The Ancient Ones Of Northern Arizona: Sinagua, Anasazi, Salado & Mogollon

There are thousands of ancient stone structures scattered across Northern Arizona, ranging from free standing pueblo villages to small cliff dwellings hidden in the canyons. These ruins were built by several related cultures that are now extinct, but whose descendants can be found among the modern Pueblo tribes of the region like the Hopi and Zuni. Archaeologists refer to these extinct cultures as the Sinagua, Salado, Mogollon and Anasazi.

What all these groups had in common is that they were farming cultures subsisting primarily on corn, squash and beans, supplemented by gathering and hunting. All of them influenced the prehistoric culture of the Verde Valley to some extent, which had an estimated population of approximately 30-40,000 people 800 years ago. What distinguished these cultures from each other is the pottery they left behind, the symbolism with which it was decorated, their burial practices, and differences in some of the structures they built.

The Sinagua

This is the culture that built the ruins we see around Sedona. Occupying a large area in central Arizona, from the Little Colorado north of Flagstaff to the Verde River, and significant portions of the Mogollon Rim, the Sinagua culture flourished between approximately 500 CE and 1425 CE. Since fully developed Sinagua sites emerged in central Arizona around 650 CE, it is believed they migrated from east-central Arizona, possibly emerging from the Mogollon culture.

The name Sinagua means “without water” in Spanish and refers to the original name given to the mountains around Flagstaff by early explorers. Initially they practiced primitive floodplain agriculture, but later adopted irrigation techniques they learned from the Hohokam. The pottery they produced is usually unpainted red or grey ware, fashioned using a corrugated technique that is considered fairly crude compared to their neighbors. 

Sometime around 700 CE the Sinagua became active in the region's long distance trade network, which reached the Gulf of California and deep into Central America. They traded their baskets, woven cotton cloth and salt from a large deposit near modern day Camp Verde for copper, macaws, marine shells, rare pigments and decorated pottery. The trade not only brought goods into the culture, but cultural and religious ideas as well.

Sinagua architecture evolved over time from simple pit houses in the early period to more prestigious structures like ball courts, courtyards, and open dance plazas later on. Some Sinagua villages also contained underground ceremonial structures known as kivas, which can be either rectangular, circular or D-shaped. 

The Sinagua had no formal cemeteries, and their burial practices ranged from cremation to simple burials where the individual was interred laying on their back. Children were usually buried in the house or very nearby, while adults were usually buried in the community trash dump, but several high status burials have been found which included numerous offerings and grave gifts.

Sometime in the mid-1400’s the Sinagua abandoned their villages and appear to have dispersed into other farming cultures. Several contemporary Hopi clans trace their ancestry to immigrants from the Sinagua culture, whom they believe left the Verde Valley for religious reasons. Others may have joined the Zuni, Pima and Yavapai.

Ruins from the Sinagua culture include Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot, Honanki, Walnut Canyon and Wupatki.

The Salado

Centered around the upper Salt River and the Tonto basin, extending from just north of modern-day Phoenix all the way to West Clear Creek southeast of Camp Verde, the Salado significantly influenced the Sinagua. They flourished from approximately 1150-1450 CE. The Salado are distinguished by their easily recognizable red and black Polychrome pottery, and burial of the dead rather than the cremation that was practiced among the Hohokam in the valley where modern-day Phoenix is located.

Salado architecture included large free standing villages as well as smaller cliff dwellings. Their villages were constructed within walled adobe compounds. Ruins from the Salado culture include Tonto National Monument, and Besh-Ba-Gowah near modern-day Globe, AZ.

The Mogollon

Sometimes referred to as “Mountain Peoples” because they inhabited the rugged, high-elevation mountain and canyon country of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, far northwestern Texas, northern Chihuahua, Mexico, and perhaps the far northeastern corner of Sonora, Mexico. 

Farmers in this vast region made pottery out of brown clay and formed their pots with a coil-and-scrape technique. It is characterized by elaborate geometric designs, refined brushwork, including very fine linework, and figure-ground reversal. It may include one or more animals, humans, or other images bounded by simple rim bands. Bird and fish figures are common. Mogollon pottery is usually found in burials and often contains a distinctive “kill hole” in the bottom of the pot. The dead were buried in a sitting position with the bowl placed on top of the head, but wear marks on the pottery indicate it was not produced strictly for use in burials. 

The underground ceremonial structures they built are known as kivas, and in this case they were rectangular in shape. The modern Hopi also use rectangular kivas for their ceremonies. The Mogollon culture ended for unknown reasons in the 15th century, at which time the people abandoned their villages and appear to have dispersed over the landscape to join other farming villages, primarily along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Ruins associated with the Mogollon culture include the Gila Cliff Dwellings, Paquime, and Hueco Tanks, 

The Anasazi

This culture spanned the present-day Four Corners region, comprising southeastern Utah, northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado. Archaeological evidence suggests this desert culture began to emerge sometime around AD 100, during the period designated as Basketmaker II.

Starting in the Late Archaic period (1000 BC) they had slowly begun to experiment with plant cultivation, eventually developing desert adapted varieties of corn and sophisticated dryland farming techniques that are still in use today among the western Pueblos of Hopi, Zuni, Acoma and Laguna. The Sinagua traded extensively with their neighbors to the north, and appear to have merged with them to form the modern Hopi.

The name Anasazi comes from the Navajo language and means “ancient enemy.” Modern pueblo people such as the Hopi and Zuni prefer the term Ancestral Puebloan. They lived in a range of structures that included small family pit houses, grand pueblos, and cliff dwellings built on difficult to access ledges. Their advanced knowledge of celestial sciences found form in their architecture, with some structures and towers built specifically to observe the solstices, equinoxes, and other important events like the lunar standstill.

The Ancestral Puebloans also possessed a complex trade network that stretched across the Colorado Plateau linking hundreds of communities and population centers. The pottery they produced was often beautifully decorated, sometimes in black and white Polychrome, with complex geometric designs stylized to represent birds, feathers, clouds, mountains and water. 

Cremation was not practiced in this culture. Instead formal burial  was the norm— with bodies arranged in a fetal position and placed in the ground with pottery, fetishes and other grave goods.

Ruins from the Anasazi culture include Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and Hoveweap. 

1 comment

  • Thank you for the most articulate explanation of early Arizon Indian culture I’ve so far discovered.

    Tom Bender

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