Geoglyphs in the Amazon

Researchers long thought that the cultural history of the Amazon rainforest region only featured small bands of hunters and gatherers, much like today’s indigenous cultures. Archaeological research is now showing something quite different:

Dr. Jose Iriarte of Exeter University, UK tells BBC News, “While some researchers think that Amazonia was inhabited by small bands of hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators who had a minimal impact on the environment, and that the forest we see today is pristine and untouched for thousands of years – mounting evidence is showing this may not be the case.”

“This evidence suggests that Amazonia may have been inhabited by large, numerous, complex and hierarchical societies that had a major impact on the environment; what we call the ‘cultural parkland hypothesis’,” he continues.

As land was cleared for agriculture, people started to discover interesting earthworks long hidden by the jungle foliage. Since the late 1970s, researchers have documented over 450 different glyph areas in the Amazon. Some of the earthworks are intricate, geometric shapes. How did they get there? What were they used for? I always love pondering these kinds of mysteries. Theories about the purpose of the glyphs range from water drainage, use in ceremonials, and defensive sites. I’m looking forward to reading more research about this in the coming years.

Geoglyphs on deforested land at the Fazenda Colorada site in the Amazon rainforest, Rio Branco area, Acre. Site dated c. AD 1283. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.
Geoglyphs on deforested land at the Fazenda Colorada site in the Amazon rainforest, Rio Branco area. Site dated c. AD 1283. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

Old Stone Fort, Tennessee

It’s the middle of the summer. It’s hot, and humid, and steamy outside. I wanted to get out and visit someplace I’d never been, someplace with some interesting history, but on this particular day I wasn’t terribly inspired to drive too far, or hike too far, or do anything that would result in excessive sweating. I pulled out a map and gazed out the tiny towns within a few hours of home. I settled on a small state park near Manchester, Tennessee called Old Stone Fort. The name makes it sound like a military park, but it’s not. It’s an archaeological park with a few old mills thrown in. I’d visited the park many years ago but didn’t spend much time there, I didn’t take any pictures, and I didn’t remember much. So, I decided to drive up and spend a few hours checking it out.

The area is gorgeous. The top of the plateau is covered with a deep, dense forest and lined by two beautiful rivers that have carved deep gorges along the edges of the site. I could immediately tell it’s worth exploring.

Entrance to Old Stone Fort

I was pleased to find a small museum and bookstore close to the parking lot at the beginning of the trail. The museum is very small but has some wonderful historic maps of the site over the years. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for my checking account), I already own all of the books (mostly about archaeology) that interested me in the bookstore! There is also a large relief map of the area showing the Duck and Little Duck Rivers, the site, surrounding communities, and nearby archaeological sites. I really found the relief map and associated information interesting. Evidently, the Cumberland Plateau was very different in the days of the Woodland Indians. Instead of heavy forest, the top of the plateau was more of a grassland. The area where the park is located was an intersection of two very different ecological niches, the upper highland region and the lower river valley and forest. It would have been a great place for native people to look for many different types of plants and animals.

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Travel tips for Chaco Canyon

This is the last post of my ongoing series about visiting Chaco Culture National Historic Park. If you’re planning to visit the park, there are several things you need to know to have a more pleasant trip. To read my posts about hiking and other activities in the park, here are links to my other posts:

First, you need to know that Chaco is in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t see any hotels or any grocery stores within two hours of driving there from Santa Fe. If you’re coming in from the northwest, Bloomfield is probably the last town with any real supplies. Take what you need with you, especially if you’re planning to camp. Cell phone service is somewhat spotty in the area (and forget about cell service if you have AT&T). The last unpaved portion of the road is really awful. It took me about an hour to drive that little section of road. I ran into a couple who drove in from the south route–they got a flat tire. The southern road is evidently a lot worse than the northern route. Don’t take the southern route if you’re driving an RV or towing anything. I wouldn’t even try it in a car, only a truck. Also be sure to call the park before you head out to check on road conditions.

Road to Chaco Canyon

Beware of taking a cooler or food that needs to stay cold. I thought it would be pretty mild weather while I was there so I took a cooler full of food. I had milk, cheese, lettuce, and a few other perishables. The ice melted in a day. My lettuce wilted and turned into a bag of green mush. The cheese started to smell really, really bad. Luckily, I also had a good supply of dry foods and canned food so I didn’t starve.

Things to bring with you:


  • Large water container: Individual campsites don’t have water. You can find a water pump near the visitor’s center
  • Small water containers: If you plan to hike or even spend lots of time exploring the ruins, take a small water bottle with you and fill it up before leaving the visitor’s center. No water is available at individual ruins or along trails.
  • Plenty of cooking fuel: If you run out of fuel you’re out of luck. There isn’t a camp store.
  • Food: No food is available at the park, either. Take everything you need.
  • Sunscreen: Even the in cooler times of the year, you’ll get a sunburn!

