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Earth Notes: Chaco Canyon

Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.
Eric Draper
AP Photo
Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.

Chaco Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico, is the setting for one of the largest ancestral Pueblo communities in the southwest. The earliest Chaco villages appear in the canyon by the fifth century AD and include hundreds of small pit-house structures.

By 800 AD, Chaco builders were constructing massive villages, called “Great Houses” by archaeologists, such as Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, each with several hundred rooms and multiple stories in height. Elaborate pottery and jewelry was made during this time, and exotic items were imported such as parrots, seashells and cacao beans. Then in the mid-1100s, Chaco culture began a slow decline.

By the 1200s, much of Chaco Canyon’s population, and influence, moved 60 miles north to newly constructed Great Houses such as Aztec and Salmon Pueblos. Eventually, the ancestral clans left these villages too, migrating back south, joining relatives living at Acoma, Hopi, Zuni, and along the Rio Grande River.

Archaeologists still debate the role that Chaco Canyon held within the larger Pueblo world. Was it a pilgrimage destination for ancestral peoples? Perhaps it was the nexus of a major trade network with connections to Mesoamerican cultures? Or was it a capital center in its own right, unifying the Four Corners region under a single worldview?

Chaco Canyon was likely a combination of all of these, and for present-day Pueblo groups, remains a part of their collective histories, and a source of continued validation and meaning.

This Earth Note was written by Lyle Balenquah and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Lyle Balenquah, Hopi, is a member of the Greasewood Clan from the Village of Paaqavi ("Reed Springs Place") on Third Mesa, located in northeastern Arizona. He currently works as an archaeologist, as well as a river and hiking guide across the Four Corners region. Through his work he advocates for the protection and preservation of ancestral landscapes, combining his professional training with personal experiences and insights about Hopi culture and history.
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