The Chaco Canyon UNESCO site is atop the Colorado Plateau within San Juan Basin in Southwestern United States. The predominant geology is sandstone dating from the late Cretaceous Period when the climate was warmer than at present. This remote canyon seventy miles from anywhere houses an ancient observatory. There are a number of other sites in the immediate area. A sophisticated road system once connected them. We can still trace them when we know where to look.
Chaco Canyon UNESCO Site Inhabitants Down the Centuries
The first people to climb to the top of the Colorado Plateau 10,000 years ago, would have found it more fertile than it is now. Those hunter-gatherers who collected food in baskets left evidence of over 70 campsites. Over time they learned to make tools, and stone-covered pits to keep food safely. By 450 BC, their descendants had learned to make pit houses, and farm the land.
In 850 AD the Chaco people, as we now know them, went through a radical cultural step change. They began building huge stone structures. These each contained as many as 700 rooms neatly arranged over 4 to 5 stories. Each had dozens of kivas for purposes of religious celebrations, and community meetings. The great kivas, such as appearing above towered over the surrounding landscape. They would have been symbols of the power of the priesthood. The Chacoans built meticulously, and many, but not all of their structures have survived.
The Chaco Vanish As Mysteriously as They Appeared
Around 1140 AD the Chacoan civilization began disintegrating. Perhaps their population grew too large for the land to sustain them, or they abused it. We do know there was a series of long droughts, including a fifty-year one beginning in 1130. During the last two decades that they were there, the Chaco deforested large areas and cut water channels in the sandstone. But this was to no avail. Around the close of the 12th century they sealed their buildings neatly, and departed who knows where.
The Spanish invaders rediscovered Chaco, although they had scant respect for its religious relevance. By 1800, it was quite badly looted. Today, it slumbers on under the watchful eyes of UNESCO, and the Chaco Canyon National Monument Authority. Archaeologists have recovered some remarkable ceramic pottery and pictographs. While astronomers regularly visit to admire its remarkably dark skies and bright stars. To me, what stands out more than anything is the attention to detail in their architecture, and the mark of sophistication the Chaco Canyon UNESCO site left behind.