Anasazi or Ancient Pueblo People are ancient Native American people who lived in the Four Corners area of the United States. Native Indian tribes like Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Ute, Apache etc are all descendants of the Anasazi. The Four Corners area (south eastern Utah, south western Colorado, north eastern Arizona and north western New Mexico) are dotted with ruins of pueblo dwellings and cliff dwellings of the Anasazi.
The PBS documentary ‘Mystery of Chaco Canyon’ was our inspiration to visit Chaco Canyon, an ancient archaeo-astronomical site. The road to Chaco Canyon is not well maintained. It is possible it was destroyed by water as it is through a ‘wash’. But as soon as you enter the National Park boundaries, the roads are good. Camping is the only option for accommodation in the area. Nearest lodges/hotels are many miles away. For this reason, the night sky at Chaco Canyon is very attractive.
Chaco Canyon is one of the best examples of large Anasazi residential complexes built between 900-1200 AD. The largest building at Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito, had about 700 rooms and was 4 stories high. Quite an engineering achievement for the times! The sandstone and timber was brought over large distances for all the 6 buildings in Chaco Canyon. Because a very large site like Chaco Canyon was built over many many years, an improvement in the style of masonry can be noticed at various places in the site.
Pueblo Bonito is a ‘D’ shaped building. The straight wall of the building is aligned with the path of the sun on equinox days. Many aspects of the complex are aligned with astronomical events. It is very similar to what we experienced in Machu Picchu. It is amazing how much ancient people knew about astronomy! One of the salient features of Anasazi ruins is a ‘kiva’. Kivas are circular rooms built into the ground with no ventilation, except for the entryway in the roof. The roof of the kiva was usually at ground level and people descended into a kiva using a ladder. Kivas were used for religious and social ceremonies and had a fire pit in the center. Lack of ventilation during ceremonies would have helped cause a trance like state. Some of the larger kivas had a couple of floor vaults of unknown purposes as well.
It is unclear why an elaborate site like Chaco Canyon was abandoned by its people. Drought is a likely cause. The area around this site is a desert now. Looking at the intricate details, the scale and magnitude of the constructions, one can’t help but wonder what the ancient people were thinking when they chose this place for what seems to be their most important site. There isn’t any sustainable source of water nearby. But as I heard on a documentary recently, about 2000 years later, people will be looking at the ruins of cities like Los Angeles and wondering the same thing! (Los Angeles has no sustainable water source nearby either).
The Chacoans not only built buildings in Chaco Canyon with astronomical precision, but they also aligned sites that were miles apart, in accordance with the passage of the sun and the moon in their lunar and solar cycles. ‘Ouliers’ are sites that are many miles away from the Chaco Canyon site along straight North South or East West roads known as the ‘Great Roads’. Aztec Ruins in New Mexico is an example of one such outlier sites. When the Spanish first saw the ruins at Aztec, they incorrectly attributed it to the Aztec civilization of Mexico. The incorrect name stuck and the site is now called Aztec ruins although it has nothing to do with the Aztecs. The features of Aztec Ruins are very similar to the building at Chaco Canyon – numerous kivas, low rectangular doorways, T-shaped entryways that opened to a central plaza etc. Aztec Ruins has a reconstructed large kiva that can give visitors an experience of being in a kiva. The ruins also has the remains of a 3-walled kiva of unknown purposes. Much of this site is yet to be excavated.