Researchers say ancient farming fields near Chaco are threatened by oil and gas

When the indigenous Puebloans lived in the Chaco Canyon area, they chose, according to a new study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Lead author Wetherbee Dorshow said these ancient agricultural fields are difficult to identify. And continued oil and gas production in the region could threaten the fields.

“There are a lot of areas that have never been surveyed that we don’t know much about,” he said. “There’s also a lot of oil and gas in areas that are highly sensitive.”

He said the fields are not lined with stone fences like the walls used in Zuni Pueblo.

Dorshow’s team used GIS — or geospatial imaging — to identify areas that the Ancestral Puebloans may have farmed during what archaeologists call the Great House period, which stretched from AD 850 to AD 1200. BC extends

Dorshow said there are a variety of different ideas about the role that Chaco Canyon played in ancestral Pueblo society. He said while some archaeologists believe most food was transported into Chaco Canyon and grown elsewhere, he and his co-author, Professor Chip Willis of the University of New Mexico, believe agriculture is abundant in and around Chaco Canyon was.

He said the ancestral Puebloans were adaptable and monitored things like where rain fell. They moved weirs or structures designed to control the flow of water to respond to weather patterns.

According to Dorshow, the archeology is prone to site bias, meaning the focus is mostly on structures like the Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Culture National Historical Park. To reduce site bias, the researchers considered a landscape scale.

Researchers studied hydrological variables, soil and vegetation to determine where the agricultural fields may have been located.

Dorshow said that when they visit the sites after identifying them, they often find evidence of earlier farming, such as pollen records or artifacts like stone picks. Based on his research, Dorshow believes that the indigenous Puebloans who lived in and around Chaco Canyon grew large amounts of food.

Researchers also looked at where oil and gas development occurs and found that many of these overlap with where agricultural fields were likely to be located.

“I would hope that people would look at this and other similar studies to broaden the definition of what might be archaeologically sensitive,” he said.

Dorshow said oil and gas production will not stop in the Chaco area, but by taking a closer look at where the agricultural fields would have been, projects could be postponed to avoid disrupting the fields. This could mean changing the route of a pipeline to avoid cutting through an old agricultural field.

“It’s an archaeological landscape out there,” Dorshow said, adding that people shouldn’t think of it as deforested and dry sites.

Oil and gas development in the Chaco area has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, leading to the State Land Office imposing a moratorium on new leases on state lands within 10 miles of the park in 2019 and the federal government in the past Year with the implementation followed a 20-year moratorium. Both opponents of drilling near Chaco and proponents of production in the region say the 10-mile buffer zone is an arbitrary limit.

Puebloan ancestral settlements have been found in southwestern Colorado, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. These include places like Mesa Verde National Park, Chimney Rock National Monument, Bears Ears National Monument, and Aztec Ruins National Monument.

An ancient road system connected Chaco Canyon to various remote communities.

Environmentalists and Indigenous people say the US Department of the Interior is not doing enough to protect the Greater Chaco region, which includes sites sacred to the Navajo. Last week, a coalition of groups sued the US Bureau of Land Management, as well as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, New Mexico acting state director Melanie Barnes, and US Bureau of Land Management assistant state director for minerals Sheila Malory. The coalition is rejecting a decision to confirm a leasehold sale, conducted under former President Donald Trump’s administration, that issued leases for 42 lots at BLM’s Rio Puerco and Farmington field offices. The BLM has also approved approximately 120 drilling permits on eight of these lots.

Those leases, the coalition argues, will threaten the Sisnaateel Mesa Complex. This 20-mile area is sacred to the Navajo or Diné and is central to their cosmology.