The Hisat’Sinom, commonly called the Sinagua are an ancientpeople who lived in the Flagstaff region of Arizonafrom the 1100s until the1300s, when theydisappeared as mysteriously as they hadappeared 200 years earlier.
One of the most remarkable things about theHisat’Sinom is that they appeared seemingly out ofnowhere. There is no prior record of these people ina different location, yet from the start they had anadvanced and organized culture that includedelements that would not be expected of a newlyestablished group. They went on to live in the aridsouthwestern region as a distinct group for about200 years before disappearing almost asmysteriously as they had arrived.During their time here theHisat’Sinom were knownnot only as farmers, but astraders. They traded withgroups from as far away asMexico as evidenced bytheir ownership of macaws,and other items includingcopper bells (right). Thisinteraction was alsoreflected in theirarchitecture where theyeven went so far as toinclude Mexican ball courts
The view out,from inside oneof the pueblos atWupatki ruinmakes onewonder what theHisat’Sinom lifewas like.Let’s findout….
Construction of the buildings built by the Hisat’Sinomwasn’t by mistake. It took a lot of time andpeople to construct the structures, many ofwhich were two and three stories tall. Naturalstone was used and cemented together usingclay to build both the pueblo style homes thatare more widespread, and the cliff dwellings ofWalnut Canyon and the Verde Valley.
Montezula’s Castle in the Verde Valley is probably one ofthe best known Hisat’Sinom cliff dwellings.
This diorama of Montezuma’s Castle gives us a feeling forwhat the interior of the building was like when it wasinhabited. The ruin used to be open for tours, but had tobe closed to ensure its continued preservation.
Cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon were constructed in naturallyoccurring alcoves. Walls were build to close off the front ofthese areas and partitions were added between to createrooms. Hisat’Sinom architecture was alwaysresourceful, adapted to the location, and full ofingenuity. Walnut Canyon features cliff dwellings aswell as pueblo, and pit house ruins.
Not only are their multi-storied buildings incredible to marvel at, sotoo is the workmanship that allows such great portions of them tocontinue to stand today. Though some were rebuilt and reinforcedin past years by the National Park Service, they have adopted aprogram of preservation instead of intervention, and no longerrebuild ruins. Modern reinforcements can be seen on this portionof the Wupatki ruins. In many places original wood poles thatwere harvested far away and were brought back specifically forconstruction, are still part of the structures.
The Hisat’Sinom were skilled farmers, and engaged in dry farming,using natural swales and washes as places to plant their crops. Theyalso engaged in terraced farming where they used stone walls whichare still visible today.Corn was their staple food and much of their daily lives and spiritualexistence revolved around the success of this vital crop. Often beanswere planted with the corn. Planting beans with corn serves to addprotein and more fiber to the diet through intensive cultivation thatdoes not use more, valuable land resources. Beans could climb thecorn stalks and not require additionalsupport. They also served to add nitrogen to the soilwhich is very quickly depleted by growing corn.
This wash atBox Canyonwas used bytheHisat’Sinomfor plantingtheir crops.They reliedon monsoonrains toprovideenoughwater, buthad to hopethe floodswouldn’t bepowerfulenough towash themaway.Box Canyonfeatures manyHisat’Sinomruins, threeof which areaccessibleto thepublictoday. Thisindicatesthat thewash herewas the siteofsuccessful
Once harvested, corn was dried for later use andstored. The harvest was comprised of three parts;the corn they planned to eat over the next year,seed for planting the next season’s crop, andadditional corn as an insurance policy. Farming isan unpredictable life. The Hisat’Sinom wanted toensure that a crop failure wouldn’t mean immediatestarvation.
Dried corn was groundinto meal or flour bywomen on stones calledmetate. Greinding washard work and wastypically done in openplazas where womencould do this choretogether while talkingand singing.Grinding the corn wasnecessary to make thehard dried corn edible,but the stone thatbecame incorperatedwith it caused dentalproblems later in life forthe Hisat’Sinom.
The Hisat’Sinom arecharacterized by their simplebrown ware pottery (left).The distinctive color camefrom the soils of their regionthat were used in creatingthe pots.While they as a rule, did not adorn theirown pottery, they often traded with othergroups
This piece of Hisat’Sinom pottery is shown withpieces of volcanic rock from the Sunset region todemonstrate where the color of the potterycomes from.
The Hisat’Sinom were skilledweavers who used theabundantly growing yucca tomake a variety of goods like thissandal.
But where did the flourishing trade culture go?
The Hisat’Sinom were resourcefulsurvivalists who flourished under harshconditions in the prehistory southwest.After Sunset Volcano erupted andcovered the area in ash, they returnedto their homes and rebuilt. Recordsindicate that the volcano was activeleading up to the explosion the createdSunset Crater, and that they hadwarning of the impending event.Valuable beams were removed fromhomes and reused when they rebuiltafter the event. Corn was also left asan offering to the gods behind thefeeling people. Where lava coveredthese ears of corn, casting werecreated (right).
If the eruption of a volcano couldn’t drive the Hisat’Sinomaway, what could? We may never know the true answer towhy these people left, or where they went, but there aresome theories that offer good explanations…
One possibility is that increasingly dry weather drove them from the area.
Continual drought may have beena contributing factor in theHisat’Sinom leaving theircommunities of the Flagstaff area.Although they were also traders,they were primarily farmers andrelied on their corn crops tosurvive. Several years of poorcrops would certainly have madelife difficult, and probably ledmany to look for other places tolive that wouldn’t be as harsh.
Undoubtedly some would havestayed behind to try and tough itout. The desert was home tothese people, and they hadadapted to it.
But what if there were anotherreason to leave?
Some have suggested that continual weather change maynot have been the only reason. Perhaps the Hisat’Sinomemigrated for a higher purpose. Some say that they leftspecifically to integrate with other people of thesouthwest on a great quest to peacefully become onepeople. While this sounds like it might be one of those toogood to be true stories, there is some archaeological andanthropological evidence to back up this theory.
This petroglyph at Wupatki is a snake symbol that looksalmost identical to the Hopi Snake Clan Symbol. Is itpossible that the people of Wupatki left this, the onlypetroglyph there as a lasting reminder of where they went?
Modern Hopis often recognize symbols of the Hisat’Sinom and cantell of their significance to their own culture. Through theirinterpretations, the picture of who the Sinagua were has becomemuch more clear to anthropologist. Is it possible that these peoplecould also be the descendants of those people? The Hopi don’tclaim the Hisat’ Sinom to be their ancestors, but certainly areaware of them and their traditions. Perhaps we will never know.
Cliff Dwellings along the Island Trail,Walnut Canyon NM
Cheek, Lawrence W. A.D. 1250. Arizona Highways.1994. Print.Downum, Christian E. Hisat’Sinom; Ancient Peoples in aLand without Water. Sar Press. 2012. Print.Houk, Rose. Sinagua: Prehistoric Cultures of theSouthwest. Western National Parks Association. 1992.Print.Malotki, Ekkehart. Earth Fire: A Hopi Legend of theSunset Crater Eruption. Kiva Publishing Inc. 2005. Print.Reid, Jefferson and Stephanie Whittlesey. TheArchaeology of Ancient Arizona. University of ArizonaPress. 1997. Print.Sources
At the Edge of the Volcano. Camera One.2012. DVD.Ancient Indian Cultures of Northern Arizona.Gilbert Urias. 2005. DVDMuseums at Wupatki NM, Sunset Crater NM,Walnut Canyon NM, and Monetezuma’s CastleNMAdditional Resources:Vick, Helen Hughes. Walker of Time. TayolorTrade Publishing. 1998. Print.