Mysteries and Burials at Chaco Canyon

Most of prehistory is a mystery to us since we don’t have text to help us create even a general understanding of the period. As we collect archaeological data, we begin to better understand and interpret the past. Prehistory is like a giant puzzle- except that the someone buried all of the pieces of the puzzle in your backyard, destroyed some of them, and they don’t all fit together perfectly anymore. As we dig up more pieces and figure out how they fit together, we can begin to see the whole picture. At the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) meeting this year, there were a number of presentations that added to the debate.

One of the sites that has continued to be an archaeological enigma is Chaco Canyon. The site has complex great houses that must have taken a huge amount of labor and resources to construct, however this is contradicted by the short period of time that the site was inhabited. Why did they build these amazing structures and just leave? Further, while the housing complex and mortuary program may point to different social status, other evidence shows that they may have been more egalitarian than previously thought. As we find more evidence, the debates only become more complex.

Pueblo Bonito, great house in Chaco Canyon, via Chris Morris

Pueblo Bonito, great house in Chaco Canyon, via Chris Morris

Chaco Canyon is located along the middle portion of the Chaco River in the Northwest corner of New Mexico. It was first occupied in 950 C.E.  with the peak of its population and construction dating from 1020 to 1130 C.E. (Reed 2004:1). The site has over 15 multistory “great houses”, hundreds of 5 to 30 room small houses, and an extensive system of interconnecting roadways. However, by 1150 C.E. Chaco Canyon was abandoned. Previous research on social organization has several notable hypotheses as to what kind of system was in operation at Chaco. A widely held hypothesis is that Chaco Canyon represents a strict hierarchical society, with the elites in the great houses being supported by the outlying small houses (Neitzel 2007:140). Conger (2014) at the SAAs argued that based on zooarchaeological evidence, there was differential access to exoctic mammals and birds between the great and small houses. Mills notes a contradiction however in the architecture and other artifacts: “Except for a few unusual burials, however, the construction of great houses was not accompanied by obvious signs of status and hierarchy” (2000:323). This observation, along with continued study of available evidence, suggests a cooperative strategy based model, where households worked together to create the larger houses for storage.

Example of flexed burial on left and extended burial on right, not from Chaco Canyon. Photo via Martisius, and  modified from Wiberg, 2010.

Example of flexed burial on left and extended burial on right, not from Chaco Canyon. Photo via Martisius, and modified from Wiberg, 2010.

Comparing burials has been one of the primary ways of examining social status in this area. There are some notable differences in burial between the great houses like the famous Pueblo Bonito, and the smaller houses. Individuals within the great houses are taller than those in the smaller houses, suggesting the former had better nutrition and access to resources than the latter (however, I heard at the SAA meeting this past week that this stature estimation may have been incorrect, and the stature wasn’t all that different). Cruz-Morales (2014) also found that there were fairly high rates of periodontal problems among the individuals in Pueblo Bonito suggesting they perhaps weren’t as healthy as previously thought.

Another difference in burial patterns was that small houses had primarily flexed burials, whereas the great houses have primarily extended burials. A flexed burial is when the body is pulled up into a fetal position or curled together, whereas an extended one is the body laid out fully (See picture to left). One of the theories about status is that individuals in the great houses buried beneath the floor represent great ancestors with very high status- and within Pueblo Bonito there are two individuals who are found like this. However, this behavior is also found in the small houses with one female- so there may be a different conclusion (Chaco Archive 2010, Akins 1986).

Examination of the grave goods showed that at the small houses there is very little differentiation between individuals, and no significant difference in grave good types between males and females. There is a single exception of one female with a high number of ornamental goods who was buried beneath the floor.  However, this pattern is dramatically different in the great house where there is a clear difference between individuals. There is a clear difference in individuals with a high amount of energy expended towards their burial and individuals with lower amounts of energy expenditure. Females in the great house have a much higher prevalence of utilitarian goods, and only males have ritual items (Mitchell and Brunson-Hadley 2004).

Honestly though, I think that this is going to continue to be one of the most highly debated American sites- as evidenced by the SAA meeting where there around a dozen presentations on this site alone. Personally, I think there are too many unknowns to ever come to a conclusion. Many of the human remains are in poor condition, some don’t have good attribution to connect the remains to their contexts, and many reports have to use notes about remains from the 1920’s excavations rather than the remains. Finally, the site has been badly looted, and we may never know how much was lost. While it is a cool site with great architecture- I have the feeling its history and people will remain a mystery…

What is nice about this site, is that they have great online resources- so if you want to do your own research project on the site you can! Check it out here:

Works Cited

Akins, N. 1986 A Biocultural Approach to Human Burials from Chaco Canyon. Reports of the Chaco Canyon 9. National Parks Service and University of New Mexico, Santa Fe.

Chaco Archive. 2010 The Chaco Research Archive. Electronic Document. Accessed 11/28/10.

Conger, M. and A. Watson 2014. Species Diversity, Standardization, and the Spatial Organization of Production at Pueblo Bonito: A Case Study from Chaco Canyon. SAA Meeting 2014.

Cruz-Morales, C. 2014. Correlation of Death Rate and Periodontal Disease in the Prehistoric Human Remains of Pueblo Bonito. SAA Meeting 2014.

Mills, B. 2000 Gender, Craft Production and Inequality. In Women and Men in the Prehispanic Southwest. Crown, ed. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press. Pp. 301-344.

Mitchell, D., and J. Brunson-Hadley. 2004 An Evaluation of Classic Period Hohokam Burials and Society: hiefs, Priests or Acephalous Complexity? In Ancient Burial Practices in the American Southwest. Mitchell, Brunson-Hadley and Lippert, eds. Santa Fe: University of New Mexico Press. Pp. 45-67.

Neitzel, J. 2007 Architectural Studies of Pueblo Bonito. In Architecture of Chaco Canyon. Lekson, ed. Utah: University of Utah Press. Pp. 127-154.

2000 Gender Hierarchies: A Comparative Analysis of Mortuary Data. In Women and Men in the Prehispanic Southwest. Crown, ed. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press. Pp. 137-168.

Reed, P. 2004 The Puebloan Society of Chaco Canyon. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.


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