Why Did Chaco Canyon Fall? Numerous Theories Regarding Political and Social Discontent, Deforestation, and Droughts Come Together to Attempt to Provide Answers

Chaco Canyon, located in Northwestern New Mexico, was occupied by the ancestral Pueblo people between 830 and 1250 CE, reaching its peak between 1020 and 1110 CE (UNESCO). The canyon was a major center for political and cultural activity in the Four Corners of the American Southwest. The architecture (Figure 1) demonstrated the capability of the society’s leaders to plan and execute massive construction efforts, something that was only possible because of the immense power and influence that the leaders of the ancestral Pueblos held over the larger population. 

Figure 1. The remnants of downtown Chaco Canyon feature the intricate architecture of pit houses and kivas that existed in the ancestral Pueblo’s Chaco Canyon. 

Despite the evidence of a powerful political system that executed control over the area, Chaco Canyon, like other ancient civilizations, eventually fell. The lack of written records leftover makes it harder to determine the reason for Chaco Canyon’s downfall, but there are several theories as to why it occurred. 

The primary reason that Chaco Canyon collapsed, according to anthropologist Steve Lekson, was a difference in spiritual beliefs between the elite of Chaco Canyon and a new group of people that moved south to the area around Chaco Canyon (CU Boulder). Additionally, the arid weather was conducive to a drought that occurred around the time of Chaco Canyon’s collapse, causing the elite to move north while another group, the Aztec Pueblo, moved south. This came together to cause conflict that politicians couldn’t control (CU Boulder). 

However, another theory states that deforestation around the area in the Bonito Phase (860-1140 CE) for construction and fuel caused erosion that destroyed the agricultural fields, creating a food shortage that forced people to move away in order to survive. However, it is unclear exactly where the wood used to help construct the great houses originated from, so there is no concrete evidence to prove that deforestation incited the downfall of Chaco Canyon (Wills et. al. 2014). 

Another theory describes how a drought caused the downfall of Chaco Canyon. Tree ring analysis indicated a 50-year drought that occurred in the area as the Bonito Phase was ending. (Oswald 2018). This drought would have caused resources to be scarce, beginning the decline of the civilization as people moved out of the area to ensure their survival. 

There is evidence of great kivas (Figure 2) being burned and great house doors being sealed shut, indicating the possibility of spiritual acceptance and subsequent ritual burning to accept the change in conditions. (Oswald 2018). The Pueblo people’s origin stories are heavily reliant on migration, which makes sense when accounting for the likely migration of ancestral Pueblo peoples that occurred after the collapse of Chaco Canyon. 

Figure 2. The remains of a great kiva in Chaco Canyon. Political gatherings and religious rituals typically occurred in these subterranean buildings. 

Today, the specific reason for the downfall of Chaco Canyon is unknown. It is likely that all of the aforementioned theories come together to cause Chaco Canyon to no longer be a place of great wealth and leadership, but an environmentally and socially hostile place to be. This caused the ancestral Pueblos to migrate out of the area into areas with more stable environments.  

Reference list:

“Ancient Chaco Canyon population likely relied on imported food.” University of Colorado Boulder: CU Boulder Today. Last modified December 29, 2016. Accessed November 12, 2022. https://www.colorado.edu/today/2016/12/29/ancient-chaco-canyon-population-likely-relied-imported-food.

“Chaco Culture.” UNESCO: World Heritage Convention. Accessed November 12, 2022. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/353/#:~:text=The%20Chacoan%20society%20reached%20its%20height%20between%20about%201020%20and%201110.

“Misunderstanding The Prehistoric Southwest: What Happened At Chaco?” University of Colorado Boulder: CU Boulder Today. Last modified February 16, 2003. Accessed November 12, 2022. https://www.colorado.edu/today/2003/02/16/misunderstanding-prehistoric-southwest-what-happened-chaco.

Oswald, Benjamin. “Chaco Canyon.” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 29, 2018. Accessed November 12, 2022. https://www.worldhistory.org/Chaco_Canyon/.

Wills, W. H., Brandon L. Drake, and Wetherbee B. Dorshow. “Prehistoric Deforestation at Chaco Canyon?” National Library for Biotechnology Information: National Library of Medicine. Last modified August 12, 2014. Accessed November 12, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4136604/.

