Wood in Chaco Canyon

“Thousands of timber elements were used in Chaco Canyon Great House Construction, and it is widely believed that much of this wood was imported from sources far outside the canyon, perhaps 50+ miles away, because there were not enough local trees suitable for building.”

How did these Chacoans transport nearly 240,000 wooden beams from distant mountains? Remember, there were no draft animals, and they did not use the wheel. The roads were constructed later, so we’re left to realize this herculean effort was 100% human powered, across irregular, uneven, and unforgiving terrain.

There is evidence that some ponderosa pines existed in Chaco Canyon, but it is highly unlikely that they were found in the quantities required for the construction of the Great Houses. The best-known large ponderosa in Chaco was discovered by Neil Judd in the west plaza of Pueblo Bonito, during his excavation in 1924.

“At the south end of the West Court we unexpectedly discovered the remains of a large pine that had stood there, alive and green, when Pueblo Bonito was inhabited. Its decayed trunk lay on the last utilized pavement, and its great, snag-like roots preclude any possibility of its ever having been removed.” 

Perhaps this tree was an anomaly to the landscape, or was a sacred tree. Judd speculates that it would not be possible for the tree to have been implanted or moved; the root system was far too mature and entwined to have had any disruption.

There would have been a constant need for new beams of consistent size for the construction of the Great Houses and Great Kivas. The planning and logistics of sourcing, selecting, felling, trimming, drying, and hauling, 100% by hand with stone tools, these massive timbers across an unyielding landscape are daunting. No established routes have been found from forest to canyon, and studying the terrain, no obvious paths present themselves.

“Cutting and transporting timber may have been the most labor-intensive part of building the great Houses, requiring careful organization to endure a constant supply of new beams.” 

Neil Judd witnessed a group of 8 Zuni workers carrying a log as their ancestors may have done:

“They carried it lengthwise, not cross-wise, supporting it on cross-timbers.” 

We know that the Chacoans stockpiled logs during construction preparation because there are a variety of wood sources that are found within the same building phase, but at different Great Houses. It is likely they gathered many logs, and then selected ones of similar length or girth for uniformity.

“Both the Chuskas and San Mateo mountains were being logged simultaneously as early as A.D. 974 and as late as A.D. 1100. There were specific years (cutting dates) when beams from one source area (Chuska Mountains) were incorporated into two great houses (e.g., A.D. 1037: Pueblo Bonito and Pueblo del Arroyo).” 

Further:

“Likewise, there were specific years when beams from the two sources (Chuska and San Mateo mountains) were incorporated into one great house (e.g., A.D. 1049: Pueblo Bonito). At Pueblo Bonito, one room (room 86) incorporates wood from both the San Mateo and Chuska Mountains cut in A.D. 974.” 

The wood procurement effort is so intensive that we are forced to think of it as a small army when considering the supply lines involved. These “tree-runners” would have required shoes, food, water, first aid, and shelter during the arduous journey. The woven yucca sandals would have provided only limited protection for the long distance trek over and through the difficult, inhospitable terrain to Chaco.

Up until this point, we have assumed that the “tree-runners” were sent from Chaco to collect the logs and return with them. Perhaps the reverse was true, and the Chacoans simply traded for them, as they were required.

“Tree harvesters may have been residents of the Chuska Mountains, rather than Chaco Canyon, which would have eliminated many of the scheduling problems associated with long-distance procurement of timbers.”

Possibly, their distant logging camps were Chacoan inspired communities, or perhaps clans, who lived within these distant forests. These mountain acclimated specialists could have logged the trees, dried them out, and transported the massive beams from the mountains to Chaco and returned with trade goods.

The logistics involved boggle the imagination. Anyone who has hiked this section of New Mexico knows the terrain is less than ideal, to put it mildly. When the phrase “from 50+ miles away” is mentioned, that is a straight line. And there are precious few areas in the Chaco part of the world where you can walk in a straight line for very long.

As with so many things Chaco, our imagination can supply endless possibilities, but we will likely never know the reality.