Anthropology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Chaco Revisited New Research on the Prehistory of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, ed. Carrie C. Heitman and Stephen Plog. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2015. Pp. 66–95.


Copyright 2015 The Arizona Board of Regents.


Opinion is hardly unanimous, but many authors endorse the idea that Chaco Canyon is and was a marginal place for growing corn (Zea mays), a chief source of food energy for Puebloan groups in the Southwest. Poor soils with “toxic” levels of salts, inadequate and unpredictable precipitation, and a short growing season have all been identified as contributing to the agricultural marginality of the place (Benson 2011a; Bryan 1954; Force et al. 2002; Judd 1954:59–61). Benson has been the most vocal proponent of this view of late, and his research has culminated in the conclusion that “the San Juan Basin, including Chaco Canyon, appears to be the least promising area for dryland farming; that is, it is too dry and its soils are Npoor, saline and too basic (high pH values) for the production of maize” (Benson 2011a:49–50; Benson 2011b). The Chaco Project’s experimental maize fields in the late 1970s seem to bear out this statement: “Chaco, under modern conditions, is indeed marginal as a corn growing environment” (Toll et al. 1985:124). If Chaco Canyon is as marginal for farming as many claim, then the cultural achievements of the Puebloans that lived there are all the more remarkable, and this marginality has figured prominently in many interpretations about how and why Chaco Canyon developed as it did (Judge 1979, 1989; Schelberg 1981, 1982; Sebastian 1983, 1991, 1992; Vivian 1984, 1990). Chacoans had to import not only beams for building, pottery for cooking and storage, and stone for flaked tools but also even the staff of life—corn. And when you add in such exotics as turquoise, parrots, copper bells, and cacao, the potential “trade” deficit looms large. If Chaco Canyon did not provide even enough food for basic sustenance, what was it that made the place so special in the first place? More importantly, what literally fueled the obvious cultural fluorescence of Chaco Canyon and ts massive labor-intensive construction projects? Wills and Dorshow (2012:138) observe that “the popular perspective that Chaco was mysterious or enigmatic is largely a response to this view of the canyon as agriculturally marginal.” Yet, how do we know what the agricultural potential of the canyon was during the Bonito phase (ca. A.D. 850–1140) or that Chacoans could not provide for themselves? Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far toward a pessimistic assessment of the maize farming in and around the canyon. Certainly, Navajo farmers with considerable traditional knowledge and a real stake in the outcome successfully grew corn within Chaco Canyon (Judd 1954:52–59), and in 1898, George Pepper photographed Navajo fields on the floodplain of Chaco Canyon proper that produced a bountiful corn harvest ( Figure 1a). Since photo documentation is not anecdotal, it seems a sufficient counter to assertions that farming of the Chaco floodplain was impossible because of high salinity. Judd’s records of Navajo maize harvests evidently come from a time of more favorable precipitation and growingseason length, but this, too, could have characterized much of the Bonito phase. Figure 1b shows another Navajo field on the main floodplain at harvest time. Navajo farmers clearly experienced agricultural risk (Huntington 1914:81), but evidently the canyon proved a sufficient attraction to entice early settlement by them (Brugge 1986), perhaps precisely because of its productive potential. Farming potential was likely the prime motivation for initial Basketmaker settlement, a time when supplemental extra-local sources of maize were improbable. Since everything is relative, Chaco Canyon may have seemed like a small Eden in the context of the vast “dreary wastes” (Huntington 1914:81) of the San Juan Basin at large.