Our favorite pueblo is down a long dusty New Mexico Road.
Mesa Verde and other First American cliff dwellings are more widely known and more easily accessed, but Chaco Culture National Historic Park is our favorite. The National Park Service recommends using the north route. That would have been fine had we been coming from Farmington or Santa Fe. But each time we visited, it was from Gallup 96 miles to the south. Both ways use dirt county roads, so our vehicle probably would have been just as filthy coming from the north. The south route, however, is rougher and impassable in bad weather.
The valley has long winters and little rain. But unlike the others, it was not a farming community. Instead, it was the cultural, religious, political and trading center of the Chacoan Culture for over three hundred years between 900 and 1200 years ago.
The Chacoan people built pueblos over an area that now comprises northeast Arizona, northwest New Mexico and southern Colorado. Beginning in the 800s, they built numerous multi-story great houses in the high desert valley that holds the Historic Park. Thirteen sites can be visited. Others are still buried.
These were grand structures planned with as many as 800 rooms. Over 400 miles of road connected them to more than 200 other great houses. The roads were often rigidly straight paths which climbed over mesas and cliffs using scaffolds and stairways cut into the rock. Near some great houses, they had two and four lanes.
In all, the valley population is estimated to have been around 2000 people — but it is not clear that they lived there all the time. The large buildings had few living quarters.
Seashells, macaws, copper bells and chocolate beans evidence trade with far away places. Turquoise and jet mined in distant mines have also been found on the site.
Many great houses were oriented to astronomical observation points and show amazing scientific sophistication.
What is now called Pueblo Bonito was in the center of the complex. It’s walls went up four to five stories. Covering three acres with an unusual D-shape, it had over six hundred rooms and 40 kivas, circular ceremonial rooms.
We also walked around Hungo Pavi which has yet to be completely excavated. Comparisons with early photos indicate there was heavy looting before the area became protected in 1907.
There is evidence of an irrigation system and farming near Hungo Pavi, but in general, the great houses do not look like they were used for permanent habitation,
The oldest walls were just one stone thick and made heavy use of mud mortar. Later, to support higher walls, they built two walls with a rubble core between them. As the centuries passed, the exterior veneers were more carefully cut and showed decorative patterns.
For reasons still not completely understood, in the 1100s, the people began to focus on other centers such as those located Mesa Verde and Aztec Ruins National Monument in today’s Colorado and the Zuni Pueblo to the southwest in Arizona. Many southwest tribes today can be traced back to the Chacoan First Americans.
Click on photos to enlarge.