even signs of early slab lined tombs known as cists. But this was also a time when great ecological and environmental change was occurring. It’s difficult to imagine a chilly New Mexico populated by woolly mammoths, but that was exactly what it was like. Over several thousand years, the area heated up considerably, with the great woolly elephant eventually hunted to extinction. As New Mexico began to look a lot like – well, New Mexico today actually – it’s thought that the early Archaic–Early Basketmaker people moved north in search of a more hospitable climate.
But that wasn’t the end of the basketmaker people – far from it. From what we can gather, small numbers remained in the area around Chaco and their ancestors formed the Early Basketmaker II Era (1500 BC-AD 50), the Late Basketmaker II Era (AD 50 to 500) and the Basketmaker III Era (AD 500 to 750).
Essentially these eras are used to differentiate advances in technology and lifestyle. During the Early II era, the earliest pit-house dwellings appeared in southwestern Colorado, while during the Late II era, the basketmaker people grew maize and squash, and produced increasingly complex tools and commodities, such as whistles, cradles, stone pipes, bags and blankets.
The Third Basketmaker era saw an increase in the size of pit-houses being built as well as their complexity, while pottery was introduced which eventually led to a reduction in their traditional basket weaving.
In the final hundred years or so of the first millennium, the area around Chaco saw considerable advancements in architecture, water use and even artistic expression. The Pueblo I Period, between 750 AD and 900 AD, kickstarted Chaco’s heyday and saw the loose confederation of the Ancestral Puebloans emerge.
This is very much a modern term that we’ve used to bundle people together with similar characteristics, but unfortunately, it’s the best we have. The Ancestral Puebloans covered a broad area that included Chaco, Mesa Verde and even modern-day Las Vegas, while to the south and west, we could find the Hohokam, the Mogollon and the Patayan people.
It was around this time that we see the first major signs of the ‘pueblo culture’ emerge as those residing in the area began to build larger, more complex villages. These were constructed independently and dotted throughout the Chaco area.
The Chacoans, as they were known, built many of their structures along the 14 km ( 9-mile) stretch of the canyon floor and includes numerous pueblos and great houses – which I’m just coming to – as well as smaller abodes and ceremonial settings, known as Kivas.
When we talk about Chaco, we’re normally referring to the area within the National Park, but the influence of this thriving area spread far and wide and it’s thought that over 200 settlements were built stretching over an area larger than the size of England. It’s difficult to say for sure how many people lived in and around Chaco, but most estimate between 2,000 and 5,000, though how many would have lived there year-round we aren’t sure.
By far the most impressive structures in Chaco are the remains of the twelve ‘Great Houses’, which were usually constructed within a pueblo – and sometimes even represented the bulk of the pueblo itself. Now, this is probably as good a time as any to say that our knowledge and understanding of the Ancestral Puebloans is limited. There is still plenty that remains mysterious about this southwestern culture because so little recorded evidence was left behind.
The Great Houses are an excellent example of our limited insight into the Ancestral Puebloan culture. We have a pretty good idea of what they looked like, but only various vague theories of why these colossal buildings were built. Some suggest they may have accommodated a royal family of some sorts, or perhaps religious leaders – but then again, maybe most of the rooms were simply used for storage to facilitate Chaco’s booming trade. Even the word house is a bit of a misconception, these were enormous buildings containing up to 800 rooms – very much the skyscrapers of the ancient world.
Most of the Great Houses were divided into four sections aligned with the cardinal directions (North, South, East and West), sometimes for religious reasons and sometimes for very practical reasons such as providing shade. Most Great Houses came with a plaza at their centre, which would probably have served as the local community centre and sometimes came with ball courts and platform mounds used for religious purposes.
The scale of these Great Houses was quite extraordinary for the time and represented some of the largest structures on the continent. It’s been estimated that 200,000 coniferous trees would have been used during the construction of the great houses at Chaco – which is a lot, especially when you consider that most needed to be hauled by hand from mountain ranges up to 110 km (70 miles) away. Experts believe that primary beams, averaging 5 metres (16.4ft) in length, 22 cm (8.6 inches) in diameter, and 275 kg (606lbs) in weight would have been used to construct the great houses, with thick stone walls built using the core-and-veneer technique where two parallel walls were built next to each other and the space in between filled with rubble.
By far the largest and most famous of Chaco’s Great Houses, is the impressive Pueblo Bonito, a vast series of structures built between AD 850 to AD 1150. This roughly D shaped pueblo covered 3 acres – roughly one Manhattan city block – and incorporated a massive 800 different rooms. It was also tall, four of five stories to be exact in certain places, meaning that it was the largest and tallest building known in North America until the steel-girder skyscrapers of Chicago in the late 19th century and came with walls 0.91 metres (3 feet) thick.
Initially, archaeologists believed that Pueblo Bonito could have accommodated several thousand people if all of the rooms had been occupied by families, but recent evidence seems to suggest that the number was in fact much much smaller – perhaps only as many as 12 families or 70 people. This would have given those residing inside Pueblo Bonito significantly more room than the cramped conditions we once assumed and perhaps suggests a degree of hierarchy for those living inside.
