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Why go to Chaco?
Anyone who's traveled the 21 bone-jarring miles on rutted roads to Chaco Canyon will ask themselves the same question: How did this desolate canyon become the New York City of the ancient Anasazi?
Biking through the canyon, we arrive at the ruins of Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the Chaco "great houses" and the center of the Anasazi world in 1050.
What they call great houses are really villages enclosed by walls on all sides. Pueblo Bonito has 650 rooms and almost 40 kivas, with walls as thick as a medieval castle. The fine architecture here makes Keet Seel look like a trailer.
The Chacoans selected and shaped sandstone blocks from the nearby cliffs to form near-perfect walls. Standing five stories in parts, Pueblo Bonito was the tallest apartment building in North America until the 19th century!
Chaco is full of mystery. Receiving only 9 inches of rain a year, Chaco isn't exactly a Garden of Eden for growing crops. How did 4,000 people survive, even thrive here, 1,000 years ago?
Archaeologists have found evidence that the Anasazi of Chaco made up for the lack of water by collecting runoff from the cliffs and directing it with dams and canals into bordered fields and gardens. Trees were harvested from miles around for construction timbers, as well as fuel.
Archaeologist Steve Lekson estimates that 215,000 trees were hauled from up to 50 miles away to build all the houses in the canyon.
The big question for Lekson and other archaeologists who have puzzled over Chaco Canyon is: Who lived in great houses like Pueblo Bonito, and what kind of society did they have?
A clue to this mystery was found in a spectacular burial excavated here in 1896. Fourteen burials were found in an otherwise simple room of Pueblo Bonito. Two people had been placed under a wooden plank floor and buried with thousands of turquoise pendants and beads, a shell trumpet, 40 shell bracelets, beautiful pots, and seven large flutes. Some of the people wore macaw feather capes. The turquoise came from mines over 100 miles away near Santa Fe, the shell from the California coast, and the macaw feathers from southern Mexico! Were these people rulers? Priests?
Another clue to the mystery of Chaco is the elaborate network of roads that branch out from the canyon hundreds of miles in different directions. These roads were up to 30 feet wide and arrow-straight. The Anasazi even cut staircases into the cliffs to link road sections together. Although archaeologists don't know exactly what these roads were used for, they suggest that Chaco was the center of a huge trade network, possibly even a kind of pilgrimage center, like Mecca or Rome. See my P.S. at the end of this report for more information on the mystery of the Chaco roads.
Given all the work that went into building these roads and the great houses they linked together you'd imagine the Anasazi would have stayed here forever. However, in 1130 they built their last house and soon after abandoned the canyon altogether. Why?
In recent years archaeologists like Tom Windes have approached this question by looking at the timbers used to build Pueblo Bonito and other great houses. Over time, big pines were no longer used to build great houses and were replaced by smaller trees gathered from farther away. It's pretty clear the Anasazi here deforested the landscape almost completely. Today there's hardly a single tree in sight in Chaco Canyon.
The animals people were hunting, and the bones left behind, provide another piece of evidence. By 1130 rabbits and rodents replaced the deer and other large animals that people had feasted on for years. No forest -- no deer.
The residents of Chaco Canyon abandoned this place about 170 years before the great Anasazi abandonment of 1300. I have no doubt there are clues here to the bigger mystery -- deforestation, overuse of the lands, possible drought.
As night falls and the temperatures drop below freezing, I'm still trying to solve a mystery more immediate than the abandonment. Why did people come to Chaco in the first place?
Diggin' it, John Fox
P.S. Tune in to "Make a Discovery" on Thursday to help Dr. David Hurst-Thomas solve the mystery of the Chaco roads.
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