text image, chaco canyon

Explore, Excavate & Rebuild Chaco Canyon for Mac or PC
(Instant Download, only $47)

Despite the remote charm of Chaco Canyon’s enigmatic landform, its brutally long winter season, ultra-brief growing season, and scare rains make it an unlikely location for the Capitol of Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan) culture. Utilizing masonry methods never before seen in North America, they built huge, complex stone houses (multi-story Great Houses) consisting of numerous rooms much bigger than the Anasazi had formerly constructed.

These pueblos were conceived, planned, and built from scratch, in stark contrast to their previous system of modifying or adding on to pre-existing stone houses. Although each Great House is distinct, they all share architectural commonalities that identify them as uniquely Chacoan. Advanced astronomical alignments, ingenious agriculture, water control systems, and mysterious mounds of talus and earth surrounded the Great Houses. The structures were established in a sparse landscape enclosed by spiritual mountains, forested buttes, mesas, and unknowable ritual buildings to explore that still have deep spiritual significance for the Anasazi descendants, which include the Hopi, Zuni, and Puebloan tribes.

Virtual Archaeology in 3D

chaco canyon software walkthrough screen shot

Let's go to "Settings" and choose our language & music options.

the anasazi of chaco canyon settings screen We’ll choose English and our background music choices, then click “Save”. If you’ve finished the game, or want to start over from the beginning, you can choose “Reset All Data”.

how to play anasazi of chaco canyon
The Anasazi of Chaco Canyon Computer Simulation is very easy to use, but we’ve provided a helpful section to get the player started. Let’s get started! Click “Play Game”

progress screen from within the comptuter simulation

Shows our current progress. We have excavated Penasco Blanco, Casa Chiquita, Pueblo Bonito, and Chetro Ketl. The “Learn Button” tells you the story of that Great House, and the secrets you uncovered while excavating it. First, let’s check out our “Inventory”

anasazi artifacts collected from within the game
Our inventory screen shows all the artifacts we have unearthed so far, with information and a 3D view. Note: These are 3D replicas of ACTUAL treasures found in Chaco Canyon and across the Anasazi range! Now, let’s go back to “Current Progress” and choose “Play Game”

overview of chaco canyon free fly map
You can choose where to want to excavate next from the “Current Progress” screen, or click on a Great House from the main map. Let’s choose Chetro Ketl.

the ruins of chetro ketl inside the simulation
We can see Chetro Ketl has three areas that need to be excavated. Let’s click on one of them and get started.

a room ready to be excavated in a great house
This room is covered in 800 years of dust and decay. use the shovel to start digging and exploring, first by removing the weeds and shrubs.

dig for anasazi artifacts
Now we’ve removed the brush and started gently excavating, looking for Anasazi artifacts.

inspecting the dig site, looking for artifacts
We may have found something! We’ll use the magnifying glass to zoom in on the spot and get a closer look.

we've discoverd an intact pottery jar
It looks like we have indeed found something, and it looks like an intact pottery jar. Choose from among your tools; trowel, pick, or brush. Here, we’ll gently brush away the dirt and dig around the artifact. Careful!

gently unearthing an anasazi pottery jar
Gently brushing away the dirt…….

pottery recoverd artifacts screen
Once all artifacts are recovered from an excavation area, you can move on to the next.

the secrets of a great house revealed in the game
Once we have excavated all the rooms, we will have learned the story of the Great House, and now have the information necessary to see it in restored condition.

3d model of completely restored chetro ketl
Chetro Ketl Great House, Restored

Fly with the Ravens
over Chaco Canyon

As you restore the ruins of Chaco, you can fly freely with the birds across the canyon, and see your progress.

fly with the ravens over the canyon in free fly mode
In Free Fly mode, you soar with the birds over Chaco Canyon and enjoy amazing views. Here flying over Pueblo del Arroyo, still in its ruined state.

free flying over new mexico's chaco canyon lanscape
To enter “Free Fly” mode, click the button from the main map.

instructions for using the free fly mode in the game
Flying is easy! Simply use your mouse to choose the direction you wish to go, and use the W, A, S, D keys to move. If you hold down “shift”, you can go faster.

the ruins of pueblo bonito, seen from the cliff behind
Flying over the cliff behind Pueblo Bonito while it is still in ruined condition.

detailed 3d image of the restored pueblo bonito great house
Pueblo Bonito in restored condition.

