Chaco Culture National Historical Park

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Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a United States National Historical Park and World Heritage Site which contains the densest and most exceptional concentration of large pueblos in the American Southwest. The park is located in northwestern New Mexico, between Albuquerque and Farmington, in a relatively inaccessible valley cut by the Chaco Wash. The park preserves one of America's most fascinating cultural and historic areas.

Chacoan corner doorway in Pueblo Bonito.  Created circa AD 1050
Chacoan corner doorway in Pueblo Bonito. Created circa AD 1050

Between 850 BC and AD 1250, Chaco Canyon was a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture. It was a hub of ceremony, trade, and administration for the prehistoric Four Corners area - unlike anything before or since. Chaco is remarkable for its monumental public and ceremonial buildings, and its distinctive architecture. Building construction, and creating the associated Chacoan roads, ramps, dams, and mounds, required a great deal of well organized and skillful planning, designing, resource gathering, and construction.

The Chacoan cultural sites are fragile and irreplaceable and represent a significant part of America's cultural heritage. At least one of the sites in the park, Fajada Butte, has been closed to the public due to fears of erosion caused by tourists. The sites are part of the sacred homeland of Pueblo Indian peoples of New Mexico, the Hopi Indians of Arizona, and the Navajo Indians of the Southwest, all of whom continue to respect and honor them.


Park history

In 1949, Chaco Canyon National Monument was created on lands in Chaco Canyon deeded from the University of New Mexico. In return for the land grant, the University maintained scientific research rights to the area. By 1959, the National Park Service had constructed the park visitor center, staff housing, and campgrounds. In the 1970s, Dr. Robert H. Lister and Dr. James Judge established the "Chaco Center," a division for cultural research, as a joint project between the University of New Mexico and the Park Service. A number of multi-disciplinary research projects, archaeological surveys, and limited excavations began during this time. The Chaco Center extensively surveyed the Chacoan "roads", well constructed footpaths radiating out from the central canyon. Research results at Pueblo Alto and other sites dramatically altered the academic interpretation of the Chacoan culture and this area of the American Southwest.

The richness of the cultural remains at park sites led to the expansion of the small National Monument into the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in December 1980. An additional 13,000 acres (53 km²) were added to the park. To protect Chacoan sites on adjacent Bureau of Land Management and Navajo Nation lands, the Park Service developed the multi-agency Chaco Culture Archaeological Protection Site program.

Cultural history

Archaeologists identify the first people in the broader San Juan Basin as hunter-gatherers designated as the Archaic. By approximately 900 BC, these people lived at sites such as Atlatl Cave and Shabik'eshchee Village. The Archaic people left very little evidence of their presence in Chaco Canyon itself. However, by approximately 100 BC, their descendants, designated as Basketmakers, were living permanently within the canyon. A small population of Basketmakers remained in the Chaco Canyon area, going through several cultural stages, until about AD 700, when small, one-storied, masonry pueblos began to be built. These structures have been identified as characteristic of the Early Pueblo People. By AD 900, Pueblo population was growing and the communities expanded into larger, but more closely compacted pueblos. There is strong evidence of a canyon wide turquoise processing and trading industry dating from the tenth century. At this time, the first section of the spectacular Pueblo Bonito complex was built, beginning with one curved row of rooms near the north wall.

However, the meticulously designed buildings characteristic of the larger Canyon complex did not emerge until about 1030. The Chacoan people combined pre-planned architectural designs, astronomical alignments, geometry, landscaping, and engineering to create an ancient urban center of spectacular public architecture. Researchers have concluded that the complex may have had a relatively small residential population, with larger groups assembling only temporarily for annual events and ceremonies. Smaller sites, apparently more residential in character, are scattered around the Great Houses in Chaco canyon.

The extended Ancient Pueblo community also began to experience a population and building boom about this time. By 1115, at least seventy outlying pueblos with characteristic Chacoan architecture had been built within the 25,000 square mile (65,000 km²) area of the San Juan Basin. Researchers debate the function of these outlying settlements, some large enough to be considered Great Houses in their own right. Some suggest they may have been more than agricultural communities, perhaps acting as trading posts or as ceremonial sites.

