Researchers at the University of Cincinnati say they have more evidence that Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico was more than a former gathering place for Indigenous ceremonies and rituals.
Researchers analyzed the pollen content and chemical makeup of soils to help document the environmental impacts of the first residents who made their home in the area, which is now a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Their findings, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, focus on the changes resulting from logging that have supported daily life in Chaco.
Researchers reported gradual degradation of the surrounding forests beginning around 600 BC, much earlier than previously thought.
While some of the mysteries surrounding the Chaco are still debated in academic circles, it is believed that the enormous stone buildings, ceremonial structures called kivas, and other elements that dot the landscape provided a religious or ritual experience for the ancestors of the pueblos. Native Americans today. Many Chaco structures are aligned with celestial events, such as the summer solstice.
David Lentz, professor of biology and lead author of the study, said that many researchers believed that the Chaco was too arid to support everyday life and that the infrastructure built over the centuries in Chaco was not used only as a periodic ceremonial center. and storage facility.
Lentz said the explanation is too simplistic and that his team have found evidence to support human management of the region’s environment to support daily life.
Amid the shift from hunting and gathering to underutilized agriculture, researchers noted measurable changes, such as decimated junipers for construction, food resources, and firewood for cooking.
“It is a very arid region,” he said. âIn arid forests, trees are essential for keeping the soil in place. When the people of Pueblo removed these woodlands, the result ultimately was severe erosion and deterioration of the cultivated land.
Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist at Southwest Archeology, was not involved in the study and said the new research confirms what he has believed for years – that Chaco and some of its surrounding sites were residential centers and rituals. He estimates that Chaco had thousands of full-time residents.
Another Chaco researcher, Gwinn Vivian, came to the same conclusion when studying the agricultural capacity of the Chaco decades ago.
Reed said the latest study provides useful data on the nature and extent of Chaco’s agricultural processes and other uses of the natural environment by the people who lived there.
âThis is a strong counterpoint to the misconception that corn and other crops could not be grown in the amounts needed to support a large residential population in Chaco Canyon,â he said.
In recent years, scientists have also discovered previously indistinguishable sections of road that connect sites in northwestern New Mexico to the heart of the Chaco.
Previous excavations have also revealed everything from copper bells to sea shells and scarlet macaw skeletons, suggesting locals traded with communities in the south either by taking long hikes or smuggling village goods. in the village.
Many researchers have documented the displacement of people leaving the Chaco due to various factors, including climate change at the end of the 11th century.
The study by the University of Cincinnati team noted that changes to the landscape by residents of the Chaco triggered serious environmental ramifications.
âAt the cost of a significant reduction in tree density in local forests, their activities ultimately contributed to a destabilizing environmental impact before their final exodus,â Lentz said.