The "Sun Dagger"
Ancient Astronomy

3d model of fajada butte on the chaco landscape
Let’s fly to Fajada Butte and see if we can find the legendary “Sun Dagger”

high on fajada butte, the 3 stone slabs of the sun dagger
There it is! The three famous sandstone slabs that shape the light and helped the Chacoans determine Solstices and Equinoxes. Let’s peek behind the slabs and see if the petroglyphs are there.

the petroglyph behind the 2 sun dagger slabs on fajada butte
Behind the three sandstone slabs, the spiral petroglyph. Let’s active the “Time of Day” Feature in the software by clicking on the clock button in the lower right of the screen.

close up of sun dagger behind the sandstne slabs
Now, we can choose any date and time in history and see what the Sun Dagger actually displayed. Here, we’ve chosen the Winter Solstice in the year 1120, when Chaco was at its peak. It’s amazing to think of the Chacoan Sun Priest watching this very signal at this precise time and announcing to all that the days would begin to get longer.

3d model overview of pueblo bonito, completely restored
simulated people, turkeys, birds, smoke in pueblo bonito
3d model of the ruins of pueblo del arroyo

Chaco Canyon: Mystery and Intrigue

Chaco Canyon New Mexico, (located in the NW corner of the state) during the years 850-1150 AD is perhaps the most fascinating chapter in Southwest USA history. The ultimate fate of the mysterious, “disappeared” Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan) Indians intrigues social scientists, archaeologists, and visitors to this day. Their colossal achievements can be observed in many places, including the striking cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Monument. But the crest of the Anasazi wave was Chaco Canyon National Monument, a shallow, windswept wash in northwest New Mexico. Here in Chaco Canyon New Mexico, 1,000 years ago, strange and unexplained events unfolded. Let’s explore this enigmatic place.


the chaco culture national historic park welcome sign


doorways inside the pueblo bonito great house

Public Architecture

The Canyon’s massive stone buildings are excellent examples of pre-Columbian “public architecture”, utilizing advanced engineering to create spectacles and serve as gathering points. This facilitated distant trading and commerce and supported short-term populations gathered for these ceremonies and events. Pueblo descendants affirm that this place existed as a unique meeting place where individuals and clans assembled to experience their events, trade their goods, and participate in ceremonies, customs, and understandings. Was Downtown Chaco the center of a far-flung trading network developed to attract the trade of chocolate, seashells, macaws, copper bells, and other products from far-off lands?

Outliers and Chaco’s Sphere of Influence

Chaco’s impact continued long after it was no longer the center of the Anasazi world, The complexes at Aztec, in the Chuska hills, the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, and other centers to the north, south, and west, and throughout the Colorado Plateau, which is roughly the 4-corners region. Eventually, the Anasazi moved away from their life and methods, migrated away to new (and previously occupied) locations, restructured their society, and ultimately connected with other tribes and cultures. Numerous Southwest Indian Tribes consider Chaco Culture National Historical Park as a crucial waypoint in their clans’ spiritual migration paths, to be venerated and appreciated.

Anasazi ruins left in Chaco Canyon inspire all those who visit them

The Uniqueness of Chaco Canyon

Chacoans engineered and built impressive works of public architecture which lacked precedent in the ancient North American world, and which stayed unrivaled in size and intricacy up until the development of steel, long after Columbus arrived. This absence of written or preserved records adds to the mystique. With the archaeological and anthropological evidence limited to items and ruins left, lots of tantalizing clues to explore tease scientists but refuse to fully reveal their secrets.

Human Settlement

The first indication of long-lasting human settlement in Chaco Canyon New Mexico dates to the 3rd century CE with the building of partly below-ground houses referred to as pithouses which became clustered together to form villages. These fantastic, multi-story Great Houses, like Pueblo Bonito, and villages, were a giant leap in technology and construction. Chacoans produced strong, tall walls utilizing a variation of the “core-and-veneer” building strategy. Although today these mosaic design veneers are in evidence to visitors, adding a striking charm, which visitors today can explore. Chacoans used plaster on most exterior and interior walls as soon as construction was complete to protect the delicate mud mortar from water damage and add aesthetic appeal. In addition to natural sandstone tanks, rainwater was captured in wells and dammed locations that trapped the furious torrents of water off the canyon walls when thunderstorms struck.

