Imagine drinking from a cup without a bottom. How about taking a bath in a tub without a drain plug? Now, imagine living like this day after day. This was the plight of those who once populated the nearly bone dry land of Wupatki, which hoarded every drop of water as soon as it touched ground. Not far from the Sunset Crater, the Wupatki Pueblo stands tall against the painted skies, and speaks of a time when resourcefulness and total communion with nature were the only true methods of survival!
In the Hopi language, Wupatki means “it was cut long”. A definite understatement, considering the more than 800 ruins scattered around the 35,000 plus acres of Wupatki National Monument’s vast landscape. After the eruption of Sunset Volcano in about 1100, the ancient people migrated toward this area. The Sinagua, Kayenta Anasazi, and Cohonina peoples converged to create a thriving, peaceful community amidst the infinite beauty of Arizona’s unsettled ancient landscape.
Combine lava flows and volcanic ash with some very hot, very dry climate, and you get living conditions that did not cater to the thirsty. Even today, the Wupatki Pueblo is lucky to get 8” of annual rainfall. The ancient settlers relied on annual snow and rainfalls as their main water supply. The Sinagua people were named after the Sierra Sin Agua (mountain without water), coined by Spanish explorers who,
centuries later, found the San Francisco Peaks to be lacking in the agua department!
Necessity truly is the mother of invention, however, and nothing confirms this more than the creative methods developed by the Ancient Pueblo Peoples to catch every precious drop of water available. From studying climate and seasons, and constructing catchments and dams, to crafting pottery and flasks, and devising methods for growing crops, like corn and squash, without irrigation, their intelligence and perseverance ensured that they would not wilt under the sweltering desert sun.
Not only adept in skills of survival, they were also consummate architects. Using the very dirt beneath their feet, they constructed efficient, sturdy housing known as the pueblos. The largest of these, the Wupatki Pueblo, boasted 100 rooms, a lookout tower, a community meeting room, and a ceremonial court. From the confines of this fortress, the Ancient Pueblo People developed a thriving agricultural and trading center.
And then they vanished. Without so much as note. Whether the Wupatki settlers left one by one or in large groups, many theories exist as to the reasoning for their disappearance from this thriving settlement around the late 1200’s. Climate changes could have made survival all but impossible. Winds of hope for a more promising future elsewhere may have blown through the open windows. Perhaps, as the Hopi Tribe believes, they may have lost focus on what is important, failed to lead moral and productive lives, and as a result suffered many social and ecological catastrophes, forcing them to move away.
Several centuries later, in 1857, by fate, or a simple change in direction, Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves, and his band of exploratory gents stumbled upon the ruins. During a mission to chart the Zuni and Colorado River territories, they came face to face with a mysterious past in the form of the abandoned dwellings of Wupatki. Less than a century later, in 1924, the Wupatki National Monument was created to protect the Wupatki and Citadel pueblos. In 1966, Wupatki was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, more than 2600 archaeological sites have been designated within the Monument. Some of the ruins remain inaccessible; however, the Wupatki Pueblo Trail provides opportunity for extensive exploration of the largest of these ruins.
While the Sinagua, and other native peoples, may have walked off into the historical sunset, becoming Hisatsinom (defined in Hopi language as “people of long ago”), the Hopi believe themselves to be a direct ascendants of this mysterious gathering of people, who contributed to the genetic and cultural makeup of the Hopi tribe, and continually use knowledge of this fascinating history to learn and grow as a people today.
*Above photos on this page: Creative Commons.