A Grand Mystery on the High-Desert

A Days’ Drive into New Mexico’s Ancient History

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in an arid and remote area near Four Corners, New Mexico. The park preserves a significant find of pre-Columbian culture that is still being studied by archeologists who are trying to solve the mysteries of its purpose and the reason for its inhospitable desert location. The site was a major center of Puebloan culture from AD 900-1150.

The big questions are: what was its function, and why such a desolate location? Despite the enormity of the structures, archeologists have determined that there was never a large population permanently settled there. Moreover, it couldn’t support a large population because of the scarcity of water, the very cold winters, and the very hot summers. Yet, generations of Pueblo people brought in materials from great distances to build structures that were the biggest in North America until the 19th century. There were no horses as of yet in the Western Hemisphere, so everything was transported there by hand.

The site was discovered by US Calvary horsemen in 1849. Archeologists tell us that Chaco Canyon was a high civilization, far beyond anything that anybody had any idea existed here. The people who built it had permanent settlements in northern Arizona and New Mexico where there was plenty of water, game, and forests, yet they applied great effort to build massive structures in the harshest environment that they had to choose from.

Several tribal Pueblo nations still live near the area and there is disagreement among them as to the nature of the Chaco site, ranging from dark and evil to a great shining enlightened metropolis. There are many kivas at the site, prompting speculation that it was used for spiritual ceremonies, while other scholars think that it might have been a trading center.

The original inhabitants left no written record of the purpose of their monumental efforts. Like most great indigenous cities in the New World, it was eventually abandoned. Archeologists believe it was due to a severe fifty-year drought that began in 1130 AD.

Chaco was once thought to be a northern extension of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations in Mexico, but recently scholars have begun to believe that it developed independently. There is, however, much evidence of contact between Chaco and other Mesoamerican cultures. Remains of tropical birds kept as pets have been found inside the buildings, which would have had to have been transported from southern Mexico or Central America. A recent discovery of drinking vessels containing traces of chocolate was a major new development to researchers. The chocolate was a surprising find since the nearest source was at least 1,200 miles away.

Another similarity to other pre-Columbian megaliths is the astrological alignment of the structures. The placement of the buildings is in alignment with solstices, equinoxes, and lunar cycles. Most of the buildings are aligned precisely to the cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west. The lunar cycles would have required generations of observation and centuries of complex construction to align properly.

Chaco is considered sacred lands to the Hopi and Pueblo people and there is regular tribal consultation with the National Park Service to insure respect and preservation of the site. Some areas have been closed to the public because of erosion from visitors.

Chaco Canyon is a good day trip from Albuquerque. As part of the US National Park Service system, it is open on the same schedule as most parks in the southwest U.S. There is overnight camping, as well as guided tours, hiking trails, and educational programs. Their phone number is 505.786.7014 and their website is www.nps.gov/chcu/index.htm.

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