The earth trembled. The rock smoldered. The forest burned. And the holy man danced, his turquoise and coral beads bouncing on the chest of his finely woven tunic. The low wall of glowing lava rolled inexorably toward him at a slow walk, swallowing everything in its path with a gulp of flame and smoke.
The shaman danced up to the edge of the molten rock, feeling its heat on his face. Then he bent down before the molten rock, with the grace of a bow, and arranged three ears of corn in front of it — an offering, a frail prayer.
Then he danced backward, chanting — as the lava took the corn in a gulp, then rolled on toward the holy man’s doomed village — unappeased.
Countless such scenes no doubt attended the most recent volcanic outpouring in the 8-million-year process of building Mount Humphreys, the tallest mountain in Arizona. Archaeologists have unearthed the ash-smothered villages, the lava-created casts of the corn placed carefully in the lava’s path and even the richly decorated burial site of the headman or shaman they have dubbed the “Magician,” because of the elaborately carved, turquoise inlaid wands buried with him.
Reaching 12,633, Mount Humphreys gains less than half the altitude of the world’s highest peaks, but it offers a compelling story on the long, complex relationship between human beings and mountains — with its most recent outpouring in 1064-65, which had a dramatic effect on existing civilizations and left the raw, colorful landscape of Sunset Crater National Monument.
Geologists have counted some 600 different volcanoes in a field of peaks, flows and cinder cones that covers much of north-central Arizona, from the Little Colorado River west to Ash Fork and from Cameron down to the 1,000-foot-high line of the Mogollon Rim, which is the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Geologists have laboriously dated the layers of lava and concluded the major eruptions took place every 7,000 to 13,000 years.
The most recent episode in the complex mountain building project came in the late fall or winter of A.D. 1064-65, about the time the Normans crossed the English Channel to conquer England.
At that time, a farm-based civilization had spread throughout the Southwest, composed of a variety of distinctive cultures linked by sprawling trade routes that stretched from the coast of California into New Mexico and from the San Francisco Peaks deep into the complex civilizations of Meso-America.
Archaeologists have named the people who had already been living in the region around Mount Humphreys the Sinagua, taking the name from the Spanish term for the mountains — Sierra Sinagua, which means mountains without water.
The Sinagua first settled in the area in about A.D. 600, establishing small villages sheltering extended family units across a semi-arid area of about 3,100 square miles. Settled in a transitional area between the more urbanized, populous civilizations to the north and south, the Sinagua benefited from living along a major trade route and borrowed traditions from the other cultures they contacted.
Lacking reliable rivers and depending on fitful streams and springs, the Sinagua lived in the relatively fertile transitional areas between the upper elevation ponderosa pine forests and the pinon juniper woodlands — the same general zone that Payson occupies today. This ecological transition zone was sprinkled with open, grassy, park-like areas of well-developed soil that would hold moisture longer than the surrounding woodlands.
The Sinagua excavated pit houses, some of them 25 feet in diameter, big enough to hold ceremonies and gatherings. Most of the settlements had three to 10 smaller pit houses, dug into the ground with a dome-like door fashioned from logs and saplings plastered over with mud. They also constructed great, walled “ball courts,” perhaps borrowed from similar structures in the much more urban civilizations in Mexico, including the Mayans.
The renewed onset of volcanic eruptions that continued in fits and starts from perhaps 1064 to 1250 had dramatic effects on this inventive and adaptable civilization.
Most directly and immediate affected were some 50 villages close to the site of the first series of eruptions. Some archaeologists have found evidence that people laboriously took apart their pit houses and used the precious and laboriously cut logs in new villages farther from the epicenter.
They were the lucky ones.
When the eruptions finally came, the impact in the immediate area was devastating. The explosions and ashfall exterminated all vegetation within a two-mile radius of the cindercone now known as Sunset Crater, for the fiery red cast of its cinders. The ash, fire, poisonous gases and acidic rains probably debilitated almost all the plant growth within about 15 miles — an effect that persisted for years.
Lava forced its way to the surface along a six-mile-long fissure, first in geysers of steam, then in fountains of lava. Bubbles in the lava would have expanded explosively as the molten rock reached the surface. A broiling column of cinders rose thousands of feet into the atmosphere, generating a terrifying play of lighting within the cloud of ash and making a howling roar.
Prevailing winds scattered the ash across 800 square miles, smothering the fields of hundreds of scattered villages and reaching as far as the current Hopi Mesas. Layers of ash clogged washes, filled ponds and buried springs. Denuded of plants, the raw, ash-plagued soil eroded easily, unhinging the ecosystems that had sustained the Sinagua for generations.
This terrible rain of fire and ash persisted heavily for 25 years and intermittently for about 85 years — although scattered eruptions continued for a full 200 years.
This violent series of explosions was but a smudge compared to the events that built Mount Humphreys. However, the eruptions profoundly changed the lives of the people living in the region.
About three-fourths of the lava was converted into cinders that fell close to the vent and built the 1,000-foot-high Sunset Crater, with a 400-foot-deep hole in the center. The rest of the lava buried nearly two square miles in a flow 100 feet thick at the center, tapering off to 10 feet at the edges.
Strangely enough, as the eruptions subsided, the region underwent a major population explosion, with migrants moving in from other regions.
