Tucked away in an isolated canyon in New Mexico are the ruins of what was once a great civilization. At its heart stands Pueblo Bonito, a vast, sprawling town carved into the desert rock, its towering rooms and chambers reaching several stories high. But in the 12th century, this great settlement began to decline. Why did the Ancestral Puebloan people decide to abandon their Chaco communities, leaving their greatest achievements to gather dust?
Pueblo Bonito is just one of 12 settlements, referred to as “great houses” by modern archaeologists, built by the Ancestral Puebloans in the region known as Chaco Canyon. Over the course of centuries these people constructed an elaborate network of roads, communities and monuments, creating a unique culture that still resonates today.
From the middle of the ninth century to the early 13th, Pueblo Bonito and its surrounding villages and towns formed part of the most advanced culture in North America — and perhaps the world. Here, wealthy residents lived an aspirational lifestyle, dining on gourmet dishes and collecting glittering treasures. And every day, more people arrived to seek their fortune in Chaco Canyon.
For centuries, Chaco Canyon remained the epicenter of Ancestral Puebloan life. In fact, the region’s unique style of architecture inspired copycat communities up to 100 miles away. But then, at some point in the 12th century, things began to change, and this once-great civilization started to wane.
What caused the decline of the civilization in the Chaco Canyon, however, remains a mystery to this day. Over the years, archaeologists have uncovered grim clues that point to a violent and bloody shift; macabre relics such as mass graves and mutilated human remains. But the truth about what happened continues to elude them. So why did the Ancestral Puebloans leave their great settlements behind? And where did they go?
According to experts, the Ancestral Puebloan culture, also known as the Anasazi, first developed around the second century A.D. Centered around the modern-day states of New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado, the culture would grow to become one of the most influential in the American Southwest. But to begin with, they were simple people who lived in small villages and weaved baskets from natural materials.
For hundreds of years, the Ancestral Puebloans eked out an existence in the American Southwest, living in pit houses set into the ground. In time, they learned how to cultivate crops for food and grew skilled at hunting with a bow and arrow. Then, in the eighth century, their civilization began to expand.
According to experts, 750 A.D. heralded the dawn of the Pueblo I era. During this period, the people began building and inhabiting stone dwellings above the ground, developing their own distinctive style of architecture. And before long, the small villages of the region had grown into vast settlements.
All along the Chaco Canyon, the Ancestral Puebloans built vast structures, sometimes boasting over 100 rooms and reaching five stories high. And at the heart of each was a circular ceremonial room known as a “great kiva”. Often large enough to hold several hundred people, these spaces were where the community gathered to worship, meet and celebrate.
As the civilization in the Chaco Canyon grew in wealth and influence, its trappings became ever more opulent. In the great houses, for example, the kivas were furnished with fine timber brought in from forests 60 miles away. Meanwhile, the Ancestral Puebloan elite collected fine goods such as cacao and turquoise by the bucket-load.
Today, many experts believe that the people who lived in the Chaco Canyon based their society around religion and politics. And by the standards of the time, they were remarkably advanced. For example, a 2018 study conducted by the University of Cincinnati concluded that the Ancestral Puebloans were likely accomplished farmers who grew their own food.
Previously, some had believed that the soil of the Chaco Canyon was too saline for growing plentiful crops. And as such, there was a theory that the citizens must have needed to import food from elsewhere. Or, alternatively, it was posited that the settlements actually held a relatively small population year-round, merely hosting large numbers for special events.
However, researchers from the University of Cincinnati analyzed soil samples from the region and concluded that access to water, rather than salinity, would have been the biggest challenge. And amazingly, there is evidence to suggest that the Ancestral Puebloans once constructed complex water channels to ensure that their crops thrived.
In order to make the most of the scarce water that flowed through the Chaco Canyon, experts believe, its inhabitants built dams to channel the runoff from storms. And on top of that, they constructed wells and tanks to store what little rain that fell. With this, the study posits, they were able to grow enough food to sustain the great houses.
Up until a few years ago, many researchers believed that the Ancestral Puebloans were largely egalitarian in nature. However, a study published in 2017 suggests that this may not have been the case. In it, experts analyzed 14 sets of remains excavated at Pueblo Bonito in 1896 — and came to some startling conclusions.
According to reports, the remains had been located in a chamber at the heart of the great house, piled on top of each other in a space just six feet square. But despite suggestions that the Chaco Canyon culture was not hierarchical in nature, the evidence found here suggests otherwise. In fact, one man, known as Burial 14, was laid to rest alongside a fortune in turquoise, implying that he was an individual of some importance.
Not only that, the study also revealed that the other 13 people buried in the chamber were matrilineal descendants of the first — they were all related on their mothers’ side. And given that many modern Native American cultures still value heritage passed on through the mother’s side, it seems likely that these individuals could have formed part of a dynastic elite.
In fact, the study suggested that this man and his descendants may have ruled the region for 300 years. In a 2017 interview with National Geographic, archaeologist Stephen Plog explained, “It’s likely Burial 14 is really the first individual to differentiate himself politically from other people in the canyon. I’m confident his matriline was the most powerful in Pueblo Bonito, and probably in Chaco Canyon.”
In the ninth century work began on Pueblo Bonito, which would grow to become the biggest and most influential of all the great houses. Split into two sections, the sprawling settlement boasted two main kivas and a number of smaller ones, as well as some 800 rooms. In fact, the site is believed to have covered around three acres at its peak.
Meanwhile, the Pueblo I era became the Pueblo II period, and the Ancestral Puebloans’ approach to architecture changed once more. With their great houses built, they began constructing villages and hamlets in the surrounding area. And in the settlements themselves, more community structures such as the large, round, subterranean kivas were formed.