Many outliers are connected to the central canyon and to one another by the enigmatic Chacoan "roads." Extending up to 60 miles (100 km), in generally straight lines, these roads appear to have been extensively surveyed and engineered. Common "road" characteristics include a depressed bed between twenty-five to forty feet wide with edges defined by rock edging or curbing. When necessary, the roads continued on their course over obstacles, using steep stone stairways and rock ramps. Although the "roads'" overall function may never be known, scientists speculate that they were used to transport building materials or for ceremonial processions.

The cohesive system that characterized Chaco Canyon began to break down about 1140, perhaps in response to a severe region wide drought. Outlying communities began to disappear and, by the end of the century, the buildings in the central canyon had been abandoned. Archaeological and cultural evidence leads scientists to believe people from this region migrated both south and east to the valleys and drainages of the Little Colorado River and the Rio Grande.

Nomadic Southern Athapaskan speaking peoples, given the name Navajo by the Spanish, succeeded the Pueblo people in this region by approximately 1620 to 1650. Ute tribal groups also frequented this region, primarily during hunting and raiding activities. The modern Navajo Nation lies north of Chaco Canyon, and many Navajo (more appropriately known as the Diné) live in surrounding areas.

Chacoan Great Houses

The architectural complex known as the Great House is a cultural marker of this time in the history of the Pueblo people. Although there are variations, Chacoan period Great Houses share several distinctive physical characteristics, including:

  • the complexes are large, with those in Chaco canyon averaging more than 200 rooms. Room size is also substantial and ceilings are high when compared to dwellings in previous Anasazi periods.
  • the houses are obviously planned, with major sections or architectural units being constructed at one time.
  • the houses are generally oriented to the south, with plaza areas almost always enclosed by a room block or a high wall.
  • the houses are predominantly multistory constructions, some with sections that were four to five stories high. In completed buildings, single-story rooms faced directly onto the plaza, with room blocks terraced so that tallest sections composed the rear of the pueblo.
  • rooms are often organized into suites, with front rooms larger than back rooms and storage areas.
  • ceremonial rooms known as kivas were built in proportion to the number of rooms in the pueblo. On average one small kiva was built for every 29 rooms. However, most Great Houses also included an extremely large Great Kiva, up to 63 feet in diameter. All kivas share distinctive architectural features.
  • common architectural details include T-shaped doorways and stone lintels.

Great House construction is most often of cored, veneered masonry, with the load-bearing wall made of rough, flat stones set in mortar. Each stone is securely overlapped with the stones above and below, adding stability and strength. The core wall is then covered with a sandstone facing, with stone placement creating distinctive patterns.

Pueblo Bonito, a Chacoan Great House
Pueblo Bonito, a Chacoan Great House

Chaco Canyon sites

The Chacoans built an amazing urban ceremonial center along a nine mile (14 km) stretch of canyon floor. Nine Great Houses lie nestled along the north side of Chaco Wash at the base of massive sandstone mesas. Additional Great Houses are found on mesa tops or in nearby washes or drainage areas. The fourteen known Great Houses are arranged in geographic order, beginning at the head of the canyon, near the Chaco River, and traveling southeast through steep canyon walls to the end of Chaco Wash.

