The Collapse of Chaco Canyon: Recent Study Challenges Drought Theory
In the center of America’s Four Corners Region , Chaco Canyon is an arid, desolate place, sprinkled with the occasional, lonely juniper tree, cactus, or sage bush. Hundreds of mysterious, ancient structures haunt this canyon and the entire region, meticulously aligned along the paths of the Sun, Moon, and constellation Orion.
Known as Chacoan Great Houses , these structures include sunken ceremonial chambers known as kivas, cliff dwellings, watchtowers, enormous facades, and long, massive “roads” that seem to lead nowhere. This culture emerged around 900 AD, but around 1100 to 1200 AD, the Great Houses were abandoned. Drought is frequently cited as the cause of the collapse and migration of this mysterious culture, but now the latest research casts doubt onto this deforestation and drought hypotheses and presents a more gruesome alternative.
Understanding this Frenzy of Intricate Chacoan Construction
The Hopi, Ute, Shoshone, Navajo, and the contemporary Puebloans all share some degree of ancestral history with this region. The Navajo and Ute refer to the inhabitants of the Great Houses as the Anasazi which means “ancient enemies” or “ancient ones.” Contemporary Puebloans do not appreciate this term, although some modern Navajo, Ute, and Hopi refuse to relinquish its use. Conscientious experts have attempted to circumvent this awkward tension by referring to these people, and this culture, by the name Chacoan.
Whoever these people were exactly, they completed a precise survey of the landscape upon their arrival and initiated a frenzy of intricate building projects. They dealt with the problems of the inhospitable land by establishing a cult which involved periodic pilgrimages and the delivery of offerings to these sacred sites.
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The raw materials used to create these Astro-temples were not readily available and so sandstone and timbers were transported from great distances. Massive timbers were necessary to line the rooftops of the kivas. These large timbers were harvested so far away that archaeologists remain unsure as to their origins. Small springs were utilized, but it seems the inhabitants were dependent on, and controlled, a network of offerings that flowed from the north and south. Meanwhile, archaeological evidence has only uncovered several hundred, strange burials.
Some Great House chambers that seem to be rooms at first glance, show no evidence of habitation. These rooms often have no exit, or light, and are too tightly enclosed even to have a fire within. Experts theorize that the grandeur of the building itself was the purpose, and these “rooms” are actually just fortified spaces used to add size and visual imposition.
Digital reconstruction of ancient Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico before the site was mysteriously abandoned. ( Public domain )
The Native American Narrative and Mandatory Chaco Mysteries
Today, archaeologists and anthropologists work together with Native Americans who have ancestral ties to the ruins. But despite this cooperation, there remains lingering elements of tension, taboo, and secrecy. Some Natives from the region refuse to discuss the ancient culture entirely, even among themselves, and those who do openly speak of it, do so with extreme caution, gentleness, and even with a twinge of fear.
They tell of people in ancient times who had great spiritual power over animals, the weather, and human beings. They vaguely suggest that the natural order of things may have somehow been tampered with. In some cases, they will politely explain that some of their traditions are not meant to be retold over and over (especially to Europeans), or that they have migration traditions that they themselves do not entirely understand. But virtually all the traditions hold that their ancestors emerged from the underworld and, guided by their ancestral demigods, deities, and spirits, went on a series of epic migrations.
Speaking of things that defy understanding, there are some strange elements of Chacoan archaeology that should be pointed out. This ruling elite of “religious specialists” had abnormal genetic traits which were revered. In a 2016 National Geographic article, Aaron Sidder explored the odd reality that the ruling elite of Chaco Culture had six fingers and toes. “We found that people with six toes especially, were common and seemed to be associated with important ritual structures and high-status objects like turquoise,” summarized Sidder when discussing her team’s discoveries at Chaco Canyon .
There is also a gruesome element to this culture, one that perhaps is related to the abandonment of the sites - cannibalism. In January of 2000, scientists Billman, Lambert, and Banks published an article by way of Cambridge University Press regarding Mesa Verde , another Chacoan site in Southwestern Colorado. “Cut marks and percussion scars implicate humans in the disarticulation and reduction of these bodies,” explained the article in its reporting of the discovery of cannibalism. “Evidence of heat exposure on some bone fragments and laboratory analyses of human coprolite recovered from one of the pit houses support the interpretation that people prepared and consumed human body parts.”
