Wupatki National Monument
Following the eruption of Sunset Volcano in the 11th century, thousands of prehistoric people came to settle on the high plains north of modern Flagstaff immediately surrounding the 1,000-foot cinder cone. Within this densely-populated area a unique blending of cultures occurred and a booming trading center was created as the immigrants refined their knowledge of dry land agricultural techniques and began producing a surplus of food in the arid region. Of the settlements and villages which they created – which range in size from single-room structures to the multistory Wupatki Pueblo – more than hundred remain protected today in Wupatki National Monument.
Wupatki’s fascinating amalgam of artifacts, architectural styles, and evidence of cultural practices is likely due to it’s location at the intersection of multiple cultural systems: Ancestral Puebloan to the east and north, Hohokam to the south, Cohonina to the west, and the Sinaguan to the southeast (to which Wupatki-area residents could most easily be classified). The settlers who arrived beginning in the 11th and 12th century traveled from all these areas, which explains the distinct architectural characteristics and artifact patterns found in side-by-side settlements with Wupatki. Over time however cultural fusion occurred and collections of pottery within individual settlements begin to increase in diversity as new pueblos begin mixing masonry techniques and inhumation and cremation burials begin to occur in close proximity. This development of a cultural melting pot is unique within the southwest, and the archaeological record here provides tantalizing clues as to how ideas and beliefs were incorporated into different traditions.
Not long after settling around Sunset Crater the residents began taking advantage of their location at the crossroads by establishing a regional trading center, revolving around the 100-room Wupatki Pueblo and it’s associated structures. An incredible quantity and diversity of goods was found at the sprawling pueblo including macaw skeletons and copper bells from Mesoamerica, shells from the Pacific, obsidian from the north, and at least 125 distinct types of pottery. But Wupatki also served as a meeting place and as center for transmission of new ideas: the creation of a large plaza in addition to a Kiva and a ball court structure strongly suggest that the pueblo had socio-religious functions beyond commerce. The construction of both the (Puebloan) Kiva and the (Hohokam-associated) ball court structures in particular demonstrate that traditions and rituals from geographically-separate cultures were being incorporated together. It has been posited that this transmission of ideas contributed to the reorganization of southwestern cultures during the great migrations of the following centuries that resulted in the formation of historical-era tribes.
The initial rise of Wupatki was only made possible however by the settlers who were able to take advantage of the agricultural opportunities afforded by the eruption of Sunset Volcano. In an area which receives an average of only 6 to 8 inches of precipitation per year and which does not contain water sources which could be harnessed for irrigation, it was nearly impossible to grow crops prior to the 11th century. But just as at Walnut Canyon, the people that came to inhabit the area realized that the volcanic cinders acted as a mulching agent, which would provide valuable water retention in the soil. In an effort to understand agricultural production in the region, modern botanists have proved that the volcanic detritus was essential to the germination of corn; experimenting with differing amount of pumice covering the soil, they determined that corn would not grow without at least an inch of volcanic material on top of the soil (and preferably 3 inches but no more than 6). The 11th century farmers not only discovered this fact but exploited it, constructing rock alignments perpendicular to the direction of the prevailing winds in order to retain the amount of mulching material their crops required. They also refined dry farming techniques that have been demonstrated elsewhere in the region, creating reservoirs and building terraces on slopes to retain water. And finally, the farmers reduced their overall risk of crop failure by spreading fields over different areas. Their innovation allowed them to successfully support a population of thousands by growing corn, beans, and squash in an area that had been nearly uninhabitable prior to the eruption – and even cultivate cotton, a notoriously-thirty crop.