Dry Creek Scenic Road

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The Sinagua People
by Kathleen Bryant
Image: Sinaguan basket, woven with yucca fibers and willow and cottonwood twigs
Photograph by George H.H. Huey

The Sinagua PeopleThe liquid notes of a canyon wren echo throughout an alcove of red sandstone, sounding eerily like a ghost flute in this centuries-old village once lively with the voices of men, women and children. This is Palatki, a cliff dwelling in a remote canyon 30 minutes west of Sedona, home to the prehistoric people we call the Sinagua.


On the cliff face above a broken wall, a pair of circular white rock art elements, though faded, are still visible. Perhaps the people who lived here painted these symbols to identify themselves to all who approached. Who were they? The cut-and-dried answer is that the Sinagua were prehistoric farmers who lived in central Arizona from about A.D. 600 to 1400. A more complete answer leads to what one archaeologist calls “the Sinagua Problem,” the challenge of trying to distinguish a culture that blends traits learned from neighboring groups. Archaeologists base their definitions of prehistoric cultures on material remains, especially pottery and architecture. Language, ethnicity and politics are lost to time, though village construction and pottery shards speak volumes about chronology, social structure and trade relationships.


Harold Colton, who founded the Museum of Northern Arizona in 1928, was the first to distinguish the builders of Palatki as a separate culture, seeing a continuity in their material remains over time. He named them Sinagua because their territory centered around the San Francisco Peaks, which Spanish explorers had dubbed the Sierra sin Agua ("Mountains without Water"). He further distinguished between the Northern Sinagua, who settled in the Flagstaff area, and the Southern Sinagua, who lived in the Verde Valley and Sedona. But, long before the “discovery” of the Sinagua culture, people knew about their ruined villages.


Jesse Walter Fewkes, the first archaeologist to study the cliff dwellings of Red Rock Country, came here seeking evidence to support Hopi migration stories. Fewkes’ government report of his 1895 expedition is also a fascinating travelogue. He wrote: “These rocks had weathered into fantastic shapes suggestive of cathedrals, Greek temples, and sharp steeples of churches extending like giant needles into the sky. . . . This place, I have no doubt, will sooner or later become popular with the sightseer, and I regard the discovery of these cliffs one of the most interesting of my summer’s field work.”


Fewkes concluded, correctly, that migration stories told by Hopi clans linked them to Red Rock Country and the Verde Valley. He gave Palatki and Honanki their Hopi names, though he didn’t realize the great age of these ancestral villages. American archaeology, a relatively new field during Fewkes’ time, was only beginning to determine the sequence of human history in the Southwest.


The Sinagua weren’t the first humans drawn to this area, so rich in beauty and resources. Paleolithic hunters roamed through Sedona’s red rock canyons more than 10,000 years ago. For millennia, hunters and gatherers came here in search of game and ripening plants, leaving little evidence of their passage other than a few stone points and the enigmatic rock markings they made in alcoves where they sheltered briefly. Then, around A.D. 600, a new means of subsistence took hold in Sedona and the Verde Valley -- farming. This new technology required year-round dwellings so farmers could tend their crops. Tools for processing food changed as well. Circular grinding stones evolved into the rectangular trough metates most efficient for grinding corn.


Pottery came into use for cooking and storage. From pottery, dwellings and other lasting materials, archaeologists have pieced together a chronology of Sinaguan culture. Even so, archaeologists differ over the origins of the Sinagua, who share characteristics with the ancestral Puebloans to the north (the Anasazi) and east (the Mogollon), as well as with the desert farmers to the south, the Hohokam.


Some archaeologists theorize the Sinagua migrated here from elsewhere. Peter Pilles, Jr., archaeologist for the Coconino National Forest (which encompasses much of Sinagua territory), disagrees. He believes that a distinct culture developed from local hunter-gatherers. People here took to the agricultural way of life relatively slowly compared to others in the Southwest, probably because of this area’s rich array of resources. Agave, yucca fruits, walnuts, berries, piñon nuts, plantain -- these are only a few of the wild-growing foods that sustained gatherers. Even after they began farming, the Sinagua continued to utilize wild plants, which comprised 60 to 70 percent of their diet.


