In my quest to visit 10 more national parks this year I chalked up numbers three and four over the weekend with a whirlwind visit to New Mexico. This makes a total of 34 and the more I learn about the southwest the more fascinated I become with the development of the prehistoric Indian civilizations.
Over the weekend I spend a day each at Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Bandelier National Monument, both in central New Mexico. As I read the material and studied the culture it all started to make more sense. I have already spent considerable time in the Four Corners region, Utah being part of that area. It is thought that the Indians that were in this region migrated to the Mesa Verde area in southwestern Colorado and then as drought plagued the desert, the civilizations were forced to move south into Chaco and Bandelier heading towards the Rio Grande. It is believed that much of this migration happened between 900 and 1600 A.D. The end of this migration is the same time period as Columbus found the new world and the Mayflower landed on our east coast of the United States.
It seems unlikely that a narrow canyon like Chaco, which is about halfway between Farmington and Albuquerque could have once reigned as the cultural and spiritual center of a remarkable prehistoric civilization.
Yet more than 1,000 years ago, this shallow rift in the lonely landscape of the San Juan Basin was home to perhaps 8,000 Anasazi. They were an extraordinary people of many skills who fashioned great stone pueblos and kivas, or underground ceremonial chambers. They excelled at dryland farming, engineered a vast road system and established a far-flung trading network.
As a result, Chaco Canyon became a ceremonial, commercial and administrative hub serving dozens of outlying settlements.
Today, as I rambled through the ruins, reminders of the Anasazi presence extend for 20 miles along the floor of the canyon, one of the richest archaeological treasurers in North America. Set aside as a national monument in 1907, Chaco was redesignated as a National Historical Park in 1980.
The cultural flowering of the Chacoan people lasted more than 300 years. It was amazing to see it clearly in the grand scale of the architecture. Using masonry techniques unique for their time, they constructed massive stone buildings called great houses of multiple stores containing hundreds of rooks that were larger than any they had previously built.
In the 1100's and 1200's change came to Chaco as new construction slowed and chaco's role as a regional center shifted. In time, the people shifted away from Chacoan ways, migrated to new areas, reorganized their work and eventually interacted with foreign cultures. Their descendants are the modern southwest Indians.
It seems very strange that at the same time or perhaps just a few hundred years later another culture was developing just a couple hundred miles south of Chaco. The ancient people of the Bandelier, like Puebloan ancestors elsewhere, were farmers, who created their homes in small, scattered settlements along the cliffs of Frijoles Canyon. Hundreds of ruins of masonry structures and cave shelters dot the canyons and mesas throughout Bandelier. The ancient people of this area, like Puebloan ancestors elsewhere, were farmers, who grew maize or corn, beans and squash. They supplemented their diets with native plants and by hunting and trapping deer, rabbits, squirrels, other mammals and birds.
The canyons may be close in proximity but the life style must have been a world apart. Bandelier is nestled in the lush green canyon with tall trees and running water, their homes speckled throughout the canyon walls, while Chaco is located on the high desert, in the center of a large canyon. No trees and no water for miles.
As I learn more about the indians of the Southwest, which include the cultures that inhabited Nine Mile Canyon and the Buckhorn Wash, I have more questions than answers.
Although I have never had a real interest in archaeology before I moved to this area, I have always been fascinated with history. My column, "On the Road" began with my little adventures in mind. As I discover more and more interesting places and cultures the more the world opens up. Many of the national parks are considered sacred places. After spending hours walking quietly through these former residents homes and gathering places, I understand how these sacred and spiritual these areas are.