Archaeologists: More protections needed for Chaco region

September 23, 2017 by Susan Montoya Bryan

Archaeologists, professors and other researchers on Friday called for more protections of an expansive area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park, saying increased oil and gas development has the potential to destroy parts of the landscape that could provide a better understanding of the ancient civilization that once inhabited the region.

In their report , the scientists point to new technology that has uncovered previously indiscernible sections of roads that connect sites throughout northwestern New Mexico to the heart of Chaco park. They say they have only begun using new satellite and laser-imaging tools to document the area and that more discoveries are possible.

Aside from actual archaeological sites that include and pottery sherds, the scientists say research also has provided insight into the importance of the landscape to whatever activities were drawing people to Chaco centuries ago. They noted less tangible features, like unobstructed views to distant buttes or mountain peaks.

While some of the mysteries surrounding Chaco are still debated in academic circles, there's agreement that the massive stone structures, kivas and other features that dot the landscape offered something of a religious or ritualistic experience for the ancestors of today's Native American pueblos. Many of the structures are aligned with celestial events, such as the summer solstice.

Anna Sofaer, president of the nonprofit Solstice Project, said people who don't understand Chaco see it as sort of a high desert wasteland that can offer only oil, gas, coal and uranium.

"I think it's our obligation as people who've been working with Chaco for decades to bring out to the public and to the people who affect policy the great value of going back and connecting with the people who were so connected with their natural world," she said.

The report comes as federal officials revamp a management plan that will guide development as more companies look to tap shale deposits in the San Juan Basin, already one of the nation's largest natural gas fields.

A , Chaco and its outlying archaeological remnants have become the focus of the fight over expanded drilling. Environmentalists have long complained about pollution from fossil fuel extraction and coal-fired power plants in the region, and now tribal leaders have joined in with concerns about the potential effects on cultural resources.

They have asked for the federal government to make permanent a 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco park.

Industry officials say developers can operate in a way that protects significant sites.

Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said recently that no one in the industry disputes the significance of Chaco or the strong desire to protect the area's cultural resources for future generations. He said regulations already in place require reviews to ensure important areas are not disrupted.

The archaeologists argued Friday that existing regulations do a good job of protecting physical sites but there is no consideration of less tangible aspects, like those found at a site about 15 miles north of the park that includes two great houses and vantage points of Chaco's Great North Road.

Ruth Van Dyke, an anthropology professor at Binghamton University, said the Bureau of Land Management followed the letter of the law in protecting the site but allowed for 12 pump jacks to be installed within view of the great houses. The nearest one is less than a mile away and others can be seen glinting in the distance.

Van Dyke said archaeologists need to be cognizant of things like viewscapes and soundscapes, figure out ways to study and record them and provide that information to land managers. She said such features are important for understanding a complex like Chaco.

"We really need to set aside large landscape areas to protect and to prohibit drilling all together," she said.

G.B. Cornucopia, a ranger at Chaco park, also raised concerns about light pollution from oil and gas operations. Chaco was the of the first National Park observatory and it has been recognized for its dark skies. He considers the night sky a cultural feature that provides visitors an opportunity to understand their relationship with the larger cosmos.

Explore further: Ancient Chaco Canyon population likely relied on imported food

Related Stories

New Mexican skies protected with Dark Sky Park designation

September 2, 2013

The 34,000-acre Chaco Culture National Historical Park is home to many ancient wonders including the remains of a civilization that thrived over 1,000 years ago. The park, which has been protecting its archaeological riches ...

Drones unearth more details about Chaco culture

April 22, 2014

Recently published research describes how archaeologists outfitted a customized drone with a heat-sensing camera to unearth what they believe are ceremonial pits and other features at the site of an ancient village in New ...

In Brief: Social inequality among Pueblo Indians

November 9, 2010

A study in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that social hierarchies may have emerged within Southwestern Native American society as early as the 9th century.

Unexpected wood source for Chaco Canyon great houses

December 7, 2015

The wood in the monumental "great houses" built in Chaco Canyon by ancient Puebloans came from two different mountain ranges, according to new research from the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

Recommended for you

New paper answers causation conundrum

November 17, 2017

In a new paper published in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, SFI Professor Jessica Flack offers a practical answer to one of the most significant, and most confused questions in evolutionary ...

Chance discovery of forgotten 1960s 'preprint' experiment

November 16, 2017

For years, scientists have complained that it can take months or even years for a scientific discovery to be published, because of the slowness of peer review. To cut through this problem, researchers in physics and mathematics ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.