If New Mexico is the “Land of Enchantment,” then Chaco Culture National Historic Park is indeed magical.
These ruins reveal the stories behind an ancient civilization, giving us a glimpse into how the Chacoans lived and thrived in the high New Mexican desert. Even better, the park offers ranger-led astronomy programs and is one of the only parks in the U.S. with its own deep-space observatory.
Read on to learn more about this historic national park and its fascinating relationship with the cosmos.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
There’s no doubt that Chaco Culture National Historic Park is special. In addition to its observatory, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and features the well-preserved remnants of an ancient and distinguished culture from over 1,000 years ago.
In fact, the ruins are so impressive, they could be likened to an ancient “capital city” in the region. Archeologists have uncovered many storage spaces, indicating that this was an economically stable community that thrived on trading. Plus, the remaining architecture showcases the skill of the builders, with an uncovered large kiva (ceremonial space), several multi-storied “great houses,” and an intricate network of roads.
Similar to ancient Puebloan sites, the Chacoans paid special attention to the solar, lunar and cardinal directions when building their structures. Four times a year, the park hosts a special sunrise program to celebrate the spring and fall equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices. As the sun rises in the spring, fall and summer, it aligns with Casa Rinconada, also known as the Great Kiva. In the winter, it aligns with the Great House.
Even more remarkable, the Chacoans built their structures to be precisely aligned with well-known astronomical markers, like the celestial meridian (a line that connects the North and South poles) and the solar and lunar azimuth (paths of the sun and moon.) Presumably, the ancient people used these alignments to track the movement of the night skies.
These astronomical markers also indicate that this site was a gathering place in the region for special ceremonies and traditions, as well as a place to trade knowledge amongst peoples.
Understanding the Cosmos
In an effort to connect the modern-day public to the lifestyle and rituals of the Chacoan people, the park launched a Night Sky Initiative in 1991. Through the Chaco Night Sky Program, the park hosts ranger-led astronomy programs, in addition to events such as “Star Parties” and an annual Astronomy Festival.
Built in the late 1990s, the Chaco Observatory is a community space intended to educate the public about Chaco Canyon’s phenomenal starscape. Visitors to the observatory can learn more about the solar system by participating in astronomy programs, peering through telescopes and viewing a digital imaging system that shows distant galaxies and supernovas.
Most importantly, the Night Sky Program provides a way for visitors to understand the ancient Chacoans connection to the cosmos. By observing the world of stars above them, and connecting to the land seasonally and spiritually, this ancient community was acutely aware of the rhythms of the Earth. Researchers believe it was this awareness and knowledge that allowed them to live and thrive in such a harsh, high-altitude climate.
Why Are Night Skies Important?
Today, light pollution is a problem across the world, as the glow of urban life masks the billions of stars in the sky. In addition to making the sky less beautiful, light pollution threatens nocturnal wildlife and is disruptive to the rhythms of the native plants.
By turning 99% of Chaco National Park into a “natural darkness zone,” the park protects the nocturnal environment and allows visitors to see the night skies in the same way as the ancient peoples. In recognition of this effort, Chaco was named an International Dark Sky Park, which is only designated to areas that offer “an exceptional…quality of starry nights.”
Our love of stargazing may show us that perhaps we’re not so different from the people of these ancient civilizations. We have more technology, and perhaps our science is more advanced — but when we look up in the big, beautiful night sky — we still see the same thing.
Jersey Griggs is a writer and editor based in Portland, Maine. In addition to writing about national parks, Jersey covers travel, outdoor recreation, and alternative wellness. To learn more, head to Jersey’s website or follow her on Twitter.