Abstract: Chaco: Solving the Mystery of the Southwest’s First Capital


Chaco Canyon, in the bleak deserts of northwestern New Mexico, is an unlikely setting for a regional center and capital.  But such it was in the 11th and 12th centuries A.D.  Chaco’s magnificent ruins captured public and scientific attention in the late 1800s. Chaco has ever since remained a “mystery” – Why there? What were its “Great Houses”?  Why did it fall?   A century of excavations provides mountains of data, but no resolution.  Interpretations range widely, but most fall into three themes: Chaco as “Pueblo;” Chaco as pilgrimage center/rituality; Chaco as polity.  Archaeologists cannot reach consensus among these three alternatives.  Data from recent excavations at Chimney Rock (a spectacular Chaco “outlier” near Pagosa Springs CO) and re-evaluation of the Chaco data suggest a new understanding that may to some extent “solve” the mystery: Chaco was a Mesoamerican-style altepetl or city-state.   

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