Chaco Great Houses were not densely populated

Regardless of the number of inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, any hardy souls who braved the winters in this inhospitable land would have needed clothing, blankets, shelter, and heat to survive. It makes sense this would mean a fire within a room, with clothing and blankets wrapped around the body. The fire would serve double duty for cooking.

The strangeness comes when looking at the number of hearths found in the Great Houses, which is remarkably few. Thomas Windes is credited with using the number of hearths found to estimate population, with the assumption fire was required for sufficient heat to survive in the rooms of the Great Houses. “Rather than focusing on mere numbers of rooms, he chose…fire pits. The fire pit, he reasoned, is a universal necessity for permanent occupation.” (Fagan 155). Is Windes’ assumption incorrect? Or is it possible the Great Houses themselves provided adequate thermal protection, even without an on-going fire?

Perhaps these inhabitants were simply tougher than we can imagine, and so well adapted to their environment that our modern minds cannot conceive they could stay warm enough through frigid winters without the heat of a fire. Is it possible that thick piles of blankets, the combined body heat of a family unit, and domesticated dogs curled up as further insulation was sufficient to make it through the coldest of nights?

Many Great House rooms were either not designed or constructed in a way that would allow a fire to be built. Researchers have attempted to build fires in these rooms only to discover the fire snuffs out on its own due to lack of oxygen. Additionally, anyone trying to sustain a fire would have died of gradual carbon monoxide poisoning, as the ventilation would have been inadequate even if a fire could be kept burning. 

The Great Houses also function thermodynamically, each building acting as a solar recipient for heat. G.B. Cornucopia points out that during the coldest part of winter, when the sun is at its lowest point in the sky, Pueblo Bonito receives more solar energy than it would during any other time of the year. Cornucopia also mentioned that a study was performed that measured the outside temperature of the walls with a variant of 32°; however, the inside temperature of the same wall remained within 1° of variability. This suggests a strong insulation quality in the architecture and masonry of the Great Houses.

Besides the question of fire and hearths, Wendy Bustard, a Chacoan scholar, shared insight in regards to the scarcity of livable elements present in the architecture of Pueblo Bonito: “Built-in mealing bins were non-existent in the sampled rooms, fire pits, small storage facilities, and platforms were present, but rare. Rooms with no floor features overwhelm the sample…” (Bustard 90).

Combining the research, there has been compelling factual evidence that the Great Houses were not densely populated. This adds to the mysteries of Chaco: why was so much energy and resources expended to build these magnificent structures, if they were not meant to be used for their obvious purpose?