  • Panasco Blanco: this arc shaped Great House was built in five distinct stages, beginning in AD 900 and ending in approximately AD 1125. A well known cliff painting nearby may record an astronomical event, the sighting of a supernova in July AD 1054.
  • Casa Chiquita: this village was expanded in the late 1100's. Architecture and design show significant change at this late period. Open plazas disappeared, large blocks of stone were used in masonry and kiva design was in the northern Mesa Verde tradition.
  • Nuevo or New Alto: new construction was underway at this Great House, located on the north mesa very near Pueblo Alto, in the late 1100's despite a general decrease of population in the canyon.
  • Pueblo Alto: located near the central area of Chaco Canyon, on the mesa flat above Pueblo Bonito, this Great House was begun in AD 1020 to 1050. This location made the community visible to most of the inhabitants of the San Juan Basin. The community was central to a bead and turquoise processing industry that influenced the development of all villages in the canyon. Chert tool production was also common.
  • Kin Kletso: this medium size town, located half a mile (800 m) west of Pueblo Bonito, shows strong evidence of construction and occupation by Pueblo peoples from the northern San Juan Basin. Its rectangular shape and design is related to the Pueblo II cultural group, rather than the Pueblo III style or its Chacoan variant. It contains about 55 rooms, four ground floor kivas and a tower which may have functioned as a kiva or religious center. Evidence of an obsidian production industry were discovered here. The village was completed in the late 1100's.
  • Pueblo del Arroyo: begun between AD 1050 to 1075, and completed in the early 12th century, this Great House is located near Pueblo Bonito at the side drainage known as South Gap.
  • Pueblo Bonito: the largest Great House, covers almost two acres (8,000 m²) and incorporates at least 650 rooms. In parts of the village, the structure was four stories high. The builder's use of core and veneer architecture and multi-story construction produced massive masonry walls as much as three feet (1 meter) thick. Pueblo Bonito is divided into two sections by a wall running north to south through the central plaza. A Great Kiva is placed on either side of the wall, creating a symmetrical pattern common to many of the Great Houses.
  • Chetro Ketl: located near Pueblo Bonito, this Great House has a roughly similar D-shape, but is slightly smaller. Begun in AD 1020 to 1050, it contains between 450 and 550 rooms and just a single Great Kiva. Scientists estimate that construction on this house alone took 29,135 person-hours.
  • Casa Rinconada, the Great Kiva: this Great Kiva, a large enclosed area for religious activity and ceremony, is somewhat isolated from the rest of Chaco Canyon. It is on the south side of Chaco Wash, adjacent to a Chacoan road moving up steep stairs to the top of the sandstone mesa. The kiva stands alone, with no residential or support structures, and once had a thirty nine foot passageway from the underground kiva to several above ground levels.
  • Tsin Kletzin: located on the south mesa top, above Casa Rinconada, this community lies very near a massive earthenware structure known as the Weritos dam. Scientists believe the Great House obtained all its domestic water from runoff during thunderstorms that was captured by this dam. However, the massive amounts of silt accumulated during flash floods would have forced the residents to regularly dredge the channel and rebuild the dam.
  • Hungo Pavi: located just a mile (2 km) from Una Vida, this Great House measured 872 feet (266 m) in circumference. Initial explorations established a count of 72 rooms on the ground floor, with structures reaching four stories in height. One large circular kiva has been identified.
  • Kin Nahasbas: this major ruin is located slightly north of Una Vida, nestled against the north mesa. Limited excavation has been conducted in this area.
  • Una Vida: one of the three earliest Great Houses with construction beginning near AD 900. It shares a arc or D-shape design with its contemporaries, Panasco Blanco and Pueblo Bonito, but has a unique "dog leg" addition made necessary by topography. Una Vida is located at a major side drainage into the canyon, near Gallo Wash.
  • Wijiji: the smallest of the great houses at just over 100 rooms, its construction is characteristic of Chacoan design after AD 1100 - 1110. It appears this house was built in a single five year period. It is somewhat isolated in the narrow wash, lying over a mile (2 km) from the neighboring Una Vida.

Major outlying communities to the north include Salmon Ruin and Aztec Ruins ( see Aztec Ruins National Monument), near Farmington, New Mexico. Sixty miles (100 km) south of Chaco Canyon, on the great Southern road, lies a cluster of outlying communities. The largest House is Kin Nizhoni which stands atop a 7000 mile (11,000 km) high mesa, surrounded by marsh-like bottomlands.


  • Fagen, Brian. Chaco Canyon; Archaeologists Explore the Lives of an Ancient Society. Oxford University Press, New York, 2005. ISBN 0-19-517043-1. From the fly leaf: "... the first authoritative account of the Chaco people written for a general audience, lending a fascinating human face to one of America's most famous archaeological sites."
  • Frazier, Kendrick. People of Chaco: A Canyon and Its Culture. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1986. ISBN 0-393-30496-5.
  • Noble, David Grant, editor. New Light on Chaco Canyon. School of American Research, Sante Fe, New Mexico, 1985.
  • Plog, Stephen. Ancient Peoples of the American Southwest. Thames and London, LTD, London, England, 1997. ISBN 0-500-27939-X.
  • Sofaer, Anna , Director. "Mystery of Chaco Canyon." 1999. DVD/VHS. Bullfrog Films. Blurb: "Unveiling the ancient astronomy of southwestern Pueblo Indians." Sequel to "The Sun Dagger."

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