Chaco Culture National Historic Park is in remote northwest New Mexico. The drive will take you on twenty miles of dirt roads and beyond cell range. But in this most remote reach of New Mexico lies the crossroads of an ancient culture. In Chaco Culture National Historic Park lies 3,614 recorded archaeological sites, including many massive great houses. The largest, Pueblo Bonito, has roughly 800 rooms; visitors may walk through the doors and rooms of Pueblo Bonito. The Chaco Culture also built astronomical features into many of their works; some windows align perfectly with the sun on solstice, and some decorations align with phases of the moon.
When Chaco was discovered in modernity, it was thought to be a vast city. Having walked through it, it feels that way. It feels like it could hold thousands. But archaeological evidence suggests otherwise—there is little garbage, and few burials. Massive Pueblo Bonito may have housed only 70 people on a permanent basis. The guides at the park suggest that Chaco might have been a meeting ground, used for trade and weddings and astronomical ceremonies for a small portion of the year. Remnants of cacao from 1200 miles south have been found at Pueblo Bonito. The bones of macaws, native to eastern Mexico, have been found at Pueblo del Arroyo. They apparently didn’t flourish; only the bones of adults were found. So the astonishing quantity of ruins at Chaco Culture Park may be the remnants of an ancient convention center.
Chaco offers an amazing range of ruins, from the many-roomed grand houses to petroglyphs to astronomical markers to ancient stairs and roads. Like Mesa Verde National Park, not so far to the north, the whole site was abandoned in the 1300s, well before European influence. Like Mesa Verde, archaeologists don’t know exactly why the people left. There is evidence of an ancient drought. Some argue for catastrophic deforestation after all the building at Chaco (because all that construction took a terrific amount of timber, some of which still remains in the structures), though there is not consensus.
I grew up in St. Louis, a town once called Mound City for the mounds left by the ancient Mississippian culture. The massive city at Cahokia was also abandoned around the year 1300. A city of 15,000 abandoned, around the population of London at the time, and we don’t know why. It’s easy to live in the United States and think of it as the new world. But these amazing works of ancient people live on quietly. The inconvenient mounds of St. Louis were largely destroyed; those who did so may not have even realized their origin. But the remnants of the Pueblo culture at Chaco remain, mostly protected by their isolation over the years. Though the journey today is easier than it ever has been, Chaco is still hours from the interstate and quiet. As I took in the ruins, I was filled with the same wonder and questions that Cahokia Mounds always presented. Places like Chaco and Cahokia are reminders of humanity—no matter the size of the structures we build, one day people will view the barren remnants and wonder about us. We will walk the same valleys and cliffs, touch the same stones, but we won’t know each others names or voices or values. Ruins like Chaco remind of us of our place in the universe, and how beautiful and belittling that can be.