Chaco Canyon: The Pueblo Communities, Spirit Tunnels & The History Of The Anasazi People

Updated: May 21

A canyon in New Mexico is the site of one of North America's earliest civilisations. Who lived there? What was the function of the huge circular kivas? What was Pueblo Bonito? Why did the inhabitants of the canyon disappear so suddenly?

The Anasazi people

Cowboy movies nearly always encourage their viewers to see North American Indians as bloodthirsty savages who eke out a meagre existence of living in their wigwams. But a visit to the Four Corners County of the southwestern United States would dispel forever the erroneous public image. For, at a time when the ordinary folk of Europe lived in rude hovels of wood and thatch, the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon dwelt in sophisticated urban complexes of skilfully constructed stones. Chaco Canyon winds through arid sagebush country where vicious dust storms whip up at a moment's notice. Yet over 1,000 years ago, the people there were making baskets with a weave so tight that even today they will hold water. The extraordinary geometric patterns they used to decorate their pottery illustrate a highly developed artistic sense. These people are today known as the Anasazi, from the later Navajo name for them.

The Great House Of The Pueblo Bonito

The earliest dwellings in the canyon are sunken pit-houses. Surface houses were built about AD 750, followed by many mud and sandstone villages of a dozen or more adjoining rooms. It is not to see that tourists come to this parched canyon, but to view the remarkable towns called Great Houses on its north side. The time when these Great Houses were constructed has been determined with precision by dendrochronology, the tree ring dating technique pioneered in this region in the 1920s. At one Great House, where the arid climate has preserved a wooden roof intact, the season of felling each log was discovered. The roof had been assembled in the spring of AD 1040.

The most awe-inspiring of the 19 Great Houses today is Pueblo Bonito, literally 'pretty village' this was begun around AD 1000 as a cluster of 20 rooms, but by 1150 had grown into a huge complex of 800 contiguous rooms in four storeys of superbly tootled masonry. The alternation of thick and thin stones gives a graceful banding effect which relieves the massiveness of the semi-circular wall that acted as a defensive backdrop to the horseshoe-shaped complex of rooms. The symmetry and geometrical precision of the various building phases suggest a high degree of central planning. And the fact that all are of much the same size - there are no palace suites or vast halls for the elite - points to the lack of social hierarchy.

Chaco Canyon

The absence of the furniture suggests everything from craftwork to cooking was done on the floor. Food was all-important. Corn was a staple because it was easily stored and ground into flour. By about AD 1000, the Anasazi had bred an eight-rowed variety of corn as big as those in today's supermarkets. They also cultivated beans and squash and supplemented their diet by gathering wild seeds. Hunting deer, sheep, birds, rabbits and other animals would have been vital to the community in learner years.

The Importance Of The Spirit Tunnels

Every Chacoan community had a kiva - Pueblo Bonito had 37. This is a sunken circular chamber with a central hearth and a log roof. A hole in the centre of the roof functioned both as a smoke outlet and an entry hole. Remains of potters' tools and weavers' looms indicate that such crafts were carried out on the kivas. These chambers may have also served as a kind of men's club where they could find occasional refuge from a society that seems to have been significantly more matriarchal than today's.

Much more than local gossip occupied those who frequented the kiva. For it was here that the spirit life of the Anasazi community was controlled, although the form of the rituals involved will forever be a closed book. Most kivas feature a sipapu, a small round hole in the floor behind the central hearth. The spirits of tribal ancestors were thought to have emerged from this hole which represented the point of communication with the spirit world. Opposite the sipapu was a ventilator shaft to the outside which was needed for the proceedings of the kiva to continue. But its Indian name, which translates to 'spirit-tunnel', indicates a purpose beyond that of keeping the fire going and providing fresh air.

The subterranean nature of the kiva suggests that the Anasazi religion involved tapping the energy available from the earth. This might have been seen as arising from the sipapu in the form of spirits, beneficial ones in the ritual had worked properly. These would then pass through the 'spirit-tunnel' to the outside world - it may be significant that, on the way from the sipapu, they first had to pass through the fire. Once outside, they would bring good fortune to the people and their crops.

The Sudden Disappearance Of The Anasazi People

Effective propitiation of the spirits of nature would have been especially important in the Four Corners Country. The climate is never the same from one year to the next - the only dependable meteorological fact is the near absence of rain, often no more than 15cm (6in) falling in a year. A cold dry winter and the consequent crop failure would have had a devastating effect on the Anasazi people, as the excavated mass graves of starvation and malnutrition-related disease victims tragically demonstrate.

The climatic variability may provide a clue to the greatest enigma surrounding the Anasazi - their rapid and mysterious demise. In the early years of the 12th century, the people of Chaco Canyon represented the peak of Anasazi cultural progress. But, by 1150, they had almost completely disappeared.

The Ancient Anasazi

Recent research suggests that rainfall patterns in the area follow a 5500-year cycle, with an optimum just after AD 1100. With good harvests and plenty of game, the population would have expanded to as many as 5,000, an unprecedented figure for a pre-metalworking society. But when the climatic cycle reversed, the rain spirit withdrew its favours, causing yields to fall and the Anasazi people to go hungry.

In a desperate attempt to appease the rain spirit, huge kivas were built outside the towns, such as Casa Rinconada, which stands opposite Pueblo Bonito, and Kin Nahasbas. But even the frantic building of kivas beside dying-up watercourses could not avert disaster. Faced with increasingly severe drought and erosion of their croplands, the Chacoans seem to have decided to cut their losses and abandon the canyon wholesale. They migrated southeast to more reliable Rio Grande, where they merged with the ancestors of the Hopi and Zuni tribes. Thus, dried up in its prime, ended one of the great civilizations of pre-Hispanic America

Now you have learned about the Anasazi and the Chaco Canyon, take a look at Teotihuacan & the Pyramids Of The Sun And Moon.


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