Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a United States National Historical Park hosting the densest and most exceptional concentration of pueblos in the American Southwest. The park is located in northwestern New Mexico, between Albuquerque and Farmington, in a remote canyon cut by the Chaco Wash. Containing the most sweeping collection of ancient ruins north of Mexico, the park preserves one of the United States' most important pre-Columbian cultural and historical areas.
Between AD 900 and 1150, Chaco Canyon was a major center of culture for the Ancient Pueblo Peoples. Chacoans quarried sandstone blocks and hauled timber from great distances, assembling fifteen major complexes that remained the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century. Evidence of archaeoastronomy at Chaco has been proposed, with the "Sun Dagger" petroglyph at Fajada Butte a popular example. Many Chacoan buildings may have been aligned to capture the solar and lunar cycles, requiring generations of astronomical observations and centuries of skillfully coordinated construction. Climate change is thought to have led to the emigration of Chacoans and the eventual abandonment of the canyon, beginning with a fifty-year drought commencing in 1130.
Composing a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the arid and sparsely populated Four Corners region, the Chacoan cultural sites are fragile; concerns of erosion caused by tourists have led to the closure of Fajada Butte to the public. The sites are considered sacred ancestral homelands by the Hopi and Pueblo people, who maintain oral accounts of their historical migration from Chaco and their spiritual relationship to the land. Though park preservation efforts can conflict with native religious beliefs, tribal representatives work closely with the National Park Service to share their knowledge and respect the heritage of the Chacoan culture. It is on the Trails of the Ancients Byway, one of the designated New Mexico Scenic Byways.
Flora and Fauna:
Chacoan flora typifies that of North American high deserts: sagebrush and several species of cactus are interspersed with dry scrub forests of piñon and juniper, the latter primarily on the mesa tops. The canyon is far drier than other parts of New Mexico located at similar latitudes and elevations, and it lacks the temperate coniferous forests plentiful to the east. The prevailing sparseness of plants and wildlife was echoed in ancient times, when overpopulation, expanding cultivation, overhunting, habitat destruction, and drought may have led the Chacoans to strip the canyon of wild plants and game. It has been suggested that even during wet periods the canyon was able to sustain only 2,000 people.
Among Chacoan mammals are the plentiful coyote (Canis latrans); mule deer, elk, and pronghorn also live within the canyon, though they are rarely encountered by visitors. Important smaller carnivores include bobcats, badgers, foxes, and two species of skunk. The park hosts abundant populations of rodents, including several prairie dog towns. Small colonies of bats, are present during the summer. The local shortage of water means that relatively few bird species are present; these include roadrunners, large hawks (such as Cooper's hawks and American kestrels), owls, vultures, and ravens, though they are less abundant in the canyon than in the wetter mountain ranges to the east. Sizeable populations of smaller birds, including warblers, sparrows, and House finches, are also common. Three species of hummingbirds are present: one is the tiny but highly pugnacious rufous hummingbird, which compete intensely with the more mild-tempered black-chinned hummingbirds for breeding habitat in shrubs or trees located near water. Western (prairie) rattlesnakes are occasionally seen in the backcountry, though various lizards and skinks are far more abundant.
The Chacoans built their complexes along a 9 mi (14 km) stretch of canyon floor, with the walls of some structures aligned cardinally and others aligned with the 18.6-year cycle of minimum and maximum moonrise and moonset.
The central portion of the canyon contains the largest Chacoan complexes. The most studied is Pueblo Bonito; covering almost 2 acres (0.81 ha) and comprising at least 650 rooms, it is the largest great house; in parts of the complex, the structure was four stories high. The builders' use of core-and-veneer architecture and multi-story construction necessitated massive masonry walls up to 3 feet (91 cm) thick. Pueblo Bonito is divided into two sections by a wall precisely aligned to run north-south, bisecting the central plaza. A great kiva was placed on either side of the wall, creating a symmetrical pattern common to many Chacoan great houses. The scale of the complex, upon completion, rivaled that of the Colosseum. Nearby is Pueblo del Arroyo. Founded between AD 1050 and 1075, completed in the early 12th century, it sits at a drainage outlet known as South Gap.
