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The Chaco Phenomenon: A Brief Overview

Updated on May 15, 2013
Ariel View of San Juan Basin in New Mexico
Ariel View of San Juan Basin in New Mexico | Source

Chaco Canyon

Sometime around AD 800, a radical cultural phenomenon transformed the New Mexico landscape. Suddenly, the scorched, inhospitable southwestern terrain became the foundation for a well-planned, efficiently constructed cityscape that reflected the 19-year cycle of the moon, as well as the sun’s annual orbit. Extensive canals, multi-story homes, vast plazas, ancient roadways, and satellite communities soon occupied anywhere between 45,000-60,000 square miles.

Considering its circumscribed location, Chaco Canyon is archaeologically perplexing. Why establish such a progressive settlement apart from other socio-politically complex societies?

Great Kiva
Great Kiva | Source

Architectural Anomalies

Instead of providing any concrete answers as to the purpose of Chaco Canyon, decades of archeological excavations only revealed additional baffling features of this ancient site, originally built by the Anasazi, who are the predecessors of modern Pueblo Indians. Consider the Great Kivas, or “great houses”, found along the northern end of the canyon. These homes consisted of multiple stories, numerous rooms (Pueblo Bonito, the largest of these “great houses”, apparently comprised of 650 rooms), and were constructed over several different building episodes. The remarkable detail of these Great Kivas is although not their construction, but rather that only very few people inhabited these vast dwellings at one time. The lack of human activity is further supported by an almost complete absence of burials.

Further perplexities arise when considering other features of this expansive site. Chaco Canyon, for instance, lies in the direct center of the four cardinal directions, situated in an environment devoid of consistent rainfall and with limited resources, creating unfavorable conditions for a culture that purposefully chose the area to construct each architectural facet evidenced in the cityscape. Another archaeological enigma includes 400 miles of unpaved roadways, some of which terminate abruptly, serving no identifiable purpose. Also, there is no indication, as of yet, that the populace utilized draft animals, which would negate the need for a substantial network of roads.

Construction Based on Cosmology
Construction Based on Cosmology | Source

Decline and Abandonment

The incredible efforts made by the Anasazi towards meticulously constructing a pre-meditated community engenders further questions, considering that after only a few short centuries, Chaco Canyon was abandoned. Excavations of the region suggest that drought, starvation, and warfare may have forced the inhabitants to seek refuge elsewhere. The severity of these conditions was profound, as archeological evidence indicates that lack of nutrition drove the inhabitants of the region to cannibalism. For example, casualties of war appear to have served as a source of food, with battle sites dating towards the close of the Chaco phenomenon containing smooth-ended bones, indicative of having been boiled, and traces of human muscle protein in dried human feces.

While no singular reason may ever be identified as prompting the desertion of this complex site, it is clear that after a mere 300 years, Chaco Canyon stood forsaken, with no definite indication as to what occurred to its remaining populace.

Copyright Lilith Eden 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Mysteries of Chaco Canyon


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