Distribution of the great houses in Chaco Canyon. (Wills, et. al. / PNAS)
The Obsolete, Drought/Deforestation Collapse Narrative
Regional climate change, deforestation, topsoil erosion, and prolonged periods of drought are generally cited as the main factors that lead to the abandonment of Great Houses and the extinguishing of Chacoan culture. Geologists have determined that there was indeed a fifty-year-long drought that began around 1130 AD.
It is also commonly theorized that the thousands of large timbers required to roof the kivas and pit houses were over-harvested which in turn exacerbated the acute arid conditions. This is then interpreted as writing on the wall regarding unsustainable land-use practices. However, discerning scholars have pointed out that the popularity of such theories emerged in perfect alignment with modern campaigns regarding our own, unsustainable land-use practices, suggesting a lack of objectivity.
Wills, Drake, and Wetherbee recently published their findings with the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America ( PNAS). “There is no direct evidence for human impacts on local woodlands during the Bonito Phase [the period of high construction from AD 850 to 1150], no indication that agricultural fields were destroyed by deforestation or any other process, and, surprisingly, no conclusive information about the amount and sources of archaeological wood,” wrote the researchers in their perspective report.
“Indeed, Chaco residents had available sources of timber and other natural resources that certainly were less costly than those indicated in Chaco Canyon collapse models . Construction patterns indicate that overall energy investment in Chaco great houses began to decline dramatically in the late CE [AD] 1000s, before the onset of any documented drought periods, and immigrants appear to have arrived in Chaco during the 12th century drought.”
Archaeologists are reaching new conclusions through analysis of remains at the Great Houses at Chaco Canyon. ( kojihirano / Adobe Stock)
Alternative Conclusions: Uncovering Clues Clues at Chaco Canyon
The abandonment of the Chacoan Great Houses at Chaco Canyon did leave a few interesting clues behind. For example, it is certain that the huge timbers that roofed the kivas were deliberately, and individually removed. This may sound like a relatively easy task, but the systematic removal of all these massive timbers must have been a tremendous labor project, roughly equivalent to some of the constructions.
It’s also important to note that the entrances to the kivas were bricked up, which is strange, because with the roof timbers removed, sealing up the doorways hardly prevents access to the structure. Maybe the most fascinating clue is in that only some of the great kivas, where the ruling elite of cannibalistic polydactyls dwelled, are scarred with fire damage.
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The fire damage, the dependence on offerings, ritualized murder, and high degree of social stratification, may point to a popular Chacoan revolt as the cause of the collapse. When a small group or clan of despotic rulers is dependent on and controls a population of common people, conflicts will inevitably erupt between the two starkly divided classes.
This is particularly common, when the majority population becomes stressed and greatly outnumbers their oppressors. The local tribes may have been subjected to relentless demands of “goon squads,” who operated under the deception of religious obligation, this combined with a harsh environment makes it only a matter of time until the exploited caste reaches a breaking point.
Imagine people at the time, not having enough food to eat, water to drink, and on top of these hardships, being commanded to participate in building projects while their loved ones were abducted, butchered, and devoured. It is not difficult to imagine that, after generations of hardship and suffering, these oppressed classes at Chaco Canyon violently revolted against their cult leader overlords, dismantled their sacred spaces, and set fire to the great kiva, never to return.
Top image: The remains of Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the Chacoan Great Houses in Chaco Canyon. Source: Viktor Posnov / Adobe Stock
By Mark Andrew Carpenter
Roberts, D. 2003. “Riddles of the Anasazi: What awful event forced the Anasazi to flee their homeland, never to return?” in Smithsonian Magazine . Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/riddles-of-the-anasazi-85274508/
Sidder, A. 25 July 2016. "Extra Fingers and Toes Were Revered in Ancient Culture" in National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/chaco-canyon-pueblo-bonito-social-implications-polydactyly-extra-toes
Turner, C. G. 1999. Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Wills, W. H., Drake, B. L. and Dorshow, W. B. 12 August 2014. “Prehistoric Deforestation at Chaco Canyon?” in PNAS 111 (32) 11584-11591. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1409646111