ALBUQUERQUE (NM) -- University of Cincinnati researchers have found more evidence that Chaco Canyon, northwestern New Mexico, was more than a place for Indigenous rituals and ceremonies.
To document the environmental effects of early inhabitants who made the area their home, the researchers analyzed soil chemical composition and pollen content.
The findings of their team, published in the journal PLOS ONE this week, are focused on the changes resulting tree harvesting has had on Chaco's daily life.
Researchers found evidence of a gradual decline in the woodlands surrounding them starting around 600 B.C. This was much earlier than previously believed.
Although some mysteries surround Chaco remain unsolved, academic circles agree that Chaco's massive stone buildings, ceremonial structures known as kivas, and other features dot the landscape offer an experience that was religious or ritualistic for Native American pueblo ancestors. Chaco's structures often align with celestial events such as the summer solstice.
David Lentz, a biology professor who was the lead author of the study, stated that many researchers believe Chaco was too dry to sustain daily living. He also suggested that Chaco's infrastructure was only used as a storage facility and ceremonial center over the centuries.
Lentz stated that the explanation is too simplistic, and that his team found evidence that supports human management of the environment in order to sustain daily life.
Researchers noted that there were measurable changes in the shifting of people hunting and gathering to farming underatking agriculture. These included the loss of juniper trees for food and building materials, and the reduction in firewood and wood for cooking.
Paul Reed, an Archaeology Southwest preservation archaeologist, wasn't involved in the study. He said that the new research confirmed what he believed for many years: that Chaco and its surroundings were residential and ritual centres. He estimated that Chaco was home to thousands of residents.
Gwinn Vivian was another Chaco scholar who came to the same conclusion when he studied Chaco's agricultural potential decades ago.
Reed stated that the most recent study offers useful data about Chaco's agricultural process and other uses made of the natural environment and by those who lived there.
He said, "It's a strong counterpoint for the mistaken belief that corn or other crops cannot be grown in sufficient quantities to support a large, residential community in Chaco Canyon."
Recent years have also seen scientists discover previously undiscovered sections of roads connecting sites in northwestern New Mexico with the heart of Chaco.
An earlier excavation also found copper bells, marine shells, and scarlet macaw skeletons. This suggests that the people traded with the communities to the south by either making long treks or moving goods from one village to another.
Many researchers have documented that Chaco has seen a shift in population, mainly due to a change in climate since the end of the 11th century.
A University of Cincinnati study found that landscape changes made by Chaco residents had serious environmental consequences.
Lentz stated that their activities had a significant impact on the environment, resulting in a reduction in tree density.