Over the years I have developed some personal theories about the origins of Chaco Canyon and the ancient peoples that have been referred to as the Ancestral Puebloans. Some recent discoveries have more or less verified these theories to some degree. Here is a small collection of articles and images that will hopefully help to illuminate my ideas on this topic. Please also watch the video posted above, as it helps give a sense of the sophistication of this site and also provides some interesting historical background from the descendants of these peoples.
In the Peruvian Desert, about 200 miles south of Lima, there lies a plain between the Inca and Nazca (sometimes also spelled Nasca) Valleys. Across this plain, in an area measuring 37 miles long and 1-mile wide, is an assortment of perfectly-straight lines, many running parallel, others intersecting, forming a grand geometric form. In and around the lines there are also trapezoidal zones, strange symbols, and pictures of birds and beasts all etched on a giant scale that can only be appreciated from the sky.
There are about 900 geoglyphs on the plain. Geoglyphs are geometric forms that include straight lines, triangles, spirals, circles and trapezoids. They are enormous in size. The longest straight line goes nine miles across the plain.
The purpose of the geoglyphs may have also changed over time from what archaeologists call the final Formative period, which spanned until A.D. 200, to the early Nazca period, which ended in A.D. 450. The smashed ceramics dated to the later period.
"Our research revealed that the Formative geoglyphs were placed to be seen from the ritual pathways, while those of the early Nazca period were used as the loci of ritual activities such as intentional destruction of ceramic vessels," Sakai said.
Many recent interpretations of Chaco Canyon see it as a site of pilgrimage, and this is often specifically seen as taking the form of regular region-wide ritual events involving communal feasting, construction work on the massive buildings in the canyon, trade involving various mundane and exotic items, and ritual breakage of pottery and deposition of it in the mounds accompanying most great houses.
Based on the number of rim shards in the excavated portion and an estimate of the size of the whole mound, Toll calculated that 150,000 vessels were used during the 60-year period (A.D. 1040 to 1100) during which Gallup Black-on-white was the predominant decorated type, a period that roughly corresponds to the height of the Chaco system. This works out to 2500 vessels a year, or 125 for each of the 20 households estimated to have lived at Pueblo Alto at any one time. This is a huge number compared to ethnographically documented rates of pottery usage and breakage or ratios seen at small sites, and to Toll it suggested that the pottery deposited in the mound was probably not broken in the course of everyday life at Pueblo Alto but was instead broken deliberately in rituals associated with the annual pilgrimage fairs. Ritual breakage and deposition of pottery is a known Pueblo practice, but this would be on a scale not seen at any other known site.
ALBUQUERQUE — For years Patricia Crown puzzled over the cylindrical clay jars found in the ruins at Chaco Canyon, the great complex of multistory masonry dwellings set amid the arid mesas of northwestern New Mexico. They were utterly unlike other pots and pitchers she had seen.
Some scholars believed that Chaco’s inhabitants, ancestors of the modern Pueblo people of the Southwest, had stretched skins across the cylinders and used them for drums, while others thought they held sacred objects.
But the answer is simpler, though no less intriguing, Ms. Crown asserts in a paper published Tuesday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: the jars were used for drinking liquid chocolate. Her findings offer the first proof of chocolate use in North America north of the Mexican border.
After an exchange with Ms. Reents-Budet in October 2007 about the resemblances between the Chacoan and Mayan earthenware, Ms. Crown said she thought about having the Chacoan cylinders checked for cacao residue.
Ms. Crown turned to W. Jeffrey Hurst, a senior bioanalytical chemist for the Hershey Company, the giant chocolate maker, whose bosses have been allowing him to test Mesoamerican ceramics for cacao for two decades. In 2002, he co-published a paper in Nature showing that early Maya were using cacao by 600 B.C., pushing back the earliest chemical evidence for their cacao use by 1,000 years.
Ms. Crown submitted five fragmentary shards to Mr. Hurst’s laboratory, which subjected the samples to high performance liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry testing, which confirmed the presence of theobromine — a bio marker for cacao — in three shards.
“The results were unequivocal,” said Mr. Hurst, who wrote the new paper with Ms. Crown.
A millennium ago, the Pueblo peoples were constructing incredible monuments and cities throughout the US Southwest. Among the most impressive structures they left behind is called the Sun Temple, in what is now Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park. Probably the location for meetings and ceremonies, the Sun Temple is an enormous D-shaped building with walls that were once 11-15 feet high. Now, an applied mathematician has discovered something intriguing about the proportions used to lay out the temple and its internal structures.
What she found was twofold. First, it appears the Sun Temple was built using a common unit of measurement, which is roughly 30 cm. This in itself is a fascinating discovery, because we have no evidence that the Pueblo peoples had a written language or number system. In a recent paper for Journal of Archaeological Science Reports, Towers wrote that major structures at the site—namely, the retaining wall and four round, tower-like "Kivas"—were "laid out with remarkable precision, with the relative uncertainty on measurements estimated to be approximately one percent."
More incredibly, she also found that "key features of the site were apparently laid out using the Golden rectangle, squares, 45◦ triangles, Pythagorean 3:4:5 triangles, and equilateral triangles." She added that the "Sun Temple site thus likely represents the first evidence of advanced knowledge of several geometrical constructs in prehistoric America." Though ancient peoples in Greece also used the golden rectangle in their constructions, this would be the first evidence for a similar geometric structure in the pre-contact Americas. It means that the Pueblo peoples' urban layouts, which included cities carved into rockfaces and a sizable reservoir system, were aided by a sophisticated understanding of geometry.
More study is needed to substantiate Towers' claim, but she's taken the first important step. She hopes that scientists can move on to study other ceremonial structures built by the Pueblo peoples, such as Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, which may have been built using the same standard unit of measure she discovered at the Sun Temple.
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