It’s unlikely that José Antonio Vizcarra was looking for ancient ruins. After all, it was the height of summer in 1823, and Vizcarra, the governor of New Mexico, was waging war against the Navajo. For 74 days Vizcarra and a column of 1,500 soldiers advanced through the west of the state, and their route took them through Chaco Canyon.
This was the first recorded journey through the canyon. And while Vizcarra may not have realized it, he was actually about to make an incredibly important archaeological discovery. In the valley, he spotted the ruins of a number of different buildings. This, as it turned out, was a city of the Anasazi, the ancestors of the Pueblo Native Americans.
The canyon lies in a remote location between the modern cities of Farmington and Albuquerque. From 800 A.D. to around 1130 A.D., however, the site was the hub of Anasazi culture. But even with Vizcarra’s rediscovery of the ancient structures, it wasn’t until later in the 19th century that archaeologists began to delve into the secrets of the Chacoan past.
In 1848 the United States Army carried out a survey of Chaco Canyon. A lack of natural resources in the area meant that it was of little interest to them, though, and for over 20 years the impressive structures lay unstudied. Then in the 1870s researchers from the Smithsonian Society found the ruins once more.
Even so, it wasn’t until 1896 that work on uncovering the secrets of Chaco Canyon began in earnest. It was then that an expedition headed by the Hyde Exploring Expedition and backed by the American Museum of Natural History began excavating the site. And over a period of five years, it dug up more than 60,000 historical relics.
The most examined of the ruins in Chaco Canyon is known as Pueblo Bonito, which translates as “beautiful town.” The structure is one of several great houses in the ten-mile stretch of the canyon, and it spans nigh on two acres. When it was finished, moreover, Pueblo Bonito was of a similar size to the Colosseum of Rome.
There are around 650 different rooms inside Pueblo Bonito. Parts of the great house were four stories tall, and in places the walls are around three feet thick. Furthermore, as well as featuring living and communal areas, Pueblo Bonito was home to a number of Kivas – shadowy subterranean spaces designed for councils and religious ceremonies.
A second great house, Chetro Ketl, covers even more space than Pueblo Bonito. The structure spreads over three acres of land and contains more than 500 rooms, and it too reaches up to four stories in height. Archaeologists believe that it took some 29,135 man hours to complete Chetro Ketl, with the builders using 50 million blocks of stone as well as 5,000 trees.
Yet it’s unclear what Chetro Ketl’s name actually means. It reportedly first took that specific name in 1849. However, a survey of the same year lists the building as “Pueblo Chetho Kette,” which roughly translates as the “rain pueblo.” Either way, the construction has a number of features that make it stand out from others in the area.
The northern wall of the pueblo has a balcony, for example, while the central block boasted a colonnade – though this was later filled in with stonework. These features, moreover, could well show how the architecture of Chaco Canyon changed over the period in which it was inhabited.
Unlike other great civilizations, the Anasazi had no written language, and this presents a significant obstacle for those trying to discover more about the people of Chaco Canyon. Archaeologists have had to find a number of ways around that problem – not least, DNA testing – and this has revealed some incredible facts.
Genetic tests on remains discovered in a burial chamber at the site have shown that it was possible the Chacoan culture was based on a matriarchal hierarchy. Power, it seems, passed down from mother to daughter. And there was another, perhaps even more interesting discovery.
According to the DNA results, there’s a very good chance that all of the rulers that archaeologists had discovered were in fact descended from a common female relative. This suggests something pretty startling. Indeed, it’s possible that the same family may well have led the Anasazi for the whole of their time in Chaco Canyon.
The Chaco finds haven’t been without controversy, though. After working on the original excavation of the site in 1901, a member of the expedition made a claim on the land. The researcher, Richard Wetherill, took 161 acres of the area for himself. Yet his stake in the land also had some unforeseen consequences.
For starters, it resulted in a thorough mapping of the site. A researcher from the New Mexico Normal University, Edgar Lee Hewett, worked on the survey in 1902. And there were even more far-reaching changes to come for this Native American ancestral land.
Indeed, Wetherill’s land grab eventually led to changes in the law. In 1906 Congress passed the Federal Antiquities Act in response to the claim, putting this new law in place to defend relics from Pre-Columbian America. Moreover, in 1907 Theodore Roosevelt took more steps to ensure that Chaco Canyon would be preserved for generations to come.
Roosevelt in fact designated the canyon as a National Monument on March 11, 1907. What’s more, in 1966 the area got added to the National Register of Historic Places. The structures of Chaco Canyon were to be preserved and studied so that researchers could gain a better understanding of America’s ancient past.
Excavations still take place at Chaco Canyon, and archaeologists continue to uncover new mysteries in the pueblos. A pictograph found on the walls, for example, suggests that the Chacoans may have observed a supernova in 1054 A.D. Researchers have dug up many thousands of turquoise beads during excavations, too. This, interestingly, indicates that the site played a large role in the manufacture of important goods.
However, the thriving civilization at Chaco Canyon eventually came to an end in around 1150 A.D. There are a number of theories as to why this happened, but experts believe that a drought lasting half a century played a role in the changing fortunes of the Anasazi. The Chacoans migrated away from their cities, and the structures stood silently amidst the dust of the arid plains.
There they remained, until by chance José Antonio Vizcarra spotted them again. It’s arguably rather ironic that the site’s rediscovery happened because of a war with the descendants of the Anasazi. But the relics of Chaco Canyon stand as a reminder of a living, breathing America that existed long before Europeans landed on the continent.