Scientists Continue Piecing Together Chaco Canyon’s Lost Civilization

The extent of its empire and trade routes still perplex researchers

The ruins of Chetro Ketl house built by Ancient Puebloan People is seen at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Piecing together the lost civilization of Chaco Canyon that existed between 800 and 1300 A.D. in northwestern New Mexico has proven to be a long, arduous process for scientists. Research has been complicated by initial excavations in the late 1800s and early 1900s that sent several specimens and artifacts to museums across the country. Without a written language to decipher the culture of Chaco Canyon, scientists have been forced to draw conclusions based on artifacts found in the region, leaving room for broad interpretations. How it emerged, survived in rugged terrain, and the extent of its empire and trade routes still perplex scientists, though several recent discoveries have uncovered new clues and revelations about the people who once lived in in Chaco Canyon.

Evidence of scarlet macaw skeletons were found in 2015, providing researchers with evidence as to when the civilization’s elite hierarchy first developed in the early 900s. The highly prized feathers of the macaws were traded with other Mesoamerican civilizations hundreds of miles south of Chaco Canyon. Products that originated up to 1,000 miles away, like cacao, have been discovered in Chaco Canyon. At the heart of Chaco Canyon’s ruins is a building dubbed “Pueblo Bonito,” which rose five stories and included around 650 rooms, though it’s still up for debate whether the building served as a residence for hundreds of people or was relegated as an epicenter for a few dozen of the civilization’s elite. Earlier this year, based on sequencing DNA compiled from a crypt, researchers discovered that family lines in Chaco culture were passed down from women, including elite status and possible leadership roles.

“Nothing is simple at Pueblo Bonito,” Keriann Marden told Science News. Between 2005 and 2011, Marden helped piece together skeletal remains in different museums from early excavations at Pueblo Bonito. She claims it’s far too early for scientists to be drawing any conclusions from skeletal remains. “Huge pronouncements about Chaco social structure are being made based on partial, flawed data. It’s like excavating only human foot bones and concluding that people at that time had no hands.”

That recent study of skeletal remains sparked a controversy between scientists and Native American groups over permission to conduct the DNA analysis. Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office in Kykotsmovi, Ariz., told Science News a formal inquiry to the American Natural History Museum will be filed soon over the museum’s decision to permit the work.

Other findings from researchers have incited contrary conclusions. Science News cited one geoarchaeologist claiming that corn was grown in the area with the help of irrigation, a finding a University of Colorado hydrologist and geochemist deemed unlikely, explaining that corn was likely imported into the region.

Another puzzle scientists are working to solve involves a supposed foot obsession within the Chaco Canyon culture. Individuals with six toes were apparently granted special social status within the civilization. Footprints and hand prints with an extra toe or finger appear on several walls in Pueblo Bonito, and Chaco artwork depicts hands and feet with anywhere from three to eight toes or fingers on them.

While scientists believe prolonged periods of drought and famine forced people to abandon the Chaco civilization by the 1300s, insight into how the civilization was first developed proves to be problematic. Pueblo Bonito and other buildings were constantly remodeled and reworked throughout the civilization’s existence, and the soil Chaco Canyon’s ruins are built upon first accumulated from local streams, with no work done yet that seeks evidence of earlier human life.

Scientists Continue Piecing Together Chaco Canyon’s Lost Civilization