Nice to have:

  • Binoculars: There are lots of things I wish I could have looked at through binoculars. Staircases on distant cliffs, the ramp up onto Fajada Butte, and distant views while hiking. Next time I’m definitely taking binoculars.
  • Firewood: If you visit in the cooler months, you can bring firewood with you and build a campfire at your campsite. You can’t buy or collect firewood in the park.
  • Telescope: If you have a telescope, this is one of the best places to use it. It’s very, very dark at Chaco and many of the park rangers and campground hosts are astronomy enthusiasts.
  • Tarp for shade: There are no trees or anything to provide shade at the campground. I didn’t have  a tarp and one hot afternoon ended up sitting on the ground in the little piece of shade my car offered. A tarp/shade tent would have been better.

General tips:

  • Try to plan your visit during the week in the spring and fall if you’re planning to camp. The park is most popular when the weather is mild and the campground can actually fill up. If you can arrive during the middle of the week the campground will likely be pretty empty. If you must arrive on a Friday, try to get there pretty early in the day so you can grab a campsite. The campground filled up while I was visiting. If you don’t mind really hot weather or really cold weather, you can probably find a campsite anytime in the summer or winter.
  • When you first arrive at the park, stop by the visitor’s center and watch the introductory video. It’s really helpful. You can also pick up guides to the various great houses and a wide variety of books.
  • The campground bathrooms don’t have hot water. The bathrooms at the visitor’s center do. I would wash my face in the mornings at the visitor’s center.
  • There are no showers. If you can’t stand going without a shower for a few days, don’t camp. I took a baseball cap to hide my hair.
  • If you’re going hiking on any of the backcountry trails (Penasco Blanco, Pueblo Alto, South Mesa Trail, or the Wijiji Trail) buy the Backcountry Trail Guide from the Visitor’s Center. It’s only $2 and provides an awful lot of information about things you’ll see on the hike. It’s totally worth it.
  • Either borrow or buy the guides to each pueblo. They contain really interesting and useful information.

Helpful books:

The reason I visited this park was because I read Craig Child’s book House of Rain. There are other fabulous books about Chaco, the Anasazi, and modern pueblo cultures. Reading about the area before visiting will help you better understand the culture and get more out of your visit. Some of my favorites are:


If you have a chance, visit some pueblo museums in Santa Fe or Albuquerque before heading to Chaco. That way, you can see some of the artifacts recovered from the area before you visit. Ireally enjoyed the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. There’s also a good museum at Mesa Verde National Park.


I first heard the term “archaeoastronomy” in a college course a few years ago. I’d gone back to school to study ecology and environmental issues and one of my professors worked as an archaeologist in the jungles of South America uncovering Mayan temples. He noted that many ancient cultures throughout the Americas built structures that were intended to chart the course of the stars, the sun, and the moon. I thought that was pretty cool.

When I drove down the road to Chaco, I landed right in the middle of one of the largest and most precise archaeoastronomy destinations in North America. But I didn’t really know that until I attended a fabulous lecture on a Saturday evening during my visit to the park. That evening, after dark, I headed to the Chaco planetarium to join one of the most seasoned park rangers, and an astronomy nut, to learn all about astronomical clues scattered throughout Chaco Canyon.

As I walked to the planetarium, the night sky spread out a blanket of stars across the horizon. I leaned my head back as far as it would go and took in the view. No street lights blazed down the streets here, or anywhere for miles around. It was very, very dark, making it possible to clearly see the brilliant rope of our Milky Way galaxy stretching all the way across the sky.

I sat down next to many of the other campers and ranger GB Cornucopia stepped up to the front. He flipped on a projector that showed a time lapse movie of stars racing across Fajada Butte.

Fajada Butte Chaco Canyon [Read more…]

Penasco Blanco and the Supernova Pictograph

I’d finally reached my last day at Chaco. I’d explored all of the great houses on the driving loop and had hiked a backcountry trail to Pueblo Alto and the Jackson Stairs, but I knew I needed to wrap up my visit to the park if I wanted to make it to some other areas in New Mexico before I started the boring driving back to Tennessee. For my last day, I decided to check out the longest hike in the park to Penasco Blanco. This hike not only leads to one of the more distant great houses perched high up on a mesa overlooking the valley of Pueblo Bonito, but I’d also hike right by the pictograph that might represent the ginormous supernova of 1054, a pictograph that evidently Carl Sagan made famous. I’d attended an archaeoastronomy lecture the previous evening at the park’s planetarium and I really, really wanted to see this famous pictograph for myself.

I again parked at Pueblo del Arroyo and started down the dusty brown trail. I soon reached Kin Kletso, noted some people scrambling up the cliff wall to see Pueblo Alto, and continued straight down the canyon into the bleak landscape ahead. The canyon floor was flat, brown, and rather uninteresting. No trees, no animals, and few birds. Just rock, spindly shrubs, blue sky, and wind.

Hike to Penasco Blanco

Not too far down the trail I ran into another trail marker showing the distance ahead. I could see one more great house on the hill to the right, Casa Chiquita (seriously, who named these ruins?). This great house is rather small compared to many of the others scattered throughout the area. Casa Chiquita was built around 1060 AD, and is built in a square shape. The rooms are tiny, only about 2×4.5 feet. As I looked straight ahead, high on the mesa directly in front of me, I could see a teeny, tiny bump on the hill. That’s the great house of Penasco Blanco.

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