Summer 2018: By Alexandra Witze.

Navajo oral histories tell of a Great Gambler who had a profound effect on Chaco Canyon, the Ancestral Puebloan capital located in what is now northwestern New Mexico. His name was Nááhwiilbiihi (“winner of people”) or Noqóilpi (“he who wins men at play”), and he travelled to Chaco from the south. Once there, he began gambling with the locals, engaging in games such as dice and footraces. He always won.

Faced with such a formidable opponent, the people of Chaco lost all their possessions at first. Then they gambled their spouses and children and, finally, themselves, into his debt. With a group of slaves now available to do his bidding, the Gambler ordered them to construct a series of great houses—the monumental architecture that fills Chaco Canyon today.

To archaeologist Rob Weiner, the story of the Gambler reveals a previously unappreciated part of Chaco’s past. Through his betting skills the Gambler became powerful enough to coordinate the immense amounts of labor and planning needed to build Chaco’s architecture. And the archaeological record at Chaco supports the oral histories. For more than a century, researchers there have unearthed hundreds of gaming-related artifacts such as bone dice and wooden sticks.

Such games would have played a crucial role in developing and maintaining community relationships at Chaco, said Weiner, who is a research affiliate with the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as a research associate with the Solstice Project in Santa Fe, New Mexico. People from different family groups might have settled minor arguments with a friendly game of dice. Or neighboring communities could have brought their best goods to wager during a high-stakes sporting game, much as a bookie might take a bet on the Super Bowl today. “Gambling was taking place in Chaco, and it had a lot of social repercussions,” Weiner said.

Read More in our SUMMER 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 22 No. 2.             Browse Content of this Issue: SUMMER 2018.

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