The Mysteries of Chaco Canyon

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November 10, 2013

In the past few posts, I have been outlining some places you may want add to your list of sites to visit next summer when you take to the road again. Chaco Canyon, NM is a place I had wanted to visit since almost the first time I set foot in New Mexico. One thing or another always seemed to get in the way of our making the trip. Our son Ryan’s visit this past August provided just the opportunity I had been waiting for. An Environmental Science major, with an avid interest in Anthropology, Ryan was only too happy to give us the purpose for making the trip.

Chtro Ketl, Chaco Canyon, NMWe set out early as it was a four hour drive to Chaco. The drive was uneventful, except that the last 13 miles of road, just before we reached the Chaco Culture National Historical Site, were the worst dirt and gravel road I have ever experienced. It was, essentially, a washboard with ditches. Our Dodge Durango was bouncing so wildly, I was sure my door would pop open.

We finally arrived safely and were greeted by the exceptionally helpful staff. They directed us as to what to see and where to go.  We began our journey, stopping first at Chetro Ketl, a Chacoan Great House. As with most other great houses, it began as a single story room and grew to become a monumental structure covering nearly three acres. Construction was begun in the year 1010 and was completed in the early 1100s.

Chaco Canyon, NMAs you can see from the photos, only partial walls of this structure remain standing. Terry, Ryan and I spent a bit of time wandering around the remains, imagining what it must have been like to live hundreds of years ago. As we continued our tour of this amazing historic site, a World Heritage Site since, 1987, we found ourselves with more questions than answers.

There are many mysteries surrounding Chaco Canyon. Why did the people build here? It is in a desert, far away from a fertile farming area with its limited rainfall, long winters and short growing season. Those who know, speculate that it has something to do with the mysterious looking Fajada Butte, looming over the city site. Perhaps there were spiritual reasons for choosing this site that were more significant than the blatant undesirability of the location.

Fajada Butte, NM

Fajada Butte, NM

Even more significant than why here is the question of why the entire population of Chaco Canyon rather suddenly packed up and moved on.  Chacoan culture began at this location in the mid-800s and persisted over 300 years. The community was unique for a number of reasons. Using masonry techniques unusual for their time, the Chacoans built massive, multiple-story stone buildings, known as Great Houses, with hundreds of rooms, far larger than any that had previously been built.

Buildings, and indeed the entire community, were planned from the start. Rooms were not simply added to an existing building; construction spanned decades or even centuries. By 1050, Chaco was the ceremonial, administrative and economic center of the entire region with a large sphere of influence. Why, then, did the new construction cease in the 1100s and 1200s and Chaco’s role as regional center shift?

Kiva (ceremonial site) and stone architecture

Kiva (ceremonial site) and stone architecture

The people moved away from Chacoan ways and migrated to new areas leaving their once vibrant planned community abandoned and disintegrating. Many Native American peoples of the Southwest see Chaco Canyon as an important historic stop for their ancestors, including the pueblo Indians as well as the Hopi and others. But even they have no explanation for why this miraculous society ceased to exist.

While we had a wonderful visit to Chaco Canyon,  as I stated previously,Terry, Ryan and I came away with more questions than answers. For anyone looking for a fascinating place to visit during a summer or fall camping trip, check out Chaco Canyon. It is an experience not to be missed.

Coming Next: The Main Attraction: Pueblo Bonito

Read more about New Mexico campgrounds and things to do in New Mexico.

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