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Chaco Canyon, New Mexico – Home of Ancestral Puebloans

Once home to the Ancient Puebloans, Chaco Canyon was a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture between 850 and 1250 A.D.

By 1000 A.D., the Chaco culture had firmly established a spiritual, political, and economic center serving the Four Corners area. It is estimated that the region was called home to as many as 5,000 people living in approximately 75 settlements scattered throughout the canyon.

In addition to its remarkable public and ceremonial buildings, the Ancient Puebloans built numerous roads, ramps, dams, and mounds, which required a great deal of well-organized and skillful planning, designing, resource gathering, and construction. The distinctive architecture combines several designs, astronomical alignments, geometry, landscaping, and engineering to create an ancient urban center that continues to amaze archeologists and visitors a thousand years later.

Archeological evidence suggests that the Ancient Puebloans had been occupying the area as early as 1200 B.C. when they survived as nomadic hunters and gatherers, hunting with wood clubs, hunting sticks, and spears. Some three centuries later, they began to make more permanent homes in caves and pit houses where they constructed numerous woven baskets covered with mud and baked to make waterproof containers. Archaeologists identify these first people as Basket Makers.

About 700 A.D., the Ancient Puebloans began cultivating crops, such as corn and squash, and building permanent dwellings. These small, one-storied, masonry structures were the beginning of what would become the great pueblos of the southwest.

Some two centuries later, as their population grew, the communities expanded into larger, more closely compacted pueblos. Around this time, the Pueblo Bonito complex was built, beginning with one curved row of rooms near the north wall.  Continuing to refine their building techniques, the use of thick masonry walls and the generous use of mud mortar allowed walls to rise to more than four stories in height.

During this time, the Chacoans quarried sandstone blocks and hauled timber from great distances, assembling 15 major complexes that remained the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century. Many of these buildings are thought to have been aligned to capture the solar and lunar cycles, which would have required generations of astronomical observations and centuries of skillfully coordinated construction.

More pueblos, including Chetro Ketl, Una Vida, Penasco Blanco, Hungo Pavi, and Kin Bineola, were also started at about this time. Some large buildings show signs of being planned from the start, in contrast to the usual Ancient Puebloans custom of adding rooms as needed. For the next two centuries, more and more of these large pueblos with oversized rooms began to be built throughout the region. Eventually, there were an estimated 75 villages in the area, tied together by an extensive system of roads.

From the 12th to the 13th centuries, many of the pueblos in Chaco Canyon were abandoned when a long cycle of drought began in the San Juan Basin, beginning in about 1130. The Ancient Puebloans were at their height of civilization when the lack of rainfall led to food storage. Even though they had designed an extensive system of dams and irrigation methods, the dry climate and overtaxed fields could no longer support the immense population. As famine spread throughout the area, the people began to leave, joining other pueblos near the Little Colorado River and the Rio Grande.

Some archaeologists now believe that other factors, such as religious upheaval, internal political conflicts, and warfare, may have also contributed to the abandonment. By the 1300s, all of the villages and pueblos of Chaco Canyon were abandoned. As the ancient Indians left, their kivas were ceremonially burned, and most of their possessions were left behind.

Today, their descendants are members of 20 Indian tribes in New Mexico and Arizona, and many maintain their connections with Chaco today. These tribes include modern-day Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, the Hopi of Arizona, and the Navajo.

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