Culture(s) at Chaco

Punk Archaeology  |  08/12/2016


In this episode we ponder the draw of Chaco Canyon, the peoples who made the journey to Chaco from thousands of miles away and the ideologies that may have been exchanged between them.

Macaws from up to 3000 miles South of New Mexico were found at Chaco Canyon, brought by the Maya residents of the area at the time (850-1150AD). Macaws naturally impress themselves on their human keepers and establish a very close relationship, indicating that these sacred birds likely made the extensive journey to Chaco individual by individual rather than in bunches with a Pochteca trader. The feathers of these birds were employed in a ceremonial manner by the people of Chaco in much the same way they were utized in Mesoamerica, exemplified by the amazing Macaw sash seen below at the museum at Edge of Cedars, NM.

Similarly, the remains of turkeys from what is now the Eastern U.S. were found at Chaco, a bird that also travels closely with their human counterpart. Seashells from the coasts were found, in addition to turquoise from all over North America. As our Hopi friends Ramson Lomatewama and Bertram Tsavadawa allude to in this episode, Chaco was a central place for many indigenous peoples – the Hopi, Laguna, Acoma, Zuni and others, some of whom still make pilgrimages to the ancient site today.


Dave points out the small rooms around the perimeter of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon that were used as aviaries to house the aforementioned birds, in which their remains were found. At Paquime (Casa Grande), a site south of Chaco in Northern Mexico that arose in the 1300s as Chaco declined, the ancients added holes to the aviaries for the birds to pop their heads through thus extending their lives. Paquime appears to be another site where people from Mesoamerica interacted regularly with Indians of the Southwest, with clear signs of both cultures in the symbolism and architecture employed there.

Trade was certainly an aspect of both Paquime and Chaco Canyon that would’ve drawn masses from miles around, and there are many people who contend that this was Chaco’s primary function as a site. However, the magnitude, alignment and purpose of the structures at Chaco suggest ceremonial priority and focus on the heavens. Chaco’s structures were aligned to Summer and Winter solstices, Vernal and Autumnal equinoxes, and the 18.6 year Lunar Standstill or Metonic cycle. From the grandeur of Pueblo Bonito to many ceremonial Kivas and even the roadways themselves, the people of Chaco Canyon appear to have been focused primarily on spiritual endeavors.

In this episode Dave notes the obvious similarities between Chaco’s Great North Road and the ancient spiritual roads of the Maya called Sac Be. Both are raised and both are approximately the same width. Both required incredible amounts of manpower, but unlike the flat realm of the Maya the builders of Chaco’s roadways had to ascend cliffs and navigate challenging rocky topography while maintaining precise direction. Anna Sofaer’s Solstice Project comments that the roads of Chaco were extensively over-engineered considering their limited use, and that trade does not appear to have been their purpose. Furthermore, several pockets of pottery shards were found at specific locations along the road suggesting that it had a ceremonial purpose.

Bertram explains in this episode that Hopi ceremony is directed at maintaining balance and promoting the continuation of all living things on earth. The Hopi pray for all humans and have throughout time. The Hisatsinom ancestors of the Hopi may have assembled at Chaco to participate in an egalitarian society conducting ceremonies for such benevolent reasons. However, at some point it appears that a negative influence emerged at Chaco unleashing a campaign of terror and oppression. This, coupled with extreme drought led many to flee Chaco beginning around 1150 AD. Kivas were burned and sealed to hide their secrets and the site was eventually left to the winds. Where did the people of Chaco go?

Many appear to have established smaller communities throughout the Southwest such as Canyon de Chelly in 1200 AD. Hisatsinom villages built during and after Chaco’s decline such as White House at Canyon de Chelly were often built in difficult-to-reach and easily-defended locations like canyons and cliffs. This kind of defensive approach indicates that there was something nasty out there for these people to defend themselves from. The fact that we see these villages popping up in different geographic locations throughout the Southwest during the same time period indicates that these peoples may have all been fleeing the same negative force. A force which may have originated at Chaco Canyon. Whatever they feared, the refugees from Chaco may have traveled much further than the Southwest to escape it.

Fajada Butte Sun Dagger Calendar
How the Bajada Butte Sun Dagger Calendar at Chaco Canyon Works – But Why Choose 19 Grooves in the Spiral?

Geologist John Anton recently found signs that the diaspora from Chaco may have stretched to the Northeast. Anton found an ancient solstice calendar in Gettysburg, PA that utilizes a shaft of light interacting with a petroglyph stone, much like the ancient Hisatsinom calendars of the Southwest exemplified by the famous “sun dagger” calendar on Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon. In addition to Summer and Winter solstices, the Gettysburg calendar at “Devil’s Den” tracks the Pleiades and Sirius – two important celestial bodies to many indigenous peoples, including the Hopi.

Only Existing Photo of Gettysburg Calendar with Stolen Petroglyph Stone, Courtesy John Anton
Only Existing Photo of Gettysburg Calendar with Stolen Petroglyph Stone, Courtesy John Anton

Unfortunately when Anton notified park officials of the petroglyph stone, it was mysteriously “stolen by a tourist” the day Anton was slated to meet with them on site. Similarly, a skull found on a Gettysburg farm that Smithsonian skeletal expert Doug Owsley found to belong to a young Pueblo Indian man from Arizona or New Mexico circa 1300 AD (just following Chaco’s demise) has mysteriously disappeared. Some of the people of Chaco may have moved East to exchange knowledge with the indigenous people of that region such as the Susquehannock, but it seems that there are folks in positions of authority in Gettysburg who wish this to remain unknown. What we do know of the Susquehannock is that they were very tall people, and they practiced cannibalism. Interestingly, the group that may have introduced darkness to Chaco Canyon shares some of these characteristics.

Author Gary A. David posits that the elite presence that may have seized control at Chaco could’ve been a bloodthirsty, power-mongering group from Mexico called the Chichimeca or Chichimecs – a group known to practice ritual human sacrifice and cannibalism. This would certainly provide an explanation for stories and evidence of cannibalism, sacrifice and mass murder in the ancient U.S. Southwest, and there is compelling evidence tying the Chichimecs to the darkness that appeared at Chaco. But more on that in Episode 10.

Whatever drew people to make the arduous trek to Chaco Canyon by the thousands, it must’ve been amazing. Rob captures our thoughts on Chaco Canyon best as follows, as we recap a day among the ancient ones around the campfire:

We’ll share more on the Chichimecs and Chaco Canyon in Episode 10. We’ll also be dropping a (figurative) bomb from the indigenous descendants of the people of Chaco Canyon – something that to our knowledge has never been captured on video. Stay tuned!