A thousand years ago, New Mexico's Chaco Canyon was ruled by kings. "It's not remarkable that there were small-scale kings and states at Chaco in A.D. 1100. What is remarkable is that it took the Southwest so long to get around to it," said University of Colorado Museum anthropology Curator Steve Lekson. "Kingship" developed in Mesoamerica about 2,000 years before Chaco, he said, and kings quickly became a constant on the political landscape.
Lekson estimates that 95 percent of the Chaco people had lived in small pueblos, while an elite 5 percent lived in the great houses. Pueblo Bonito and the other Chaco great houses were "tall, empty monuments" that could have been used for a variety of activities, from ceremonies and storage to inns and
even slave cells, he said. The canyon was a center of ceremony and trade and it's marked by 11 great houses oriented in solar, lunar and cardinal directions with roads that appear to have connected Chaco to outlying Pueblo communities.
One example of royalty is the rich, crypt-style burials of two men discovered deep in a Chaco Canyon "great house" known as Pueblo Bonito several decades ago. But most impressing is the Chaco's elaborate structures and road systems, which required laborious masonry work, extended excavation and the transport of staggering amounts of lumber from forests 80 kilometers distant. The scale of the architecture and backbreaking work undertaken for several centuries suggests a powerful centralized authority, said Lekson.
Chaco rulers wielded control over outlying Pueblo communities as far as present day Utah, Arizona and Colorado, located up to 250 kilometers away. The roads, some as wide as four-lane highways, may have been used for ceremonial pilgrimages by priests and their followers, Lekson said. But "they also could have been used by troops, tax collectors and inquisitors," he added. "I don't think Chaco was a big happy barn-raising. Things were probably quite a bit grimmer than some have imagined."
However, around 1300 AD, the culture's architecture and settlement patterns changed dramatically in the region, with sites beginning to look more like modern Pueblos. The 5 percent elite apparently were overthrown.
"Chaco has been characterized in oral histories as a wonderful, awful place where people got power over other people," Lekson said. "Later Pueblo cultures in the region did not develop from Chaco, but rather represent a reaction against it, with people distancing themselves from a bad experience." The elaborate burial of two men in Chaco Canyon's Pueblo Bonito great house -- a 600-room, four-story structure that was considered the center of the Chaco world -- indicates the region may have been ruled by kings living in palaces. Photo Credit: Steve Lekson, CU-Boulder.