What happened? How did a devastating series of volcanic explosions provide a long-term benefit?
Archaeologists continue to debate that very question.
Most archaeologists argue that the blanket of ash actually benefited farmers by insulating the soil and extending the growing season. Archaeologists cite the effect of this volcanic mulch in purported in-migration to the area. Several major settlements were established or expanded in this post-eruption period, including the extraordinarily well-preserved ruins of Walnut Canyon and Wupatki.
Reportedly, an estimated 1,000 Hohokam settlers migrated in from the south and similar numbers of Anasazi moved down from the north. The effects of the in-migration showed up in the culture of the Sinagua, including the distinctive pottery, cremation burials, shell jewelry and ball courts apparently borrowed from the Hohokam in the Phoenix area.
Many archaeologists argue the Sinagua culture flourished after the eruptions, nurtured by this inflow of trade, ideas and settlers.
However, archaeologist Peter Pilles, Jr. in “Earth Fire” argues that the volcanic mulch has been given too much credit for the population boom. He notes that although ponderosa pine trees now grow 1,000 feet lower in the ashfall zone than in other areas, they’re often smaller than normal, with many crooked and bent branches. Instead of the insulating effect of a layer of ash, Pilles points to generally increased rainfall in the decades after the eruptions. The ashfall may have played a role in the driest areas, but the population boom affected areas outside the ashfall as well, Pilles argues.
In any case, the population boomed in the centuries after the volcanic field fell silent. The Sinagua built new settlements — many more elaborate than the earlier pit house villages. They left behind some of the most interesting and beautiful ruins in the Southwest, built atop that seemingly catastrophic ash layer.
That includes Wupatki, protected now as a national monument adjacent to Sunset Crater. The settlement housed several hundred people, living in masterfully fitted together, two- and three-story buildings made from sandstone blocks. It includes a beautifully preserved ball court, where people gathered for ceremonial games.
Near the ruin is a geological blowhole, from which a constant wind strong issues. The small fissure at the surface connects to a complex network of caves and fissures in the layers of limestone below.
The limestone is composed of the skeletons of microscopic marine creatures that settled into the mud at the bottom of a long-vanished inland sea.
Groundwater dissolved the limestone along fracture lines, creating a hidden network of voids and caves.
In periods of high atmospheric pressure, like winter, the blowhole sucks in air. In periods of lower atmospheric pressure, like summer — the air rushes back out of the blowhole. The location of this probably sacred site may have influenced the placement of Wupatki, as did the temporary bounty of the heat and moisture-harboring ashfall.
However, the Sinagua mysteriously abandoned Wupatki and all the other stone villages they built so laboriously throughout the region in the 1400s, just before the arrival of the Spanish in North and Central America. Researchers have worked for decades to understand what happened.
Some suspect conflict between different cultures. In the decades before the abandonment, many people withdrew from vulnerable, unwalled settlements near their fields and built great pueblos in inaccessible and easily defended places. Although few of the ruins have any obvious signs of warfare, many archaeologists believe that only fear of attack could have prompted so many people to have built such obvious fortresses.
However, most researchers suggest that a combination of over population, the exhaustion of local resources and the resulting collapse of regional trade networks might have simply made life too hard to sustain large settlements. Although the abandonment in the 1400s doesn’t coincide with a single, regionwide drought, a series of smaller-scale, sometimes severe droughts probably played a role in destabilizing the whole system. As the population boom around Mount Humphreys as a result of even so slight an advantage as an insulating ash layer demonstrates, many of the cultures of the Southwest lived at the thin edge of survival.
So where did they go?
Once again, the eruption of Sunset Crater provides an important clue.
Just north of the Sunset Crater area, the Hopi live on a series of high, flat-topped mesas. They had already lived on top of those mesas for a long time when Francisco Coronado’s expedition in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold encountered them in 1540.
The Hopi have since become master weavers and potters, who cling steadfastly to ancient traditions on their 2.5-million-square-mile reservation, which includes the village of Walpi, established in 1690 and is the oldest continuously inhabited place in North America. Some 7,000 Hopi now live on the reservation, trying to preserve their traditional beliefs and eke out a living from tourism, arts and farming.
The Hopi have long claimed a connection to the Sinagua and the other pueblo-building people of that vanished era. They reject all of the names archaeologists use for those vanished cultures, referring to them all as Hisatsinom, which means “ancient people.” The Hopi trace some of their clans to specific sites from that era and believe that many of the groups which lived scattered across the Southwest ended up moving to the Hopi mesas.
The connection to that titanic series of eruptions and to the Sinagua who lived among the cinder cones comes in the form of myths that seems to recall the time of the eruptions.
One story holds that people living in one of the Hopi villages grew greedy and half-crazed because of their out-of-control gambling. The headman or spiritual leader of the village saw that his people had become koyaanisqatsi, or “crazy without regard to human life and values.” So he set out to visit the supernatural beings — the Katsina spirits, also known as Yaayapontsam, who lived on top of Mount Humphreys. These deities, with special control over wind and fire, sent a firestorm racing across the desert to destroy the wicked village.
So the lava rose, the ash fell, the ground trembled — and not even the offering of corn and the dance of the shaman could appease the gods.
A simpler story perhaps than the one told by geologists, but a haunting echo of the fear and trembling that must have seized those first Arizonans the day the earth rose up.