A most apt description of Chaco Canyon has been provided by Ruth M. Van Dyke, an anthropologist teaching at Binghamton University in New York.
A PhD graduate from the University of Arizona, she has a poet’s eye for place. She wrote:
“Chaco Canyon draws its power not only from the ancient architecture sheltering beneath its walls, but also from the ever-changing light and the far-flung vistas of the Colorado Plateau. From high above the canyon floor, the San Juan Basin stretches away in sedimentary waves lapping against mountainous shores. Bands of golden sunlight illuminate distant swaths of Tertiary and Quaternary sandstone. The west, the Chuskas (mountains) sleep in the deep blue sleep of the Cretaceous, indented by Narbona Pass with its promises of chert and wood. To the south, flat-topped Hosta Butte peeps coyly above the dark line of the Dutton Plateau. Around the canyon bend, Fajada Butte’s isolated knob protrudes like the controls of some giant chronometer.”
According to a less-gifted writer, the canyon is about 10 miles long and covers something just over 30 square miles. The people who settled in Chaco Canyon were originally known as ancestral Puebloans, or the Anasazi.
The term, for reasons of political correctness, is no longer used, changed in favor of “ancient ones” or “ancient people.” Anasazi has been translated from the Navajo language by some to mean “ancient enemies” or “ancestors of our enemies,” hence the change was made to avoid injured feelings by one group or the other.
Well into the second decade of the 21st Century, the term Anasazi was still frequently heard in reference to the Chaco people.
The largest of the towns in the canyon is Pueblo Bonito, but some sources indicate that as many as 2,400 archaeological sites have been found on the canyon floor.
Construction began sometime in the period 800-900 AD — although pit houses may have been built as early as 500 AD. It reached a peak in 1075-1115, during which some 70 communities were built.
Work included construction of a number of outlying pueblos, which were reached by a series of roadways. Since the Chaco culture did not have benefit of the wheel, the real purpose of the roads remains at least in part a mystery.
Anthropologists believe that the entire canyon was abandoned by about 1150 AD — but some sources report that the abandonment was not complete until about 1300. While the cause is not certain, many believe a multi-year drought drove the inhabitants down into the watered valleys of the Rio Grande and other rivers.
Chaco Canyon is one of New Mexico’s most-popular tourist attractions.
Selected source: New Mexico Historical Encyclopedia (2016) by Don Bullis
(Don Bullis is a Rio Rancho resident, New Mexico centennial historian and award-winning author. He was named the Best Local Author in the 2018 and 2019 Rio Rancho Observer Readers’ Choice contests. “Ellos Pasaron por Aqui” is translated as “They Passed by Here.”)
Don Bullis’s latest book, “New Mexico Historical Chronology,” is available from riograndebooks.com.