Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Chaco Canyon National Monument
March 11, 1907.
Chaco Culture National
Historical Park 1980.
World Heritage Cultural
Park December 8, 1987.
On the World's 100 Most Endangered List.
A Photo Album of a trip to
Chaco Canyon.
How to get there.
[Chaco Canyon kivas]

Strong evidence shows that Chaco Canyon was the center of culture and religion for the Hisatsinom people. These are the largest excavated "prehistoric" ruins in North America.

The San Juan Basin has been occupied for over 10,000 years and the Chaco Canyon area for at least 8,000 years. These first Paleo-Indians and Archaic people were nomadic, following game and growing seasons, and left only evidence of fires and stone tools.

The first settlers lived in caves and their first building was round pit houses. They next built rectangular structures above-ground which grew into apartments covering three acres. Many Native American Indians today say that the departure from round houses showed a spiritual decline.

About 1000 BC, limited agriculture began to with beans, corn, and squash; by 400 AD they had become dietary staples.

Some of the 2500 sites at Chaco date from thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. As near as we can reckon the Hisatsinom settled at Chaco about the year zero.

Population was limited by the extreme dryness until about 900 AD, when the Hisatsinom "learned" irrigation from the Hohokam, another "prehistoric" culture which lived to the south in parts of Arizona.

Improvements on this knowledge led to the development of water-control devices and the population grew. Cotton, corn, beans, and squash were the staples, and turkeys were raised for feather-woven blankets. Evidence shows that the Hisatsinom invented both string and weaving in the New World.

Modern engineers marvel at the feats of the Hisatsinom; a 400 mile system of roads about 30 feet wide stretched straight as arrows and connected at least 75 towns and villages that have been identified in the canyon area.

Settlements were spaced at about a day's journey along the roads, which used cut-and-fill methods with rock berming. Salmon Ruin and Aztec Ruins were connected to Chaco by a road running 42 miles to the north.

There are estimates of thousands of villages throughout the Southwest that were part of this system. Yet these people had no carts, no wheels, and no pack animals of any number or size.

This compares with the Plains Indians, who used wheels only as toys, and the Aztec, whose terrain did not lend itself to the development of the wheel.

Chaco Canyon was the center of Hisatsinom culture from AD 900 to 1100, or from 950 to 1115, or from 850-1120? Estimates change because excavation continues, but it is known that the builders left suddenly at about the time of the Christian Crusades half a planet away.

When Chaco Culture reached the height of its glory, what had begun as an agricultural village had become a world trade center, with evidence of connections as far-reaching as the Pacific (seashells), the Great Plains, and what is now Mexico (copper bells and parrot's remains). The copper and parrots suggest trade with the ancient Toltecs.

Note: It has been discovered that there was a species of parrot native to the Chaco area.

Hopi stories suggest that they are the ancient Toltecs. This was just about the time Europe was coming out of the Dark Ages.

A drought in the San Juan Basin about 1130 to 1180 began the decline at Chaco. An evacuation around 1300 AD was so sudden that personal and religious items were abandoned. More jewelry has been found at Chaco than anyplace else in the Southwest.

When the Navajo came from Canada in about 1500 they found sites that had been abandoned for 200 to 300 years. The Navajo avoided these, and gave the previous people the name Anasazi meaning "ancient enemies." This raises some questions in my mind: How did they know? And how can we interpret that?

Pueblo Bonito is the most magnificent example of the Chacoan Great House. It is four stories high with 600 to 800 interconnecting family rooms and 33 kivas. Until the 1870's Pueblo Bonito was the largest building in the U.S. Chetro Ketl is next door to Pueblo Bonito, and is famous for its 200 foot backwall.

[Chaco Canyon Chetro Ketl] Chetro Ketl

Casa Rinconada is Chaco Canyon's best example of a Great Kiva, a large round building used for religious ceremonies. This kiva was roofed with logs dragged from miles away.

"New Age" ceremonies which involved the scattering of human ashes were allowed in Casa Rinconada during the past five years of the 1990's. This was considered to be mis-management and caused damage to the site. A stone wall has been built to block entry and much controversy has ensued.

NOTE: The term "pre-historic" is a contradiction. This IS history, and what we call prehistoric relates only to before our culture began keeping records. Another example is found in this: Spanish named the people living in the masonry houses "Pueblo Indians" thereby obscuring two facts: "Pueblo" means "village" (an anonymous description) and "Indian" by itself means nothing. These confusing terms are still in use.

FURTHER NOTE: Concerning the "disappearance" of the Hisatsinom the Mogollon and the Hohokam. Researchers seem to prefer to "study" peoples by what they have discarded rather than what they have kept.

As peoples develop or move they do not become a separate people, only different. Ask the Hopi. Their stories tell of their lives in many places. The Hopi say that they were the Toltecs. To separate the Hopi from the Hohokam and the Mogollon is to cause a gap in location and culture.

How To Get There

At one time all roads led to Chaco Canyon. Today from Farmington to the park entrance is 60 miles east and south on NM state highway 44. Allow two hours travel.

Gallo Campground is open all year and fills before noon between April and October. There is no food, gas or lodging in the park, and water only at the visitor's center. If you plan to camp bring your own wood and charcoal.

There are no spaces for trailers over 30 feet long, and camping is limited to 7 days.

There are no trees and the place is primitive. Hiking permits are required. It is OK to examine artifacts found, but they must be put back in place. If you have a telescope this is the place to use it, there is no lighting.

At an altitude of 6200, summer days are 80-100, and nights of 50-60. Rattlesnakes in the summer. Begin your sightseeing at the visitor center. The exhibits will help you understand Chaco Culture and its people. Be sure to watch the "Sun Dagger" video, a story of the most amazing calendar in the world. Rangers will answer your questions and help you make the most of your time.

It is wise to call Farmington information 1-800-448-1240 about campsite availabilty.

A Photo Album of a trip to Chaco.

Chaco was first put on the World's 100 Most Endangered Sites in 1987.
The World Monuments Fund is still working away.
See Preservation/Ecology links page.

See the Four Corners Clamor: Main Index for more recent discoveries
and events concerning Native American Indians.
For beautiful authentic scenes of these early peoples see the
Mark Silversmith Gallery.
Mark researches the tribes and portrays their lives of then and now.
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© Copyright 1998 by L. Michael Smith. Fair use granted.