Tucked away in an isolated canyon in New Mexico are the ruins of what was once a great civilization. At its heart stands Pueblo Bonito – a vast, sprawling town carved into the desert rock, its towering rooms and chambers reaching several stories high. But in the 12th century, this great settlement began to decline. Why did the Ancestral Puebloan people decide to abandon their Chaco communities, leaving their greatest achievements to gather dust?
One of the great houses
Pueblo Bonito is just one of 12 settlements, referred to as “great houses” by modern archaeologists, built by the Ancestral Puebloans in the region known as Chaco Canyon. Over the course of centuries these people constructed an elaborate network of roads, communities and monuments, creating a unique culture that still resonates today.
Center of wealth and prosperity
From the middle of the ninth century to the early 13th, Pueblo Bonito and its surrounding villages and towns formed part of the most advanced culture in North America — and perhaps the world. Here, wealthy residents lived an aspirational lifestyle, dining on gourmet dishes and collecting glittering treasures. And every day, more people arrived to seek their fortune in Chaco Canyon.
Pueblo way of life
For centuries, Chaco Canyon remained the epicenter of Ancestral Puebloan life. In fact, the region’s unique style of architecture inspired copycat communities up to 100 miles away. But then, at some point in the 12th century, things began to change, and this once-great civilization started to wane.
What caused the decline of the civilization in the Chaco Canyon, however, remains a mystery to this day. Over the years, archaeologists have uncovered grim clues that point to a violent and bloody shift; macabre relics such as mass graves and mutilated human remains. But the truth about what happened continues to elude them. So why did the Ancestral Puebloans leave their great settlements behind? And where did they go?