logs used to build the chaco great houses were transported from great distances

The Chaco “River”

The arroyo (a periodically flowing stream) that sculpted the canyon occasionally flowed with water, but it was likely muddy and saline. To build the Kivas and Great Houses, Chacoans traveled over 80 kilometers to coniferous forests to the south and to the west, felling trees, then peeling and leaving them to dry to decrease weight. Then, by hand across the unforgiving desert, they carried them back to Chaco Canyon. Remember, there is no evidence of the use of wheels or domesticated animals to help with the burden.

the chaco wash arroyo river in flood

Architecture Alignment with Solar and Lunar Events

Key to the structure of the Chacoan world was the practice of aligning structures and roadways with the positions of the sun and moon at key intervals, such as solstices, equinoxes, and lunar alignments. Chacoans imported unique items, birds, and animals by means of trade paths that extended west towards the Gulf of California and south more than 1000 kilometers along the coast of Mexico. Seashells (obviously not native to Chaco Canyon) were utilized as trumpets. Other goods discovered include copper bells, cacao (chocolate!), and the remains of scarlet macaws, which are parrots with lively red, yellow, and blue plumes. With life difficult during periods of even typical rains, a prolonged drought would have strained resources and set migration in motion. This is what appears to have occurred in the middle 1100’s.

Ancient Observatories: Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon is seventy miles from the closest town and accessible only by axle-busting washboard dirt roadways. Remote? Yes, it is. The Anasazi were nomadic, classic hunter-gatherers. When the first agriculture appeared, and they settled on the Colorado Plateau and begin building and living in small pit houses. Frequently constructed with celestial positioning in mind, they also constructed water-collection systems and were connected to far-flung Chacoan outliers by a substantial network of roadways. It’s not entirely clear why the Anasazi abandoned the canyon, however, tree ring data indicates extended dry spells, and is one possible explanation. It was around this time that the population in other locations in the area, such as Mesa Verde and the Chuska Mountains, grew in size and significance. Today, modern-day Pueblo individuals trace their roots to Chaco Canyon and consider it a spiritual location.

the sun dagger, used to track lunar and solar events

Public Protections

Chaco Canyon ended up being designated a nationwide historic park in 1980, protected by the National Park Service, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Website in 1987, placing it among a curated list of safeguarded locations “whose impressive natural and cultural resources form the typical inheritance of all humanity”. Today, approximately eighty thousand people arrive to explore Chaco Canyon each year, the majority of them drawn to see the remains of the excavated Great Houses, which are preserved in a state of “arrested decay”. Chaco Canyon continues to be a primary destination for those with an interest in ancient cultures, especially those interested in archeoastronomy.

Evidence of Advanced Astronomy

Proof exists in many forms that the Chacoans were knowledgeable skywatchers, and they had a clear understanding of the cyclic and seasonal patterns of the sun, moon, and stars. Uncontaminated by city lights, To explore Chaco Canyon’s nighttime is to reveal a sky resplendent with stars and other astronomical phenomenon that are seldom seen from anywhere else. Why did the ancient Anasazi construct such an extravagant destination in so extreme an environment; one with 100-degree summer seasons, freezing subzero winter seasons, and just 9 inches of rain each year? This remains a mystery to this day.

chaco canyon has harsh, bitter winters

Chaco Culture History

An ancient and magical location, Chaco Canyon is a delicate and crucial piece of pre-Columbian cultural and historic conservation, protected by the National Park Service. The Ancient Anasazi were experts in building and construction, and they left behind proof of understanding advanced archeoastronomy. This is evident through the numerous structures lined up to catch the cycles of the sun and moon. The canyon’s 15 complexes include the biggest Pueblo structures north of Mexico until the 19th century.

