Chaco Canyon: The First Advanced Civilization in the Southwest

Episode 19: The Chaco Phenomenon

Ancient Civilizations of North America

Dr Edwin Barnhart (2018)

Film Review

The Chaco Canyon site (dating between 800-1200 AD) shows the first clear evidence of advanced civilization in the southwestern US. Requiring the haulage of 10,000 tall trees (from outside the desert) for roofs, walls and lentils, the size and complexity of Chaco dwellings suggests both centralized management and the input of master builders. At the same time, there is no evidence Chaco elite lived in fancier housing or imposed any kind of social hierarchy.

The construction of Chaco great houses started in the mid-800s, leading to a peak in the 1100s. Surrounding the Chaco great houses, were dozens of satellite settlements filling an area of roughly 25 square miles. Owing to severe drought, the whole area was abandoned around 1150 AD.

Residents grew crops in the canyon floor, employing check dams* for irrigation. Although there are enough block houses in the greater Chaco Canyon area to house 10,000 people, archeologists are skeptical the homes were occupied year-round, owing to the absence of burial or trash sites.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo maintained large numbers of workshops (making Chaco bowls found nowhere else in North America) and massive trade networks. They imported turquoise (from Cerrillos Hills near modern Santa Fe 120 miles away) and obsidian. There are also remains of scarlet macaws (from southern Mexico) and chocolate in Mayan containers.

The greater Chaco Canyon area had 14 great houses four or five stories high with hundreds of rooms constructed around a central plaza and numerous kivas** interspersed in between. The latter had substantial load bearing walls and employed a core and veneer structure. Stone blocks were mined from the canyon floor and covered with a plaster veneer.

Mysteries of the U.S.'s Four Corners: The Vanishing - Condé Nast Traveler

Unlike Chaco Canyon, nearby Salmon and Pueblo Bonito were well populated. Only Pueblo Benito produced artifacts suggestive of a wealthy elite.

Most buildings in the Chaco Canyon region show a variety of astronomical alignments. Pueblo Benito has a great kiva capable of holding hundreds of people. All the kivas had T-shaped windows, possibly imitating the Mayan city of Palenque, also known for T-shaped windows.

The Chaco area is also known for eight wide well-made roads, some leading to  horseshoe-shaped shrines facing the sunrise. Barnhart believes that Chaco Canyon was most likely a destination for pilgrims who lived elsewhere. Modern Pueblo communities have pilgrimages focused on the winter solstice, ancestor worship and kachinas (spirits concerned with the welfare of people and crops).

*A check dam is a small, sometimes temporary, dam constructed across a drainage ditch or waterway to counteract erosion by reducing water flow velocity.

**Small underground circular rooms used for spiritual ceremonies.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

2 thoughts on “Chaco Canyon: The First Advanced Civilization in the Southwest

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.