Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Chaco Canyon

Unravelling the mystery of the Chaco Canyon culture collapse


For over 2,000 years, ancient Pueblo peoples occupied a vast region of the south-western United States. Chaco Canyon, a major centre of ancestral Pueblo culture between 850 and 1250 AD, was a focus for ceremonials, trade and political activity for the prehistoric Four Corners area. The Puebloans quarried sandstone blocks and hauled timber from great distances, assembling fifteen major complexes that are thought to have been the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century. The massive multi-storied buildings oriented to solar, lunar, and cardinal directions, the high level of community social organization, and its far-reaching commerce, created a cultural vision unlike any other seen before or since in the country. However, all of this suddenly collapsed in the 13 th century when the centres were mysteriously abandoned and were never revived.

Pueblo Cliff Dwelling, Mesa Verde National Park. Source: BigStockPhoto

The long-held theory is that the downfall of the Chaco Canyon culture occurred because of the poor land-use and deforestation that took place to build the cities. It is popularly cited by environmentalists and others as an example and warning of how human society employs unsustainable land-use practices. However, new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has drawn this perspective into question.

According to a report published in Popular Archaeology, the study conducted by scientists from the Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, shows that there is no substantial evidence to support the claim that the ancient Puebloan peoples, who constructed highly advanced towns and cities, simply overused their resources.

Inside a Puebloan Kiva, Mesa Verde National Park. Source: BigStockPhoto

"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," write the researchers in their report. 

"Our point," the researchers continue, "is that we do not know where most of the wood in Chaco great houses originated, and we cannot eliminate local (canyon drainage) sources. Consequently there is no basis for concluding that the abandonment of Chaco Canyon was brought on by deforestation, improvident use of natural resources, or unstable exchange relationships, and therefore there is no reason to use Chaco’s history as a warning from the past about societal failure."

While the latest study dismisses previous theories regarding the downfall of the Chaco Canyon culture, it still leaves open the question as to what exactly happened around 700 years ago that caused the once great culture to collapse.

Featured image: A digital reconstruction of what Chaco Canyon would have once looked like. Image credit: National Park Service.

By April Holloway



angieblackmon's picture

maybe they got wood through trade?

love, light and blessings


we use to give much credit to natives knowledge but that has been realized it has vastly been lost because the native americans didnt keep such good practice of recording in ways they themselves can't read centuries later. and better ways of recording have been ofcourse developed since.tead it put great fear into them
I think they had some drought and about same time when all fell apart was when they had expectation of a sighting and one that came was not the one they expected, so they abandoned from fear, they feared easily being so superstitious, thus gave in. and/or they left as their predictions didnt pay off and some investment in the great spirit let them down. but they really didnt have enough clues at all to what they were really witnessing; when they did, just phenomenon.. But also, man evolves too !

If only the Easter Islands had figured out the re-forestation thing.

climate change perhaps? I find it amusing that modern man tends to point to his own flaws and shortcomings (deforestation) as a possible explanation for the collapse of pre-civilizations. I'm surprised they don't try to blame it on their SUV's! A society so vast and, obviously, genuinely connected with the planet would have known the benefits of 're-forestation' and balance with nature. The white anglos always gives the Native American little or no credit for their knowledge. It also show how little they really know about the original inhabitants of this continent. Perhaps their ignorance is intentional.

aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

Joanna... Read More

Next article