For hundreds of years, the civilization built by the Ancestral Puebloans continued to thrive. And in the 12th century, the Pueblo III period began. By now, the people had turned their attention to building vast cliffside houses, as well as multistory dwellings that resembled modern apartment blocks. And with these impressive structures, the influence of Chaco Canyon continued to grow.
In fact, this flourishing civilization was so highly regarded that its architecture inspired settlements some 100 miles to the north. And even today, in Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, buildings in the Chaco Canyon style — such as the vertiginous Cliff Palace — can still be seen.
Meanwhile, the inhabitants of smaller villages in the region also began to mimic the architecture of Chaco Canyon’s great houses. And although they did not have the resources to construct large buildings, they faithfully recreated the tradition of kivas in their own homes. Mostly, however, the citizens outside the sprawling main settlements lived far simpler lives.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, many inhabitants of the region surrounding Chaco Canyon flocked to places such as Pueblo Bonito in search of their fortunes. Fortunately, they were aided by the vast network of roads which connected the great houses to each other, as well as the villages scattered in between.
Thanks to this advanced transport system, it was common for the Ancestral Puebloans to migrate from place to place. According to records, this pattern reached its peak during the 11th century, and within a few hundred years many of the smaller settlements had been abandoned. Pueblo Bonito and the other great houses, however, were booming — until they weren’t.
In the first half of the 12th century, the grand settlement of Pueblo Bonito was abandoned by its inhabitants. And not long after, the rest of the great houses followed suit. Today, experts estimate that the entire Chaco Canyon was deserted by the beginning of the 14th century. But what happened to the ancestral Puebloans, and where did they go?
Although the exact nature of what happened in Chaco Canyon remains a mystery, historians have speculated that a number of different factors were at play. And in some ways at least, it appears that the great houses were victims of their own success. As they grew in size, it seems, prospective farmers felled forests to make room for arable land.
Before long, however, the people realized their mistake — the forests had been home to the deer which they relied upon for hides and meat. Then, in the 12th century, the Chaco Canyon was hit by a devastating drought. As a result, the crops failed, and food for the inhabitants of the great houses grew scarce.
At this point, archaeological evidence suggests, the people of the Chaco Canyon grew violent. In fact, it’s believed that unrest began to spread throughout the Ancestral Puebloan world. In human remains dating from this period, experts have detected signs of mutilation and physical trauma. Elsewhere, they have discovered mass graves.
As the people fought amongst themselves, the Chaco Canyon was struck by another drought in the later part of the 13th century. Again, experts believe that the crops failed and the Ancestral Puebloans were pitted against other indigenous groups in a violent battle for resources. In the midst of these struggles, it seems, the great houses were abandoned.
At Pennsylvania State University, Stefani Crabtree, a computational archaeologist, created a simulation of Ancestral Puebloan life in the Chaco Valley. By feeding relevant data about resources, conditions and population into a computer, she was able to predict how things might have played out. In a 2018 interview with The Washington Post, she explained, “When things are good, hierarchy develops. But that falls apart when climatic conditions make it harder.”
However, the Ancestral Puebloans did not disappear with the fall of their great houses. Instead, they migrated to the south and to the east, where they founded new villages and towns. Having learned the importance of water, they settled in locations where they could use gravity to build effective irrigation systems.
In places such as the White Mountains in modern-day Arizona, as well as the Rio Grande Valley, the Ancestral Puebloans thrived once more. And by the time that the Spanish arrived in the 1600s, their descendants had spread across much of the American Southwest. What’s more, they did not appreciate the arrival of the European colonialists on their soil.
Objecting to the violent approach of the colonialists, the modern Puebloans revolted against them successfully in 1680. And for the next 14 years, they remained free from European influence. Eventually, however, the New World caught up with them, and warfare and disease decimated their populations.
By the beginning of the 18th century, as few as 25 to 30 Puebloan communities remained in the American Southwest. Nevertheless, the influence of their ancestors can still be felt today. And even in modern times, there are tribes who can trace their lineage back to the people who lived in the Chaco Canyon.
Part of the lingering influence of the Ancestral Puebloans can be seen in the structures that they continued to build as they spread out across the American Southwest. Equally vast in size as the great houses of the Chaco Canyon, they increasingly utilized adobe, rather than stone. Nevertheless, they remained impressive settlements, some of which are still inhabited today.
Elsewhere, the story of Chaco Canyon and its abandonment has weaved its way into the origin stories of modern Pueblo tribes. According to both the Hopi and the Tewa, their people endured a series of challenging migrations at some point in their past. And according to anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz, some elders appear to share knowledge of an unidentified Chaco region in the north.
So, it seems, the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon did not really disappear. Instead, they adapted their culture and habits to survive in a new environment. And thanks to their ability to change with the times, their legacy lives on even today. Unfortunately, the region where it all started is now under threat.
Currently, it’s possible to visit the ruins of settlements such as Pueblo Bonito and walk in the footsteps of those who lived there centuries before. But the region is rich in more than historical resources. Apparently, this part of the American Southwest is also brimming with oil and gas, and development companies are beginning to encroach.
For the modern Puebloans who consider Chaco Canyon their heritage, it’s a process that must be stopped before it’s too late. Speaking to The Guardian in 2017, preservation consultant Theresa Pasqual explained, “If you speak to any other pueblo cultural leader, they will likely tell you that none of these places were abandoned, that these places were always meant to be places that we simply refer to as ‘home’, and that we continue to have a responsibility as stewards of these places to maintain a connection to them.”