Wupatki Ruins National Monument
About 1000 years ago, the people who inhabited these lands near the San Francisco Mountains in what is now north central Arizona had their world turned upside down by the violent eruption of Sunset Crater.
Somehow these resilient people carried on in spite of the eruption. But that eruption was not all bad. The lava brought new nutrients to the soils as well as new building materials. We humans persevere, and sometimes change brings new opportunities.
The area near the San Francisco Mountains has been volcanically active for about 6 million years, so the eruption wasn’t especially unique, but it did bring challenges. This land is a harsh environment today just as it was 1000 years ago – never enough water, hot arid summers and sometimes brutally cold winters. Growing crops was a tremendous challenge then as it is now.
Yet the inhabitants of these lands persevered, and for a time maybe even prospered. The Wupatki Pueblo was one of the larger settlements in this area, and had perhaps over 100 rooms. By 1180 there were thousands of people farming and trading in this region, but by 1250 when the Sunset Crater eruptions had subsided, these pueblos and settlements were gone. Their descendants, the Hopi, Zuni and Navajo, still inhabit the southwestern United States. Over 125 different pottery styles have been found at Wupatki Monument. This indicates an extensive trading system.
In fact, the ball court at Wupatki is quite similar to those seen in Central and South America from the Aztec and Mayan cultures. We know that peoples living to the south had shells, salt, cotton and ball courts in every town. To the east, near the Chaco Canyon region in northwestern New Mexico, people had Mesoamerican macaws as well as copper and turquoise. So, evidence of widespread trade is quite abundant.
The pueblo construction of Wupatki is fairly typical of the time period in the southwestern US. The Wupatki pueblo had 3 stories with no exterior entrances on the ground level. The masonry construction was quite detailed with the same structures as found in other areas in the region – multi-level dwellings, kivas, and other ceremonial structures.
In fact, the construction was so good that in the early days of exploration at the Wupatki Monument, rangers lived in a few of the rooms at Wupatki, where those rooms still had intact timbers, floors, walls and ceilings. Remember these buildings were constructed nearly 1000 years ago! By the 1950s, this practice had stopped and improvements were deconstructed.
What always mystifies me is that there was this enormous civilization all across the southwestern US. These cities had roads connecting them. In fact even today, one can still see some of the ancient roadways extending north and south out of Chaco Canyon, which may have served as a major trading and religious hub for the entire region. While I was at Wupatki, a ranger told me that there were literally hundreds of small pueblo ruins all over this area.
And yet, by the mid 1200s these cities were completely abandoned; the people gone and scattered over many, many miles. What happened to cause such a mass migration and cultural change? Perhaps it was a climate issue. There is strong evidence all over the American Southwest of a prolonged drought, much like what this region is experiencing now. Perhaps the people outgrew their available resources. Perhaps the scarcity of resources caused famines or even wars. We may never know the answers.
But this is what we do know. Christopher Columbus didn’t “discover” America. He may have indeed discovered lands unknown to most Europeans, but America was here, and occupied. And it had great civilizations that were thriving while Europe was in the Dark Ages. The ancient Americans were quite adept at constructing vast cities and had well established trade routes and patterns. They had an intimate and detailed knowledge of astronomy and the patterns of the sun, moon and stars. Their calendars were amazingly accurate. And they did all of this in one of the harshest areas of the earth.
So, during this month of Columbus Day here in the US, while we should honor him for his navigational prowess, we should pay homage to those indigenous peoples of our continent who were indeed the first Americans and who persevered through some unbelievably difficult conditions.
Well, this just about wraps up my time at Wupatki, and of the journey through the incredible lands of Sunset Crater National Monument. As much as I recall visiting Sunset Crater with my folks as a kid, I had no real memories of the fascinating area at Wupatki. Maybe we didn’t make it here; who knows. But this is an incredible area, and if you get a chance to venture a bit north of old Route 66, now I-40, this is definitely a great place to visit.
For those of you who have been following the Mother Road – Route 66 series, more adventures await. I drove that evening to Cameron, Arizona and stayed in a wonderful hotel, the Grand Canyon Motel at the Cameron Trading Post, located on the Navajo Reservation. I will be writing about this in my next post.
I really hope you enjoyed this tour, and that you were able to get a feel of these majestic lands.
Thanks for stopping by my blog, and I wish you all the best as we enter the new season!