Scientists Continue Piecing Together Chaco Canyon’s Lost Civilization

The ruins of Chetro Ketl house built by Ancient Puebloan People is seen at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Piecing together the lost civilization of Chaco Canyon that existed between 800 and 1300 A.D. in northwestern New Mexico has proven to be a long, arduous process for scientists. Research has been complicated by initial excavations in the late 1800s and early 1900s that sent several specimens and artifacts to museums across the country. Without a written language to decipher the culture of Chaco Canyon, scientists have been forced to draw conclusions based on artifacts found in the region, leaving room for broad interpretations. How it emerged, survived in rugged terrain, and the extent of its empire and trade routes still perplex scientists, though several recent discoveries have uncovered new clues and revelations about the people who once lived in in Chaco Canyon.

Evidence of scarlet macaw skeletons were found in 2015, providing researchers with evidence as to when the civilization’s elite hierarchy first developed in the early 900s. The highly prized feathers of the macaws were traded with other Mesoamerican civilizations hundreds of miles south of Chaco Canyon. Products that originated up to 1,000 miles away, like cacao, have been discovered in Chaco Canyon. At the heart of Chaco Canyon’s ruins is a building dubbed “Pueblo Bonito,” which rose five stories and included around 650 rooms, though it’s still up for debate whether the building served as a residence for hundreds of people or was relegated as an epicenter for a few dozen of the civilization’s elite. Earlier this year, based on sequencing DNA compiled from a crypt, researchers discovered that family lines in Chaco culture were passed down from women, including elite status and possible leadership roles.

“Nothing is simple at Pueblo Bonito,” Keriann Marden told Science News. Between 2005 and 2011, Marden helped piece together…

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