Chaco Culture National Historical Park: A Gem in the Desert

Name: Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Location: in the northwestern part of the state of New Mexico, 70 miles south of Farmington.
Area: 34,000 acres.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park




The "painted deserts" in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah -called like that because, as Amsden said in one occasion, only colors grow there- have witnessed an important human occupation since the beginning of the Christian age. It is an area of a high altitude, occupied by cold landscapes interrupted by canyons, which sometimes trace the course of streams and rivers.

The harsh conditions of the environment forced the Indians to have a special lifestyle, known as "Desert Culture", whose main characters were the Anasazi tribes. Although the development of this lifestyle continues to hide interesting anthropological enigmas, it seems there were different periods in their social evolution.


Evolution of the Anasazi

The Anasazi, also known as "basketmakers", were the earliest inhabitants of the area. Hunters and nomadic harvesters, the basketmakers have left us as only built vestiges a series of particular underground stone crates, known as cistas, which it seems they used for the storage of crops that they later consumed. From the cistas emerged the so-called "pithouses", a wider type of underground room that can now contain people and belongings. From 700 AD, the Anasazi stabilize, which allows the development of permanent houses which would later evolved into growing complexes. It starts the period called "pueblo", -in reference to the agglomerations of houses that formed a community, as "pueblo" means "town" in Spanish-, which had its zenith between 900 and 1150 AD., authentic golden age of the Indian cultures of the vast American Southwest. It has been described multiple archeological remains from the Pueblo Indians in 6 different areas (Rio Grande, Virgin, Chaco, Kayenta, Mesa Verda and Little Colorado). It seems all of them were economically engaged with each other.

In this group of Pueblo cultures, the Chaco were an autonomous group, enjoying a geographical specificity and implementation very well defined. This society added a large number of agrarian communities on a vast 26,000 square miles territory in the northwest of New Mexico. It was characterized by a very complex occupation system of the lands, which comprised a constellation of agglomerations surrounded by satellite cities and communicated between them by a developed network of trails.

The Chaco Canyon

The Chaco Canyon, on which is located the Historical National Park, offers along its 10 miles the largest concentration of archeological vestiges from this part of the Pueblo Indians. From it, emanated 3 routes, the northern route that arrived to Twin Angels and Salmon Ruins, and the 2 southern routes, in connection with Ruddy Water and San Mateo.

During the years 1020 and 1110, the booming of the Chaco Canyon took place. The buildings, on well organized plains, of old towns like Pueblo Bonito and PeƱasco Blanco witnesses the expertise in construction techniques on difficult lands. So, the necessary water for the elaboration of the mortar couldn't be found on the place so it had to be carried, while the wood came from forests located 37 miles away from their villages. Even the sand and gravel, originated in a nearby quarry, should be cut and carried to the construction sites. The dimensions reached by these villages are amazing: only Pueblo Bonito counted with 800 houses and 32 kiwas.

In the same way as in Mesa Verde, the buildings in the Chaco Canyon are flanked by kiwas, semi-underground rooms where religious and social gatherings took place. The close relationships between the individuals of the community, where entire families lived in a single conglomerate, was also a perfect source for feelings of jealousy, gossips and stripes that could separate the people -"cabin fever", according to the diagnosis graph of W. W. Hill-. To cope with these tendencies, the kiwas acted as talking forums, where inhabitants could trigger collective catharsis and get rid of the forced tensions which life in society implied.

During this period the access routes to neighboring towns of a single community increased significantly, connecting the Chaco Canyon with Pedro Site, the Halfway House, Twin Angels and Pueblo Azteca, in the north, and Kin Nizhoni and Casamero, in the south. The communications allowed the development of an emerging trade, based on ceramic, crops, and even some gems, like the turquoises.

It is very surprising to see the artistic development of the ceramic works among the Pueblo Indians. The first containers, perhaps imitating the techniques of the basketmakers, were made up of different ceramic bands united together. Later on, they passed to ceramic modelings of a single piece, decorated with a wide range of motifs. The meteorological phenomena in the area were reflected in the ornamentation of the ceramic pieces. For instance, the rain was represented by vertical and parallel lines, the rainbow by two circular arches, and the tornadoes by long funnel-shaped spirals. The concern of the Pueblo Indians about water, also derived in the search for rain by using conjures. For example, they put 7 glasses full of water, from which 4 were orientated to the different cardinal points, one represented the water from the morning dew, the other one the water from the wells, and finally, the last one alluded to the community and in it they mixed the waters from the other 6 glasses.

Canyon Abandonment

From 1130, starts a rapid decadence of the communities in the Chaco Canyon that would result in the disappearance of all human remains at the end of the century. The causes are not justified yet. According to Lamb, the intensification of the Athapaskan and Shoshone Indians incursions, destroyed the agrarian production systems of the inhabitants of the canyon, forcing them to look for shelter in the allied tribes in Mesa Verde. Other theories point to the possibility of a big demographic explosion which depleted the natural resources of the area making it uninhabitable.

The discussion continues to be active: the phenomenon gains strokes of authentic mystery if one takes into account that a century later, at the end of the 1299, Mesa Verde was also suddenly abandoned by its inhabitants. With everything in consideration, the culture of the Pueblo Indians from the Chaco Canyon has left us valuable archeological remains which illustrate the evolution of these communities from a primitive hunting-harvest system to the construction of well-based structured and organized settlements based on stone buildings.

The Expedition of Francisco Vazquez Coronado

"Once we arrived to Cibola, we asked the people to receive us in Peace, that we were not going to hurt them, on the contrary, they would benefit from our presence. They responded claiming that they didn't want to, as they were armed and looking for war. Because of their attitude, our people started attacking them. They injured Coronado and other Spanish people but at the end they end up escaping".

These lines were extracted from the diary of Gomara, chronicler of the expedition of Francisco Vazquez Coronado in 1540 and they constitute the first documented contact between the white man and the Anasazi descendants. It's important to highlight that the chronicler, a fine observer, also mentioned the existence of some caves situated in front of the houses, these are the characteristic kiwas of this culture.

Source: The American Southwest

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