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Friday, May 9, 2014

In The Footsteps of The Prehistoric Sinagua People

Rick Morgan

We are back in Colorado but on our trip home we managed to visit several very interesting archeological sites of the Sinagua people. While boondocking just south of Cottonwood, AZ we spent several days exploring the region around Sunset Crater volcano and the Verde Valley.

Between the 6th and 15th centuries the area northeast to southwest of Flagstaff was home to the Sinagua people. Sinagua is a rough translation from Spanish meaning “without water”.



The earliest inhabitants in this area were forced to evacuate due to the eruption of Sunset Crater in 1064 (the most recent eruption on the Colorado Plateau). The volcano continued to erupt intermittently for a couple of hundred years. Yet, the Sinagua moved back into the area and established farming communities and built masonry pueblos. More pictures here.





 Wupatki National Monument is one such Sinagua village. Some have speculated that farming was enhanced as a result of a layer of ash that was laid down from the eruption of Sunset Crater. The ash acted as mulch by retaining moisture. Yet, more likely influences were increased rainfall and advanced farming practices. 




Walnut Canyon National Monument is another, although totally different settlement just south of Wupatki. Unlike the large above-ground villages of Wupatki, Walnut Canyon is a community of cliff dwellings.

I think the difference between these two communities is fascinating and says something about how both groups adapted to their unique natural surroundings.

When visiting these sites it is easy to think that all the exploration is over – that there is nothing new to uncover. Yet…in the visitor center at Wupatki there were two intact and almost perfectly preserved large pots that were recently found by two volunteers while hiking in the area. Wow!

Resource depletion and drought are the most likely explanation of the migration from the Sunset Crater area in the 13th century. Some families probably moved east into Zuni territory. Many others migrated to the Hopi mesas. In fact, migration is part of the Hopi oral history.

Other Sinagua moved southwest and built villages in the Verde River valley. Montezuma Castle, Montezuma Well and Tuzigoot National Monuments are wonderful preserved histories of these communities during the 14th an 15th centuries. They also represent the type of villages that were home to between 6,000 and 8,000 people in the Verde Valley.



Montezuma Castle is a one of the best preserved ruins we have seen. The impressive 5 story, 20 room cliff dwelling has absolutely nothing to do with the Aztec emperor. 




Montezuma Well is a community of cliff dwellings surrounding a natural lake. The water is highly carbonated and has a high level of arsenic. So, no fish but lots of leeches. More pictures here.




Tuzigoot is unique in that it was built on a hilltop surrounded by a natural spring fed marsh – a rarity in the desert. One of the highlights of our visit here was JoAnne seeing a Gila Monster – I was hiking to the top of the ruins and missed it. Unfortunately, she did not have her phone or camera. More pictures here.

Again, resource depletion, lack of water, and possibly over population lead to migration out of this area. By the 15th century the Sinagua as a distinct culture had vanished.

Visiting these sites and seeing such variety in location and living accommodations provided an interesting perspective and better understanding of these early inhabitants of the area. As is the case with so many of these historic sites – looting by past generations did great damage to our ability to piece together the whole story. Yet, as we traveled from site to site and walked through the ruins it was easy to visualize the Sinagua, building their homes, farming the land, and raising their families.  As a headline on one of the brochures read "Echoes from the past".


Next up Yellowstone with two of our Grandkids. Can’t wait.