Dawn of Chaco

At the dawn of the Chaco Phenomenon, the stunning speed of technological change is dazzling. What change in societal structure suddenly inspired an ancient desert-dwelling society to evolve from communities of pit-houses into a sophisticated building boom of 4 story buildings consisting of 700 rooms each?  To answer these questions, we can look to four possible models that would support organizing this gigantic effort.

  1. A purely communal model or organization

This would have been based on the societal structure of modern Puebloan descendants of the Anasazi, which do not adhere to a hierarchal societal structure. The modern day Pueblo is peaceful, egalitarian society. There is no evidence that this societal structure has ever been invoked with projects of a scope comparable to the Chacoan buildings. Stephen Lekson speaks of how the modern Puebloan descendants are indeed a peaceful egalitarian society, and that this modern model evolved from the Puebloan rejection of the Chaco model. Unsurprisingly, there are other opinions:

“The Chaco Canyon ceremonials and related work projects may have been hyper-potluck affairs, in which a central authority probably coordinated contributions from different locales based on available opportunities and institutional requirements.” 

Dr. R. Gwinn Vivian does not believe there was any sort of hierarchy that subordinated the small house communities to the Great Houses. He asserts that there were two separate cultures co-existing in Chaco Canyon:

“I argue that the observed settlement and architectural variability in the Chaco Core is organizationally meaningful but does not reflect the structure of a single hierarchically organized society. There are other theories about the management of labor at Chaco. Some assert that hierarchies may have existed, but that they were not well-defined: ‘We agreed that there must have been leaders in Chaco Canyon to organize the construction of great houses and roads, but their status was not highly marked. In fact, their power may have been situational, emerging only in the context of communal activities.’” 

Therefore, although there was organization, it may have been less defined than that of modern management. What this means is that the Chacoans could have had linear management, where all people had a role, but no role was necessarily subjugated to another. Or, Brian Fagan theorizes that there may have been a division of labor based on clans and kin groups with obligations placed on extended families and households; Fagan continues to describe how all of the family’s talents would have assisted both the building of Chaco and the trade with other far off clans. Women would have been primary contributors to the construction effort, a point that is often overlooked.

However, in this model, someone or some persons, needed to hold the master plan, and be a final decision making authority. Could this have been a committee, a collaborative effort that made decisions by consensus?

  1. The volunteer boss and voluntary worker

Let us explore the possibility of those who were happy to work participating in these big projects. As an example, consider the construction of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in the 1930s.

The option to be able to work on the Great Houses could have been exchanged for security, food, water, and the ability to live in a good community, similarly to the construction of my adopted hometown of Boulder City, Nevada, which was originally a government camp to house the builders of Hoover Dam. In other words, the construction of the Great Houses could have provided the equivalent of good paying jobs. It may have been a coveted position during Anasazi times, to be a Chacoan builder, log-runner, or mason.

Chacoan feats of architecture took the cooperative interaction of many people, over many years, with resources required from far-flung regions. Logically, a structure had to be in place for planning, managing, and funding these efforts. Possibly, like the building of Hoover Dam, these jobs were highly anticipated, highly coveted, and attracted plentiful labor and expertise to Chaco.

  1. Power bosses and voluntary, but coerced workers

Think of American “company towns” in the 1800s. Occasionally, company towns emerged from a paternalistic effort to create a utopian workers community. Town halls, schools, libraries, and other central services were provided by the company in order to build strong communities and help make workers more productive. Bars or places of ill repute were banned.