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Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon: Visiting the Ancient World

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Adventure writer Morgan Tilton takes us back in time to one of the most intriguing and mysterious places in the Southwest.

Words and Photos by Morgan Tilton

“The walls flex,” said my guide Angelisa Espinoza, who lay like a sprawled starfish on the dirt floor in the middle of the rectangular room. I pancaked myself next to her, beneath the multi-story stone-and-mud walls. Instead of a wood ceiling—which had collapsed long ago—the roof was occupied by New Mexico’s cobalt sky and an obscure mix of clouds. From the worm’s eye view, I saw what Espinoza meant. The walls’ edges oscillated like waves, a masonry technique that may have fortified this 1,200-year-old great house, Pueblo Bonito: the centerpiece of a complex maze of ancient buildings, kivas, plazas, drainages, cliff stairways and petroglyph panels that comprise what is now Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

That morning, we drove 150 miles northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to reach the long, shallow canyon atop the Colorado Plateau and Chaco Culture National Historic Park‘s 34,000-acre collection of archeological mystery. In 800 A.D., the Chacoans began a three-century process of construction—and then they vanished. Pueblo Bonito alone was five stories with more than 600 rooms and 40 kivas. Chaco’s ostentatious architecture—which often aligns with solar, lunar and cardinal directions and creates astronomy markers—is in contrast to the austere environment’s long winters, short growing seasons and marginal rainfall. Nearly all of the uncovered artifacts, crops and building materials were traced back to other origins—some thousands of miles away—including macaws, turquoise and 181 cylindrical vessels coated with cacao from Central America. Perhaps the impetus was spiritual, but Chaco was a place of convergence for tens of thousands of ancient peoples.

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