Ancient Native Americans Once Thrived in Bustling Urban Centers - HISTORY

In the 12th century, Pueblo Bonito housed over 1,200 people. The city is in a shape of a huge D, with its round back to the canyon wall. 

In New Mexico, the Chaco Canyon settlement flourished between 850 and 1250 A.D. Over the years, researchers have come up with wildly varying estimates of the center’s peak population, from around 2,000 to as many as 25,000, according to a 2005 National Park Service report.

Chaco Canyon appears to have been the ceremonial, trade and administrative hub of a network of neighboring communities, some as far as 60 miles away. A 2016 study by University of Colorado Boulder researcher Larry Benson found that Chaco Canyon’s salty soil wasn’t good for growing corn and beans, so the settlement had to import food and other resources from those places. Those communities were connected by an extensive network of roads and an irrigation system, according to Boehm and Corey.

Builders in Chaco Canyon developed sophisticated stone masonry construction techniques that allowed them to erect 150 multi-story structures, some as tall as five to six stories in height, with hundreds of rooms. In addition to stone, the builders used about 240,000 trees, some harvested from the Chuska Mountains about 50 miles to the west, according to a 2015 study by University of Arizona scientists.

The great houses, as these massive structures were called, probably weren’t dwellings, but rather public buildings used when people of the region gathered for ceremonies or to engage in commerce, according to NPS.

Chaco Canyon

View of the Chaco Ruins Culture National Park in New Mexico, 2014.

“Elite chiefs constructed the great houses to demonstrate their authority,” Benson, an adjoint curator of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Museum of Natural History, says. “However, they did not live in the canyon. Instead, they lived in wetter more productive regions at the periphery of the San Juan Basin where they oversaw the production of foodstuffs and the harvesting of mammals.”

In 2017, DNA analysis of remains suggested that the settlement may have been founded and ruled over a period of more than 300 years by dynastic elite that controlled the ritual practices at Pueblo Bonito, the 600-room structure that was the settlement’s most important building.

Like Cahokia, the Chaco Canyon settlement was abandoned eventually. Some have suggested that people in the area cut down too much of the forests, leading to erosion and destruction of farming. But a 2014 study by University of New Mexico researchers concluded that there wasn’t evidence to support that scenario.

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