Courtesy National Park Service
Chetro Ketl, built during the 10th and 11th centuries, is one of the largest great houses in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Despite the harsh, high-desert environment, thousands of people once lived in and around what is now a World Heritage Site at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Ancient Wood Speaks in Chaco Canyon

Steve Russell

Archeology reported dendroprovenance analysis shows that the wood used in the construction of the great houses in Chaco Canyon came from the Zuni Mountains before 1020 C.E. but going forward from 1060 the source appeared to be the Chuska Mountains.

Dendroprovenance is science-speak for figuring out where the wood came from and it’s been used extensively in Europe. This was the first application to an archaeological puzzle in the American Southwest.

Each mountain has slightly different rainfall amounts and rainfall in the past defines the thickness of tree rings. It took four years to match the patterns of rings in the logs used in Chacoan construction to known samples archived at the University of Arizona.

The results have been circulating since December and they bear on how difficult the construction project was. Back in 1986, Julio Betancourt and his colleagues pointed out in American Antiquity that just the 10 biggest Chacoan pueblos required about 200,000 logs weighing about 600 pounds each. “The absence of transportation scars indicates that the logs were carried rather than dragged or rolled,” they wrote, adding that this was “no small task.”

Whether from the Zunis or the Chuskas, logs were moved about 50 miles by peoples without wheels or draft animals bigger than dogs.  The “how?” is beginning to come into focus, but “why?” is still an issue.

The political significance of the Chaco culture is the same as several Mississippian cultures known only by ruins. The colonists justified taking North America by claiming it was sparsely inhabited by nomadic hunter-gatherers. Political writings, including court decisions, are littered with this bogus claim.

The first reason the colonists gave for taking the Americas was that God told them it was their duty to bring the “good news” to the heathens, whether the heathens liked it or not.

Later, the reasoning hinged on science. Europeans were more advanced than the indigenes and therefore would make efficient use of the land that the Natives had failed to improve. The technology of conquest was Iron Age v. Stone Age, and the differing technology made it easy to go a step farther and claim the colonists were only using lands that had been wasted by nomadic hunter-gatherers.

In fact, there were ruins of structures that could not have been built without supporting cultures producing substantial agricultural surpluses. European diseases hit urban areas first and hardest because diseases traveled between people and it was in urban areas where people were clustered.

As English colonization moved east to west and Spanish colonization moved south to north, the Europeans kept discovering empty cities which they did not at first attribute to the Natives. Evidence of pre-Columbian civilizations continued to accumulate.

The rationalization science gave for conquest science is now taking away. At some point, the lipstick will be entirely scrubbed off the pig, leaving the explanation aptly symbolized by a pig: greed.

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