The very first Sinagua homes were large rooms built partially underground. Groups of these pithouses are scattered throughout the red rock area, most of them virtually invisible now due to time and soil deposition. Beginning around A.D. 1100, the Sinagua built stone pueblos (villages of contiguous rooms), many of them tucked into canyon alcoves. These villages, typified by Honanki and Palatki, were home to related families, called clans. For the next two centuries, a slightly moister climate allowed the Sinagua to intensify their farming efforts. They became expert agriculturists.


Depending on the location of their fields, they practiced dry farming, irrigation and flood-plain agriculture, employing check dams, terraces and rock-bordered plots (so-called “waffle gardens”) to help catch alluvial soil and protect young plants. They diverted water to reservoirs or earthen basins, some used centuries later by ranchers as stock ponds.


Village life centered around water and nearby fields. Villagers constructed or replastered their pueblos during rainy seasons. Young children helped tend fields of corn, beans and squash, adding rabbits and other pests to the family stew pot. Men hunted larger game -- pronghorn, deer, elk. Women made plain pottery of reddish clay, including huge jars for storing water or grain. Decorated pottery entered the villages via trade. The Sinagua were geographically and figuratively “middlemen,” surrounded by Anasazi, Mogollon, Hohokam, Prescott and Cohonina territories. The Sinagua facilitated trade between the high plateau country to the north and the deserts to the south.


Local resources included salt, argillite, copper ores and other mineral-based pigments, especially kaolin, a white clay widely used for pottery making, body paint and rock markings. The Sinagua used kaolin on the walls at Red Cliffs, painting human- and animal-like images on top of marks made by Paleolithic and archaic people. Sometime around 1300, near the end of the Southwest’s Great Drought, the Sinagua moved closer to perennial streams, settling in larger hilltop villages such as Tuzigoot. Trade flourished, with the Sinagua exchanging their expertly woven cottons and other items for goods from as far away as the Pacific coast and Mexico, including shell jewelry and brightly plumed macaws. Then, little more than a century later, the Sinagua left their villages behind. Why did the Sinagua leave an area so rich in resources?


These skilled farmers had already weathered several droughts, and the Verde Valley’s creeks and rivers continued to flow. Were the hilltop villages a last line of defense against invaders? Athabascan peoples, the Navajos and Apaches, would not enter the Southwest for another hundred years. Though the Yavapai arrived as early as 1300, recent excavations have yielded evidence that they lived side by side with the Sinagua, trading and cooperating with them.


David Wilcox, who heads the Museum of Northern Arizona's anthropology department, believes Hohokam raiding parties traveled north from the Salt River Valley in the late 1300s, after flooding destroyed their canals. Though no signs of all-out warfare have been uncovered by archaeologists, growing tensions, combined with other factors (possible resource depletion, epidemic or trade disruption) may have added up to “push” the Sinagua out of the area. Even less understood are the “pull” factors behind the Sinagua’s abandonment.


Many Hopi say simply that it was time for their ancestors, or Hisatsinom, to move on. When they came to this, the Fourth World, the deity Masau’u had instructed them to leave their footprints over its surface. By migrating, the Sinagua and other ancestral Puebloans fulfilled their spiritual duty, leaving their footprints in the form of rock art, ruins and potsherds. When Spanish explorers arrived in 1583, Sinagua villages had been abandoned for more than a century. Cliff dwellings teased the imaginations of white settlers, who began moving into the area in the late 1800s. They speculated that the people who once inhabited them “mysteriously disappeared.” Not so. Today we believe that many Southern Sinagua families moved north, eventually joining other ancestral Puebloan groups at the Hopi Mesas. Some Sinagua families stayed behind and intermarried with the Yavapai people, returning to hunting and gathering as way of life.


The Yavapai, who still live in the area today, continue to visit ancestral sites like Palatki. Palatki’s stone walls still have much to teach us about the people who made this water-scarce region home. “Perhaps,” said museum-founder Colton, “a study of their history will help us meet some of our own problems of urbanization.” Like us, the Sinagua saw something in these red rocks that called to them. Here they raised families, laughed and argued, triumphed and failed. The echoes of their lives cross the centuries to fill these empty rooms, where a canyon wren sings today. As we stand here and listen to the flutelike notes, the modern world indeed seems far away.