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by Richard D. Fisher
“During the last decade, archaeologists have come to the realization that the complex society of the Chaco Canyon Anasazi designed their architecture according to their cosmology” (J. Malville).
The Chaco Canyon Anasazi had no visible means of support. How did they survive? These Anasazi developed a sophisticated, though previously unrecognized, knowledge of the earth, particularly in relation to extreme fluctuations in yearly rainfall and its effect upon agricultural yields. I propose, therefore, that much of the Chaco Canyon architecture was specifically designed and constructed in response to this knowledge. The Chacoans were able to identify a virtually unknown blue-green algae which was common in the soil throughout the region and produced soluble nitrates and as such, could be exploited to produce fertilizer on which the entire agricultural system was based. Astronomical architectural alignments were clearly important, but a dependable and ample food supply, through ingenious growing and storage methods, was the foundation of Chacoan civilization.

“We are always happy, unless we are a little hungry”
Felipe Torrez Cruz, Tarahumara Indian Runner, 1996.
The Chaco Canyon Anasazi identified and exploited a vast resource of cryptobiotic soil, which provided the fertilizer for their corn and required a vast storage capacity in systems of corn silos (kivas). It also supported the power to spread their Scarlet Macaw sun god religion and dominate the entire San Juan Basin with their unique culture for over two hundred years. The indigenous tribal groups and clans had known how to grow corn for over 1,800 years (Lyons). There is no evidence that they knew how to intensify production by using naturally occurring soluble nitrates (fertilizers) until the construction of Pueblo Bonito beginning in C.E. 800-850. It was not until the arrival of the Scarlet Macaw clan, however, that evidence for architecture which produces fertilizer emerges. It was this “green revolution” or more accurately defined “corn’s golden era” of pre-Colombian Oasis America that has so captivated the imagination of scholars and the public with the enduring mystery of Chaco Canyon.

When I first started this project with the discovery of the Sky Island Granary Row site in the remote canyonlands of Mexico’s Sierra Madre, I told the famous story of the conversation between Cortez and Montezuma. Cortez bragged, “My king eats from golden platters with golden utensils and drinks from golden chalices.”

Unimpressed, Montezuma observed, “I eat gold with my every bite.” To the indigenous people of the new world, corn was gold and the most important thing in life. Just like everywhere else in the world, during that period, life was all about food. Fresh and nutritious food was very difficult to obtain, and without refrigeration, to store.
While archaeology worldwide has progressed dramatically with new scientific methods and techniques available during the last twenty years, Chaco Canyon archaeology has remained in a time warp during this innovative time period. Initially, I had no concern for archaeology and no reason to question Chaco’s intractability. After analyzing the Sky Island Granary site, I began to search for the Hohokam and Anasazi long term grain storage facilities, and found none in the archaeological record. After five years of research, and based on the unpublished paper by Robert M. Adams, I came to believe that the numerous round structures identified as religious kivas were in fact, at least initially, exactly what one might expect them to be, corn silos.
As I interviewed hundreds of archaeologists from student researchers to retired ancient elders, I came to wonder why something that was scientifically so obviously a silo was still commonly identified as a religious room. These scholarly men and women were incredibly well educated and passionately dedicated to their science. It was just not logical that such dedicated professionals would be so deeply committed to the idea that ninety or more percent of Anasazi architecture was “religious.” Slowly, as I received the enthusiastic help from so many of the most well known archaeologists of today, I came to realize that the kiva, or round religious room, was the foundation established for Anasazi culture and archaeology over one hundred years ago. Quite

  simply, an enormous pyramid of empirical scientific work had been based on a very reasonable, logical, yet incorrect premise at the birth of this science. The religious kiva concept was such a good initial choice, that it has been able to withstand the weight of a hundred years of very careful scientific research.
In Anasazi archaeology today, however, all structures have become poorly explained “religious” construction. Based on an initial definition of the religious kiva, the basis and most important aspect of Anasazi construction the only way the field can progress is to declare virtually everything else as having ceremonial religious meanings. This, in and of itself, is not incorrect. In my view, however, ninety or more percent of everything the Anasazi did had a practical agricultural application first.

Anasazi scholar Ian Thompson observes, “There is no Pueblo word for religion, no word distinguishing religion from every moment of life from conception to death. Life and religion are the same.” In my view, herein lies the fundamental conundrum. The large banks of Anasazi silos stored tons of corn. This is not inconsistent with religion. In fact, as the most important thing in life, these silos were the center of religious life for the Chaco Canyon Anasazi. To confound the issue, there are two types of round rooms, small and large, at Chaco Canyon. My research has found that the small round rooms are for long term storage of grain and the large round rooms are essentially community ceremonial kitchens. The Chacoan religious structures were the platform mounds, which was what might be expected across North America during that time period.
I do not believe that Kachinas ever danced in the Chacoan kivas during the pre-Columbian era. I do believe that expansive ceremonies were conducted on platform mounds and “pyramids,” much as in other major cultures of that era. I believe that these ceremonies focused on “sun god” beliefs as symbolized by the Scarlet Macaw. The kiva or earth goddess ceremonies occurred at a much later time period (C.E. 1275) when the matrilineal indigenous clan established dominance over the male dominated Sun/Scarlet Macaw clan(s).

It was not until after about C.E. 1275 that Kachinas began to hold ceremonies in what were formerly great kitchens or large corn silos outside of Chaco proper. As noted by Ian Thompson, there is no religious inconsistency in definition. In archaeology, however, this divergence in usage makes it impossible to resolve the intractable mystery of Chaco Canyon.

As the Tarahumara runner Felipe Torres Cruz points out and history confirms, happiness and the meaning of life for agriculturalists is fundamentally linked to every aspect of producing, storing, and consuming the food which is provided by God.

What I am striving to explain is how a fundamentally practical system of managing the food supply in Chaco Canyon and elsewhere translates into a sacred life-style and cultural legacy that endures to this day.
A chance interview with retired archaeologist Vorsila Bohrer helped me to understand that the cryptobiotic blue-green algae could be grown

copyright 2005 - Richard D Fisher -