How Aztecs Told History

August 11, 2020

For the warriors and wanderers who became the Aztec people, truth was not singular and history was braided from many voices.

I gripped the steering wheel as the car started to slide. Slowly, slowly I manoeuvred the tyres back into the sandy tracks of what they called the road. I had set out from the tiny desert town of Cuba in northwestern New Mexico and had left the highway behind me where the sign pointed toward Chaco Canyon. The owner of the ranch where I was staying had told me that she had heard the road to Chaco was open today and I had nodded cheerfully. I realised now that I should have wondered why it might not be.

The loose sandy track was from another century. If it had been raining, it would certainly have sent me spinning off the edge. As it was, the car managed to hold on. Just barely. Hours later, I lurched through the entrance of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. It was 104 degrees Fahrenheit outside of the car, and almost blindingly bright. I tried to let my eyes adjust, determined to manage without the sunglasses or hats that hadn’t existed when ancient Puebloan peoples built this place 1,000 years ago. I lasted 10 minutes, then put on the shades.

Soon, armed with food and water and a map, I set out. I was excited. I was entering a world I had not known existed. No book, no map and no website had been able to prepare me for this hidden land. The segment of the San Juan River that had once cut into rock and forged the canyon where I stood still existed as a trickle. About a quarter of a mile on either side of the wash rose the dramatic cliff walls of the canyon, and scattered along the base of those walls were about 20 ancient structures. It was hard to tell what they were without going closer.

I walked along the path to Pueblo Bonito. Heat-seared grasses swayed in the breeze. Part of the rock-built structure rose several stories. I entered a sort of alley between the great wall of the building and the wall of the cliff. Looking down, I saw a shard of black-and-white pottery: I was standing, I supposed, on top of an ancient garbage dump. In the silence, insects whirred, making the same sound heard by the person who had left the pot here, something like 40 generations ago.

I entered the building and wandered from room to room. The chambers were smallest of all towards the very back – the part they had built first, in about the year 850, and retained as sacred space when they built in later centuries, peaking in about 1050. The oldest part was where archaeologists had found the people’s greatest treasures, carefully transported from far-off Mexico.

The bits of polished jade and stunning quetzal feathers had come from Central America, via a vast trade network dominated by cities in Mexico such as the fabled Teotihuacan. There, far to the south, the corn-and-beans agricultural complex was much older than it was here, and it had engendered a wealthy civilisation, home to pyramids, hot chocolate and pictographic writing.

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