All Roads to Chaco

Punk Archaeology  |  06/13/2016

In this episode we reach the breathtaking ruins of Chaco Canyon in present day New Mexico, an amazing archaeological site with several mysteries yet to unravel.

Chaco Canyon was a major ceremonial and trade center for thousands of people from thousands of miles away. All roads led to Chaco, a very important site from it’s inception in 850AD to it’s sudden decline and abandonment around 1150AD. Small groups of hunter-gatherers inhabited Chaco Canyon for more than 8,000 thousand years prior to the mid 800s when the people of Chaco suddenly gained the inclination and ability to build massive multi-story structures and ceremonial chambers called Kivas aligned to celestial events. Chaco sits on the same 33rd degree parallel as other important ancient sites including Etowah Mounds in GA, Poverty Point in LA, the Intaglios of CA, the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day Iraq and the white pyramid of X’ian China. Who intervened at Chaco to convey this knowledge and initiate the building process, and why did they choose this particular location?

T-Shaped Pillar, Gobekli Tepe
T-Shaped Pillar, Gobekli Tepe

Kivas were built at a rate of approximately 1 per 30 rooms at Chaco, with each of dozens of great houses at Chaco containing 100-800 rooms. Among hundreds of smaller kivas are 21 larger Great Kivas capable of hosting major events. Two great kivas – Casa Rinconada and Kin Nahasbas – were separated from the great houses, others like Chetro Ketl were incorporated into them. Casa Rinconada has 28 square-foot niches around the perimeter, suggesting a lunar inclination. Some great kivas like Casa Rinconada share the “T” shape windows and doorways we find in several of Chaco’s great houses. We also see the “T” shape appear repeatedly in the structures of other seemingly disparate groups of ancient peoples like the Maya, who see the “T” shape as the tree of life connecting the upper, lower and earth planes – in other words, a portal. The “T” shape was also used by ancient Egyptians, ancient people of Peru, ancient Celts and the builders of Gobekli Tepe in present-day Turkey – interestingly also a circular subterranean ceremonial enclosure, much like a kiva. Gary A. David also points out the existence of ancient circular subterranean structures in a town in Uzbekistan, oddly called “Khiva.”

The dozens of great houses at Chaco required the use of an estimated 240,000 trees from forests 50-70 miles away and thousands of tons of stone. This indicates the existence of a strong central polity, a significant shared belief, or both. Many posit that the destruction of these forests may have contributed to drought conditions associated with Chaco’s decline, much like the self-destructive story of the Maya told by Dr. Jaime Awe. Unlike the Maya however, the people of Chaco didn’t use a lot of mortar, conserving their prized resource – water. Considering the Maya drought conditions heightened in 750-800AD, it’s not a stretch to consider the founders of Chaco were Maya who may have learned their lesson regarding resource management.

The great houses of Chaco were oriented to allow line of sight communication, and were often aligned to cardinal directions and solar & lunar cycles. The people of Chaco employed sophisticated astronomical markers such as the famous sun dagger petroglyph on Fajada Butte, similar to others found elsewhere in the

Temple Mound "A" at Etowah Mounds, GA
Temple Mound “A” at Etowah Mounds, GA

Southwest and beyond. They also constructed water control devices and several formal earthen mounds surrounding primary structures that many see as ceremonial – not the trash middens they were previously believed to be. This is intriguing in that it echoes the mound-building practices of the cultures inhabiting the Midwest and Southeast regions of North America at the time – cultures we have just investigated for upcoming episodes. Is there a connection between the mound builders and the ancient pueblo cultures? Are the ancient cultures of North America directly related to the Maya?

Chaco’s sphere of influence was extensive. To date more than 186 miles of roads like the Great North Road have been found emanating from Chaco in all directions, connecting more than 150 great houses throughout the region much like the sacred roads of the ancient Maya called Sacbes. High points have been found along sight lines with remnants of burned matter and mica suggesting their use as signal towers to bring in the masses. Because very little evidence has been found at Chaco to support a significant full-time population, it is thought that the great houses were not traditional farming villages but rather impressive public monuments that were used periodically during times of ceremony, commerce, and trading when temporary populations hit the canyon for these events.

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon
Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon

Many indigenous peoples acknowledge ancestral ties to Chaco Canyon including the Hopi, Acoma, Zuni and Laguna Pueblo peoples. While the National Park Service claims “Chaco is central to the origins of several Navajo clans and ceremonies,” they do not explain how this can be considering the Navajo didn’t arrive in this region until the mid 1100s – nor do they explain that the Navajo are not a Pueblo culture. This is a common source of confusion throughout the Southwest, at sites such as “Navajo National Monument” which contain the ruins of ancient pueblo villages (Betatkin and Keet Seel) built by Histatsinom ancestors of the Pueblo peoples, not the Athabaskan ancestors of the Navajo. Perhaps some clans of the Navajo interbred and adopted Pueblo beliefs?

Pueblo descendants say that Chaco Canyon was a special gathering place where many peoples and clans converged to share ceremonies, traditions, and knowledge. They also seem to concur that dark forces were awoken at Chaco prior to its decline in the mid 1100s. Perhaps this would explain why the people of Chaco burned and sealed their kivas on the way out, protecting their sacred oral traditions from an intervening force. Pueblo villages built during and after Chaco’s end are built in cliffs and other easily defensible areas, suggesting people were running from something big and bad. There is evidence of some very nasty stuff going on in and around Chaco, as Gary A. David alludes to in this episode.

Naturally Occurring Markings, According to the NPS
Naturally Occurring Markings, According to the NPS

Researchers have found signs of peoples from far away lands at Chaco, including the remains of Scarlet Macaws and Cacao from Mesoamerica, turkeys from what is now the Eastern United States, and 111 special cylinder jars suggesting an elite presence. There are some who claim that Chaco houses a hidden library of ancient knowledge that has yet to be discovered. We found an interesting petroglyph at Chaco that the NPS rangers on site refused to acknowledge, explaining it as “naturally occurring markings.” Why would they work so hard to keep us from understanding this site?

Whoever intervened to inspire and direct the construction of Chaco Canyon, called Yupkoyvi by the Hopi (a reference to subterranean rooms), they were well-organized and had an overwhelming urge to enact the axiom “as above, so below.” Was a benevolent egalitarian culture overcome by oppressive interlopers, or was this gargantuan effort rooted in darkness from day one?

We’re on the Road2Ruins to Chaco Canyon to find out, join the journey!