The mysteries of Chaco Canyon continue to spark lively debate about the civilization’s purpose and belief system, yet researchers can agree on one thing: The ancient ruins, at risk of destruction, need to be documented before they are forever lost.
“Undeniably, it’s a race against time,” said Robert Weiner, a research associate with the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University.
Weiner will take part in a lecture Friday about Chaco Canyon, along with Richard Friedman, who has studied the region for 30 years, and Anna Sofaer, founder of the Solstice Project.
Sofaer said the event will focus on new findings about the Chaco civilization brought about by new technologies, such as Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and 3-D modeling.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to show what we understand of that through our research but also our recordings,” Sofaer said.
The Chaco Culture National Historic Park in northwestern New Mexico is regarded as the cultural center of the ancestral Puebloan people, who inhabited the region from about 900 to 1150 A.D. Comprised of about 30,000 acres, the historic park has the most dense and concentrated collection of ruins in the American Southwest, and are protected under the U.S. National Park Service.
Ruins and artifacts within the park boundaries have been extensively researched and studied over the years, but archaeologists and historians are left with many unanswered questions about the ancient civilization.
Researchers have not been able to get a strong handle on what sort of society the Chacoan people were, how their economy worked or why they chose the harsh, arid desert landscape as the center of cultural life.
As a result, researchers have turned outside the park’s boundaries, where hundreds of outlying communities throughout New Mexico, as well as Arizona, Colorado and Utah, may have more clues to this puzzle.
But Weiner said time is running out. The centuries-old ruins, some on the surface, some buried, are being wiped away by the natural elements, like erosion from wind and rain, as well as the effects of expanding oil and gas extraction.
“And once it’s gone, there’s no way to bring it back,” Friedman said.
Friedman, in particular, studied the vast road network outside the central Chaco park system, which extends in all directions, some to surrounding villages and others to sacred geographical sites or cardinal directions.
For the most part, these roads are not well understood. Certain features indicate to researchers that the ancient routes were not used solely for trade and travel, and that paves the way for unending speculation.
“Maybe they had some greater thought in mind with them, or something we don’t truly understand,” Friedman said.
But every year, more evidence of the roads disappears. A recently published study found that roads once seen in the 1980s are no longer visible, even using advanced technology methods like LiDAR.
“Being able to identify the roads is getting more and more difficult all the time,” Friedman said. “And it’s heartbreaking. Time is not our friend in this case.”
Weiner believes the answer to many of Chaco’s mysteries lies in these road networks and the communities they connect to, which indicate to researchers that the Chaco civilization was far more expansive than many thought.
The fact that cacao, macaws and copper bells were brought to Chaco from Mexico, as well as evidence that Chimney Rock in Southwest Colorado was one of its colonies, indicate the civilization had great reach.
“Chaco is the ‘empire’ you’ve never heard of,” he said. “We talk about all these great civilizations of the ancient world, and we don’t recognize here in North America – here in the Southwest – were incredibly complex people that controlled this vast region.
“And yet we still don’t know what their ideology was,” he continued, “or what was the experiential draw that was holding this huge region together.”