Immense complexes known as "great houses" embodied worship at Chaco. The Chacoans used masonry techniques unique for their time, and their building constructions lasted decades and even centuries. As architectural forms evolved and centuries passed, the houses kept several core traits. Most apparent is their sheer bulk; complexes averaged more than 200 rooms each, and some enclosed up to 700 rooms. Individual rooms were substantial in size, with higher ceilings than Anasazi works of preceding periods. They were well-planned: vast sections or wings erected were finished in a single stage, rather than in increments. Houses generally faced the south, and plaza areas were almost always girt with edifices of sealed-off rooms or high walls. Houses often stood four or five stories tall, with single-story rooms facing the plaza; room blocks were terraced to allow the tallest sections to compose the pueblo's rear edifice. Rooms were often organized into suites, with front rooms larger than rear, interior, and storage rooms or areas.
Ceremonial structures known as kivas were built in proportion to the number of rooms in a pueblo. One small kiva was built for roughly every 29 rooms. Nine complexes each hosted an oversized great kiva, each up to 63 feet (19 m) in diameter. "T"-shaped doorways and stone lintels marked all Chacoan kivas. Though simple and compound walls were often used, great houses were primarily constructed of core-and-veneer walls: two parallel load-bearing walls comprising dressed, flat sandstone blocks bound in clay mortar were erected. Gaps between walls were packed with rubble, forming the wall's core. Walls were then covered in a veneer of small sandstone pieces, which were pressed into a layer of binding mud. These surfacing stones were often placed in distinctive patterns. The Chacoan structures altogether required the wood of 200,000 coniferous trees, mostly hauled-on foot-from mountain ranges up to 70 miles (110 km) away.
Two whorl-shaped etchings near the top of Fajada Butte compose the "Sun Dagger" petroglyph, itself tucked behind the eponymous rock panels of the "Three-Slab Site". They are symbolically focal.
It consists of two spirals: one principal and one ancillary. The latter left-hand spiral captured both spring and fall equinoxes; its artifice was revealed by a descending spear of light, itself filtered through the slabs, that shined upon it and split it in two. The former and larger whorl to its right was lit by the titular "sun dagger", which bisected it through another interplay of slab and sun. It struck it, brilliantly, as the summer sun attains its solstice midday peak. The Chacoans were said to be marking, as artist, "Sun Dagger" discoverer, and leading proponent Anna Sofaer puts it, "the middle of time". Each turn of the 9.25-turn large spiral was found to mark one year in the 18.6-year "lunar excursion cycle" of the rising mid-winter full moon. This record is kept by a slab-cast lunar shadow whose edge strikes in succession each ring. As the full "minimum moon" closest to the winter solstice rises, the shadow's edge precisely strikes the center of the larger spiral; it steps outward year by year, ring by ring, until it strikes the outermost edge of it during the full "maximum moon", again in mid-winter.
Fajada Butte bears five other petroglyphs-including a carving of a "rattlesnake", other spirals, and a rectangle-that are conspicuously lit by contrasts between sunbeams and shadows during equinoxes or solstices. Public access to the butte was curtailed when, in 1989, erosion from modern foot traffic was found to be responsible for one of the three screening slabs at the "Sun Dagger" site shifting out of its ancient position; the assemblage of stones has thus lost some of its former spatial and temporal precision as a solar and lunar calendar. In 1990 the screens were stabilized and placed under observation, but the wayward slab was not moved back into its original orientation.
Some parties have advanced the following theory: that at least twelve of the fourteen principal Chacoan complexes were sited and aligned in coordination, and that each was oriented along axes that mirrored the passing of the Sun and Moon at visually pivotal times. The first great house known to evince fastidious proportioning and alignment was Casa Rinconada: the twinned "T"-shaped portals of its 10 m (33 ft)-radius great kiva were north-south collinear, and axes joining opposing windows passed within 10 cm (4 in) of its center. The great houses of Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl were found by the "Solstice Project" and the U.S. National Geodetic Survey to be sited along a precisely east-west line, an axis that captures the passage of the equinox sun. The lines perpendicularly bisecting their principal walls are aligned north-south, implying a possible intent to mirror the equinox midday. Pueblo Alto and Tsin Kletsin are also north-south aligned. These two axes form an inverted cross when viewed from above; its northbound reach is extended another 35 mi (56 km) past Pueblo Alto by the ramrod-straight Great North Road, a pilgrimage route which modern-day Pueblo Indians believe to be an allusion to myths surrounding their arrival from the distant north.