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On a high mesa in Chaco Canyon, located in the San Juan Mountain range of northwestern New Mexico, lies the ruins of the once-thriving cultural center of the Anasazi. Filled with multi-storied buildings, a ceremonial center, astronomical towers and homes, the area has been undergoing excavation for almost a century. Now under the management of the United States National Park System, the Chaco Culture National Historical Park is the largest Anasazi site in the United States.
Archaeologists believe that construction of the ancient dwellings in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park began in the mid-800s. Excavations reveal advanced architectural development, with preplanned buildings several stories high which contained hundreds of rooms. These large houses, called greathouses, are surrounded by the remains of smaller dwellings and ceremonial sites. Though this area is now a desert, extensive irrigation and well systems indicate that the inhabitants were farmers.
Archaeological evidence reveals that the area experienced incredible growth and became a trading and cultural center. Over 150 similar communities have been found within a 100 mile (160.93 km) radius, all linked to the city in Chaco canyon by over 400 miles (643.74 km) of well constructed roads. Among the ruins has been found extensive turquoise jewelry, brass bells and the remains of parrots and macaws, none of which are indigenous to the area. Based on these finds it is believed the Anasazi living in Chaco Culture National Historical Park had trade links that ranged from California to the west and Mexico to the south.
Building slowed down in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as inhabitants began to migrate east, west and south. No one is certain why the change occurred, but geographic evidence indicates that there was a period of extended drought which may have made life unsustainable in an already arid climate. It is believed that the Navajo and other southwestern tribes are descendants of the original inhabitants of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
The first recorded European sighting of the area was from a Spanish exhibition led by Vizcarra in 1823. Later that century, more explorers examined the area and from 1896 to 1901 a group led by an amateur archaeologist worked on excavations of the great house known as Pueblo Bonito and some of the surrounding ruins. Concerned about the potential damage that could occur if poorly trained explorers were allowed to continue working in the area, the United States Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906 which gave the President the ability to set aside historic areas as national monuments. In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt used this power to stop unauthorized work in Chaco Canyon by declaring the area Chaco Canyon National Monument.
In 1916, the United States National Park System was established and took over the management of what was to become the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Authorized expeditions began working in 1921 and from 1937 until 1941, a group of men from the Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees and built earth mounds to arrest damage caused by erosion. A crew of Navajo stone masons was employed to do reconstructive work, a task which is still being performed by the Navajo. Over time exploration revealed how extensive the system of settlements was, and the park area was extended to preserve more of this historic region.
In 1980, the area was renamed the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The area is open to the public and a paved nine mile (14.48 km) circular road takes visitors to some of the sites with the most extensive great houses. Guided tours are available as well as day passes for hikers who wish to explore on their own.