Mysteries of Chaco
The Aerial Perspective
Pueblo Bonito Ruin, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
The Ancient Chaco World
Between about 900 to 1150 AD a mysterious Stone Age culture
arose, flourished, and then vanished in the semi-desert region
of the Southwestern United States. Named the Chaco culture, after
the canyon in which the principal ruins are found, nearly everything
about this ancient society remains a mystery.
At the height of its influence, buildings in the Chaco style were
scattered over thousands of square miles of the Four Corners area
of the Southwest (where the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico,
and Arizona meet; see map, 10K).
At the center of the Chaco world was Chaco Canyon itself, in the
northwest part of what is now New Mexico, where the largest and
most important of the ancient towns (pueblos) were located. In
Chaco Canyon are the ruins of 30 large masonry buildings, each
containing hundreds of rooms, as well as many smaller structures.
The most well known of these pueblos, and indeed the most famous
ruin on the North American continent, is Pueblo Bonito ("Beautiful
Town," photo above).
The architects of the ancient Chaco world were the ancestors of
the modern Pueblo Indians, known today as the Anasazi (a modern
Navajo Indian word translated roughly as "the Ancient Ones").
However, little is known of how Chaco society was organized or
functioned. Since the Chacoans had no writing, and could leave
no written accounts, everything we know about their culture must
be inferred from archaeological evidence. Although archaeological
theories about Chaco culture are plentiful, they are often contradictory.
Each archaeologist seems to see a different meaning in the evidence.
For example, there are differing ideas about the purpose of the
roads radiating from Chaco Canyon across the desert for as far
as fifty miles. Some archaeologists think these roads were for
ceremonial purposes only, connecting Chaco Canyon to sacred places
on the landscape. Others think they were primarily avenues of
trade and communication between the canyon and outlying colony
towns. Still others believe they may have served both purposes.
Today Chaco Canyon is in a remote part of New Mexico, surrounded
by the vast Navajo Indian reservation. The ruins in the canyon
itself, as well as a few important ones nearby, have been set
aside by the U.S. government as Chaco Culture National Historical
Park, which is managed by the National Park Service. The canyon
may be visited by anyone willing to make a long drive down primitive
roads to reach it. The state of New Mexico has proposed paving
the road to make access easier, and private entrepreneurs have
considered building hotels and other tourist accommodations in
the area. Other people have objected that such changes will spoil
the wild and remote atmosphere of the canyon. That controversy
The larger part of the Chaco world, outside the canyon itself,
consisting of the many smaller "outlier" towns scattered
throughout the region, remain largely untouched by archaeologists.
More outliers are still being found.
The Chaco World and Aerial Archaeology
Many of the mysteries of Chaco are highly suited to investigation
by aerial archaeology. Only in the aerial view, for example, can
many of the Chaco roadways be seen at all, since centuries of
neglect have reduced them to only faint depressions in the ground.
From the air, however, these shallow swales appear as definite
grooves across the landscape, and can easily be photographed and
The overall designs of Chaco architecture are best seen from
the air. Only in the aerial view does the masonry of Pueblo Bonito,
for example, assume its distinctive D shape. And what appear to
be only scattered mounds of rubble at unexcavated Chaco sites
take on much of their original geometry in the aerial perspective.
The layout of Chaco towns, their architectural style and features,
and their relationship to the land are all best analyzed from