Special Note. The name Anasazi was first used to name these people. A few years ago the Publoans wanted the name change to Ancestrial Publoans by the government. This article was written before the name change.
Chimney Rock is a large stone prominence near Pagosa Springs, in Southwest Colorado, with two rock spires that extend into the sky. Such spires were and are important to many tribes of American Indians. The Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloans as their descendents, the Pueblo Indians, call them, lived around the base of the prominence for many centuries and then built a pueblo structure on the prominence 700 feet above the valley floor. This prominence and pueblo is now the Chimney Rock Archeological Area.
The Anasazi developed from earlier people who populated the general southwest area for a minimum of 10,000 years. The early people were nomadic hunters and gathers. They lived on what archaeologists term a “seasonal round” meaning they followed the game animal herds to the high mountains in the summer and down to lower lands in the winter.
The knowledge of farming moved into the southwest from Mexico. The Anasazi are identified as beginning when tribes began farming more than being nomadic. When they adopted farming and a sedentary lifestyle they developed housing. At first they lived in small pit houses (a covered hole in the ground) and later developed large above ground pueblos of many rooms and two or more floor levels.
At about 1000 years ago the various tribes organized into a more complex culture and rapidly developed an organized system of food sharing and social order based in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Here they built spectacular pueblos enclosed by walls, with hundreds of rooms and central plazas covering acres. They also developed a vast road system to connect Chaco with outlying pueblo cities, a communication system and a government to manage the entire society. So quick and vibrant was this development that the archaeologist named it “The Chaco Phenomenon.”
The Chimney Rock Pueblo was the northeastern most pueblo of the Chaco Canyon culture. It was a special place and had an interesting purpose for the people of the Chaco culture.
The Anasazi were avid observers of the brilliant night sky of the elevated Colorado Plateau they lived on. They learned to time events throughout the year according to when a star, a star constellation, or the sun or moon rose or sat on the horizon. They also learned to build observatories that served the same function. At these observatories, at important times of the year, a beam of sun or moon light passed through a window in a pueblo room or a natural open space in a rock and landed on a design pecked or painted on a wall. These observatories were found across the Anasazi homeland.
The sun is the most obvious, but all objects in the sky rise and set at different places on the horizon according to the time of year. They rise and set more southerly during winter and more northerly in summer. If it is remembered, for example, that the sun rises over a distant landmark on the horizon on the longest day of the year and rises over another landmark on the shortest day, the times of summer and winter solstices are known. When the sun rises over a landmark half way between the landmarks for the shortest and longest days the equinoxes are charted. The equinoxes are close to planting and harvesting times and, for the Indians, a time of important ceremony. It took many years of observing and making marks in stone to define these dates.
The Chimney Rock moon rise event shows us how carefully and detailed the Anasazi observed the sky. Charting yearly sunrises and sunsets is relatively easy. Think how much observing had to be done to recognize and predict an event that happens only once every 18 years.
The earth has a slight and slow wobble to its spin. This wobble causes the moon to rise a little farther north and a little farther south on the horizon over a period of 18 years. This movement of the moonrise over landmarks on the horizon appears to slow and then stop for a few rises before the movement starts going the other way. The point at which it appears to stop is called a lunar standstill.
The first Anasazi, the Basketmakers, and early Puebloans lived around Chimney Rock for hundreds of years before the pueblo and kiva were built on the ridge above the valley floor. They probably climbed to the top of the rock for its spectacular view and because rock spires were special places. At some point in time it was noticed that the full moon rose between the two spires as seen from the narrow ridge just west of the spires. Maybe they already knew about this long variation in the moon’s movement or they may have discovered it at Chimney Rock, but they came to realize the moon only rose between the spires every 18 years. This was at the time of the northern lunar standstill.
This moon rise event became known by the people at Chaco Canyon and across the area. A group of men from the Taos Pueblo area moved to Chimney Rock and built the pueblo and several smaller buildings on the high ridge. The early Anasazi pithouse developed into a larger below ground chamber used mostly for ceremonial purposes. Such a “kiva” chamber was included in a position so that a persons standing on the roof had a perfect view of the moon rise. The pueblo was built before one standstill moon rise and improved with new construction just before the next two lunar standstills.
In Chaco Canyon there is an observatory near the top of a tall rock formation named Fajada Butte. At the top of the butte three large stone slabs rest south of and a few feet in front of a rock wall. The Anasazi noticed that a beam of sunlight fell between the stone slabs onto the rock wall. The beam cast an elongated triangle shape and is called a “sun dagger” because it looks like a knife blade. The Anasazi, probably priest or shaman, pecked a spiral design into the stone wall so that the sun dagger would fall on certain places on the spiral at the times of solstices and equinoxes. There was also a place in the design that shows when the lunar standstill was due.
It is speculated that astronomers at Chaco Canyon noticed when the moonrise was getting near. They told the tribal leaders, who sent off a team of men, a few years in advance, to make the pueblo ready. When the time came word was passed or perhaps a message was sent over the light signal communication system and people came from across the area to experience the moon rise and ceremony. We cannot know the true meaning and significance of this event but it was obviously important.
The art work shows an imaginary ceremony as the moon rises. The ceremony likely began days before, culminating in a ceremony in the Kiva and ascension from the Kiva for the moon rise. During the year of the lunar standstill there are several moon rises between the spires before the moon moves to far south. Several ceremonies may have taken place during the year.
After a few cycles of the moonrise event the entire Anasazi nation and Chaco culture fell into a deep depression following the start of a serious drought. Most of the people moved, forming new pueblos and ultimately locating south on the Rio Grande River. They would never return to their homeland.
Know A Little More
This is a chance to learn a bit of how archeologists work. Archeologists long ago determined that as trees grow they develop growth rings, seen when the tree is cut. They grow one ring per year and by counting the rings the tree’s age is determined. These rings vary in width according to the amount of water the tree absorbs during that year. A dry year causes slow growth so that year’s ring is narrow while a wet year causes a thick ring. They were able to tell when long droughts occurred and when there were years of adequate or extra moisture. They overlapped dry and wet periods from young trees with old trees and developed a chart from the present backwards over a long period of time. When they compare the rings from a tree taken from a pueblo roof with the chart they can determine the year that tree was cut. By using tree ring dating they compared the construction periods, when roofing and other support timbers were cut and installed with the moon rise events. There was a match; the trees were cut a short time before each lunar standstill.
They deduced that Taos men came to build the first pueblo and later to improve the structures because the construction methods are like those used in the Taos area. They deduced that only men came from Taos because the artifacts of regular living didn’t change – the men from Taos were supported by the families living at Chimney Rock. If entire Taos families had come, pottery styles and other items from Taos would have been found. None were.