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Megafauna and Humans in Florida: Evidence Shows that Humans Settled and Interacted with Megafauna in Florida Much Earlier Than Originally Thought

Stone tools found near mastodon remains by a Florida State University (FSU) team show that early humans were in North Florida roughly 1,500 years earlier than originally thought. In the 1980s and 1990s, two researchers, David Webb and James Dunbar, found a mastodon tusk (Figure 1) in an underwater sinkhole in the Aucilla River called the Page-Ladson Site. In 2014, stone tools were retrieved from this site (FSU 2016).

Figure 1. FSU researchers hold the mastodon tusk found at the Page-Ladson Site. (https://artsandsciences.fsu.edu/article/ancient-tools-and-bone-found-north-florida-river-could-help-rewrite-story-first-americans)

Various organic material from the same layer as the tools and tusk was recovered from sediments in the lake, including seeds, plant fragments, and twigs, allowing for radiocarbon dating to determine that the artifacts found are over 14,500 years old. A stone cutting instrument was discovered, indicating that the early humans in Florida created these stone tools (Bower 2016).

This site is the oldest known site of humans in the southeast (FSU 2016). This finding allowed archaeologists to conclude that people lived in Florida far earlier than previously thought, indicating that the Page-Ladson site was once home to Clovis and pre-Clovis people. (Halligan, et al. 2016). These early humans lived alongside megafauna in Florida, i.e. mastodons, giant ground sloths, giant armadillos, and saber-toothed cats (Kelley, et al. 2015). The tools found indicate that the Clovis and pre-Clovis people living there relied on the megafauna, especially mastodons, as a food source. 

One of the tools found was a biface—a sharp knife used for butchering animals—and upon further investigation of the mastodon tusk found earlier, archaeologists concluded that the markings on the tusk corresponded to those that the biface would have made as early humans cut the tusk to remove it from the skull of the mastodon to consume the tissue found in the tusk (FSU 2016). Another stone tool (Figure 2) found submerged in the lake indicates that early humans hunted mastodons, or at least scavenged from them after another predator took the mastodon down (Bower, 2016).

Figure 2. A stone tool found in sediment at the Page-Ladson site that indicates that humans lived in Florida 14,500 years ago. (https://www.snexplores.org/article/hunter-gatherers-roamed-florida-14500-years-ago)

Additionally, Sporormiella, a type of fungus found in the dung of plant-eating animals, was found in high concentrations in the layers of sediment taken from the same layer as the tools, indicating that early humans and megafauna coexisted in North Florida. There was no evidence of the fungus in 12,600 years old sediment, leading researchers to the conclusion that megafauna went extinct around 12,600 years ago (Bower, 2016).

Humans did not abandon the area after these megafauna went extinct, however. The early Clovis and pre-Clovis people ate whatever they could, and they adapted to the area to stay there long after the megafauna went extinct.

Reference list:

“Ancient Tools and Bone Found in North Florida River Could Help Rewrite the Story of the First Americans.” Florida State University: College of Arts and Sciences. Last modified May 16, 2016. Accessed September 25, 2022. https://artsandsciences.fsu.edu/article/ancient-tools-and-bone-found-north-florida-river-could-help-rewrite-story-first-americans.

Bower, Bruce. “Hunter-Gatherers Roamed Florida 14,500 Years Ago.” Science News Explores. Last modified May 29, 2016. Accessed September 25, 2022. https://www.snexplores.org/article/hunter-gatherers-roamed-florida-14500-years-ago.

Halligan, Jessi J., Michael R. Walters, Angelina Perrotti, Ivy J. Owens, Joshua M. Feinberg, Mark D. Bourne, Brendan Fenerty, Barbara Winsborough, David Carlson, Daniel C. Fischer, Thomas W. Stafford, and James S. Dunbar. “Pre-Clovis Occupation 14,550 Years Ago at the Page-Ladson Site, Florida, and the Peopling of the Americas.” Abstract. Science Advances 2, no. 5 (May 13, 2016). Accessed September 25, 2022. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.1600375. 

Kelley, Cynthia D., Thomas J. Fellers, and Michael W. Davidson. “Darkfield Digital Image Gallery: Pleistocene Mammal Bone From Florida.” Molecular Expressions: Exploring the World of Optics and Microscopy. Last modified November 13, 2015. Accessed September 25, 2022. https://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/optics/olympusmicd/galleries/darkfield/mammalbondpleistocenlow.html#:~:text=Quaternary%20megafaunal%20mammals%20that%20are,%2C%20Ice%20Age%20bison%20.

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