Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 17, 2016

They Were Living People. A Tiny Reminder: Chaco Canyon

You’ve probably regarded some ancient ruin and tried to imagine the lives of the people who lived there.

There may be walls, stones or ancient roads, carvings or fortifications. The people, though, are lost to us.

I’ve written before about Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2959 (640x480)

There, a civilization commonly called the Anasazi built impressive, compact cities that housed hundreds of people.They flourished for hundreds of years in the harsh high desert. They farmed, hunted and built structures of impressive sophistication with stone tools and immense labor, without the use of draft animals or the wheel.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4188 (640x429)

The culture of the Ancient Puebloans was an oral one. When their culture fragmented from drought, overfarming and over-hunting about 1300 A.D., they were lost to us. They left no writing. We have no record of their daily lives beyond what archaeologists and anthropologists can surmise from shards of pottery and other artifacts. We have the walls and timbers of their Great Houses, but we don’t know what they called them. We refer to them by names assigned by the Navajo or the Spanish: Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Bonito.

The Chacoans would have been mighty walkers and runners. Their civilization reached north into Utah and Colorado, and artifacts prove they traded with cultures to the south in present-day Mexico. They built an elaborate system of straight roads through the chaparral to connect the outliers of their world. The Great Houses of Chaco Canyon are spread along the canyon for many miles, and walking was the only way to travel from one to another, to Mesa Verde in Colorado, Hovenweep in Utah or far to the south.

Every day there was water to carry from Chaco Wash. There was firewood to be gathered. It required endless labor to sustain themselves in an unforgiving climate. To build their cities they cut timbers in the Chuska Mountains 40 miles away and carried them to Chaco by hand.

Always walking.

A 3-hour drive away in Albuquerque, on the campus of the University of New Mexico, the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology maintains a fascinating display of artifacts collected from Chaco Canyon.

In a glass display case is this small item, less than 8 inches long.

sandal US National Park Service 4628 (640x480)

It’s a sandal woven of yucca leaves: a child’s sandal from about 1100 CE.

Hands gathered the yucca, twisted and wove it. The skill to weave sandals for hundreds of people was passed along generation after generation. Constant labor. The child learned to tie those straps from someone, and would teach another child to do that when their turn came.

A small child, running through the desert, trotting alongside older children and adults, learning how to carry water, build a fire, hunt, make pottery. Listening to stories, legends, myths that we’ll never hear.

One tiny reminder of the humanity that connects us.

Another in a series of posts observing the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service.

Numerous photographs of Chaco Canyon from Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017. The sandal is the property of the U.S. National Park Service, on loan to the Maxwell Museum.



  1. I love the sandal – somehow that little artifact summons up a powerful image of a people who were advanced enough to make beautiful sandals for their children.


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