Chaco Culture: Archaeoastronomy and Ancient Architecture

From 850 -1200 AD, Chaco Canyon, deep in the heart of New Mexico, was the center of a far reaching trade network where the exchange of ideas, ceremonies, goods/services and politics occurred for a vast area of the Southwest. The Chacoan contributions to architecture, art, astronomy and agriculture are a major part of the cultural legacy of Southwestern Pueblo Indians. Since they had no written language, archaeologists, historians, and other interested parties speculate immensely on the true intentions of the Chacoans. Why did they live there in such a harsh climate? Some say it was more lush and even tropical at the time of the Chacoans, but the climate of the high desert during their time was actually very similar to the arid and unforgiving climate that it is today. People also speculate that a 40 year drought is what drove the Chacoans away from their homeland. However, one of the main aspects of this culture in question is why they built the buildings where they did, and for what purpose.

 

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The Pueblo Indians of Chaco Canyon, the Chacoans, were astronomers and observers of their environment. The people would memorize the sky, where the sun and moon rose and fell on the horizon, and monitor the ever changing positions of the stars. With this information they communicated predictions of the changing of seasons. On of the most honorable and important roles in Chaco Culture is that of the Pekwin – The Sun Priest. The Sun Priest observes where the sun sets on the horizon everyday, and can confirm solar alignment with geographic markers the summer and winter solstices. If the Sun Priest does his job wrong, the entire population would suffer the consequences of his mistake.

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For example, where the Sun sets on the bottom right angle of a range of cliff faces on October 29th, just past Pueblo Bonito, the main center of Chaco, this marks the beginning of the Winter Solstice. How do we know that the Pueblo figured this out so accurately? It all comes back to the astronomy and architecture. Every structure built in the times of a thriving Chaco Canyon, and many other parts of the southwest, were structurally oriented so that certain corners or windows would line up with the Sun where either the Summer or winter Solstices were indicated on the horizon. The same goes for the Fall and Spring equinox’s. The Chacoans were masters of the land, and even greater masters of the sky. Thus, their calendar was built into their everyday lives. That is how immensely important it was to know the changing of the seasons. To give some context, in Chaco Canyon the temperature range is 138 degrees. This means that in the Summer it gets as hot as 105 F and in the Winter it gets as cold as -33 F.

 

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For the Chacoans, the Winter Equinox represents the Father (the Sun) going to his winter home and asking his children: Are you worthy of life? The extreme winter temperatures are seen by the Pueblo as the fathers test of endurance, survival, and of the will of the human spirit to live on. From this test they come to grips with the fact of life: either you come to grips with the rules of your environment, or you die-learn the rules. Since they had no written language to communicate these rules of survival, the Chacoans used rituals, ceremonies, and tradition to pass on the customs of their people to the next generation. With no tradition the rules would be lost, and thus the people would be lost.

 

The cultural preservation of Chaco, once the major center of trade, ceremonies and politics in the Southwest, has a top priority for the descendants of Chacoans and they have been successful in keeping the Chaco Culture National Historic Park essentially untouched and unscathed by archaologists and flocks of tourists. This is in part because Chaco is in the middle of the New Mexican Wilderness and ~120 miles from the nearest city.

Chaco is now one of the last dark sky zones in the United states where you can see trillions of stars in the sky and the milky way clear and bright. This is because there is no light pollution from surrounding towns and cities. Visiting Chaco as the first stop in our journey gave us a definitive sense of place and an incredible look at how the prominent Pueblo people survived in an unforgiving landscape.

Our next stop on the way to Durango, Colorado was Aztec, New Mexico, where we went to a site full of similar architecture and museum of the Pueblo Aztec way of life.

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