Chaco Meridian

Chaco Canyon in New Mexico was at the heart of a bustling landscape. Not surprisingly for a major cultural center, trackways converged on it from the surrounding villages and settlements. However, some of these make little practical sense in terms of communication or the transportation of goods. Typically a few meters (fifteen-thirty feet) wide, these "roads" were created by digging out topsoil or clearing away surface rocks and were sometimes lined with stone or adobe kerbs. And they ran almost perfectly straight, sometimes for several kilometers, completely disregarding the topography. (In this sense they bear more than a passing resemblance to some of the Nasca lines in faraway Peru.) Sometimes they were multiple, with up to four roads running in parallel. When they approached the steep walls of the canyon itself, rather than deviating to find easier routes down into the valley, they descended directly via precarious steps carved into the living rock (supplemented where necessary by less durable devices such as ramps). At first, these roads were thought to connect the Great Houses of Chaco with outlying villages or sacred sites many tens of kilometers away, but many of the roads running out from the canyon (or from outlying sites and pointing back toward Chaco) stop short after a few kilometers—seemingly functioning as symbolic pointers only.

One, which has become known as the (Great) North Road, is much longer and particularly remarkable. This nine-meter-wide road runs northwards from Pueblo Alto, one of the earlier structures in the Chaco Canyon area (built about 1020 c.e. over a pre-existing Great House), continuing through the landscape for more than 55 kilometers (35 miles) before reaching another canyon (Kutz Canyon) at a site known as Twin Angels Pueblo. Allowing for a dog-leg westwards along the canyon floor, another stretch striking out northwards would have brought the North Road a total of eighty-five km (fifty-three miles) to Aztec, a major cultural center in the Four Corners area where construction began just as major construction activity ceased at Chaco: in the early twelfth century.

The orientation of the North Road, and especially the main extant stretch from about three kilometers (two miles) north of Pueblo Alto northward to the southern rim of Kutz Canyon, is impressively close to the true north-south direction—the meridian. The southernmost third of this fifty-kilometer (thirty-mile) section heads only half a degree west of north, whereupon it turns slightly and heads two degrees east of north for the remainder. The whole of this stretch of road therefore remains within a conceptual north-south corridor little more than one kilometer wide. What determined its orientation? Did it simply join together two already existing places? The chronological evidence seems to rule out this idea. Instead, the construction of the road seems to have coincided broadly with the time when construction activity was just commencing at Aztec (and Chaco was on the point of falling into sudden decline).

Is the alternative possible, then, that the orientation defined the location of Aztec? If so, we must first ask the question of whether the cardinal orientation of the road was deliberate. The layout and design of the structures in Chaco Canyon itself strongly suggest that the answer is yes: many of the Great Houses and kivas in the canyon, such as Casa Rinconada, were built on a cardinal orientation, and some of the principal ones were themselves placed on cardinal axes within the landscape. Yet the orientation of the road was not so precise that one has to postulate the use of anything but basic surveying techniques. More impressive is the principle—the strength of belief that determined not only that a number of minor pueblos should be situated along the road, but that a major new center should be constructed on this very axis, connected, as it were, back to the source. This principle is also demonstrated elsewhere in the landscape around Chaco, where several roads (conceptually, if not actually) connect later buildings to earlier ones. (Examples also occur elsewhere in the world. One is the Neolithic stone circle and henge at Avebury in England, where a stone avenue [the Kennet Av enue] ran for over two kilometers [1.5 miles], connecting the great henge to a centuries-older multiple-timber circle known as the Sanctuary).

Why was the north-south direction important? The answer suggested by the evidence from the layout of Chaco itself is that it was cosmologically significant—it was part of structuring the landscape according to the prevailing worldview. And the motivation for doing this, to judge from countless similar practices the world over, was to keep human action fundamentally in harmony with the cosmos and hence to ensure well-being and stability.

In the late 1990s, archaeologist Steve Lekson proposed a radical new theory, suggesting that the North Road was only part of a far longer construction that he terms the "Chaco Meridian." Its southern extension, he suggested, stretched southwards from Chaco Canyon for a staggering 630 kilometers (390 miles) into modern Mexico, to the most important regional center in the period c.e. 1250-1450: the city of Paquime. Lekson's argument proceeds as follows. The fact that the three major regional centers of Aztec, Chaco (that is, its principal north-south axis through Pueblo Alto), and Paquime lie exactly on a north-south line (to within four kilometers from east to west) seems an extraordinary coincidence, if coincidence it is. Now consider their chronology: building at Chaco took place during the period c. 950-1125; Aztec c. 1100-1275; and Paquime c. 1250-1450. As soon as one city was abandoned, it seems, another rose up in its place. The implications are clear. For some reason—perhaps an environmental disaster triggered by overexploitation of local resources—the controlling elite were forced to abandon Chaco in the early twelfth century. When this happened, having staked out a north-south line on which their new center had to lie and identified a suitable spot on that line, they subsequently relocated there. In the late thirteenth century there was an extended drought in the Four Corners area, and that the whole vicinity suffered extensive depopulation. So the elite moved again, but this time they followed the Meridian southwards—a long way south.

These ideas are challenging and controversial, but their social and cognitive ramifications are profound, in that they challenge two long-held notions concerning what is now the Southwest between c.e. 900 and 1450. The first is that the peoples of the Southwest were organized into a variety of political units essentially operating on a local scale, though communicating via networks of trade and exchange. But the sheer scale of the Chaco Meridian, and the idea that the controlling elite could have uprooted themselves so far north and then, a few generations later, several times as far in the opposite direction, seems to contradict this idea. Instead, it is possible that a vast region stretching from the Four Corners area to northern Mexico could have been economically and politically integrated, and furthermore, that this sit uation might have prevailed for a considerable time.

The second controversial notion is that social and economic change was driven purely by environmental factors. Not that there is any reason to doubt the conventional view that the two abandonments were driven by environmental catastrophes (although a number of questions surround the first, in particular). The point is that the locations of the new, alternative cities—first Aztec and then Paquime—were primarily determined by constraints existing within people's own minds. The manner in which worldview influences action in numerous other human cultures suggests the following explanation. Chaco was conceived as the very center of the cosmos. That center could not be shifted arbitrarily, since this would introduce further disorder into the world. Only by extending the world axis north and south could a new center, appropriately connected back to the old one and to the existing order, be established and thus continuity—and survival—be assured.

Whatever new evidence is brought to bear upon the Chaco Meridian in the future, Lekson's theory serves as a fine illustration of a much broader general principle: human action in the past was typically determined by a mix of factors, some of which seem to us wholly pragmatic and others purely conceptual. In the context of another worldview, what is "in the mind" and what we would view as "objectively real" influences in the external world are not separated but woven together.

See also:

Cardinal Directions.

Avebury; Casa Rinconada; Chaco Canyon; Nasca Lines and Figures.


References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F., ed. World Archaeoastronomy, 365-376. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Lekson, Stephen H. The Chaco Meridian: Centers of Political Power in the Ancient Southwest. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1999.

Plog, Stephen. Ancient Peoples of the American Southwest, 110-111. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

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