Sinagua Sites and Perspective on the Past

I spend a lot of time these days thinking about humanity’s role on this planet.  Are we just another species like all the rest?  Or are we a species that is vested with a greater degree of responsibility for caretaking this place, by virtue of our “more advanced” consciousness?  Is nature something that is separate from us, something our presence disrupts and interferes with?  Or are we as much a part of it as all the other living and non-living planetary residents?  Most of all, how do we make sense of our increasing influence over…well, pretty much everything?


I really don’t know how to answer these questions for myself, much less for society. I do know that spending time in different environments and cultures seems like it deepens the conversation.  This weekend, I was reminded that one of those environments is a temporal and not a spatial one – the past.

So often I look around and see my surroundings only as they are in the moment.  I see the buildings that exist in the downtown of right now, the trees that are around my house today, the mountains that have a certain shape in this geological moment.  I forget that all of these things, including the landscape, are temporary.  I suspect I’m not alone in living from that functional – but false – mindset.

Visiting archaeological sites pulls me out of that mindset, and reminds me that around us and beneath us there are layers and layers of evidence of human beings’ interactions with their surroundings.  This is especially the case in Arizona, where the dry environment and the sparse modern habitation patterns (at least until the last century) have allowed a great deal of ancient material culture to survive into the present day.

In central Arizona, there’s a constellation of sites spread out over a distance of about thirty miles – Tuzigoot and Montezuma’s Castle National Monuments, Montezuma Well, and the V-V petroglyph panel.  All of these are remnants of a culture that archaeologists refer to as the Sinagua, although, of course, there is no evidence whatsoever that these people thought of themselves with any sense of communal identity.

The people we have lumped into this category lived between 500 and 1450 CE in and around Arizona’s Verde and Salt Rivers, in the vicinity of the modern cities of Camp Verde, Sedona, and Flagstaff.  They were subsistence farmers who raised corn, beans, squash, and cotton and augmented that diet by hunting and fishing.  Early on, they lived in pithouses, but they began to live in pueblos and cliff dwellings over time.  It is clear that they participated in an extensive trade network that reached south into Mexico and north into Colorado and Utah.

Montezuma’s Castle is a thirty-room cliff dwelling that probably housed about forty people.  It is located just above the banks of the Verde River, and evidence suggests that the residents farmed the floodplain just below their home-with-a-view.  In addition to avoiding flooding, their southern exposure dwelling also offered them direct sun in the winter and full-time shade in the summer.  Their chosen spot provided natural walls on three sides; the structure’s other walls were built from river cobbles and mud.  The wooden beams that protrude from the dwelling (as well as the ladders that they would have used to access it) were made from Arizona sycamores – gorgeous, stately trees that still live the riverbed today.  They were just beginning to leaf out when I visited, and their presence contributed to my feeling that the Montezuma’s Castle families chose a truly idyllic spot to inhabit.

Just upstream from Montezuma’s Castle, along a tributary of the Verde River called Wet Beaver Creek, lie Montezuma Well and the V-V petroglyph panel.  The well is a geological curiosity; 1.6 million gallons of water flow through the sinkhole each day.  The water in there right now fell as snow on the peaks above Flagstaff 10,000 years ago.  It percolated through limestone for those ten millennia before emerging at this site.  The water is not potable; it contains ten times as much CO2 as lake water, making it uninhabitable for fish and amphibians.  It has, however, developed its own unique fauna, five of which exist only in this roughly 200-foot diameter well – a leech, a shrimp-like amphipod, a diatom, a snail, and a scorpion.  The water exits the well through vents at its bottom and then flows into the creek, channeled by a series of ditches that were first constructed by the Sinagua and then further engineered by historic settlers in the area. The water has been used for irrigation since the 700’s.

An impressive petroglyph panel sits a little further up the creek, on the historic V-V Ranch land.  Over 1000 figures have been pecked into the sandstone here, making it the most significant extant example of Sinagua rock art.

Tuzigoot is a pueblo built atop a hill near Cottonwood, AZ. The three-story structure had 110 rooms, and it, too, sits above the Verde River – about twenty linear miles upstream from Montezuma’s Castle.  It is thought that about 400 people lived there in the roughly 300 years that the site was in use (1000-1400 CE).  This community was ideally located for trade, and it is likely that it flourished for this reason, as well as for the fertility of the Verde River floodplain surrounding it.

These aren’t the only sites in the Verde Valley.  Remnants of numerous other small dwellings are scattered throughout the area, and archaeologists believe that 4000-6000 people lived in the Verde Valley in the 1300’s, just before the area was largely abandoned.

Looking at maps of the distribution of human habitations helps me gain perspective – especially when I see a series of graphics showing how population density and concentration has shifted over time.  Very often, Southwestern archaeological interpretations are focused on the questions of “Where did they go?” or “What happened?”  And for good reason – we are not accustomed to thinking about entire populations of people just vanishing from an area.

Yet, there is evidence for vanishing communities in nearly every time period and every place.  People frequently move to an area, figure out how to make a life there, and then tip the ecological balance in such a way as to make it uninhabitable.  In the past, the scales have been thrown off by overfarming, overfertilizing, overirrigating, overfishing, overhunting, and deforestation.  A little natural climate change has often helped the process along.  These factors should sound familiar.  We’re engaged in all of them right now, and, in addition, to whatever natural climate change may be occurring, we’ve got significant and undeniable human-caused climate change happening at an alarming rate.

In some respects, it’s reassuring to be reminded of the evidence of population transience; people have been exhausting their living environments for eons.  They’ve moved and adapted, or they’ve died out. You could almost argue that the process is “natural.”

That said, there is an enormous difference of scale between the environmental manipulations past cultures have performed and the ones in which we are engaged on a daily basis.  What we are doing with our fossil fuel burning, drilling, mining, fracking, waste production, and genetic modification of food so far exceeds anything that has ever happened in the archaeological record it is almost impossible to draw comparisons.

Still, I find myself tempted to do so.  We are altering our environment in a way that will make certain areas uninhabitable.  When that happens, there will be the kind of “vanishing” we see in sites like Tuzigoot and Montezuma’s Castle?  Some subpopulations may die out, but other may continue to exist – although almost certainly with different lifestyles.

Is that okay with us?  Although we don’t know for sure, we suspect that our predecessors didn’t know they were headed for trouble.  We do.  Sadly, it doesn’t seem to matter to many people, and few of our behaviors are changing.  To that end, our understanding of the process isn’t making much of a difference.

Maybe it shouldn’t.  Maybe what’s coming to us is “natural” – a part of the ongoing evolution of planet Earth.

I can’t quite buy that, though – not when I see so much human ingenuity.  It’s on display in the Montezuma Well irrigation channels, the astronomically significant petroglyphs on the V-V panel, the brilliance of a cliff dwelling that stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  It’s also on display in organic farming techniques, green construction innovations, and bioidentical pharmaceutical developments.

I wonder if we’ll use that ingenuity to address the big questions: How many of us is too many?  How much stuff is too much?  When is it time to stop – stop reproducing, stop extracting, stop consuming?  Establishing and adhering to limits has never been our species’ strong point; the archaeological record can attest to that.  That weakness of ours hasn’t been a game-ender yet.  It’s the “yet” part that worries me.


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