The ancestral Puebloans went all out-they built massive structures, such as Pueblo Bonito, the largest building excavated so far in Chaco, which contained hundreds of rooms, multiple stories, and huge subterranean ceremonial chambers called "kivas." These structures were built over a period of 200 years, but after the ancestral people left the area, all of the buildings were abandoned. It was not until the 1890s that excavations began and archaeologists started to discover these hidden treasures.
But the discovery of Chaco by non-Native Americans led to many questions. Why did the ancestral Puebloans build such a complex and intricate center? Why did they do so in northwest New Mexico, an area of high desert and unforgiving terrain? And, perhaps most importantly, why, after spending so much time and effort building this place, did they desert it in the end?
Does that sound hard? It is. Take, for example, the mounds of broken pottery. At several places in Chaco, archaeologists found piles and piles of pottery, all broken to pieces, and for a long time, no one knew why. What's more, many people who steal the pieces are said to develop severe cramping on whichever hand first touched the pottery, while others encounter some very bad luck. And what about the Great North Road, a 30-ft wide road that runs for 35 miles from Chaco into the Badlands Canyon and seemingly leads nowhere?
Someone tried to explain this to us when we first got to Chaco and we didn't get it. Maybe you don't either. But trust me, this is big! Imagine being able to track the trajectory of the sun so perfectly that you can create a calendar with a spiral drawing on a rock! And, what's more, without using computers, maps, GPS or a calculator. I admit, I was blown-away.
OK, so you're still not impressed. How about this: another petroglyph was found at Fajada Butte that depicts Pueblo Bonito and the sun. When researchers studied this a little closer, they found out that Pueblo Bonito was built entirely in relation to the sun. That means that for over 200 years (the time it took to build Pueblo Bonito), the ancestral architects planned the building so that its walls were exactly North-South and East-West. What does that mean? It means that during the spring and fall equinoxes (while dagger-shaped beams of light are appearing on Fajada Butte), the sun rises and sets exactly over the East-West wall of Pueblo Bonito. And remember, they built this without writing anything down.
But here is another truth-one told by Native Americans about their Puebloan ancestors. Chaco was a sign from the Creator, and a place deemed to be the center of their world. The people who built it viewed the Heavens as a place with order and thought that Earth needed some order too! So Chaco's elaborate design mimicking the patterns of the sun and the moon was a way to transfer the orderly nature of the cosmos to the chaos of Earth. Why would the ancestral Puebloans think that Earth was messy and chaotic? Well, they'd experienced droughts, extreme cold, bad crops and torrential rains. Instead of calling this confusion "El Niño" (like we did a few years ago), they decided the best way to restore order was to try and imitate the orderly cycles of the sun and moon through the construction of their buildings.
The Great Road North also tells another truth. Although in my eyes it leads to the middle of nowhere, to the ancestral Puebloans (and their descendents) it connects them to their point of origin. According to Native Americans, north is where they came from and this road thus leads them to the Creator and to their beginning. After walking this road and symbolically arriving at their beginning, many Puebloans would break pots as an offering to the Heavens.
And what about the fall of Chaco? For Native Americans, the people of Chaco abused the powers that had been granted to them by the Heavens. They caused things to change in ways that we may never understand. Which is OK, because according to Native American tradition, some things are never meant to be fully understood. What's more, everything that is built is meant to go back to Mother Earth, so the end of the Chaco era is part of the natural cycle of things.
For Native Americans, Chaco holds many truths, some of which shed light into their past and help define their identity. After walking through its ruins, hiking its trails, and soaking in some of its magic, I too began to appreciate its sacredness and its place among the natural cycle of things. I realized that uncovering the whole truth was not as important as simply understanding the significance of this place to those whose history is inextricably tied to it. Although I went to Chaco looking for facts and answers, I left-pointing north - with much more.
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