Ancient Sinagua and Kayenta Anasazi, Flagstaff, Arizona
Wupatki National Monument
In the long run maybe it’s good fortune that the Wupatki National Monument northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona resides in relative obscurity, never given a second thought by the millions who race north on 89 to crowd shoulder-to-shoulder and stare into the Grand Canyon.
Their loss is our gain because infrequent visitors means peace and quiet out on the wide open desert expanses and allows you to stroll unhurried through the splendidly preserved 800 year-old ruins that once marked a cultural hub, a melting pot of ancient Sinagua and Kayenta Anasazi, and to a lesser extent Cohonina and Hohokam peoples.
The lay of the land
A stark blue canopy of endless sky defines the 56 square mile monument as much as the broad swaths of low undulating volcanic hills, sage and tan prairie grasses. Bone-dry, it has been called a desert with trees, pinion and juniper; appealing to the eye but hostile to the touch. Much of the crunchy ground is not dirt, not even sand, but a sea of sharp black cinders the texture of granola and broken glass with sporadic outcroppings of red Moenkopi sandstone.
Gazing out at the endless horizon from atop the crumbling Citadel, little suggests that this was a vast farming community, and that scattered among the pinion-juniper and prairie grasses are 2,500 known archeological sites and 800 ruins. For more than 100 years, from the late 1000s to 1200, the area thrived as a cultural crossroads sustaining, it is said, 4,000 native peoples who shared their lives and cultures. By some accounts they intermarried, collaborated in construction and farming, engaged in trade with distant southern lands known today as Mexico, and left pottery and woven baskets for archeologists to mull over.
The eruption of Sunset Crater and the Sinagua migration
Rust colored Sunset Crater lies twenty miles south of the monument and is one of 400 mountains and hills that dominate the area around Flagstaff. The highest of these volcanic protrusions in the San Francisco Peak area is Humphrey’s Peak, a striking southern fixture from any vantage point in the monument. At 12,633 feet it is Arizona’s tallest mountain, and a most sacred natural shrine of the Navajo and Hopi.
Some say the monument region became inhabited by the Sinagua when Sunset Crater erupted between 1040 and 1100 showering 800 square miles of northern Arizona with cinders and ash. When it blew its top, Sinagua Indians (Spanish for “without water”) dwelled in the surrounding mountains in small pit houses among the towering Ponderosa on the edge of clearings like Medicine Valley and Bonito Park. They had been living there for over 200 hundred years, but the exact reason for their migration north to the monument area is debatable.
Some contend they were gradually drawn out of the mountains by an increase in rainfall and warmer weather from 1050 to 1150 that made the semi-desert regions more crop-worthy. Others claim the volcano’s repeated eruptions, which continued on and off for 150 years, sent them scurrying for their lives. Still others see the reason as a combination of factors; fear and a general distaste for falling hot cinders and boulders the size of condos, and increased rainfall to the north combined with a convenient blanket of freshly fallen ash that formed a fertile mulch. One can only speculate what role the specter of angry fire-breathing gods played in their decision to migrate.
Whatever the reason, the Sinagua made their way north to monument lands, even hauling with them their pit house beams for future construction of the pueblos at Wupatki. And it is these masonry pueblos that are the principle draw today.
Wukoki and Wupatki Pueblos
Many begin their visit to Wupatki Monument at the north entrance to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, 12 miles from Flagstaff off of U.S. 89. A 35-mile well-paved loop road leads you through Ponderosa pine forests, the black-as-coal Bonito Lava Flow, sweeping cinder cones and crimson colored Sunset Crater. Dropping down to the arid environment from the mountains opens up broad vistas of the Painted Desert.
Wukaki pueblo should be your first stop. It’s best described as a fortress. Hulking, thick-walled, three-stories tall and perched atop a sandstone outcropping, Wukaki is an island in a wash of black cinders. No artificial reconstruction here by the Park service; the walls are authentic and seem to grow out of bedrock.
With square corners, neatly stacked sandstone and siltstone slabs it looks like it was built with posterity in mind. Like most of the major accessible ruins, Wukoki was situated up high with good vantage points in all directions though no one knows if this location was chosen for defense, line-of-sight communication with other structures, or they just liked the view.
Down the road near the visitor center, Wupatki pueblo is the monument’s flagship and comprised as many as 100 rooms. Like Wukaki pueblo, the Wupatki apartment complex seems to grow out of the natural foundation; sprawling, stacked, crumbling and a delight to wander through. A strong community can be presumed by the large community room and sprawling ball court. But don’t think of these ancients as primitive corn-shuckers for they built on a scale that required sophisticated engineering and unique masonry skills that our contemporaries find difficult to duplicate.
If the Sinagua built Wupatki pueblo it was most likely done with the help and expertise of the Anasazi who were expert stone masons who had been living and building in the black sand basin for a number of years. Some believe that the community, numbering in the hundreds and drawn no doubt by permanent springs, were comprised of varied backgrounds judging by the different styles of pottery found scattered about. Other archeologists counter they were all Sinagua. But who really knows?
The Citadel and Lomaki pueblos and the Box Canyon dwellings
Perched atop a lava-capped mesa is the Citadel with commanding views of the fractured, rolling landscape. It’s an easy climb to the summit of the steep-sided butte, the paved path winding past the smaller, compact Nalakihu ruins. The Citadel rose two stories in parts, contained thirty rooms and was home to roughly sixty people.
As was the custom, interior doors were low, few windows ventilated the place and entrance was generally through the roof. Look closely and you can still see terraces that defined their fields, and to the north the Box Canyon dwellings and Lomatki Pueblo are visible, if you squint.
On the short foot trail leading to Lomatki pueblo (which means beautiful house for good reason), you pass two small, quaint ruins perched on either side of Box Canyon, a small collapsed earth crack. They estimate that one extended family lived here.
Standing on the rim of the small canyon early in the morning one is overcome by a sense of isolation, however, there’s ample evidence that these prehistoric Indians were well connected with the outside world through a vast trading network that extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of California and the Pacific Coast. It’s a plausible conclusion given the discovery of exotic goods from those regions like sea shells, copper bells, pottery, parrots and macaws.
House of Tragedy - human nature at its worst
The monument area might have been a congenial melting pot of Anasazi, Sinagua and Cohonina, but one grisly discovery tarnished this idyllic image. At the House of Tragedy archeologists uncovered abundant evidence of violent death; parts of two legs perhaps ripped from a corpse that was never found, a young woman’s skeleton with her leg torn from the socket, a crushed skull, and some “long bones,” broken, hollowed-out and roasted over a fire possibly for the marrow.
Whether they were the victims of nomadic raiders, inter-tribal warfare, the local court system or someone’s appetite no one knows but it goes to illustrate how things haven’t changed all that much in 800 years if Rwanda is any measure of a man.
And then they were gone
Speculation is rampant on why Wupatki became depopulated in the 1200s. It appears to have been gradual and could have been caused by increased drought or stupendously powerful windstorms that sweep through this part of Arizona that would have blown away the ash mulch resulting in crop failure. Precious water sources could have been clogged in the process.
Some believe social unrest or disease was the culprit, but whatever the reason, the people who built this sophisticated culture and lived in relative harmony for a relatively short period of prehistoric time left some wonderful ruins for twenty-first century man to explore, under the deep blue desert sky out on the high desert plains of the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona.
Photo Gallery of John Treadwell Dunbar.