When most people think of North American civilization, they often think in terms of the last few hundred years when the pilgrims settled Plymouth or the Spanish conquered Mexico and began exploring and colonizing in what’s now California and Texas. People may think about the Native Americans, but they just think of them in the form of a primitive idea not as civilizations or cultures. We all need to rethink this.
I’ve had the wonderful opportunity and privilege to visit many remnants of the ancestral people of the Southwest. I am fascinated by their stories and always want to learn more. I think all Americans need to become more familiar with this heritage because it is a part of who we are.
I’ve shared many of my adventures to these places including the sites around the Four Corners, the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, and the ruins of the Ancestral Sonoran peoples in Arizona, and when visiting Grand Canyon I took the opportunity to visit three National Monuments that help tell the story of Northern Arizona’s ancestral people.
Wupatki National Monument
A millennium ago, one of the settlements near Grand Canyon was on the plains to the east. Today, it is known as Wupatki, meaning tall house in Hopi. The National Monument though is comprised of more than just the “tall house” ruin. There are many remnants of structures scattered through this windy landscape.
Most interesting to me is that they were built in very exposed positions instead of in protected positions like many cliff dwellings. I entered the park from the north entrance off Highway 89. The first trail from this direction is a series of three structures built on the rims of box canyons. They were left just as the Park Service found them—how they’ve come to be after 900 years of dormancy.
They are beautiful structures with magnificent craftsmanship. Instead of adobe or sun-dried bricks like you’ll see at most other Southwestern ruins, these are made of stacked stones that have been roughly shaped to stack like bricks.
The next ruin is called the Citadel because of where it was built at the top of a rocky outcropping. At the base of the citadel is a long pueblo building that has been partially reconstructed by the Park Service. A trail wraps around the outcropping and up to the untouched ruins that would have been quite the site in their heyday.
Along the drive you can see other ruins, but the next place to explore is the largest and namesake of the site—Wupatki. This was the heart of this community as it was the biggest. However, unlike many of the others in the neighborhood, this structure wasn’t built on top of anything but in a bowl.
It was a multi-story complex with more than 100 rooms all built around a clump of large stones and boulders. This was most interesting to me as they used what was there as the base of their structures and built around it. It’s almost the same as a cliff dwelling of building into a recess on a cliff wall, but instead using a rocky outcropping as the base to build off of.
The site also has remnants of kivas and ball courts. This has led archeologists to believe that this was a gathering place for visiting groups because ball courts aren’t found at other Anasazi or Sin Agua ruins, but they are found at Hohokam ruins in Central Arizona. This shows us again how sophisticated the ancient people were that they traveled, traded, and share cultural practices such as sporting competitions.
Near the ball court is a natural phenomenon that is so much fun to play with. It is a blowhole. Basically there is a large pocket of open space beneath the earth here, a large limestone cave, and because of the pressure difference between the cavern and the outside it either blows air out of the few venting holes or it sucks it in. For me it was the former. It is audible as you approach though you can’t see anything. I held my hand over it with my hat fluttering. Then I grabbed a stick from the ground and held it over as it blew up and away.
Two interesting thoughts about the blowhole: 1) Archeologists haven’t determined whether the blow hole had any significance to the ancient people of the site, and 2) there is a giant unexplored cavern underneath that whole place that will probably collapse one day. I mean what’s going to happen when it can’t handle the pressure difference anymore?
The final ruin I saw here was again built on top of a rock very exposed. If it weren’t in the middle of the American Southwest and have the landscape it has, this ruin looks like it could have been in any other part of the world like a castle on a hill.
Now, like many of the other ancestral sites in the region, the people left their homes and communities for reasons not fully known to researchers. The native people of the area though respect these people as their ancestors and these remnants as sacred having visited them for centuries.– Sunset Crater National Monument and Walnut Canyon National Monument in the next post –