A Useful Disaster

An ingenuous civilization raised monuments to persistence on the ashes of a cataclysm at Wupatki and Sunset Crater National Monuments

The Sinagua built these striking pueblos at Wupatki National Monument in the decades after a volcanic outpouring at Sunset Crater.

Photo by Pete Aleshire. |

The Sinagua built these striking pueblos at Wupatki National Monument in the decades after a volcanic outpouring at Sunset Crater.



The Sinagua built these striking pueblos at Wupatki National Monument in the decades after a volcanic outpouring at Sunset Crater.

“We’ve given the matter some thought,” the elders, said …”Collect some snakeweed. From the pine get some bark ... and the sap that runs from the wood. Then dig a hole on top of this mound to the east of us and place everything you collected into it. Lastly, take your flint and strike it until sparks fly.”

— from Earth Fire: A Hopi Legend of the Sunset Crater Eruption

The Hopi believe their kachinas created the Sunset Crater eruption to punish the Sinagua Indians in retaliation for a prank played out of jealousy.

In real life, the eruption ushered in an era of prosperity — demonstrating the complex relationship between climate, culture and geography.

Both Sunset Crater and the Wupatki ruins rise out of the landscape around the area of the San Francisco Peaks, out of place but curiously perfect.

A two-hour drive from the Rim Country, the national monuments offer day-trippers a chance to escape to an ancient world.

Sunset Crater formed about a thousand years ago while the ancestors of the Hopi, the Sinagua, lived in its shadow. The cinder cone rises out of the woods at the eastern edge of the San Francisco Peaks, its edge rimmed red, its base a deep black.

The Wupatki pueblo ruins lie about 15 miles toward the Painted Desert in a deep red plane cut with washes.

Immediately surrounding the crater, fields of jumbled black lava spill down gullies. In Hawaii, such a flow is called “Ah-ah” because of the noise people make when they step on the razor-sharp edges of lava.

Sunset Crater National Park offers the visitor a chance to walk amongst the remains of this natural disaster, to take in the destruction that forever changed the lives of the nearby inhabitants and to visit Wupatki, ruins left by a civilization that rose from the ashes.


“The Ka’nas youth escorted the wind back to the mound. ‘Well then, here it is,” he said to the wind when they reached their destination. By this time, the fire was about to die. The wind blew on it. Immediately it came back to life and turned into a huge blaze. Before long the fire raged so intensely that flames licked the clouds.”

— Earth Fire: A Hopi Legend of the Sunset Crater Eruption (Northland Press)

Prior to the eruption, the Sinagua came to the Flagstaff area around A.D. 600. They lived in the transitional areas between the ponderosa pine and juniper-pinyon woodlands. Alluvium deposited in large open areas offered these early farmers fertile soil to grow crops. Their houses were simple pit dwellings with a dugout floor surrounded by rocks and covered in brush, according to archaeological studies published by Northern Arizona University and published at cpluhna.nau.edu/places/wupatki2.

Sunset Crater’s first eruption occurred in A.D. 1064. Archaeologists believe the Sinagua had warning of the impending eruption from earthquakes and smoke coming up from the ground, which enabled them to avoid the short-term consequences of the disaster. However, just as the devastation from Mount St. Helen’s in Washington State took years to heal after the eruption, so too did the land surrounding Sunset Crater.

“Meanwhile, several years had gone by since the outbreak of this catastrophic famine in the land of the Hopi. Thus had the Ka’nas kachina wreaked his revenge on the Hopis and made them suffer. Once, however, when he mulled the matter over again, he commiserated with the Hopi. Evidently his anger had abated … ”Well, maybe it’s about time we ended their suffering.”

— Earth Fire. A Hopi Legend of the Sunset Crater Eruption

Many attribute the burst of Sinaguan growth after the eruption to the volcanic ash that insulated the soil and held in moisture, extending growing seasons. Others say the ash may have helped a little, but point to decades of increased rainfall. Rains increased and temperatures rose creating longer, warmer seasons, allowing for a rise in both crop production and population.

During the years from 1150 to 1250, the Sinaguan culture thrived. The Wupatki pueblo and numerous other civilization centers grew up in the pinion-juniper plains a few miles from the crater.

A vast trading route that connected the Sinagua to Central America, the pueblos of New Mexico and the coast of California, brought parrots, shells and pottery to the Wupatki center.

A ball court and large rooms indicate Wupatki could have been a religious and cultural Mecca. With increased rainfall, nearby springs and the Little Colorado River, the Wupatki inhabitants had plenty of water allowing them to happily inhabit the pueblo for years.

Numerous archaeological studies started in 1900 with Jesse Walter Fewkes, who excavated Wupatki and discovered the burial practices, food preparation, and sanitary habits of the inhabitants.


Yet by 1300, changing weather patterns caused disruptions in food production and the Sinagua left for greener pastures abandoning the Wupatki settlement.

So well had they built that the roofs remained until the 1930s, according to the NAU researchers.

By 1924, conservationists had lobbied the federal government to establish the Wupatki ruins as a national monument, but not after looters had destroyed many walls and removed most of the artifacts.

In 1930, Sunset Crater joined Wupatki as a national monument just in time to save it from being blown up for a movie entitled, “Avalanche.”

Now, the ruins blend into an empty, wind-swept landscape. The memories of a vanished people persist in Hopi myths and in this ancient work of their careful hands — which prove that sometimes beauty can rise from the ashes of catastrophe.


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