For all the wild beauty of Chaco Canyon's high desert landscape, its long winters, short growing seasons, and marginal rainfall create an unlikely place for a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture to take root and flourish. Yet this valley was the center of a thriving culture a thousand years ago. The monumental scale of its architecture, the complexity of its ceremonial life, the high level of it's community social organization, and the far-reaching nature of its commerce combine to create a cultural vision unlike any other seen before or since.
The cultural flowering of the Chacoan people began in the mid-800s and lasted for more than 300 years. We can see it clearly in the grand scale of the architecture. Using masonry techniques unique for their time, they constructed massive stone buildings ("great houses") of multiple stories containing hundreds of rooms much larger than any they had previously built. The buildings were planned from the start, in contrast to the usual practice of adding rooms to existing structures as needed. Construction on some of these buildings spanned decades and even centuries. Although each is unique, all great houses share architectural features that make them recognizable as "Chacoan."
During the middle and late 800s, the great houses of Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Peņasco Blanco were constructed, followed by Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto, and others. These structures were often oriented to solar, lunar, and cardinal directions. Lines of sight between the great houses allowed communication. Sophisticated astronomical markers, communication features, water control devices, and formal earthen mounds surrounded them. The buildings were placed within a landscape surrounded by sacred mountains, mesas, and shrines that still have deep spiritual meaning for American Indian descendants.
By 1050, Chaco had become the ceremonial, administrative, and economic center of the San Juan Basin. Its sphere of influence was extensive. Dozens of great houses in Chaco Canyon were connected by roads to over 150 great houses built throughout the region. It is thought that the great houses were not traditional farming villages occupied by large populations. They may instead have been impressive examples of "public architecture" that were used periodically during times of ceremony, commerce, and trading when temporary populations came to the canyon for these events.
What was at the heart of this great social experiment? Pueblo descendants say that Chaco was a special gathering place where many peoples and clans converged to share their ceremonies, traditions, and knowledge. Chaco is central to origins of several Navajo clans ceremonies, and oral traditions. Chaco is also an enduring enigma for researchers. Was Chaco the hub of a turquoise-trading network to acquire macaws, copper bells, shells, and other commodities from distant lands? Did Chaco distribute food and resources to growing populations when the climate failed them? Was Chaco "the center place," binding a region together by a shared vision? We will never fully understand the Chaco.
In the 1100s and 1200s, change came to Chaco as new construction slowed and Chaco's role as a regional center shifted. Chaco's influence continued at Aztec, Mesa Verde, the Chuska Mountains, and other centers to the north, south, and west. In time, the people shifted away from Chacoan ways, migrated to new areas, reorganized their world, and eventually interacted with foreign cultures. Their descendants are the modern Southwest Indians. Many Southwest Indian peoples today look upon Chaco as an important stop along their clans' sacred migration paths--a spiritual place to be honored and respected.