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The History Behind the Timber Production in Chaco Canyon

By: April Carson



Around 1,000 years ago, a team of Ancestral Puebloans set up camp in a pine forest. Their goal was to gather trees to construct the impressive structures at what we now call Chaco Culture National Historical Park, located in northwestern New Mexico, as they were part of a coordinated labor force. This timber production was a crucial part of the Ancestral Puebloan’s development in the region, providing wood for fuel and construction materials.


The workers used stone axes to pound the base of tree trunks until they could be knocked over. Then another group removed the branches and bark while shaping the log into a long, straight timber. Please note that the stone axes were used to pummel (not cut, like with metal axes). After the logs were cut and shaped, they would be loaded onto a wagon pulled by teams of llamas or dogs, then transported to the construction sites.


Over 300 years, the crews harvested a minimum of 240,000 trees. The Chaco Canyon timbers were of significant size, with primary roofing beams averaging 8-10 inches in diameter, several hundred pounds in weight, and measuring 15 feet in length.


This massive undertaking of harvesting, transporting, and erecting the beams has been a mystery to archaeologists. How did they do it? The distance between the Chaco Canyon area and the forests where the timber was harvested was over 70 miles - an incredible journey for people that had access only to primitive tools such as stone axes.


Archaeologists have been perplexed for a long time about how Ancestral Puebloans managed to move and source such large timbers in Chaco Canyon considering there were no draft animals, wheeled vehicles, navigable rivers, and forests with long, straight trees nearby for thousands of years.


Recent studies have shed some light on how the Ancestral Puebloans managed to transport such large timber. These studies suggest that they used a combination of woodworking skills and hydrological engineering.


The vastness of Chacoan construction makes it crucial to determine how Ancestral Puebloan societies were organized a thousand years ago. The timber production evidence suggests that there were strong social links between residents, migrants, and outlying areas. They were able to construct large-scale construction projects by utilizing local resources and engineering skills.


The timber production in Chaco Canyon was an impressive feat that provided the Ancestral Puebloans with the necessary materials for their buildings. Its success demonstrates their organizational abilities and ability to work together on a large scale.


Chaco Canyon is a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site located in a desert one mile above sea level. Between A.D. 850 and 1150, one of the most intricate civilizations in North America thrived there. The most impressive features at Chaco Canyon are the remains of up to 12 extraordinary buildings, referred to as "Great Houses," by archaeologists. These Great Houses were built from sandstone blocks cut and transported from miles away, and their construction required a significant amount of timber. The Ancestral Pueblo people required wood, sandstone blocks, and mud mortar to construct their buildings. To get these materials, the people of Chaco Canyon had to be adept at harvesting and processing timber from nearby forests.


The Ancestral Puebloans had developed a sophisticated system for producing timber, which enabled them to bring in high volumes of wood from multiple locations.


Fortunately, the San Juan Basin area where they resided had an ample supply of sandstone and mud, which were used for the construction of Chacoan buildings. These sandstone formations provided millions of small, flat blocks that were essential for building structures.


But the Ancestral Pueblo people needed wood to finish the construction of their Great Houses. They used timber for walls and ceilings, doors, windows, flooring, ramps, and stairs. This is where the Chaco Canyon's timber production comes into play.


The Great Houses needed a huge number of wooden beams, but the trees that grew locally were not suitable. Although there were pinyon pine and juniper trees in the San Juan Basin, they tended to grow in a disordered manner with twisted branches and multiple stems. Therefore, they did not grow straight enough for making quality timber for large, multistoried buildings' rectangular rooms.


The trees that can be used for construction in Chaco Canyon, including ponderosa pine, spruce, fir, and Douglas fir (which is not a fir), are found in forests located more than 50 miles away in the surrounding mountains. The Anasazi recognized the need for timber resources and began organizing long-distance expeditions to bring back large logs.


In the mid-1980s, new methods borrowed from other sciences started to provide answers about the origins of Chaco's construction timbers, which archaeologists could only speculate about for much of the 20th century. By using radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology (the study of tree-ring growth), and pollen remains in soil samples, archaeologists were able to determine that the timbers used in Chaco Canyon had been cut down in the mountains around 1140 CE.


This means that the huge effort to acquire these massive logs must have begun at least a century before the structures were built, with multiple trips back and forth between Chaco Canyon and the mountains. This makes it clear that while local timber was certainly used in some cases, much of what was needed to build the great houses were brought from distant places.


Given the large volume of timber needed for construction in the canyon, it is estimated that over 3 million board feet of timber had to have been brought from as far away as 60 miles (approximately 100 km), making it one of the most ambitious log hauling projects ever undertaken during pre-contact times. This effort required an organized and cooperative logistical effort to haul timber, which would have involved teams of men and animals working together over long periods.


It is believed that the Chacoans used a variety of methods to transport logs, including sleds, rafts and watercraft. The impressive size and scope of the projects undertaken in Chaco Canyon suggest that these ancient peoples had a strong understanding of engineering, mathematics, and astronomy.











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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com


To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav


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