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The Colorado Plateau

The Vast and the Intimate
Suspended in Time
A Textbook of Geomorphology

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Wupatki/Sunset Crater, Arizona
Zion NP, Utah

PlacesWupatki and Sunset Crater National Monuments, Arizona (page 1 of 2)

Wupatki Ruins

Pueblo ruins at Wupatki National Monument. Photo by Shannon Kelly

Wupatki National Monument lies atop a windswept mesa northeast of the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona.  At approximately 5000 feet in elevation, desert scrub and grassland are the two main biotic communities within the arid Wupatki Basin. Common wildlife include jackrabbits, pronghorn antelope, bobcats and coyotes. The Little Colorado River lies on the northeastern edge of the monument, and although the river's flow has been reduced since prehistoric times due to damming upriver, the riverbed still supports a riparian community. The monument is of particular interest to land-use historians for its nearly 2500 documented archaeological sites, including a number of well-preserved pueblo ruins of prehistoric Native Americans.

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Sunset Crater, Arizona. Photograph courtesy of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, National Park Service

Just south of Wupatki National Monument lies Sunset Crater, an inactive cinder cone and the youngest of over four hundred volcanoes in the San Francisco volcanic field.  Sunset Crater erupted between September 1064 and June 1065, profoundly disrupting the lives of prehistoric peoples inhabiting the area at the time.

The earliest evidence of human presence in this area are a variety of stone projectile points and other tools, including an 11,000-year-old Clovis spearpoint. The Archaic stone-working peoples who crafted such tools were nomadic hunters and gatherers and likely migrated to the area along the Little Colorado River, making use of gravel terraces formed during the Pleistocene

Starting approximately in A.D. 675 and up until the eruption of Sunset Crater, Sinagua (from the Spanish for "without water") peoples inhabited the area in low population densities. These early inhabitants are believed to have moved into the area from the southeast, bringing with them pithouse architecture and simple agricultural knowledge. Although the soils in the vicinity of the San Francisco Peaks are characteristically poor, the early Sinagua founded their villages along the edges of large basins on the flanks of the Peaks, which have more loamy, fertile soils. Large "community room" pithouses at some sites and the diversity of pottery sherds across the region provide compelling evidence that the Sinagua were socially well-organized at the regional level and had interactions with other cultural groups in the vicinity, namely the Hohokam to the south, the Kayenta Anasazi to the north and the Cohonina peoples to the northwest.

By 900 A.D., pithouse design had become more diverse and complex, ball courts often accompanied community pithouses, and small stone fieldhouses were being built for use during the farming season. In addition, agricultural advances such as terrace construction were being made by the Sinagua, allowing for modest increases in the local population. 

The eruption of Sunset Crater in the fall of 1064 sent a thick layer of lava, cinder, and ash over an 800-square mile area around the cinder cone. Archaeologists have concluded that the resident Sinagua were able to gather their possessions and flee the area before the eruption, since such eruptions are usually preceded by a period of intense seismic activity, and archaeologist have found few possessions left behind in excavated pithouses,. The volcano remained intermittently active until about 1250, when a final spew of red cinders coated the peak of the cone, giving the crater the fiery appearance for which it was named.

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