Wupatki…not nearly as famous as the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, Wupatki is a national monument near Flagstaff, Arizona created to preserve and protect the ancient dwellings of Ancestral Pueblo people in this area. There are literally thousands of ancient dwellings in Arizona. Many of them are untouched, simply because the federal government does not have the resources to adequately research, develop and preserve them, though federal law protects all.
When we first visited this area, decades ago, these were the dwellings of the Anasazi. If you look hard, you may find a display here or there that mentions the Anasazi, but these days, that word has fallen into disuse, a victim of political correctness. You see, these dwellings are obviously pueblos – apartment-like structures built of stone, adobe mud, and other local material. And the peoples who lived in pueblos were the ancestors of the modern-day Hopis and Zunis. But the word “anasazi” is a Navajo word with the literal meaning of “ancient enemies.” Can you imagine, hundreds of years ago, a migrating band of Navajos discovers an abandoned pueblo and says, “ah, our ancient enemies lived here.” The white man hears “the Anasazi lived here.” Over time, the word Anasazi was “sanitized” and re-defined as “ancient ones,” but it was still a Navajo word used to describe Pueblo people. This was not acceptable to modern-day Pueblo people. So today, in national parks across the Southwest, abandoned pueblos are said to have belonged to the Ancestral Pueblo People. Oh, the dwellings are not “abandoned” either…the spirits of the Ancestral Pueblos still dwell there.
At the Wupatki National Monument, you can view and to some extent explore five pueblos: Wupatki, Citadel, Nalakihu, Lomaki, and Wukoki. The largest is Wupatki, from a Hopi word meaning “tall house.” It was built in the 1100’s. Most of the homes at this site were pit dwellings, simple holes dug into the sandy soil and covered with thatch roofs. Entry into these homes was by ladder through holes in the roofs. The main building at Wupatki was a multi-level high-rise dwelling with almost 100 rooms. Some people speculate that only dignitaries, honored guests, and their families actually lived at the “tall house.” Wupatki also had a community room that served as a gathering place and an enclosed ball court.
The other pueblos in the area, Citadel, Nalakihu, Lomaki and Wukoki, are smaller. It is speculated that these dwellings may have served as lookout sites for the protection of the main pueblo and/or satellite farms. One of the most interesting features of all of these buildings is that they are built on and into the sandstone and limestone rock of the area. This “rock-solid” foundation is a factor in the preservation of these ruins for more than 800 years.
These remains are evidence of a vast farming community in this region in the 1100’s. It is believed that this area once supported thousands of people. Because water was so scarce, the people had to be extremely conservative and self-sustaining. Farming here was always difficult. To survive, the people had to trade with others, sometimes over long distances. Archaeologists have found evidence that the peoples of Wupatki traded with people from as far away as California, Colorado, and South America.
Unlike other ancient dwellings, where we are often wonder why the people left their homes, scientists here are certain that the pueblos of Wupatki were abandoned after the Sunset Crater Volcano erupted late in the 12th century. For miles in every direction surrounding Wupatki, molten lava created “malpais” (another word coined from two Spanish words, “mal” meaning bad, and “pais” meaning land or “badlands”.) Farming was no longer feasible and water sources were dried up, covered up by lava, or contaminated. Scientists believe that by 1250, these pueblos stood empty. The people of Wupatki had moved on.
Today, people come from all over the United States and around the world to view these sites, to marvel at the well-preserved pueblos and to speculate about the people who lived here. We wonder how they lived, how they survived and where they went from here. And yes, sometimes, you can sense the spirits of the ones who lived here so long ago.