Chaco’s Upper Class

Archaeologists thought that Chaco Canyon’s florescence began in the mid 11th century. But new research indicates an elite class, which began the process of Chaco’s development, emerged much earlier.

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Pueblo Bonito is Chaco Canyon’s largest great house. A number of macaws, which are thought to have been imported from Mesoamerica by Chaco’s upper class, were found here. Credit: Chaz Evans.
Pueblo Bonito is Chaco Canyon’s largest great house. A number of macaws, which are thought to have been imported from Mesoamerica by Chaco’s upper class, were found here. Credit: Chaz Evans.

2015: By Charles C. Poling.

Chaco Canyon has puzzled and intrigued archaeologists for almost 120 years. Despite the abundance of archaeological remains, scholars know relatively little about the people who lived there, including when they formed the hierarchical society needed to build the sprawling, four-story structures like Pueblo Bonito that characterize the culture’s zenith.

Most Chaco researchers have long believed that a social hierarchy evolved simultaneously with the construction of the monumental pueblos, an extensive road network, irrigation systems, outlier communities, and other markers of the so-called florescence of Chaco culture around A.D. 1040 to 1120. But a team of researchers who radiocarbon dated scarlet macaw bones from Pueblo Bonito says their work, in combination with a recent study that dates elite burials to the ninth century, contradicts the accepted chronology of cultural development for this Anasazi capital in northwest New Mexico.

In a paper titled “Early procurement of scarlet macaws and the emergence of social complexity in Chaco Canyon, NM” that was published last June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lead author Adam Watson, a postdoctoral fellow with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and his colleagues suggest that some Chacoans formed an elite social class—a sign of social hierarchy—that established contact with advanced Mesoamerican cultures by the ninth century. That’s long before the “pretty much universally” accepted dates for the cultural florescence of Chaco, says co-author Stephen Plog, who admits to being surprised by the radiocarbon results. Plog is an archaeologist at the University of Virginia and a Chaco expert specializing in social and ritual exchange and the emergence of social inequality.

Summary. Read More in our Winter 2015 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 19 No. 3

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