Pueblo Bonito: Chaco Canyon Great House in New Mexico

Overview of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon
Overview of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Chris M. Morris/Flickr

Pueblo Bonito is an important Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) site and one of the largest Great House sites in the Chaco Canyon region. It was constructed over a period of 300 years, between AD 850 and 1150-1200 and it was abandoned at the end of the 13th century.

Architecture at Pueblo Bonito

The site has a semicircular shape with clusters of rectangular rooms that served for dwelling and storage. Pueblo Bonito has more than 600 rooms arranged on multistory levels.

These rooms enclose a central plaza in which the Puebloans built kivas, semi-subterranean chambers used for collective ceremonies. This construction pattern is typical of Great House sites in the Chacoan region during the heyday of ancestral Puebloan culture. Between AD 1000 and 1150, a period called by archaeologists Bonito phase, Pueblo Bonito was the main center of the Puebloan groups living at Chaco Canyon.

The majority of the rooms at Pueblo Bonito have been interpreted as the houses of extended families or clans, but surprisingly few of these rooms present evidence of domestic activities. This fact along with the presence of 32 kivas and 3 great kivas, as well as the evidence for communal ritual activities, like feasting, make some archaeologists suggest that Pueblo Bonito had an important religious, political and economic function in the Chaco system.

Luxury Goods at Pueblo Bonito

A further aspect that supports the centrality of Pueblo Bonito in the Chaco Canyon region is the presence of luxury goods imported through long-distance trade.

Turquoise and shell inlays, copper bells, incense burners, and marine shell trumpets, as well as cylindrical vessels and macaw skeletons, have been found in tombs and rooms within the site. These items arrived at Chaco and Pueblo Bonito through a sophisticated system of roads that connect some of the main great houses across the landscape and whose function and significance have always puzzled archaeologists.

These long-distance items speak for a highly specialized elite living at Pueblo Bonito, probably involved in rituals and collective ceremonies. Archaeologists believe that the power of the people living at Pueblo Bonito came from its centrality in the sacred landscape of ancestral Puebloans and their unifying role in the ritual life of the Chacoan peoples.

Recent chemical analyses on some of the cylindrical vessels found at Pueblo Bonito have shown traces of cacao. This plant not only comes from southern Mesoamerica, thousands of miles south of Chaco Canyon, but its consumption is historically linked to elite ceremonies.

Social Organization

Although the presence of social ranking at Pueblo Bonito and in Chaco Canyon has now been proven and accepted, archaeologists disagree on the type of social organization that governed these communities. Some archaeologists propose that communities in Chaco Canyon remained connected through time on a more egalitarian basis, while others argue that after AD 1000 Pueblo Bonito was the head of a centralized regional hierarchy.

Regardless of the social organization of Chacoan people, archaeologists agree that by the end of the 13th century Pueblo Bonito was completely abandoned and the Chaco system collapsed.

Pueblo Bonito Abandonment and Population Dispersion

Cycles of droughts starting at around AD 1130 and lasting until the end of the 12th century made living at Chaco really difficult for ancestral Puebloans. The population abandoned many of the great house centers and dispersed into the smaller ones. At Pueblo Bonito new construction ceased and many rooms were abandoned. Archaeologists agree that due to this climatic change, the resources needed to organize these social gatherings were no longer available and so the regional system declined.

Archaeologists can use precise data about these droughts and how they affected the population at Chaco thanks to a sequence of tree-ring dates coming from a series of wooden beams preserved in many structures at Pueblo Bonito as well as other sites within Chaco Canyon.

Some archaeologists believe that for a short time after the decline of Chaco Canyon, the complex of Aztec Ruins--an outlier, northern site—became an important post-Chaco center. Eventually, though, Chaco became only a place linked to a glorious past in the memory of Puebloan societies who still believe the ruins are the homes of their ancestors.


  • This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan Society), and the Dictionary of Archaeology.
  • Cordell, Linda 1997 Archaeology of the Southwest. Academic Press
  • Frazier, Kendrick 2005. People of Chaco. A Canyon and its People. Uppdated and Expanded. W.W. Norton & Company, New York
  • Pauketat, Timothy R and Diana di Paolo Loren (eds.) 2005 North American Archaeology. Blackwell Publishing
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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Pueblo Bonito: Chaco Canyon Great House in New Mexico." ThoughtCo, Mar. 13, 2018, thoughtco.com/pueblo-bonito-chaco-canyon-great-house-172140. Maestri, Nicoletta. (2018, March 13). Pueblo Bonito: Chaco Canyon Great House in New Mexico. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pueblo-bonito-chaco-canyon-great-house-172140 Maestri, Nicoletta. "Pueblo Bonito: Chaco Canyon Great House in New Mexico." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pueblo-bonito-chaco-canyon-great-house-172140 (accessed March 19, 2018).