Climate Change in the San Juan Basin

The Chacoans and their complex, astronomically-influenced architecture flourished between AD 900 and 1150, most likely ending due to a drastic change in climate that produced a dry spell that lasted perhaps half a century. The grandest of the Great Houses is Pueblo Bonito, a four-story high complex with 650 “rooms”, using up nearly 2 entire acres of land with its girth, its huge scale a sign of the spiritual power of the Great House. Pueblo Bonito sits straight on the East-West line, an axis that matches the equinox sun. Some higher than others, the kivas hosted worshipers, workers, and clan meetings. Some are still standing almost intact, some endure as structure ruins, the park contains upwards of 2,400 recognized archeological sites, and few of them have been completely excavated. Due to the fragile condition of the erosion-prone canyon, some parts of the park are closed to the general public, however much of it can be seen by automobile, on roads maintained by the National Park Service.

chacoan ruins kiva, as seen from above

Northwest New Mexico

The Anasazi were nomadic hunter-gatherers spread over a large area. By 700 AD they started to explore and collect in settled neighborhoods, of which Chaco Canyon is the grandest example. Extensive building and construction took place throughout Chaco Canyon from 900 to 1100 AD, leading to the construction of several advanced Great House complexes. Pueblo Bonito (implying “pretty town” in Spanish; the initial Anasazi name being unidentified) had more than six hundred spaces or rooms, many 2 and three-story structures, numerous ritualistic structures called kivas, and an estimated population between 800 and 1,200 individuals.

The Chaco Road Network

Radiating out from the Chaco complex are an enigmatic series of straight lines or roads that extend 10 to twenty miles into the desert, often going nowhere, beyond the boundaries of the National Monument. They transverse mesas (table-top mountains), up and down vertical cliffs, and along routes which are unwise for use by the casual or even motivated tourist. Paul Devereux, a British scholar and author of the so-called “Earth Mysteries” has suggested these lines (and others he has actually studied all over the world) are much better comprehended as markings that represent the spiritual journeys of ancient shamans.

the chaco outlier road network map

Chaco Roads: Ceremonial, Functional, Both?

Checking these roads at ground level, it appears they have been created over multiple centuries, and have been subjected to natural disintegration, making it hard to determine purpose and use. Scientists from the University of Arizona examined tree-ring information to determine the canyon’s wood geographical origins, the first time this dendroprovenance approach has been utilized in the southwestern United States.

Wood Sources

Prior to 1020 AD, the majority of the wood originated from a formerly unacknowledged wood source; the Zuni Mountains, about 75 kilometers to the south of the Chaco Canyon. Christopher Guiterman from the University of Arizona, lead author of the research study, informed CWA (Current World Archaeology), ‘The study reveals the wood was carried to Chaco Canyon from a great distance, without the help of beasts of burden, the wheel, metal tools, or a significant watercourse, and the wood procurement was a vibrant and on-going enterprise. We now see that when products start to show up from the Chuskas, the development and expansion of Chacoan society takes root, and the Chaco we understand today is the consequence of this change.

The Sun Dagger of Chaco Canyon

High atop the dramatic Fajada Butte at the entryway to Chaco Canyon is the most enigmatic and celebrated of Chaco’s sites. There, a set of spiral petroglyphs pecked into a cliff face behind 3 huge pieces of sandstone rock functions as a sophisticated solar marker. At summer season solstice, a vertical shaft of light pierces the primary spiral precisely at its center. At the winter season solstice, 2 beams of light flawlessly bracket the exact same spiral. Light beams hit the heart of a more diminutive sized spiral on the spring equinox, and also at the fall equinox. This site, now famously called the “Sun Dagger”, was originally interpreted by Anna Sofaer in 1977. After additional, voluminous analysis, Sofaer and her partners and associates published additional information that seemed to reveal that the chiseled spirals might furthermore be tracking the 18.6-year “lunar cycle”. Sadly, it’s no longer possible for anyone to see the Sun Dagger working. In 1989, the huge sandstone rock pieces moved, potentially from accelerated disintegration of the supporting soil due to visitors, and the effect was forever ruined. Today, the site is closed to visitors.

Pueblo Bonito

Pueblo Bonito is one of the most extensively researched and commemorated cultural sites in . Planned and built in phases in between 850 AD – 1150 AD by Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) individuals, this was structure in Chaco Canyon was the center of the Chacoan world. This empire ultimately covered a large chunk of the contemporary Southwest, consisting of the San Juan Basin of New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. For over 300 years, Chacoan Culture unified the populations of a large area within its sphere of impact.

