Construction and Labor

If Chaco were simply a collection of small pueblo stone houses, scattered through the canyon, it would be unremarkable—and common. Pueblo villages from the Anasazi period are strewn across the Colorado Plateau.

In Chaco Canyon, multiple projects of mammoth scope and size took place, their ghostly, hulking shells remain today for us to walk in and around.

How were these massive projects conceived and their resources organized? Who were the architects, engineers, and workers? Did the knowledge and technology come from outside the canyon or was there an “Anasazi Einstein” who was born and drove the boom?

Managing everything required for projects of this scope requires engineered plans, sourcing of resources, skills, delegation, duties, tools, and training of workers. Additional considerations include accommodations, supplies, food, compensation, and water for the workers. These laborers either wanted to perform the labor because it achieved a desired end, or they were coerced by some other powerful means to partake in such an intensive process.

Studying the complexity of Chacoan construction, it is hard to arrive at any conclusion that does not involve strong leadership. These leaders would have known what the project entailed in its full scope, and then organized the labor efforts. This would have required a thorough understanding of the plans created by the previous generation, possibly generations prior. And all with no written language?

First, let’s take a practical look at how knowledge was accumulated and passed in this era. Knowing that there was no written language means there were no written records, plans or blueprints to refer to. Thus, the knowledge had to be passed by examples and / or oral tradition, which is notoriously unreliable. Remember the childhood game “Telephone”?

“Telephone” is a game played around the world, in which one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a group of people until the last player announces the message back to the first player. Errors accumulate in the retellings, so the statement announced by the last player almost always differs significantly, and often amusingly, from the first.

How do these messages get “lost in translation”? There are many reasons, including anxiousness or impatience, erroneous corrections, the difficult-to-master art of listening correctly, and that some players may deliberately alter what is being said to influence decision making, or inject a personal bias. While all of these reasons can lend to amusement in a game among friends, when it comes to constructing 4 story buildings that consist of hundreds of rooms, we can see how the oral relaying of messages could lead to problems.

One possible reason for the huge numbers of kivas in Chaco is that they were instruction rooms, for the passing on of accumulated knowledge. The apprentices would sit, taking instruction from the experienced masons, hunters, builders, etc., who would teach them as they had been taught. They likely understood how this hands-on approach to transferring knowledge resulted in a better outcome than teaching via the “Telephone” method. In addition to the classroom setting, the apprentices would have practiced and applied the teachings repeatedly, ensuring they understood them thoroughly, until such time when they became the master and were preparing to train their own apprentice.

The knowledge and skills lead to something big, for someone or a group of skilled leaders, in which they saw the potential that made the Great Houses possible. The individual or group that conceived this plan would have had an ability to organize on the highest of levels, relaying the plans effectively to those that would be relied on to carry them out.