Chaco Culture

National Historical Park Cultural History

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Cultural History

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is lies in a long, shallow canyon that is centrally located within the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico. The canyon was carved into the basin by what is now known as the Chaco Wash, a tributary of the San Juan River.

The park lies primarily along this wash and its tributaries and includes archaeological sites inside and outside the canyon. These sites represent a prehistoric cultural system, which at one time extended throughout the basin. The San Juan Basin has been occupied for over 10,000 years and has been home to Paleo-Indians, Archaic people, the Anasazi, the Navajo, and people of Hispanic and Anglo descent.

The cultural flowering of the Chacoan people began in the mid-800s and lasted over 300 years. We can see it clearly in the grand scale of the architecture. Using masonry techniques unique for their time, they constructed massive stone buildings ("great houses") of multiple stories containing hundreds of rooms much larger than any they had previously built. The buildings were planned from the start, in contrast to the usual practice of adding rooms to existing structures as needed. Construction on some of these buildings spanned decades and even centuries. Although each is unique, all great houses share architectural features that make them recognizable as "Chacoan."

During the middle and late 800s, the great houses of Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Peñasco Blanco were constructed, followed by Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto, and others. These structures were often oriented to solar, lunar, and cardinal directions. Lines of sight between the great houses allowed communication. Sophisticated astronomical markers, communication features, water control devices, and formal earthen mounds surrounded them. The buildings were placed within a landscape surrounded by sacred mountains, mesas, and shrines that still have deep spiritual meaning for American Indian descendants.

By 1050, Chaco was well on the way to becoming the political, economic, and ceremonial center of the San Juan Basin. Its sphere of influence was extensive. Dozens of great houses in Chaco Canyon were connected by roads to over 150 great houses built throughout the region. Current thought is that the great houses were not traditional farming villages occupied by large populations. They may instead have been impressive examples of "public architecture" that were used only periodically during times of ceremony, commerce, and trading when temporary populations arrived in the canyon for these events.

Why the need for social complexity and integration on such a large scale? Chaco was the hub of an extensive trading network. Turquoise was processed into beads, ornaments, and jewelry at Chaco, and traded throughout the Southwest and northern Mexico for parrots, macaws, copper bells, and other precious commodities. Chaco may have been a distribution center for food and resources in response to the region's highly variable climate and growing populations. Ceremonies may have brought "pilgrims" to Chaco along a ritually used road system that connected Chaco to distant communities and to the sacred landscape. We may never fully understand the Chaco story.

After prevailing for 300 years, Chaco Canyon declined as a regional center during the middle 1100s, when new construction ceased. Chacoan influence continued at Aztec Ruins and other centers to the north, south, and west into the late 1100s and 1200s. In time, the people shifted away from Chacoan ways, migrated to new areas, reorganized their world, and eventually interacted with foreign cultures. Their descendants are the modern Southwest Indians. Many Southwest Indian people today look upon Chaco as an important stop along their clans' sacred migration paths--a spiritual place to be honored and respected.

Park History

Chaco Canyon National Monument was created by legislation on March 11, 1907, under the auspices of the 1906 Antiquities Act. In 1980, Public Law 96-550 was passed, which expanded the monument boundaries and changed it to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The park received international recognition when it was recognized as a World Heritage Cultural Park on December 8, 1987.

Natural History


The rocks exposed in Chaco Canyon record an interval in the Earth's history during the Late Cretaceous Period, approximately 75 to 80 million years ago. During this time, Chaco was part of the migrating coastline of an ancient inland sea.

The majority of the exposed features in Chaco Canyon belong to a suite of rocks known as the Mesa Verde group. The further subdivisions of the unit are, from oldest to youngest, the Point Lookout Sandstone, the Menefee Formation, and the Cliff House Sandstone. Of these three formations, only two, the Menefee and Cliff House are visible in Chaco, while all three are exposed at Mesa Verde. An additional two younger units, the Lewis Shale and the Picture Cliffs Sandstone, are generally exposed only near the northern boundary of the park.

The Menefee Formation is the oldest exposed unit of the Mesa Verde Formation at Chaco and is composed primarily of siltstone and mudstone interbedded with sandstone as well as carbonaceous shale and thin coal beds. The Menefee Formation was formed from sediments deposited by rivers flowing north and east across New Mexico toward a retreating Interior Seaway.

The Cliff House Sandstone is a complex sequence of marine sandstones with locally interbedded shales which overlies the Menefee Formation. There are three principal Cliff House units visible within Chaco Canyon. The massive lower unit forms the 80-100 foot prominent cliffs throughout the canyon. An abundance of ripple marks and a wide variety of fossils are visible in this unit. Fossils include shells and casts from clams, ammonites, snails, shark's teeth, and the knobby casts of burrows known as Ophimorpha ("dwelling place") Nodosa ("nodular"). These casts are thought to be the fossilized remains of burrows left by a small shrimp-like crustacean known as Callianasa major.



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