University of Cincinnati researchers shed new light on iconic Native American settlement

A team of researchers from UC released a paper showing how residents of New Mexico's arid Chaco Canyon may have been self-sufficient

click to enlarge A view from a mesa of a Chaco Canyon great house called Kin Kletso. - Samantha Fladd/UC
Samantha Fladd/UC
A view from a mesa of a Chaco Canyon great house called Kin Kletso.

Today, Northern New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon is an eerie but magnificent collection of adobe dwellings up to four stories tall that were abandoned centuries ago. Before that, native people lived there — but how those residents subsisted in the arid climate and the number of people who lived there permanently has been the topic of debate among scientists.

A multi-disciplinary team of University of Cincinnati researchers may have shed some new light on those questions with a recent study published in the academic journal PLOS One.

The team’s research suggests that the soil at Chaco Canyon — long thought to be too salty to grow crops — could have supported agriculture after all. That, plus irrigation channels that collected the region’s scant 9 inches of yearly rainwater, may be what allowed a population of up to 1,200 to live at the canyons full-time.

“The evidence is compelling that they produced most of the food that they consumed in Chaco Canyon and devised sophisticated irrigation strategies to do it,” UC Geography Professor Nicholas Dunning told UC Magazine recently.

UC geography PhD graduate Jon-Paul McCool, who now teaches at Valparaiso University, was the study’s lead author. The full team of researchers from UC included archeologists, biologists and geologists, who spent weeks during multiple summers collecting soil samples and other research material.

Previous theories posited that Chaco Canyon, a site with religious significance, supported a small full-time population that hosted pilgrims by importing food and other necessities from other settlements. But the nearest place to get those items at the time would have been a settlement more than 50 miles away at the Chuska Mountains, near what is now the Arizona border. That would have been a challenge, since no evidence exists suggesting the people at Chaco Canyon or anywhere nearby used beasts of burden.

Of course, there is much to suggest Chaco residents did have some contact with the outside world. Past archeological digs have uncovered evidence of sophisticated trading practices — sea shells from California and cacao from Mexico, for example. But those occasional encounters and trade for nonperishable items alone would not have sustained the settlement.

Chaco hosted a vibrant civilization that left behind rich turquoise carvings and sophisticated petroglyphs among other artifacts. The people living there established their homes, many multiple stories tall and built into the canyon walls, over a 500-year period between 800 and 1300 AD. After that, human habitation at the site happened only intermittently and tapered off for reasons researchers still don’t fully understand.

Still, the UC study sheds some light on how the inhabitants at Chaco Canyon were able to live in the desert conditions for half a millennium.

You can read more about the study here and check out the research itself here.

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