The Greatest of the Great Houses

For nearly 300 years between 850-1150, Chaco Canyon, situated in NW New Mexico, was the location of a couple of thousand Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan) Indians who formed the central nexus of a political, economic, trading, spiritual, and business empire. It included modern-day New Mexico and spread out to include Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. Chaco existed as a ritualistic city and its Great Houses, instead of residential homes (other than perhaps for political or spiritual leaders), were devoted to different functions, possibly storage of grain and other foods items for distribution, and perhaps even as transient lodging for visitors who came for economic, political, business, or ritualistic events. Started around the mid-800’s, by the waning decades of the 1100s, Pueblo Bonito had swelled to over 600 spaces with nearly forty kivas, 2 and one-half acres, and, in some parts, stood greater than 4 stories.

the casa rinconada great kiva, on the north side of chaco canyon

From Pit Homes to Great Houses

For hundreds of years, the Anasazi resided in pit homes, partly immersed structures capped with a thatched and rudimentary adobe roofing system sustained by a wood structure. Now a structure made from sandstone blocks, hewn without the benefit of metal tools, held together by simple adobe mortar, was ascending from the dry and windy ground of Chaco Canyon, demonstrating these Anasazi were competent designers, architects, engineers, and masons. Though the original plaster is long gone, the walls nevertheless stand, while practically all other building and construction has dissolved back into the beautiful earth. The remaining Pueblos of today, which include the Acoma, Hopi, Taos, and others, remain brilliant reminders of the determination of Chaco’s impact and power that Pueblo Bonito preceded. (Ortiz 1994:69). There are more intriguing reminders of the Chacoan People, unique masonry patterns; room-size racks; “elite” artifacts, such as copper bells, macaws, and shell precious jewelry.

Summary: The Chaco Canyon Story

  • 400 years before Columbus arrived in the new world, a civilization of stunning complexity and remarkable knowledge flourished in a desolate corner of modern day New Mexico called Chaco Canyon. These were the fabled Anasazi.
  • 1000 years go, in this unassuming, shallow canyon, master builders and architects erected massive four story buildings, each with more than 600 rooms, flanked by underground ceremonial chambers called Kivas, some of which are capable of holding 400 people at a time.
  • These stone and timber buildings are constructed with precise solar and lunar alignments, an effort so stunning it creates questions we may never know the answers to.
  • A network of roads, uniformly 30 feet wide, crisscross the four corners (AZ, UT, CO, NM) region, with Chaco as its nexus. These roads carry their own mysteries, as they do not connect the canyon with surrounding communities called outliers, nor do they connect to known resources like forests.
  • The “Chaco Phenomenon” lasted 12 generations, about as long as the United States has existed.
  • Perhaps the Anasazi Chacoans looked at the erratic nature of mother earth and built homes for the gods they called Father Sky. The frustration with tracking the cycles of mother earth would have been dramatic. One year too much rain, then very little for many years in a row. In the desert landscape of Chaco canyon, water is life, and not just to drink, but the game animals they depended on for essential dietary iron, the crops they grew in the fields, a lack of water is life threatening.
  • These great houses, not intended primarily for human occupation, were an invitation to Father Sky to come down and live among them to help them teach mother earth to be predictable and orderly like he is, or perhaps they thought if they built their society is strict alignment with what father sky presented, they could transfer some of his orderly nature and predictability to the world around them.
  • Nothing could have been more important than water, and the water supply could only come with the rains. they must have been obsessed with any idea they thought could influence the rains. Water, water, water. Not only to drink but to irrigate, for the wild plants and animals, even to make the mortar for construction.
  • The Chacoans also possessed advanced astronomy that tracked sun and moon cycles with stunning detail and precision (sun dagger on Fajada butte), and a trade network covering over 2,000+ miles to the south, with scarlet macaws, copper bells, cocoa/chocolate, and seashells found in Chaco.
  • The Chacoans left no record of a written language, did not have use of the wheel, no metal tools, and no domesticated draft animals.
  • There are 21 descendant tribes that claim Anasazi lineage; the 19 Pueblo tribes along the Rio Grande, the Zuni, and Hopi, with limited oral history (at least not available to Anglos) over the 36 generations since Chaco.
  • It is a grand mystery how this place started, why it existed, and why it collapsed. Perhaps by exploring and reconstructing, watching the play of the sun, moon, and stars, you will find clues.....

drawing of the 2012 chaco culture commemorative coin

Chaco Canyon Resources:

Anasazi of Chaco Canyon is a product of:
Shadowplay Communications, LLC
PO Box 61072 Boulder City, Nevada, 89006
(800) 376-6274
email chaco-canyon.com