March 28, 2020


Aim for Excellence

Legendary ‘Tree of Life’ in New Mexico’s Ancient Past Might Not Be What We Thought

For hundreds of many years, it lay undisturbed. Then, practically a century back, archaeologists found...

For hundreds of many years, it lay undisturbed. Then, practically a century back, archaeologists found it: a single pine tree, buried amidst the grandest of all the great houses of Chaco society.


Pueblo Bonito (Gorgeous Town), in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, has lengthy been thought of the cultural hub of the Ancestral Puebloans who dwelled below for centuries, founding the site over 1,000 many years back, prior to abandoning it about 1126 CE.

When they departed, the villagers still left powering a wondrous legacy of enormous constructions that at the time stood up to 5 storeys superior, crammed with hundreds of rooms, and cultural artefacts, together with pottery, musical devices, and instruments for use in historic rituals.

They also still left a thing else powering: the lone log of a ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), measuring six metres (twenty ft) lengthy, which archaeologists couldn’t make feeling of when they stumbled on it through a dig in 1924.

A modern reconstruction of what Pueblo Bonito could possibly have seemed like. (Countrywide Park Company)

“At the south finish of the West Court docket we unexpectedly found the continues to be of a significant pine that had stood there, alive and eco-friendly, when Pueblo Bonito was inhabited,” the scientists later wrote of the obtain.

“Its decayed trunk lay on the final utilised pavement, and its great, snaglike roots preclude the chance of its ever acquiring been moved.”


This vivid description – and the assumptions inherent within it – have ever given that resonated in the course of archaeological and anthropological literature, producing a wealthy legend close to this seemingly exceptional pine, on your own in the otherwise treeless natural environment of Pueblo Bonito.

Within just these narratives, the pine has been characterised as a ‘tree of life’ or ‘world tree’ imbued with cosmological importance, notions of delivery symbolism, or other mysterious speculations about its goal (together with that it could possibly be a giant sun-dial).

“It is apt that the world tree really should be viewed as the centre of the Universe, for it is relative to this axis that sacred time, the heavenly rhythm reflected by the engage in of light-weight and shadow, results in being the geometry and symmetry of a sacred location,” 1 review noticed.

In rebuttal, a new review led by tree-ring expert Christopher Guiterman from the College of Arizona implies some of the extra fanciful ideas close to this majestic pine “have not been rigorously analyzed”, and features an choice explanation for the tree’s backstory.

“Centered on converging strains of evidence – documentary documents, strontium isotopes, and tree-ring provenance screening – we existing a new origin for the Plaza Tree,” the authors write in their paper.

“It did not improve in Pueblo Bonito or even nearby in Chaco Canyon.”

008 plaza tree 4Cross-portion of a sample taken from the Pueblo Bonito plaza tree. (Christopher Guiterman)

According to the evidence Guiterman’s crew discovered, together with comparisons of tree rings in a sample from the Plaza Tree with samples from trees in nearby areas, the famed pine did not ever lay its roots in Pueblo Bonito.

“We have this amazing database from 100-in addition many years of tree-ring science,” claims Guiterman.


“Trees from the San Juan Mountains, the Jemez Mountains or the Chuska Mountains – they all have their very own type of flavour, their very own peculiar signature.”

By analysing all those signatures, alongside with over evidence to day the tree, the crew concludes that the town’s majestic pine lived for about 250 many years (until eventually about the early 1100s) in the Chuska Mountains, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Chaco Canyon.

At some place close to then – which is challenging to know for positive, given that the outer levels of the log were being shed to decay – the tree died, either from pure results in or from remaining felled. Then, it was transported to Pueblo Bonito, where by the crew claims it could possibly have been intended for firewood, utilized as a bench, or erected as a standing pole.

008 plaza tree 4Pueblo Bonito as it is currently. (Thomas Swetnam)

“It could have toppled or been still left standing to eventually collapse onto the plaza,” the scientists make clear. “Lastly, it was buried by windblown sand over the centuries.”

Whilst not totally discounting the chance that the tree could possibly have served as a gnomon (the section of a sundial that casts a shadow), the crew claims their “mundane” explanations are significantly extra possible than it remaining a symbol of ‘birth’ or ‘life’ in Pueblo Bonito, provided we now know it was a dead, imported tree, and not the lone remnant of a mysterious Chaco forest for which no other evidence survives.

Specifically why these historic villagers felt the want to transportation the giant log this sort of a great distance continues to be a persuasive concern, but the crew is self-confident the rest of this mysterious legend can eventually be place to rest.

“If a marker of anything at all, the Plaza Tree of Pueblo Bonito reflects the remaining fluorescence or decline of Pueblo Bonito,” the crew claims, “relatively than its starting.”

The results are reported in American Antiquity.