Chaco Canyon

There is too much to discuss about Chaco Canyon in a single blog post, but I will try to give highlights. First of all, Chaco Canyon is not just the site of ancient dwellings – it is like an entire metropolis.

The aerial view shows how large Chaco was (this is just one settlement), but take into consideration that the settlements consisted of what we would now call “apartment buildings” – multistory buildings.

Chaco Canyon is among the most impressive archaeological sites in the world, receiving tens of thousands of visitors each year. Chaco is more than just a tourist site however; it is also sacred land. Pueblo peoples like the Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni consider it a home of their ancestors. Some Native Americans will not enter the Chaco ruins because (I am interpreting here) they don’t want to interact with the spirits of deceased peoples.

Chaco was the urban center of a very large trade route, as evidenced by the excavation of the largest of the Chaco Canyon great houses – Pueblo Bonito.  Pueblo Bonito has about 650 rooms, one of which has a particularly unusual crypt. This is known as “Room 33,” a single small structure in the oldest area of the Pueblo, that contained 14 human bodies along with significant amounts of symbolically important items like turquoise, shell, and flutes, as well as scarlet macaw skeletons. These skeletal remains of scarlet macaws indicate that social and political hierarchies may have emerged in the American Southwest earlier than previously thought and, because macaws are indigenous to South America, trade with South America was quite common.

Suffice to say, you could spend many days exploring this area.

We chose to explore Chaco Canyon with Navajo Tours USA so that we could get the Native American understanding of the place. Our guide, Kialo Winters, not only described what we were seeing from a historical perspective, but from the perspective of Native American legends.

One such legend was that of the “Hero Twins.” The Hero Twins are mythical twins from the folklore of the Midwestern and Plains Indian tribes. The specifics of the myth vary from tribe to tribe, but overall, it concerns a pair of magical twins who were born when their pregnant mother was killed by a monster or a violent relative. Twins were considered a powerful and dangerous occurrence in many cultures of this region, and the Twin Heroes were additionally ripped from their mother’s womb, another portentous event. Consequently, the two had strong magical powers.

Anyway, Kialo told us of one particularly interesting legend (this is what I recall). The twins migrated South to what is now known as Casa Grandes, another set of ruins in Chihuahua, Mexico. There they met a which sitting on an iron throne (Game of Thrones anyone?) who told them that one of them could stay, but the other had to go back to Chaco.  Fast forward a few centuries. In 1927 excavations at Casa Grande revealed a 135-pound iron meteorite wrapped in linen, indicating that it was revered. Now scientists are paying a bit more attention to the legends of Native Americans.

Of course, a lot of Chaco Canyon is shrouded in mystery. One of the recurring features of the settlement are the kivas. There are many, some quite large, such as the “Great Kiva.” So, what is a kiva? A kiva is a room used by Puebloans for religious rituals and political meetings. Among the modern Hopi and most other Pueblo people, kivas are below ground, and are used for spiritual ceremonies. However, I have heard that kivas were also used as communal cooking sites.

The construction of the kivas is amazing. Below you will see how the walls were build and, after many centuries, are still viable.

Also, the great kiva had a feature that intrigued me – a series of square holes that had a particular pattern of two up, one down.

It is possible that when the sun is just right, the lower holes will be illuminated. We would like to go back during one of the solstices, but my understanding is that the park service is discouraging that because of the crowds.

Regarding construction, look at the picture below showing the use of timbers.

Chaco Canyon itself is treeless, so it is estimated that the builders of the settlement cut an estimated 225,000 trees from mountain forests sixty miles away. These were all hand carried to the settlement. Carbon dating of the tress indicates that the settlement was built between 850 and 1140 AD.

There are also petroglyphs in Chaco Canyon, although not as many as at other sites. Here is one example.

Note the big hand and the spiral. Big hands are pretty common, as are the spirals. Trust me – the longer you spend in front of a petroglyph, the more your imagination runs wild.

A lot of the rooms and walls in Chaco are lined up in a North-South or East-West direction and had doorways lined up similarly.

Another benefit of having a Navajo as a guide is, if you are lucky, you will get to taste Navajo Corn Cake. Kialo’s wife, Terri, brought along some Navajo blue corn cake for us to taste. It was delicious. It, too, is steeped in Navajo tradition. Here are a couple of links that will help you understand the importance of the cake.

Like I said, there is too much information to put into a single blog post. If you are interested in exploring the area and learning about the legends, contact Navajo Tours USA (