Thursday, October 18, 2012

Inconvenient Arrogance, Part 5: The Chaco Phenomenon

Pueblo Bonito -- Chaco Canyon
from the rim
When the current Southwestern cultures reach back in their lore to their origins and refer to the “White House”-- “places of wonder and tragedy”, they are probably referring to the great pueblo houses at Chaco Canyon.  Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the “Great Houses” was five-stories high, covered over two acres, contained over 650 rooms, 45 small kivas and two “Great Kivas”.  Kivas were large, round pits or chambers used for religious and ceremonial events.

Stephen Lekson, who has studied the Anasazi phenomenon for over twenty years, described Chaco Canyon this way in a recent article for National Geographic, "Imagine that you're a teenage kid in the 11th century, coming from the boondocks to Chaco for the first time.  You've walked four days from the north across that desolate plain to get here and you look over the edge . . . what would you think?  It would scare the hell out of you … They planned it that way—as theater."
Great Kiva at Chetro Ketl
Note: hidden chamber in back enabled underground
passage to center of kiva for theatrical entrances

Within its thirty-two square miles, there were thirteen of these great houses!  If you have ever driven through the heart of New Mexico, which is where Chaco Canyon resides, you have to admire the raw beauty of the arid lands.  But it is hard to imagine that anyone could etch out a living there.  Even today, houses are few and far between.  But in its heyday, it was estimated that over 5,000 lived in Chaco Canyon.

I think that the harsh conditions may have contributed to the extraordinary achievements because in order to survive they had to be extraordinarily creative and resolute.   But why build there in the first place?  Initially, it was a favorable location for that part of New Mexico since the narrow canyon caught rain runoff from the upland areas surrounding it.  This enabled the farmers in the canyon to capture water even when it didn’t rain directly on the canyon.  The soil was also quite fertile from the runoff.  The inventive residents learned to build dams and channels to capture, hold, and direct the water and, as a result, the “Chaco Wash” was able to support a much larger population than surrounding areas.

I have saved the Anasazi for last not only because the great Anasazi culture rose up after the Moche and Maya empires collapsed, but also because it seems to have avoided the extremes of the previous two cultures.  The cataclysmic event of 536 A.D. and the harsh climate that followed had begun its swing back when the Chaco Culture began to flourish and start building their unique version of large stone buildings around A.D. 700.  As the population grew, there developed a need for organization and government.

Again quoting Stephen H. Lekson, from his book “The Chaco Meridian”, “Chaco had begun about 900 [A.D.] as three villages competing, in a circumscribed canyon, for agricultural land and labor.  Those local energies spilled out of the canyon, engaging and entangling allies from around the agriculturally rich rim of the Chaco Basin.  By 1020 [A.D.] Chaco had emerged as a small but important central place.  Variable rainfall meant that a good year in the north might be a disaster in the south; Chaco’s serendipitous middle place promoted its rise as a kind of regional “capital” – a place to store and exchange commodities and a “corn bank” to even out the agricultural variability of the Chaco Basin.  Canyon leaders administered redistribution and real political power, based on garnered surpluses, developed within the canyon.  Population centers around the Chaco Basin became Chocoan “outliers”.”

And although the population within the canyon had long since outgrown the canyon’s agricultural capabilities, it was subsidized by the outliers pouring their surpluses into the “capital” across regional networks of roads visible from the air even today stretching from over 200 miles to the south, 200 miles to the north, 200 miles to the west, and over 100 miles to the east. 
Note: in picture [above] the scar from the road that connected Chaco Canyon to northern outliers can still be seen (left and abovef the ruin).

But, the empire proved to be very fragile.  Due to the nature of corn, it can only be stored for three years before it becomes too rotten or infested to eat.  Therefore, a severe drought lasting longer than three years could deplete corn supplies.  That fatal event happened around A.D. 1130 according to tree ring dating.   Unable to support itself and reliant on the outliers for food, the empire began to collapse as, according to Jared Diamond in his book “Collapse”, “… the outlying settlements that had formerly supplied the Chaco political and religious centers with food lost faith in the Chacoan priests whose prayers for rain remained unanswered, and they refused to make more food deliveries.”

There is evidence of intense warfare throughout the Chacoan empire.  But, unlike the desperate measures taken by the Mayan and Moche leaders and priests, there is no evidence that the Chaco elite resorted to human sacrifices.  Construction in Chaco had completely ceased by A.D. 1170 and the great houses were empty.  What happened to the people of Chaco Canyon?  More on that in the next installment of “Inconvenient Arrogance”.

-- Courtney Miller

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