The mystery of the great houses of Chaco Canyon are greatly exaggerated, said Steve Lekson, a University of Colorado archaeology professor, who says the New Mexico ruin is really just an ancient city.
“It has been elevated to an international mystery spot, and it really isn’t,” he told a packed auditorium last week at the Anasazi Heritage Center.
“Even archeologists seem not to want to solve Chaco, as if it is abhorrent to us to think we might be able to figure it out.”
Lekson speculates that “probably hundreds of millions of dollars” has been spent investigating the well-known isolated ruin occupied by ancestral Puebloans from 850 AD to 1250 AD.
“We have thrown a lot of money and brains at this, and it is not that big of a deal. It is not Stonehenge (England), or Cusco,” (the great Inca city in Peru), he said.
Chaco is often enthusiastically described as a vortex, a mecca for religious pilgrimage, a trading center, or an archaic center of astronomical science established to worship the moon, sun and stars.
Perhaps. But it was also just an ordinary city, as Lekson’s title of his talk suggests: “Chaco Canyon, capital of the Northern Southwest.”
Lekson believes that an erroneous, hundred-year old theory that there were no city states north of Mexico during the ancestral Puebloan periods is partly to blame.
“American archaeology taught us that, including me. It was handed down again and again, and it is not true,” he said. “It has become an article of faith.”
The word Chaco can be traced to a Castilian word for city, or “which ever town has the largest population. But not all cities are dense. Chaco fits the definition of a large permanent center that serves and transforms a region.”
Just as in other pre-colonial cities, there were the nobles living in the great houses and there were the farmers and laborers living on the outskirts serving the rich.
“The evidence is the Chaco great house of Pueblo Bonito – 40,000 tons stacked 30-feet tall over a major league baseball field,” Lekson said. “It was an elite residence or palace.”
One of the most compelling aspects of Chaco is the evidence that it was a signaling station.
The open terrain for hundreds of miles in every direction made line-of-sight communication using signal fires a probable technique, Leckson said.
A mother-daughter team tested the theory using mirrors.
“One of them climbed Huerfano Peak (Sangre de Cristo range in Colorado) and the other went to Chaco and could see the mirror’s reflection,” Leckson said. “Far View at Mesa Verde may have been a repeater site.”
Have signal-fire structures been found at Far View? a woman asked.
“No, but they may have missed it because the early digs were really rushed,” Leckson said. “Chacoans used the fires to communicate, probably about trade opportunities.”
Our hang-up with an enigmatic perspective of Chaco is a distinctly American ego trait, Leckson surmises.
“It is in our country so it must be mysterious,” he said. “But if we had not taken over the Southwest from Mexico, they would have seen it as just another Mayan site.”
The Chaco people traveled to Mesoamerica, Leckson points out, and visa versa.
“The macaw feather sash at Edge of the Cedars museum in Blanding probably came from Chaco,” he said, and it originated in what is now southern Mexico.
“Cacao (chocolate) has been found in vessels at Chaco, and it did not grow here. They had macaw feathers; there was no border,” he said.
“Chacoans thought they were Mesoamerican noble families. They knew there were big cities down there and they glued it together with signal fires and roads.”