Pueblo Bonito has also been the site of the most important archaeological discoveries that have started to reframe our understanding of the Ancestral Puebloans. In 2009, traces of Mexican cacao – sourced from roughly 1,900 km (1,200 miles ) away – were found in pottery shards in the village. This was the first example of the substance being found in the United States before the arrival of the Spanish in the region around 1500 AD. A total of 111 cylindrical pottery jars have also been found throughout Pueblo Bonito along with hundreds of thousands of artefacts and the remains of 50-60 burials.
Its central plaza was bisected by a large wall running perfectly from north to south, with a great kiva lying just to the south. These kivas were large rooms used either for religious purposes or political or social meetings. Outside Chaco, kivas were generally quite small, but like with many other aspects, the Chacoans took things up a notch. The Great Kiva in Pueblo Bonito was partly subterranean with a roof over it and access via a series of ladders. Several fire pits were located inside, with the smoke escaping through the same ladder holes. This large area could have accommodated hundreds of people at a time, but the village came with numerous other smaller kivas.
Other Great Houses and Kivas
But Pueblo Bonito is merely the most famous great house. Chetro Ketl, another D shaped construction that lies close to Pueblo Bonito, once included 400 rooms and had a perimeter length of 470 metres (1,540 feet). Historians estimate that Chetro Ketl would have required 500,000 man-hours, 26,000 trees, and 50 million sandstone blocks to build and was largely completed by 1075 AD.
Pueblo del Arroyo, one of the later great houses to be built, included 300 rooms, while the much smaller Pueblo Alto with 89 rooms was built on a mesa with commanding views over the whole of the Canyon.
Casa Rinconada was the largest of the four isolated kivas within Chaco Canyon. The circular stone structure had a diameter of 20 metres (64 feet)and came with a masonry firebox, an inner bench, four roof-supporting large seating pits, masonry vaults, and 34 niches, divided into two sizes. It’s also unique in that it has a 12 meters (39 foot) long underground passage that allows access to the centre of the kiva – perhaps for ceremonial use or even for artistic performances.
As I said earlier, Chaco itself is a fairly small region, but its influence stretched considerably, with more than 200 examples found throughout the Colorado Plateau region. And what do you need when you have a sprawling area like this? Roads of course.
Now obviously these were a far cry from modern tarmacked superhighways, but roughly a thousand years before the first Interstates began joining America’s most populated areas, the Chacoans were doing exactly the same. The roads, sometimes as wide as 9 metres (29.5 ft), would have connected the major Great Houses within Chaco Canyon and well beyond. Like the Romans, the Chacoans liked their roads straight and prefered to build ramps up and over mesas and buttes rather than going around them.
These roads may seem like they had a perfectly obvious purpose, but we’re not entirely sure. Some roads seem to travel off in random directions and may have even been used for symbolic or spiritual purposes. To enable more rapid communication, some great houses were placed within the line of sight of one another or shrines on nearby mesa tops, allowing for speedy signalling using fire or the reflection of sunlight.
But roads were also certainly used for simply getting from A to B. Trade coming in and out of Chaco made it the most important trading post in the region and exotic objects found showed us just how far-flung trade had become. These included seashells used to form trumpets, copper bells and scarlet macaws. In a single room in Pueblo Bonito, 50,000 pieces of turquoise, 4,000 pieces of jet (a dark-coloured sedimentary rock) and 14 macaw skeletons – which I think you’ll agree really takes hoarding to a different level.
As I mentioned earlier, Chaco wasn’t a particularly hospitable place to live. If you were going to purchase a farm today, you certainly wouldn’t buy one anywhere near Chaco. The fact that Chaco was able to not only survive but thrive to such extraordinary levels, was thanks to plenty of importing and some pioneering advancements, including dams, terraced land and irrigation systems.
Corn was the early steady staple but was eventually joined by beans and squash as irrigation systems improved. But still, this is basically the desert and much of what was needed in Chaco was imported from far and wide.
Chaco was never an easy place to live. Like today, its climate could be exhaustingly hot, or painfully cold. It was a civilisation that very much lived on the edge and one which went toppling off that edge after 1130 AD. This was a period which coincided with a devastating 50-year drought in the region that saw the total collapse of Chaco.
Building work ceased over the coming decades and over the next hundred years or so, the Chacoans vacated the area entirely. The apparent sealing up of rooms within the Great Houses and burning of the Kivas, seem to suggest a degree of acceptance and finality to the situation. Recently historians have suggested contributing factors to the demise of Chaco, including political or religious upheaval and even warfare, but evidence of this is hazy at best.
From Chaco, its inhabitants spread in all directions in search of more hospitable land. Their continued difficulties prevented any kind of integrated society like in Chaco and eventually, the Chacoans simply faded away from memory. Well, for most at least. Their descendants, mostly now members of 20 different Native American tribes living in New Mexico and Arizona, still consider Chaco a sacred spot, but for many, the name Chacoans has joined the long list of civilizations that once were, but now no longer are, such as the Anasazi, the Indus Valley people and the Cahokia.
The rise and fall of Chaco is a story that has been mirrored by civilization around the world. A steady, meteoric rise, followed by a biting collapse as a combination of over-ambition, environmental problems and internal strife prove that nothing lasts forever. But what has lasted in Chaco remains a gloriously under-visited part of the United States. Long before New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, some of the most significant urban settings on the continent, along with the largest buildings for nearly 800 years, were here, in Chaco Canyon.